A Quick Run Through History, Part I
by Chottie Alderson

Originally published in Needle Pointers, Volume X, Number 2, Summer 1982
Art work by Thelma Brittain

EMBROIDERY: What is it? One dictionary defines it as: "The art of working raised and ornamental designs in threads of silk, wool, cotton, gold, silver, and other material, upon any woven fabric, leather, paper, etc., with needle."

Another dictionary simply declares it is: "Elaboration or embellishment, to produce or form in Needlework."

And, still another states: "Embroidery is an art which consists of enriching a foundation by working on it with a needle and colored silks, cottons, wools, etc., in floral, geometric or figure designs."

The origins of this Art we call Embroidery are lost in antiquity, but it is known to have existed before painting. It, no doubt, started when some cave wife discovered she could lace hides together with strips of leather in some sort of a pattern. It is a natural step to go on to discover she could ornament the hide and make it pretty and different. This also developed a type of ownership. Cave man could easily pick his own hide out from several in a pile by learning to recognize his mate's lacing techniques and form of decoration.

As Man developed, so Embroidery developed. Needles were created. Not the needles we know today but the primitive needles made of thorns, fishbones, bone, ivory, bronze, silver, gold, etc. -- then came steel. As Needles developed, so textiles developed. (Textile comes from the Latin verb "Texere" meaning to weave).

The threads used to ornament were probably discovered by accident. (Even today a thread can be produced with the fingers, twisting together the family dog's hair as you brush the winter coat out.) Threads were originally fine and often quite weak. Some bright soul discovered that if several weak threads were twisted together the whole was strengthened, and Ole! threads of different textures were discovered.

Stitchery is considered to have been one of the earliest human accomplishments. In the earliest known Embroideries, threads were twisted from wool, flax and silk. Wool, from sheep, goats, llamas and other fur-bearing animals, indicated herding societies. Flax indicated a high degree of civilization; for, to make flax into linen threads required many different steps. (It also indicated a warm area where the more easily produced wool threads were not as comfortable to wear.) Cotton seems to have appeared in history about 3000 BC and was known to the eastern civilizations and used only in weaving. It was brought to the Near East by the caravan routes but used only as an ornamental shrub. China knew and used silk from as early as 1200 BC but held silk production to be a gift of the gods and, therefore, a sacred secret. However, Egypt and Persia were using silks about the time of Christ.

Some interesting gems about Needlework worth storing in the back of your mind are: Most Historians agree that Needlepoint probably originated in China. Howard Carter, of Tutankhamen fame, found some Needlepoint in the Crave of a Pharaoh who had lived 1500 years before Christ. Pliny (Roman Encyclopedist and writer) was an authority on Needlework.

Homer makes frequent reference to Embroidery in the Iliad and the Odyssey. He states that Helen of Troy embroidered a picture representing the Trojan Wars and that Ulysses wore a mantle embroidered with a hunting scene.

Virgil (7 or 9 BC) in his Aeneid mentions a magnificent robe decorated with purple borders. The richness of the pattern is described as "The son of Tros in a forest, javelin in hand, chasing a fleeting hart."

Old writings allude to gold embroidery on the ephod made for Aaron. In Jadaism an ephod is a richly embroidered, apron-like vestment having two shoulder straps and ornamental attachments for securing the breastplate and worn with a waistband by the high priest.

The robe, as an insignia of victory, was venerated. The mother of the Maccabees made a most beautiful and moving farewell speech as her sons set forth to battle. "These maternal fingers spun this thread with which they likewise wove and embroidered these garments. May they be either your standards should you vanquish the foe of your God and country or your shrouds should you fall victims to the swords of the faithless."

Robes of gold and purple embroidery were worn by Eastern kings with whom Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) came in contact and he commissioned skillful Cypriots to make him a conqueror's robe after he conquered Darius and acquired the famous embroidered "Tent of Darius." The Phoenicians brought the art of Embroidery to England. Needlepoint first appears historically in the writings of Imperial Rome in reference to its use for couch cushions. Canvaswork was called opus pulvinarium.' It meant 'cushionwork' and was used for kneeling mats, cushions, etc., in the great Christian religious houses.

