(Views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author.)
Tambour style embroidery work is said to have originated in China and then travelled throughout Asia via India, Persia and Turkey, eventually reaching Europe in the eighteenth century. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the style was brought directly to Europe from China by the French, also in the eighteenth century. Whichever is true, tambour work did not become widely popular until the middle of the latter half of the eighteenth century.
One of the main characteristics of the production of tambour or tambouring as it was often called was the use of two circular frames, one fitting snugly into another. This was in order to hold the backing fabric taught in order to produce the embroidered stitch work without the fabric losing its taughtness. The word tambour derives from the French word for drum, which the outline of the hooped frame resembled.
Much of the earlier tambour work was produced using white stitching on a white background. This minimal but effective and accomplished embroidery technique proved to be extremely popular during the last half of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century.
Although it was an accomplishment of many women of the upper classes in Europe, much of the real work was produced by lower class women. Tambour work was produced on a variety of finely woven backing fabrics, muslin being a particular favorite.
Nineteenth century versions of the discipline tended towards a more colorful spectrum. A wide range of colored silks and gold thread became popular, allowing the discipline to expand and diversify from the original white work. By today's standard, many might well see the original white work as being of a superior nature to that of the later colored work. However, it must be remembered that many of these traditional handcrafts, and particularly those concerning textiles, were struggling to survive in the nineteenth century. The marketplace had reached a particularly competitive and robust phase with industry putting intense pressure on the scope and availability of handcrafts.
The nineteenth century saw a range of innovations and transformations, many of which were speedily introduced into the domestic and interiors market. A wide colour range was an integral part of the nineteenth century's decorative palette and therefore tambour work, along with many other versions of textile craft, could only helplessly reflect those trends and impositions.
True tambour work used a hook with a wooden handle, as opposed to the more usual needle as can be found used in many other forms of embroidery craft. This has led many to see a link, or at least certain similarities, between tambour works and crochet some even believing that crochet directly derived from the earlier tambour work. Although having certain similarities, a tambour hook is much finer and sharper that the average crochet hook.
Tambour work has been used highly successfully and effectively within the fashion world, very much since its original popularity in the eighteenth century. It is still used, to a certain extent, within the confines of the haute couture world. However, it is also still popular with a number of individuals, both amateur and professional. It is a relatively cheap craft to launch into, and seems likely to remain in use in a variety of guises for at least the foreseeable future.
This article was originally published in the Design, Decoration, Craft blog.