A few weeks ago I took an embroidery class with this wonderful woman named Jennie who teaches these classes out of the studio she rents in an artists’ co-op. I found the class through this interesting new site called Verlocal which helps match up people that want to learn a skill with someone nearby who wants to spend their weekend teaching it. At this embroidery class we learned about 10 different stitches which turns out to be only half of the stitches commonly used in embroidery!
While taking the class I started thinking about the art and especially the history of embroidery. When I got home (after showing off all the cool stitches I learned) I started researching. As it turns out, embroidery has hardly changed at all since it was invented! While there have been some changes to the materials that are used the techniques remain the same. In fact, the earliest surviving examples of embroidery incorporate many of the fundamental stitches that are used today—chain stitch, buttonhole or blanket stitch, running stitch, satin stitch, and cross stitch.
One of the primary uses of embroidery is for embellishment. It’s literally everywhere from the neckline of a Forever 21 dress to the logo on a polo shirt to the bodice of red carpet gowns. It’s been used for embellishment as early as the human race has been able to sew two pieces of material together. Heavily influenced by the church, high quality embroidery was very popular within European culture. All of the textiles involved in the liturgy—priests' vestments, hangings, even Bibles—were commonly embellished with some form of embroidery. In addition to the church, the nobility were major customers with individual designers and embroiderers retained by a monarch or employed by a noble household to embellish garments, furnishings, and decorations, both for everyday use and special occasions. In the court of Louis XIV, garments were even embroidered with gold thread (and embroidery requires A LOT of thread). Today that sort of excess is mimicked in haute couture gowns where embroidery is done by highly skilled workers using the most decadent materials money can buy.
Embroidery is also used as a source of storytelling and cultural representation. Nearly every culture in the world has some sort of history in embroidery. Common themes vary by culture with linear patterns or flowing pictorial compositions or a combination thereof. Think classic Japanese motifs such as dragons and cranes embroidered on silk kimonos or vibrant floral patterns embroidery in Mexican and South American cultures or decadent borders along a South Asian sari. In English culture, centuries old examples survive showing that embroidery was a skill marking a girl's path into womanhood as well conveying rank and social standing. Embroidery is also used to tell stories on elaborate tapestries or create images akin to painting on fine jackets or home decor.
While the advent of the embroidery machine has allowed for cheaper and more standardized embroidery, classic embroidery still survives today. Machine embroidery is used for repeatable images such as logos or common patterns. Machines have not been able to mimic the more artistic side of embroidery though. While a machine can follow the colors it reads from an image, it cannot incorporate the human interaction required for painting-like images.
Luckily, even with the industrialization of embroidery, the art is alive and well with local craftspeople that create custom pieces. There is a chance that embroidery will change significantly in the near future though. Google recently unveiled its “smart fabric” that incorporates conductive threads woven into traditional textiles like wool and cotton allowing the garment to register taps and swipes like a touchscreen. With the advent of this technique, embroidery could easily evolve to incorporate high tech embellishments to a garment.
Like what you read? Never miss a post by signing up for the mailing list.