Home / HistoryWhat is Embroidery? Learn the Origins of This Ancient Craft and How It’s Used Today

What is Embroidery? Learn the Origins of This Ancient Craft and How It’s Used Today

What is Embroidery Definition

Photo: Giulia Bertelli
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The story of embroidery is the story of the world. Embroidery has existed, in some form, in every population across the globe. Whether it’s displayed on clothing, home goods, or as an artwork, it’s a timeless craft that is an integral part of our material culture.

What is Embroidery?

You're already familiar with embroidery—even if you had never realized it. Simply put, the definition of embroidery is the art of working ornamental designs onto fabric. This explanation, however, tends to oversimplify embroiderers' immense skills and the creative possibilities that are inherent in the craft.

Embroidery is typically thought of as a needle and thread that is stitched on fabric, although it can encompass beads, metal, and other objects. To secure the fabric and keep it taut, it is stretched between two hoops—most of the time. Some artists go beyond the hoop to embroider in places you’d never expect, such as metal surfaces or even tennis rackets.

Origins of Embroidery

Embroidery has been around forever—and that's not an exaggeration. It's an ancient craft that first had a practical purpose of repairing clothing. Because garments were so expensive to produce, items of clothing were rarely thrown out; they were mended instead. Embroidery is said to have first appeared in China dating as far back as the third century BCE and there have been examples of early work found in Sweden sometime between 300 and 700 CE. These examples used basic stitch techniques including the running stitch, back stitch, and whip stitch.

What is Embroidery Definition

Photo: PericlesofAthens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Detail of an embroidery from 4th century BCE, Zhou-era tomb at Mashan, Hubei province, China

You can also thank the Greek goddess Athena for embroidery's legacy. She's credited with passing it down, in addition to weaving. With such a high-and-mighty figure associated with embroidery, it should come as no surprise that the practice was associated with wealthy people. In medieval England, for instance, professional workshops and guilds produced garments made of fine silks for high society families. But they weren't all for the upper crust; there were folk art movements in eastern Europe, the UK, East Asia, and South America that catered to nonprofessionals.

What is Embroidery Defintion

Photo: By Myrabella (Own work) [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Bayeux Embroidery, created in the 11th century. Measuring about 230 feet long, this section is of scenes 55 and 56.

The industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries changed the face of embroidery. Automation brought on by machines allowed for textiles, including embroidery, to be produced in mass. France was the first to revolutionize embroidery for this purpose beginning in the mid-1800s. In doing this, it made the technique cheaper and easier to produce.

How is Embroidery Used Today?

Embroidery has experienced a resurgence over the past 10 years. Some, like author Rozsika Parker in her book The Subversive Stitch, say that its boost coincides with the Great Recession that happened in the late aughts.

The desire to return to things that were handmade was bolstered by the economic downturn. DIYing what you couldn't afford was a major trend at this time—and it still exists today. But beyond the practicality of embroidering as decoration, individual artists create highly collectible works that people love to display in their home.

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