The grainy image of nana creaking in a rocking chair, stitching endless ducks and daisies onto tea towels is a common, but misleading representation of the craft of embroidery.

At its most elemental, embroidery is sewing decorative stitches onto fabric. At its most rock n roll, it’s the method of choice for creating blindingly gaudy jumpsuits worn by many a music star, and for adding that necessary bling to an otherwise un-bedazzled item of clothing. It was also the preferred embellishment of pharaohs and emperors for their journeys into the afterlife.

Nudie Cohn standing in front of his car

Embroiderer to the stars, Nudie Cohn, in full splendor.

Sometimes, an ornamental stitch can serve a function, like a zig zag whipstitch reinforcing a seam; but with embroidery the design created by the stitches is what it’s all about. From wall hangings and tapestries to school girls’ samplers and flashy neon cowboys, embroidery has been (and continues to be) used to impress, demonstrate skill, and  show the richness of one’s culture through the art of sewing.

Archival photo of an embroidery cirlce of Romanian Women and Girls

Women and girls embroidering in Lészped, Moldavia, Rumania. (Image courtesy of Iván Balassa–Gyula Ortutay)

Simple embroidery is a liberating technique, not nearly as constrained by rules and grids as its more rigid needlework cousins, like counted cross stitch. Often, a modest arsenal of a few stitch types — running stitch, back stitch, stem stitch, split stitch — was all that was needed to create an embroidered piece. With a flick of the needle, a French knot becomes the center of a flower, its petals blooming with a handful of chain stitches. Or a country legend has his name spelled out in a craftsman’s steady hand along the back of a suit coat (or perhaps forming something even more deviant).

The precise origin of this ancient craft isn’t known, but ancient examples of Chinese embroidery date back to the Neolithic period leading historians to believe it way they that set off the international embroidery craze. As sewing techniques improved over time, so did the creative use of embroidery. As craftsmen evolved from crude needles made from stone and bone, to bamboo, ceramic and metal, each culture — from the Egyptians to Assyrians — found its own characteristic style of stitching and its preferred application of the art. Not surprisingly, the Anglo Saxons began to apply embroidery to clerical vestments and various items for sprucing up the church. It’s debatable that this is where embroidery’s bad rep as a distraction for god-fearing grandmas began, sealing the fate for the needlework as something used only for special occasions. 

Traditional Suzani bedspread

An Uzbek bridal bedspread – a lifetime in the making.

Luckily, one man from Russia arrived in 1940s America to rescue embroidery from being relegated to the rocking chair.  The most glitzy of tailors, Nudka “Nudie” Cohn, began his career by sewing sequins onto the G-strings of showgirls in New York. When he began working with leading country music stars like Lefty Frizzell and Tex Williams, he wanted to add panache to the popular western-style suits of the day. He dressed the musicians in extravagant suits that sparkled with sequins; initials, names and floral embellishments splashed onto lapels, suit jackets and cowboy shirts in intricately embroidered patterns.

It didn’t take long before every country musician had to have a “Nudie suit.” By the 1960s country rocker Gram Parsons strutted on stage in over the top Nudie-style suits stitched with naked women, opium poppies and marijuana leaves, bringing the rhinestone cowboy look into the mainstream of popular music. Soon everyone from Cher to Ronald Regan became a customer of the king of embroidery.

A group of Uzbek women selling suzanis.

Uzbek women selling suzani cloth. (Image courtesy of Sharon Lundahl via Music for the Eyes)

Worlds apart from the gaudy Nudie suit, the Uzbek suzani (from the Persian suzan, meaning “needle”) is a famous example of folk art that has become highly sought after by antique collectors. With the help of female family members, the completed piece – a rich, labour-intensive embroidered cloth panel intended to cover the bridal bed, begun upon the birth of a daughter – would become the young woman’s dowry on her wedding day. 

Like the suzani of Central Asia, the traditional costumes of the Matyo people of Hungary are heavily embroidered, as are the tablecloths, pillows and bed linens that a young bride would bring into the marriage home. Traditionally, floral patterns were thickly embroidered in bright colors: black representing life-giving soil, red symbolizing the light and joy of summer, and blue marking suffering and death.

