Western Europe is noted for its woolen embroideries: crewel (the name of the two-ply wool) on linen twill which is an art form at least 600 years old. This lush work adorned bedcovers, draperies, wall hangings, and chair coverings. These embroideries, now commonly but inaccurately called “Jacobean embroidery,” continue to hold a fascination. Many needle workers are passionate about crewel work – although on a less grand scale.
Egyptians practiced white embroidery, but it was the fine work emanating from Western Europe that takes our breath away. Using only white thread on a white ground, the earliest works contained skill and details that few today can emulate. Dresden work was perfected in Germany, marked by intricate embroidered lace using drawn fabric stitches and diaper patterns in minute detail. Ayrshire Needlework came from Scotland with its roots in France. By some experts’ standards, it is the most notable of all embroideries. Heavily padded motifs and openwork fillings characterize the work. The original muslin available was more fine and transparent than anything either manufactured or hand woven today. The openwork was executed by withdrawing threads from the ground fabric and working intricate patterns thereon. As the fabric became more closely woven, they cut areas of ground fabric away, and fine needlelace filled the space.
We usually credit England with broderie Anglaise, the original of this “Whitework” depicting flowers, leaves and stems entirely in eyelets, though its origins may be Czech. Through time, satin stitching and other cutwork techniques were added. Commercially, this work is still being done today on the island of Madeira off the coast of South Africa. Referred to as Madeira Work, it is primarily aimed at the tourist trade, with many different qualities of construction being produced.
India also practiced Whitework – its workers being so skilled that the needle doesn’t pierce through to the back but splits the ground threads. The resultant embroidery is entirely on the surface. Unfortunately, the prior skill of the Chikan embroiderers has been lost with the changing economies, for it is believed that workers must be trained from a young age. This training is no longer occurring. But India, and this region, is still producing very fine embroideries for export.
China perfected the art of two-sided embroideries – some of which take several years to complete. On one side may be a tiger, and the reverse may be a leopard or lion. Done entirely in silk, these embroideries fetch thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars, depending upon size. Asian embroideries exemplify art, spirituality, and culture through needle and thread, with strict adherence to technique and refined stitches.
We often think of the above embroideries associated with “refined” culture. However, Indians from North and South America practice intricate and exquisite embroidery with quills, beads (brought by traders) and other “findings” occurring naturally in the environment.
Not content with “flat” work, embroiderers created “raised” embroidery. This artform simulates bas relief on boxes and other utilitarian items dating to the 16th century and is alternately referred to as Elizabethan embroidery, although it evolved long after her death. When the Victorians discovered the art and began creating it with great fervor, they coined the word “stumpwork”. The padding most often used is wool, leather or wood. Three-dimensional butterflies, leaves and other elements are fashioned with wire upon which thread is embroidered and the motifs shaped to stand out from the background.
With the arrival of rayon threads, Brazilian embroidery reached its heyday in the 1960’s. Conflicting accounts blurr its beginnings, but the most probable is that it originated in Brazil by a woman who had threads specially dyed for her invention. Brazilian embroidery’s bright (sometimes too luminescent) colors and looped bullions rise from the ground fabric, bringing another dimension to embroidery.
Ecclesiastical embroideries spanned the breadth of the age of the many religious organizations of the world, as well as royal courts. These embroideries include gold threads, often with complicated couching techniques (or Nue). Special bone or ivory implements are used so that the embroiderer’s hands never touched the thread, lest it be tarnished. Padding with gilded leather is a staple of this work.
Whether it is adorning bed linens, table linens, vestments, furniture or clothing, people are still embroidering all over the world. Machines can emulate the fine handwork, but none can duplicate it. A wealth of media is available to the modern embroiderer, but little of it unique as can be observed by the above examples.
To learn more about the fine art of hand embroidery, visit your local library. In addition, the Embroiderer’s Guild of America has a video available entitled “Embroidery: The Legacy of Needlearts” which may be of interest.