I’m sure you’ve seen these before: alphabet samplers of letters timidly sewn into plain linen, hanging on the walls of house museums and antique stores; intricate designs featured on the skirts of gorgeous, couture gowns and flowing down runways at Fashion Week; dirty phrases and references from cult classics and fandoms framed in hoops on apartment walls in hip neighborhoods.
Embroidery as a textile craft can manifest in so many different ways—and, like, it’s actually really cool.
I was surprised to find out that embroidery is a super old practice. In fact, it’s as old as humankind, since it was primitive man who first developed needlecrafts. Cro-Magnon peoples discovered that animal sinew and plant fibers could be reworked into durable threads, and that bone and ivory made workable needles. Prehistoric people were then able to make clothing by stitching together animal skins, which were used not as fashion statements but as protection from the elements.
But once the earliest humans had this figured out, along with a bunch of other necessities like food and shelter, they were like, “Crap. I’m bored” and so creativity started to make its mark as a pastime. Therefore, the sheer, painful boredom of early humans resulted in the advent of embroidery as an art form. (Am I the only person who thinks this is extremely cool?!)
Soon, the people of the Iron Age were incorporating beads, stones, and bones into their designs. An archaeological dig in Russia in 1964, which unearthed the fossilized remains of a Cro-Magnon, uncovered evidence of this practice. The man’s fur clothes, boots, and hat had all been decorated with horizontal rows of ivory beads. I like to imagine that there was a high fashion, prehistoric equivalent to Chanel in those days. I recommend thinking about this. Cro-Magnon fashion show is a very cute visual.
Embroidery was a fixture in many different cultures throughout history. Chinese thread embroidery, which dates back to at least 3500 B.C., provides particularly exquisite and masterful examples of embroidery as a fine art. Modern-day embroidery most takes after the samples from the Zhou Dynasty era, which lasted from 1045 B.C. to 246 B.C.
Embroidery was also found to be a prevalent custom in Mesopotamian cultures. In 1544, an excavation in Ur, a highly advanced Sumerian city that is located in present-day Iraq, salvaged a shroud dating to 400 A.D. that was decorated thoroughly with pure gold thread embroidery. Unfortunately, the excavators melted down the gold used to create the shroud, resulting in thirty-six pounds of molten gold, but also destroying this precious artifact. Where the gold actually ended up is unknown.
It is because the methods and techniques involved in embroidery have been passed down from generation to generation that this practice has endured so many centuries. In medieval England, embroidery classes called Opus Anglicanum (“English Work” in Latin) were very popular. Many individuals also used embroidery to record historical events.
Innovation in embroidery came with the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, when Berlin wool work gained international renown through greater ability to spread and communicate techniques, ideas, and designs. Berlin wool work is canvas thread embroidery worked into wool using pinpoint stitches. By creating careful shading, Berlin wool work pieces have an incredible three-dimensional effect.
Nowadays, machines do most of the modern embroidery we see. Though machine embroidery creates absolutely perfect stitches, I personally think that the human touch is lost in such work. But as DIY culture has been growing exponentially with the ease and fun of things like Pinterest, Tiny House Nation, and YouTube tutorials, freehand embroidery is making a comeback.
It is a beautiful practice that forces the embroiderer (or embroideress, as I like to call myself) to really slow down and focus. When you are embroidering small details, it’s impossible to dwell on the myriad of things that are bothering you. In that way, embroidery is a lot like meditation. It keeps you in the present, in the moment of a single stitch. Embroidery can be meaningful, funny, or just something nice to look at. And the best part—you can easily take threads out, redo work, or reuse materials.
Whatever the design, what one embroiders or hangs in their room is an extension of themselves, their personalities, and their passions. Having embroideries of things that you love is basically just another way to geek out over them. Maybe, if you try embroidery, you’ll have something new to geek over.