Embroidery is the art or handicraft of decorating fabric or
other materials with needle and thread or yarn. In this way, it has been
practiced for decades.
The origin of embroidery can be dated back to Cro-Magnon
days or 30,000 BC. During a recent archaeological find, fossilized remains of
heavily hand-stitched and decorated clothing, boots and a hat were found.
In Siberia, around 5000 and 6000 B.C. elaborately drilled
shells stitched with decorative designs onto animal hides were discovered.
Chinese thread embroidery dates back to 3500 B.C. where pictures depict
embroidery of clothing with silk thread, precious stones and pearls. Examples
of surviving Chinese chain stitch embroidery worked in silk thread have also
been found and dated to the Warring States period (5th-3rd
Embroidery and most other fiber and needlework arts are
believed to originate in the Orient and Middle East. Primitive humankind
quickly found that the stitches used to join animal skins together could also
be used for embellishment. Recorded history, sculptures, paintings and vases
depicting inhabitants of various ancient civilizations show people wearing
During the 1100's, smaller seed pearls were sewn on vellum
to decorate religious items and from the 1200's through 1300's beads were
embroidered onto clothing. By 1500 A.D., embroideries had become more lavish in
Europe, as well as other areas of the world. From this period through the 1700's
elaborate thread and bead embroidery gained popularity. Bead embroidery could
be found on layette baskets, court dress, home furnishings and many other
Elaborately embroidered clothing, religious objects, and
household items have been a mark of wealth and status in many cultures
including ancient Persia, India, China, Japan, Byzantium, and medieval and
Baroque Europe. Traditional folk techniques were passed from generation to
generation in cultures as diverse as northern Vietnam, Mexico, and eastern Europe. Professional workshops and guilds arose in medieval England. The output of these workshops, called Opus Anglicanum or "English work,"
was famous throughout Europe. The manufacture of machine-made embroideries in
St. Gallen in eastern Switzerland flourished in the latter half of the 19th
The process used to tailor, patch, mend and reinforce cloth
later fostered the development of sewing techniques, and the decorative
possibilities of sewing led to the art of embroidery. Elaborate freehand
stitched thread embroidery began to dwindle with the machine age of the 1800's
when Art needlework and Berlin wool-work appeared on the scene. Berlin
wool-work, canvas thread embroidery, was popular through the 1870's only to be
replaced in popularity by counted cross-stitch of the 1880's, using square
meshed canvas with stitch-by-stitch thread designs. With the introduction of
printed patterns in color, the need for counting each stitch was pass in many
instances. Although elaborate freehand thread embroidery was waning in
popularity, bead embroidery was beginning its heyday along with the new
needlework stitches of the 1800's.
The fabrics and yarns used in traditional embroidery vary
from place to place. Wool, linen, and silk have been in use for thousands of
years for both fabric and yarn. Today, embroidery thread is manufactured in
cotton, rayon, and novelty yarns as well as in traditional wool, linen, and
silk. Ribbon embroidery uses narrow ribbon in silk or silk/organza blend
ribbon, most commonly to create floral motifs.
Surface embroidery techniques such as chain stitch and
couching or laid-work are the most economical of expensive yarns; couching is
generally used for gold work. Canvas work techniques, in which large amounts of
yarn are buried on the back of the work, use more materials but provide a
sturdier and more substantial finished textile.