The History of Embroidery

by Karen

The History of Embroidery

Embroidery is a decorative art that has all but been lost in the modern era. Although not many women or men are skilled at embroidery today, it was a practice that was important in the social arena throughout most of human history. Advances in technology made embroidery something that could be easily re-created by machinery. Thus, it has become somewhat of a lost art.

In this blog post, we’ll take a look at the past, present, and future of embroidery. We’ll also highlight some of our favorite vintage inspired garments that boast exquisitely embroidered accents that pay homage to antique textiles.

What Is Embroidery?

Embroidery is defined as “the craft of decorating fabric or other materials using a needle to apply thread or yarn.” Decorative accents like pearls, beads, quills, sequins, or fine wire can also be used to elevate the appearance of a standard textile when it comes to this artistic artform. Often, multiple colors of yarn or differing textures are paired together to create a stylish pattern upon the material. The word “embroidery” is derived from the French word “broderie,” which means “embellishment.”

When it comes to hand-crafted embroidery, there are certain stitches that are a mainstay. Techniques like chain stitch, blanket stitch, running stitch, satin stitch, and cross stitch are fundamentals when it comes to embroidering fabrics. Crewel work, needlepoint, quilting, and quillwork (or feather-work) are additional techniques that are often utilized by embroiderers.

An Early History

History of embroidery is far from a contemporary artform. In fact, it is a practice that extends as far back as mankind itself. Archeologists have found hand-stitched clothing and footwear that dates back to as far back as 30,000 BC. In ancient Egyptian tombs, embroidered wall hangings and clothing have also been discovered. According to evidence, humans have been using decorative embroidery for as long as they have had textiles in their possession.

Quilting is another important embroidery technique that has roots in the ancient world. As far back as 500BC, the Persians wore quilted armor into battle. Quilting was also a staple of the Ancient Greeks. Artwork from early Greece suggests that people frequently wore decorative garments that featured both quilted accents and decorative embroidery.

Although it has roots in the ancient world, embroidery has been found in the remains of early civilizations across the globe. Archeologists have unearthed intricately embroidered robes from China that date back to 618AD as well as beautifully embroidered textiles from India that are equally as antiquated. In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Vikings of Scandinavia adopted this practice and frequently wore garments - both decorative and functional - that featured embroidery and embellishments.

Unsurprisingly, most embroidered pieces from Europe during the Renaissance had religious roots. From embroidered tunics worn by clergymen to over-the-top tablecloths presented to royal families of this era, the church inspired most of the decorative textiles created in Europe until about 1350AD.

Embroidery truly took off in the Western world when trade routes from India and the far East brought brightly colored silks, fabrics, and textiles to Europe in the late 17th to the early 18th centuries. These delicate materials and decorative influence from the Orient made embroidery more exciting than ever before. During this time, heavily embroidered garments were frequently worn by members of the upper class to show off their wealth, status, and privilege.

Embroidery in the Victorian Era

In the 1800s, sewing and embroidery became a technique that women everywhere were quite skilled at. Women often passed down sewing skills to their daughters and younger female family members so that they could keep their households looking beautiful. Victorian women created not only garments like petticoats, blouses, skirts, and trousers, but also household goods like doilies, pillows, curtains, and other linens. Additionally, embroidery was used to mend or repair hand-sewn textiles so that the household always looked impeccable.

While there was a practical aspect to sewing and needlework in the Victorian era, “fancy work” was another skill that middle and upper class Victorian women were expected to have mastered by the time they were married. This ornamental embroidery allowed women to add colorful decorations to pillows, linens, and even their clothing. Downtime was quite rare for hard working Victorian women, so being able to afford time to embroider these intricate creations onto clothing or other textiles was a signifier of wealth and prosperity. Sewing and embroidery may seem like a silly way to spend time in today’s world. However, in the Victorian era it was a practice that was taken quite seriously. Because most clothing during the 1800s was still largely hand-made, the ability to mend a dress or let out a waistband was an important skill to have.

