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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
Find more intricate fabrics in our Textiles Category.