Embroidery by artist Daniel Kornrumpf

Detail from “Focal Length” (2009) by artist Daniel Kornrumpf. Hand embroidered on linen, 42 inches x 36 inches.

Embroidery, like knitting, has been regaining in popularity, with modern craftmakers exploring the handicraft of previous generations. With the ability of such simple stitching to reinvent a piece of clothing, set off a fashion zeitgeist or create a family heirloom out of a piece of cloth, it’s no wonder that embroidery has been a constant in craft around the world and throughout time.

Photographic print and embroidery by Mauricio Anzeri

“Giovanni,” an embroidered photographic print by Mauricio Anzeri. (Image courtesy of Saatchi Gallery)

FURTHER READING
– Nudie’s Rodeo Tailor
– A Widow Fights Pakistan Taliban With Embroidery, The Christian Science Monitor
– Sublime Stitching
– Embroidered Book Covers, Wild Muse

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17 Comments

  1. W.G.A
    Posted February 2, 2011 at 8:29 PM | Permalink

    Beautiful images. Thanks!

  2. LynnWords
    Posted February 3, 2011 at 3:55 AM | Permalink

    Lovely collection-textiles are cool! Thank you.

    Lynn

  3. MM
    Posted February 3, 2011 at 4:40 AM | Permalink

    amazing. I now have a new and totally unexpected appreciation of nana arts.

  4. LB
    Posted February 3, 2011 at 5:24 AM | Permalink

    the images are stunning, maybe it's my hungarian heritage that comes through in my love for the craft. the way embroidery, long considered a female craft, has been taken up by high art, still dominated by men as seen in the last couple of images, is worth noting and perhaps merits a blog post of its own.

  5. GH
    Posted February 3, 2011 at 7:42 AM | Permalink

    No modern embroidery article is complete without mentioning Jenny Hart! http://www.jennyhart.net

  6. Posted February 3, 2011 at 11:05 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for the tip @GH her stuff is amazing! I'll link to it.
    -Aurora (KM editor)

  7. Posted February 6, 2011 at 12:06 AM | Permalink

    Enjoyed your post. I have just finished reading subversive stitch by Rozsika Parker, which is a history of embroidery and she traces the marginalization of Embroidery done by women to the time guilds started and women were excluded (although thousands of women were still employed for a pittance to create work).

    Sad to say americans in general have little exposure to embroidery works of art ( ancient or modern works within their communities) and as a result lack an awareness of the social, cultural and economic impact it has had and still does in many countries.I would agree about Jenny Hart being included, she has in my estimation really spearheaded a new movement of appreciation for this ancient art in the United States.

  8. Veronica
    Posted February 7, 2011 at 4:58 AM | Permalink

    You have a wonderful flair for words. Great article. Makes me want to pick up the needle. You may enjoy a project women in the U.S are engaged in.

    It is called the coral reef project. It combines women's knitting craft, enviromental issues, and education.
    http://www.mnh.si.edu/exhibits/hreef/index.html
    Enjoy,

    Veronica

  9. JM
    Posted February 9, 2011 at 2:46 PM | Permalink

    Great job, Sue. Love this.

  10. Posted February 22, 2011 at 9:57 PM | Permalink

    Amazing work…!!! What a Creativity in the form of art.

  11. Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:55 AM | Permalink

    I enjoyed your article on embroidery. I've got threads, needles and some fabric and lots of fabulous pics on Pinterest but have yet to start ……..

  12. Posted January 13, 2015 at 9:39 PM | Permalink

    Really a superb posting about embroidery. Your attached images and information is excellent.

  13. Posted April 20, 2015 at 12:38 AM | Permalink

    As a needle worker I can see the true meaning of art just by looking at them even without using sense of touch, specially the second picture I love the color combination, they are totally suited.

  14. Posted May 5, 2016 at 1:33 AM | Permalink

    Very concise and stick to the main idea of the article. It doesn’t dilute your imagination.

  15. Posted May 5, 2016 at 8:56 AM | Permalink

    informative and helpful blog,
    Thank you for sharing!

  16. Posted May 11, 2016 at 10:09 AM | Permalink

    Transformation is the key to success because it helps to mold with the situation. I will definitely apply this to my work.

  17. Posted July 25, 2016 at 9:34 PM | Permalink

    Love your Post…very helpful…

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