Sewing and embroidery also became one of the few ways that women could earn financial independence during this time period. Magazines from the late 1800s reported that many women earned an impressive profit from the sales of their embroidered handiwork - something that was quite rare in a society that was restrictive when it came to women’s rights.

Modern Embroidery Techniques

By the early 1900s, embroidery was a standard practice. It was so popular, in fact, that sewing patterns were sold in mail-order catalogs so that women could more easily recreate artwork, garments, and other sewn pieces. Wall hangings with embroidered proverbs or sayings became incredibly popular among middle and upper class women during the beginning of the 20th century.

Burgeoning technology, however, would soon change the way that people thought about embroidery and sewing. In the middle of the 19th century, there had already been great strides taken when it came to the development of machine embroidery. In 1832, Josué Heilmann from France developed the very first hand-embroidery machine. The sewing machine was first conceptualized in the late 1700s and became far more popular and refined as the years went on. By the late 1800s, sewing machines were sold to the public. The adoption of this technology made household repairs easier than ever before.

These advancements in technology paired with the Industrial Revolution to create America’s garment industry, which boomed to life in the early 1900s. Waves of immigrants came to America looking for work and found it in sewing factories that were popping up in major American cities like New York and Chicago. Hundreds of men and women were employed as sewing-machine operators, basters, and finishers. Unfortunately, a lack of labor standards during this time meant that often people worked long, hard hours for minimal pay in these modern “sweatshops.”

This large-scale automation caused the garment industry to explode in America. Suddenly, people were able to purchase embroidered clothing, textiles, and other household objects without having to create them by hand. This is a practice that has carried on into the modern era. Today, virtually no one is expected to create their own clothing by hand. Instead, they can simply go to the store and purchase an entire wardrobe that has been mass produced by machinery.

Today’s Take on Embroidery

Because hand-created embroidery is increasingly rare, it has truly become a luxury item. In the fashion industry, intricate and heavily decorated garments are still carefully designed and created by teams of skilled craftsmen and women. These Haute Couture pieces, however, are exceptionally rare and sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

While this rare artform is all but obsolete, we are still seeing some people return to their roots when it comes to craft and embroidery. The popularity of crocheting and knitting has become a niche interest that gains more and more practitioners every year. Similarly, a rejection of the ecologically damaging concept of “fast fashion” has encouraged more and more people to take interest in where their clothing comes from and how it is manufactured. Technology and mass production isn’t going anywhere, however there does seem to be an increased interest in clothing that is made by hand and made to last.

Wearing Vintage-Inspired Embroidered Clothing

One of the most elegant ways to pay homage to the past is wearing exquisite, vintage-inspired clothing that features beautiful embroidered accents. Because embroidery is so rare in the modern era, it is a subtle way to set yourself apart in a crowd and ensure all eyes are drawn towards you.

Our collection of Nataya gowns feature exquisite embroidered accents that reference a more romantic era. Inspired by upscale fashions from the early 20th century, each features stylish stitching that makes the often simple or understated dress come to life in a wholly unique way.

Our Favorite Embroidered Dresses

alexa flapper style dress

New Vintage Titanic Tea Party Dress in Black/Coco by Nataya

This beautiful dress boasts an embroidered overlay that features elegant lace, a feminine floral pattern, and an intricate trim. downton abbey tea party gown

Downton Abbey Tea Party Gown in Mauve by Nataya

Multiple vintage embroidery techniques have been utilized on this exquisite Nataya dress to make it extra breathtaking and feminine. nataya titanic  dress - history of embroidery

Alexa 1920s Flapper Style Dress in Mauve by Nataya

In the 1920s, embroidery was used to create show-stopping dresses with instant appeal. This fabulous frock from Nataya features a heavily embroidered overlay that accents the simplistic nature of the overall silhouette.

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