As Embroidery traveled from one part of the world to another, from one country to another, from one people to another, it was always considered a wondrous and precious thing and came to be associated with the spoils of war and with the embellishment of gods and leaders. As it became more common to have the robes of leaders and high officials embroidered, so the common folk yearned to brighten their clothing and homes with it.

Throughout History you will read about some leader forbidding the 'common' folk to wear or use Embroidery. These were called the 'Sumptuary Laws.' They checked extravagance; laying down the style, and the fabric to be worn by ladies in each rank of society. As human nature would have it, you always want what is forbidden, so Embroidery continued to grow both in its techniques and its use.

Linen and wool were used to work Counted Thread in the centuries prior to the first Century AD. The Egyptians used Gobelin, Cross and Long Arm Cross stitch on everyday items as well as things for the priest and tomb. Tufting with a needle is normally attributed to Turkey in the 2nd Century AD but the Egyptians used it much earlier when they worked linen towels with long loops of weft thread, left loose and hanging to absorb more moisture when used.

Egyptian and Byzantine work also shows tiny tufts darned on the surface of linen. The Greeks and Romans were known for their Counted Thread work on bands sewn on domestic garments and often the number of bands denoted rank or class. Silk was seldom used, for the price of silk was 'weight for weight' with gold. By the 6th Century AD, silk was only plentiful enough for use by the very wealthy, who could afford its high cost. These early robes and clothing were not covered totally with Counted Thread stitches. The fabric became what we today call 'background.'

Nor was Counted Thread used as a prestige embellishment at this time in History. Free surface embroidery (in expensive silks, and gold and silver threads) was reserved for the important people and religious items and was considered much more rich and valuable. Counted Thread work was used for a humbler purpose for domestic use.

Tent stitch (Continental) has been in existence since the Egyptian period. It is claimed that the word 'tent' is derived from the English work 'tenture' or 'tenter' (tendere -- to stretch) referring to the frame that the linen was stretched on to work stitches. This stitch is one used in making and mending tents when they are made by hand and is also found in the embroidered flaps of Arab tents. Coptic work in 4th-5th Century AD often used Tent or Cross stitch on linen for background only and left the design as exposed fabric. Much like what today we call 'Assisi' work.

Incidentally, there is an interesting legend concerning the beginning of Assisi Embroidery. The walls of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, which was begun immediately after the canonization of the Saint in 1228, tell his story in murals painted by the great Giotto. One of the nuns in the Franciscan convent at Assisi is supposed to have copied Giotto's murals of the Life of St. Francis in the simple, primitive line drawings typical of the 13th Century. These drawings, in turn, were transferred to linen by means of stitchery. The result was Assisi Embroidery. The Art spread through the convent to the outside world.

The importance of Embroidery grew as Christianity grew, in Europe, and the decorating of great religious houses turned Embroidery almost into a science. The Latin words 'Brustus' or 'Aurobrus' were used to denote Needlework. From these words, the French 'Broderie' and English 'Embroidery' were developed. Sometime during the period 2nd through 12th Century AD, the Diagonal Tent stitch (Basketweave stitch) came into use. Also, during this period, convents took on the task of teaching young ladies of noble birth the fine art of Embroidery. Canvas (Counted Thread) work was considered the easiest of all methods and was taught and encouraged. Only the very talented were considered worthy of being introduced to and taught Embroidery with silk and gold thread. You don't experiment with a fortune and, in those days, silk and gold threads were worth a fortune. If you have purchased any today, you may feel that they still are.

By the 12th-13th Century AD, Embroidery of all types had reached high levels of perfection through Europe. In Medieval Italy various kinds of distinctive Embroideries were developed in certain regions: Sicily was famous for Drawn Thread work. Florence for 'white work' and 'cutwork.' In Italy, the Great Masters designed and worked Embroidery, but there is no record of professional women Embroideresses in Italy.

Italy influenced Embroidery in France during the Middle Ages, but, by the end of the 14th Century AD, the daintiness, lightness, gaiety, beauty and soft colors so suggestive of later French Courts was beginning to show in French Embroideries. Because France lagged behind England and Holland in the Far Eastern Trade, the Chinese influence was not noticeable in their Embroidery until about 1660.

In 1295, there were 83 Embroiderers and Embroideresses registered in the trade in Paris. The apprenticeship term was 8 years and only one apprentice could serve an employer at a time. Embroidery was so important in the 16th Century that the 'Jardin des Plantes' (Paris Conservatory) in Paris was established to supply fresh flowers as subjects for Embroidery designers.

