A (Fun and Simple) History of Embroidery – Part I

Embroidery has been around for thousands of years. I find the history fascinating! I’ve been doing some reading lately that I thought I would share with you. This will be a two part series, because there’s lots of fun information out there. So here goes.

Prehistoric Times

The origins of embroidery date as far back as primitive man, who created durable threads from plant fibers and animal sinew to sew with needles made from ivory and bone. Pre-historic people used these tools to stitch together animal skins.

It wasn’t long before the stitches that formed their clothing were also being used to embellish clothes. Embroidery began when pre-historic people added stones, bones and beads to their animal skin clothing. The fossilized remains of a Cro-Magnon were found in Russia that dated back to 30,000 B.C. His clothing, hat and boots were all embellished with rows of ivory beads!

Embroidery as Art

Embroidery as an art form began around the Iron Age, which was from 1300 B.C. to 600 B.C. Earlier predecessors of modern embroidery date back as far as 3500 B.C. to Chinese thread embroidery. A silk gauze garment with satin and chain stitch embroidery in silk thread was discovered from the Zhou Dynasty era.

Evidence of embroidery, where the actual fabric wasn’t lucky enough to survive the ages, has been found in sculptures, paintings and vases from Greek, Babylonian and Syrian societies as old as 3,000 years. Decorated items show citizens from these ancient societies wearing clothing embroidered with intricate designs. Byzantium mosaics also depict people wearing richly embroidered clothing.

Other Uses for Embroidery

Examples of embroidery show up all over the world. A woven shroud excavated in Ur, Sumer was embroidered with pure gold thread. The garment was melted down for its value in gold. There is evidence of embroidery in Indian, Chinese, Persian, Japanese, Greek and European societies. Northern Vietnam, Eastern Europe and Mexico all have very distinct styles of embroidery. Their fabrics are embroidered with unique images from their traditions and histories.

Embroidery survived not only for its beauty when it adorned garments, but for its storytelling ability in a time when most of the world was not literate. Historical events could be pictorially recorded on fabric. A famous example is the Bayeux Tapestry, which shows the tale of the Norman invasion in England and the Battle of Hastings.

Later Embroidery

The industrial revolution in the 19th century brought us Berlin wool work. This embroidery uses wool and petit point stitches to create a three-dimensional effect by careful shading. Patterns were published on charted paper like cross-stitch designs. The projects were simpler for people to create because of the pre-fabricated pattern or the need to interpret wool colors paired with one type of simple stitch. Women’s magazines made this craft very popular in the U.S. and Britain.

Today, machine embroidery is a very popular craft. With computers and sophisticated software, it’s much easier to create in fabric virtually anything you can imagine.

Tune in next time when we’ll talk a little bit more about the history of this craft that is so near and dear to my heart!


-Teresa Giltner, Owner, MT Needleworks

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