Since the beginning of time, people have adorned their clothing with fancy needlework and hand embroidery. Be it by sewing shells on a shirt, cutting out patterns in leather skirts, sewing gold and precious stones onto a dress or adding a needle-woven border to simple linen shifts, early civilisations found many ways to embellish their clothing.
It is therefore rather surprising to find that the art of embroidery can’t be traced back earlier than about 600 BC. This may in part be due to the fact that very few early textiles have survived. And of those that have, not all have been examined by textile specialists.
For example, early Egyptian fabric was often marked with hieroglyphs mentioning the owner or the quality. What is unclear is whether these marks were needle-stitched or woven directly into the cloth, as woven bands and even repeated woven designs are known from some Egyptian textile finds of the period from about 1340 BC.
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The earliest confirmed examples of embroidery patterns in the Western world date from the Bronze Age. A Celtic grave from the Hallstatt-Period (6th century BC) in Hohmichele has stem and overcast stitch embroidery at the bottom hem of a woman’s shirt; Greek finds at Kerameikos dates to the 5th century BC. In Bronze Age Scandinavia, stem stitch and various twined and buttonhole stitches were used to embellish clothes.
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In the 5th/6th centuries AD, when Egypt was part of the Byzantine Empire, the festive, wide tunics of the period were decorated with roundels and panels. Most of these decorative strips with their marine and pastoral designs were woven in a technique similar to Jacquard weaving. But a few roundels have survived in split, stem, and chain stitch.
Like later Dark Age examples where line stitches were used to fill out forms, the outline of the figures was stitched first, with the embroidery continuing in an inwards spiral until the section was filled.
Chain stitch is a technique we find again in later Dark Age textiles; in the 7th century, the burial garment of the Merovingian Queen Bathilda used chain stitch to imitate her precious jewellery – as she retreated to the Abbey of Chelles at the end of her life, she had probably left the real jewellery behind or donated it to the abbey. In honour of her queenly status, the simple white shift she was buried in was stitched with rows of necklaces and several brooches.
The 10th century embroideries from Mammen in Denmark used stem stitch and herringbone stitch for animal figures and bands depicting acanthus leaves and human faces. Though they are too fragmentary to know for sure, they probably decorated a cloak or tunic.
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Gold has long fascinated mankind with its rich sheen and its failure to oxidise. They found ways to wear it – making it into jewellery, and eventually adding an embroidered gold finishing it onto their clothes. Gold thread were generally couched into place with wool and later silk thread as it can’t be sewn in the traditional sense.
Though gold was probably incorporated into clothing at a much earlier date, one of the earliest confirmed use of gold embroidery is from the tomb of Merovingian Queen Arnegunde of the 6th century BC. Her outer garment had goldwork embroidery cuffs in a rosette design .
Goldwork from the sleeve cuffs of Queen Arnegunde. Die Franken: Wegbereiter Europas. Exhibition Cataloguie. Mainz: von Zabern, 1996.
A small fragment from the late 8th to early 9th centuries from Maaseik, Belgium uses surface couching for gold threads and split stitch on the backgrounds – a precursor to the Opus Anglicanum of the medieval period.
The stole and maniple of St. Cuthbert used stem stitch for the outline and, again, split stitch for filling in the figures. The gold thread for the background was held in place with simple couching.
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Those in the medieval world who had the money, whether it be a castle lord, a rich merchant or a monastery, covered the thick stone walls with tapestries to keep in the heat. Some of them were woven cloth, and some were embroidered.
The Bayeux tapestry is the largest piece of refilsaum embroidery to have survived. Photo credit: palbo on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND
Possibly the most famous piece of embroidery from the Middle Ages is the 11th-century Tapestry of Bayeux, a strip of cloth 50 cm tall and almost 70 metres long that tells the story of the battle of Hastings in 1066. According to legend, it was commissioned and partly embroidered by Queen Mathilda, William the Conquerer’s wife. It is different from later tapestries in that the background is left blank, with only the figures embroidered. As in later tapestries, stem stitch is used for the outlines, with most of the figure done in a technique known in English mostly as Bayeux stitch, a laid-and-couched method in which first a series of stitches are laid down in satin stitch; then single stitches are laid crosswise and couched.
Bayeux stitch is commonly referred to as laid and couched work; in Scandinavia, where it probably originated, it is called Refilsaum.
