Embroidery is a method of decorating fabric with threads and yarns. As a surface decoration, it gives a wealth of beauty and pleasure in excellent design and color.
The origins of embroidery, one of the oldest of all arts, are lost in antiquity. Bone needles were found in caves dating to 5,000 years before Christ. It is possible that it started in Babylonia and Egypt and then traveled from the East into Europe, reaching its greatest heights in Italy. From there it went to the rest of the world, with each culture developing its own form and discipline. Most of China's embroidery was done in silk, the Japanese used embroidery to embellish printed and painted fabrics, and the Indians incorporated precious metals and jewels into the art.
Throughout the entire 16th century, Italy was the undisputed center for embroidery. The Popes collected it, as much of the decoration described in the Bible was reproduced in papal robes and church furnishings. It was heavy with gold and silver threads, and the exquisite work included a diversity of color and form.
From Rome, the popularity of embroidery spread to Paris. It was there that the first guilds were organized. The development of embroidery in England ran almost parallel to that of Italy.
Queen Elizabeth was an accomplished needlewoman who set examples for the rest of the court. Henry VI, the grandson of Elizabeth of York, recorded the first bill of sale for embroidery when he collected twelve samplers done on a Normandy canvas.
After the Reformation, church work began to languish and court embroidery grew in popularity. Patterns, first introduced in the 16th century became more available, refined and graceful in design. Most of the early patterns were for decoration of clothing and costumes such as waistcoats and sleeves.
Long before the arrival of the first settlers, American Indians were doing beautiful embroidery on the whitest and softest doeskins. Settlers later brought the European patterns and stitches. However, through the years, the forms and techniques have steadily changed. Old methods and designs were changed to fit a new way of living, embroidery took on a spontaneity and vibrancy that was unmistakenly American.
Indian squaws taught the American women the art of dyeing, using a wide range of colors made from roots, seeds, plants and nuts. Because imported wool for embroidery was scarce and expensive, American women spun wool from their own sheep then dyed it with homemade colors. These homespun wools changed the character of the stitches and created challenge and excitment.
Like the arts of patchwork, applique and quilting, embroidery tells the story of people. Civilization, economic security, contentment or frustration are all stitched into it. Embroidery can express solace or grief, it can express joy and hope, it can denote devotion and patience, indicate simplicity and thrift, or great wealth. In America, embroidery has come along way from the early disciplined patterns. Although, the formal, stylized designs of Jacobean* origin are still used, embroidery has been translated into a new level of free-form and abstract work, sometimes call "Stitchery".
The basic stitches of embroidery are few, it is countless variations of these few that staggers so many would be embroiderers. However, many effective embroidered pieces use only one stitch, or a combination of two or three. Most Peruvian wool embroidery is done with only a chain stitch, Mexican work often employs only stem and satin stitches. It is rewarding to see what can be done by using only one stitch with different colors and weights of threads.
* Crewel, or Jacobean embroidery, comes to us from England. The word crewel comes from the word krua which means wool. The term crewel, so often misunderstood, now really applies to the design. Threads used can be linen, cotton or silk as well as wool and almost any background fabric. The first Jacobean designs came from the palampores, the East India Company painted or printed and sent them to England. The "Tree of Life" was the standard design; it rose from mounds of terra firma in graduated shading. These trees were exotic, foliage was lush with leaves and intricately embroidered flowers, excited birds were caught in flight or rested nervously on branches to small to hold them. These designs were all big and bold, for they decorated wall hangings and bed curtains and were made primarily to keep out cold winds.
These designs arrived in the New World with the colonists, but changed in concept to fit the new patterns of living. The American woman began to substitute and initiate. Imported wool yarns were hard to get and often too expensive too buy when they were available. Hand-spun and hand-dyed wool and linen threads were used instead of fine English and French wool yarns, and a new look was born. Some of the big designs were scaled down, and a spontaneity and freedom, typical of America, was added. In Colonial times, the first dye that women learned to make was indigo, and some of the earliest crewel designs were embroidered solely in shades of blue. From this beginning came an offshoot of crewel known as "Deerfield Embroidery", also known as "Blue and White". The thread is linen as well as wool, but the designs are the same.