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
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
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
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
The importance of Embroidery grew as Christianity grew,
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
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
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.