In the cloisters of Northern Germany, nuns made elaborate wall hangings for the choirs of their church in a special couched stitch known as Klosterstich, “cloister stitch”. In the 13th-16th centuries, the monasteries of Lüne, Ebstorf, Heiningen and Wienhausen produced beautiful tapestries in brilliant colours depicting biblical and allegorical scenes and scenes from popular novels of the period (Ywain, Tristan). Though now Klosterstich has survived almost exclusively from Northern Germany, a few examples from southern Germany suggest it was more common than the evidence suggests – it is possible that there it was mostly produced in a secular context.
Klosterstich is a self-couching technique – that is, the thread laid down is the same as the thread used for couching. Klosterstich is worked with vertical laid stitches. They are set from top to bottom and couched from bottom to top. In Klosterstich the couching stitches are practically invisible, separating it from similar techniques such as bokhara stitch, where the couching stitches make patterns atop the base embroidery. Roumanian stitch is also similar, but is worked horizontally rather than vertically.
German brick stitch is a counted-stitch embroidery technique using a variation of brick stitch somewhat reminiscent of bargello. Where brick stitch only uses stitches of the same length, medieval German brick stitch will sometimes use up to three different lengths to make the pattern. It was popular in the 14th and 15th centuries
Brick stitch often uses colourful geometric patterns in counted stitch. Photo credit: Catrijn on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND
The most common form is a recurring geometric pattern covering an entire surface. It was mostly used for purses, cushions, and hangings for furniture, but wall hangings in German brick stitch have survived, including some that show figurative scenes.
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The following two techniques were used mostly for religious pieces and have yielded some of the most beautiful examples of medieval embroidery.
During the period of Lent just before Easter, the usual, richly-decorated altar cloths and hangings were packed away and replaced by white ones. But just because they were white didn’t mean they weren’t decorated: starting from the 12th century, whitework altar cloths have survived using a variety of stitches including stem stitch, chain stitch, long-armed cross-stitch, buttonhole stitch, brick stitch and a variety of openwork techniques. In harmony with the theme of Lent, they depicted the death and resurrection of Christ.
The Middle Ages brought for several goldwork techniques, including or nué (a couching technique with amazingly subtle shading) used from the 15th century onwards. But the most common was the so-called Opus Anglicanum. The term was coined in the 13th century for a technique that existed long before – the same we have already seen for the 8th/9th century Maaseik embroideries. English embroiderers were famous for their ecclesiastical vestments in gold and silk, so that anything in that technique was called “English work”.
In a secular context, small bags and pouches showing lovers or scenes from medieval novels have also survived in Opus Anglicanum.
Opus anglicanum was used for religious garments such as this cope. English goldwork was famous throughout Europe. 27.162.1
Metropolitan museum of Art / CC0 1.0
The coloured part of the embroidery is done in split stitch, with the gold couched in place.
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The Tudor Period is a Golden Age of embroidery for any historian – an amazing amount of pieces have survived, including some in Elizabeth’s own hand.
This cover for a book of poem was embroidered by Queen Elizabeth I herself when she was a girl. English Embroidered Bookbindings by Cyril James Humphries Davenport, F. S. A,. edited by Alfred Pollard, London, 1899
Though black embroidery was known in England before that, the introduction of blackwork to the English court is credited to Catherine of Aragon who supposedly brought it over from her native Spain when she married King Henry VIII in 1509. In the Tudor period, it was a common decoration for shirt cuffs, smocks and bonnets.
It is a form of counted-thread embroidery generally done in black, very often in Holbein stitch. Though it could be done in other colours as well, it was almost always monochrome. Diaper patterns were used for filling.
A painting of Elizabeth I showing blackwork embroidery on the sleeves and bodice. By Unknown – Scanned from Thomasina Beck, The Embroiderer’s Flowers, Devon, England: David & Charles, 1992, ISBN 0715399012, Public Domain,
Elizabethan embroidery otherwise used a number of stitches, of which some of the most common were tent stitch, gobelin stitch, running stitch, detached buttonhole and chain stitch.
Intricate floral designs were the most common; and stumpwork became popular at that period.
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What student of 19th-century literature doesn’t remember poor Fanny Price undoing stitches in Lady Thomas’s tapestry-work to do them again correctly? The embroidering lady is an enduring image of the 19th century, and indeed, many of the embroidering techniques popular today were used at that time. Various articles of daily life were embroidered, from fireplace screens to footstools to doilies and “tidies”, to little bags and huswifs (needle rolls).
As over the course of the 20th century machine embroidery became easier and embroidery was no longer the fashionable embellishment of choice for clothing, it became purely a hobby while at the same time ascending to an art form, with embroidered images being created solely for the joy of owning them.