Embroidery is the art of using needle and thread, yarn, or fine wire to decorate a material. A practice that is as far reaching as it is old, embroidery methods have been found on every continent but Antartica and the craft continues to be practiced by nearly every society today. Because it uses fabric and other materials that break down over time, historic examples are harder to come by than other artforms, yet the earliest intact works found have been dated back to between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE, and the practice of embroidery is likely much older than that. Although large pieces haven’t been found from Ancient Egypt and Greece, embroidery is depicted on paintings in Egyptian tombs and etched into Greek vases. The Persians used quilted garments as armour as far back as 490 BCE. The information that follows explores different embroidery techniques, including crewel work, needlepoint, cross stitch, quilting, and quillwork, as well as contemporary iterations of the artful craft.
Crewel work, also known as “Jacobean embroidery’ due to its popularity in England during the late 17th to early 18th centuries, uses wool threads stitched into bold motifs on the surface of a fabric. The name “crewel” comes from the 2-ply wool thread of the same name which is commonly used. Crewel embroidery had a resurgence in the 1970s due to the bright, large designs that it creates.
Needlepoint uses thin thread to create a design across the surface of a fabric. Using different types of stitches, the design is able to be layered and given dimension depending on what stitching is used. Needlepoint may have increased in popularity during the 17th century for upholstery fabrics.
Using a double stitch that intersect to create an “X,” cross stitch has existed since before the Middle Ages. Because it utilizes the cross pattern, it can be used to create designs that are more figurative rather than realistic.
Quilting involves layering two fabrics and then sewing them together using multiple rows of stitching. Often appreciated as bedcovers and blankets, quilting was used to create warm clothing since before the Crusades when those in Europe saw that Turks wore quilted fabric under their armor. It quickly became a popular means of creating warm clothing and bedcovers, especially in northern Europe, and the craft spread throughout the American colonies.
Found to have been used primarily by American Indians who lived between what is now Virginia and Maine, and as far west as the Rocky Mountains. Using the quills from porcupines, the typically white quills were dyed and then pierced through materials in close stitches. Quillwork has been found on bags, knife cases, cradles, armulets, horse trappings, clothing, and more.
Embroidery in the 21st Century
Today, embroidery is still used widely as a craft and for adornment. While hand-stitching is still a common tradition, especially across craft sites like Etsy, much of the mass-produced embroidery is created by machines. Using a sewing or embroidery machine, designs are stitched into a wide variety of products and materials. While machine embroidery lacks the personal touch of hand embroidery, it can produce a final piece much faster with more precision and can be far more elaborate than that which can be done by hand.