The word broderie Anglais is French meaning: English embroidery.
According to Weldon’s Encyclopedia of Needlework, broderie Anglaise originated from Czecho-Slovakian [sic] peasant embroidery and was brought to England in the ninth century.
Mary Thomas related in her Embroidery Book that it is also known as Ayrshire, English, Eyelet, Madeira or Swiss work, and also notes the work from Czechoslovakia (its similarities), though she does not offer broderie Anglais’ origins.
Pamela Clappburn ( Needleworkers Dictionary) states it is “a type of cutwork embroidery which evolved in Britain in about 1850 from the earlier Ayrshire embroidery.”
And to further muddy the waters, Batsford’s Encylopedia of Embroidery Techniques states it was “typical of Victorian underwear, nightwear and baby linen” and that it “probably [emphasis mine] developed simultaneously with Ayrshire work.”
Since I have seen works from other styles/countries, I suspect Weldon’s got it right. But this is just personal opinion. We may never know for certain.
All agree, however, that the original work was simple eyelets and ovals, and that only later was satin stitch added, and then still later, different types of “laddering” cutwork. Exactly “how” this laddering is accomplished is another subject, for it incorporates overcasting, buttonholing, needleweaving, picots, etc. Suffice for this page to focus on the more generally known and indicative of broderie Anglais: that of plain overcast or buttonholed laddering.
To begin, this is a close-up of one of the pieces Agnes Bryson stitched and is featured in her book Ayrshire Needlework.
The red arrows point to the laddering typical of Ayrshire and other fine whitework. It is quite tiny, and worked with a stilleto. A running stitch is worked first, and the pierced areas are overcast as the work progresses. It is quite simple to work and similar in appearance to corded pin stitching.
From Mary Thomas’s book, a picture of the original style of broderie Anglaise. Note that everything is eyelets – even the stems of the leaves.
Again from Mary Thomas, this more modern approach was typical at the turn of the 20th century. Laddering has been added, and the leaves and stems of the flowers are now surface stitched – at this stage in the development with padded satin stitch and trailings.
This is the laddering used in broderie Anglaise. In this example, it is entirely overcast – similar to the laddering of Ayrshire only on a much larger scale. The material is cut away rather than pierced.
This laddering is also stitched with buttonholing and other types of decorative stitching, depending upon the time period and the country from which it originates.