The Embroideries of Spain and Portugal were colored by the Moorish influence from the 8th Century. This fine Spanish tradition in stitches reached into colonial Mexico, Spanish California and South America. Many of these old Spanish stitches are used today in some of the best Mexican Embroidery; Drawnwork on cotton being one of the most outstanding.

Scandinavian Embroidery goes back to the Viking period and has become part of the very bone and blood of Scandinavian women. It is a national and universal expression and adds great beauty to their lives.

Medieval Needlework was famous in The Netherlands and Belgium was known for its Church vestments and fine petit point.

In Germany, a great School and Guild of Needlework was active in the 13th Century. This reflected Byzantine types of stitchery and design; but, by the 16th Century, the heavy Teutonic influence, associated with Wagnerian operatic themes of a later period, was predominant in most Embroideries.

England brought this needle art to its zenith at this time in what is known as 'Opus Anglicanum' -- literal meaning: English work. This name was in general use in France, Spain, and Italy at this time and the fame of English Embroideries was such that no further description of the nature of this work (other than the name Opus Anglicanum) was needed or necessary.

Although references to skillfully worked Anglo-Saxon Embroideries in England occur as early as the 7th Century AD, the greatest period of Opus Anglicanum was between about 1250 and 1350. The Black Death (plague) in 1348 started the decline of this famous work (England's population of four million was reduced to 2-1/2 million) and it was accelerated by the social and political upheavals following this disaster. Wars on the Continent (including the 100 years War between France and England) coupled with the increasing manufacture of damasks, brocaded silks and velvets, and the weakening of the Craft Guilds, hastened the end of this superior work that was admired and sought after by Popes, Kings, and Princes throughout Europe.

One writer says: "The charm of old Church Embroideries is in their superb splendor, technical perfection, and reflection of Medieval details." Nearly all the Embroideries of the Middle Ages, that we have available for study today, were made for Ecclesiastical purposes. We have very little secular work of this period. We do not really know if there were just very few secular pieces worked or if only the Ecclesiastical pieces have survived. Maybe the reason for this is that Ecclesiastical things would be preserved and given much loving care while secular things would just be given much wear.

Embroidery deteriorated but it did not die. It was still used and worked but, compared to earlier work, it steadily declined in technique and design. In England, as the wars and social upheavals continued, Embroidery was kept alive, if not flourishing, by the ladies of noble families. During the War of the Roses, many noble families found it a means of subsistence. Also as the ladies of nobility almost always lived in castles which were isolated, as well as impregnable, they, no doubt, discovered the psychological value of Embroidery when boredom became too great to ignore.

The Crusades contributed to the movement of patterns and Embroideries throughout the Continent by the Crusaders bringing home loot and gifts to their estates. The Knight's wife stayed home and plied her needle making large tapestry wall hangings to warm the cold castle walls, coverings for great wooden beds, cushions for carved seats, benches and stools and cold hard floors and vestments for the Church. She embroidered her Knight's clothing and her own, copying many designs and techniques from the spoils of war her husband stuffed the castle with. This Crusading period was the transitional period for Embroidery, from the Church to the home.

The symbolism of Church work is very marked in English and Continental pieces worked in the 14th, 15th, and 16th Centuries. The Cross, figures of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Apostles were almost always used in the design. Much gold thread was used. This came mostly from China but some Cyprian gold was imported also.

The history of Embroidery can go on for pages and pages but we are concerned with only a small section of Embroidery -- Canvaswork (Counted Work, Berlin work or Needlepoint -- to use just a few of its names). Following (next month) is a list of some of the stitches that were generally in use in Canvaswork at various periods of History. I am indebted to Anne Dyer of England, who stood propped up against showcases in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for hours on end, helping me to take notes; for her help searching old Embroideries with a magnifying glass to discover what stitch was used, for her encouragement while wading through 'millions' of glossy pictures in the "Print" room selecting pictures of Embroideries to bring back to the U.S. for study; for introducing me into the Museum Library where I lost my mind and my cool, being exposed to the very old and precious Pattern and Stitch books and for the many, many letters that flew back and forth across the Atlantic as she helped me sort this all out.

Read more of Chottie's "Quick Run Through History" next month.