Saturday, August 22, 2015

The History of Embroidery[1-3]
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Embroidery is stitching that decorates a fabric by the use of a needle and thread. There are many kinds of stitches that embrace the art of embroidery.

Pre-Inca feather dresses as early as 1200 AD featured brilliant feathers that were stitched to their dresses.

A collection of 12 Pre-Inca feather tunics dating 300 - 600 AD. The flat-framed tunics were hung in Paul Hughes Fine Art Gallery (24th of November 1999 to 20th January 2000). These dresses drew great attention due to their block compositions that were so influential within the art world when they came onto the American market during the mid 20th century.

Today embroidery work is more often done with traditional threads and yarns but as in the past, they are often decorated by stitching into them found objects such as pebbles, dritwood, grasses, beads or wings of the dragonfly.

“Wild Things” was the annual 2014 members exhibition of "The Embroiderers Guild", Victoria (Australia), featuring a wide variety of traditional and contemporary embroidery and textile art.

The History of Embroidery[1]
Embroidery is as old as the needle and thread. Needles made of bone a have been found in the Cave of Courbet in the Aveyron Valley, near Toulouse, France that are believed to be over 13,000 years old.

A set of bone needles from the Cave of Courbet.

The first needles would have been most likely made by using a flint tool. Splinters of bone would have been cut and trimmed roughly into a pointed shape. It is likely that they went through a process of being polished, smoothed with sand, water and a soft stone rubber. The needle eye would have been finally created with a stone "drill". Based on indirect evidence, it is believed that needles appeared almost 35,000 years ago.

The Bible is replete with descriptions of embroideries, frequently referring with minuteness to their details. In Exodus, for example, Moses caused a veil or curtain of fine twined linen to be cunningly embroidered with cherubim of blue and purple and scarlet for the holy of holies. It was bordered with loops and made fast by fifty gold rings to gilt-wood pillars.

Cherubim - velvet, ornate embroidered cloth.
Note: Cherubim is a winged angelic being who is considered to attend on the Abrahamic God in biblical tradition. They were frequently mentioned in the Old Testament and only once in the New Testament.

Needles of bone and bronze were found in the ancient tombs of Egypt dating from at least 5,000 BC. Mummy cloths dating from the ancient Egyptian dynasties showed that Egyptians cultivated the art of embroidery earlier than the Israelis. Many of the paintings upon sarcophagi clearly revealed the embroidery of clothing worn by important personages. As cotton was unknown at that time, linen was the fabric of the Gods.

Embroidered dress of an Egyptian Princess.

It is also known that when Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, journeyed down the Nile, the great square sail of her ship was richly decorated with embroidery in royal blue.

Cleopatra's boat.

On the American continent, the Paracas weavers and embroiderers of Peru were making magnificent embroidered fabrics from ca. 200 BC to 200 AD. The Peruvians spun their yarns from the fleece of the llamas, alpaca and vicúna that grazed on the high plateaus of the Andes. These fabrics have been persevered in tombs for more than a thousand years. They are covered with images that were important to the lives of these ancient Americans – dancers, head-hunters, birds, fish and four footed animals.

Embroidered cloak used to bury the dead (Paracas Necropolis culture ca. 200 BC to 200 AD).
Showcased in the Linden-Museum, Stuttgart, Germany.

As one of the ancient handicrafts of China, embroidery greatly contributed to the progress and enhancement of China's material civilization. China was the first country in the world that discovered the use of silk. Silkworms were domesticated as early as 5000 years ago and the production of silk thread and fabrics gave rise to the art of embroidery.

Chinese embroidery is an ancient art form. It was never classified as a solely female activity as both men and women have been involved in creating embroidered fabric. The items embroidered were diverse and included such items of clothing as: robes, theatrical costumes, purses, shoes, spectacle cases, banners, etc. Some of the pieces were so finely stitched that the pieces took several people years to complete.

Embroidery was also used as a means of decorating silk clothing, silk flags and banners that denoted rank or station. The finest pieces of work were very expensive. Gradually embroidery became popular as a pastime for wealthy ladies and many members of the court were renowned for their intricate embroidered work.

It is difficult to be precise as to when embroidery was first practiced in China. However, based on archeological excavations of tombs, it dates back at least to the early Han dynasty that was based near Lake Baikal. Many Tang embroideries continue to be preserved both in China and in Japan. One of the most famous representations of the embroiderers’ artistry was a piece that came from the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang that dates from the 10th Century.

There are also many fine pieces of embroidery from the Song dynasty. It is known from historical records that the Song Emperor Hui Zong (1101-1126 AD) established an embroidery bureau called "Wen Xiu Yuan". Since many of the finest pieces were copied in the Ming and Qing period, it is difficult to definitely attribute the dates of many of these pieces.

Chinese Daoist silk embroidered robe (from late Ming Dynasty, 1368 – 1644).

Chinese literature recorded the names of many famous embroidery artists. Among them were Kuan (the wife of the painter Chao Mengfu) and Ku Shouzhen, one the ladies of the Ku family in Shanghai, who worked their embroidery artistry in Ming times. The painters - Tong Qichang and Wen Zhengming - and more recently Shen Zhou (who died in 1910) were all considered to be great embroiderers.

Chinese embroidery is still practiced in many sections of the country. Suzhou is well known for the quality of its work, producing marvelous two-sided embroidery pieces. Other countries have a reputation for producing beautiful embroidery, but few can match the precision, art and charm of the work produced in China prior to the modern period.

The art of embroidery was introduced to Japan from China about 1,600 to 1,700 years ago. Since then embroidery had been the only way to decorate the kimono until the pattern dyeing techniques of Yuzen was introduced. A lot of embroidery techniques were developed in every area of the country for a long time, which led to the present elaborate form of Japanese embroidery.

19th Century kimono shown above, makes subtle use of dyes that have created a wispy cloud-like texture as the background for this fabulous embroidered garden. In its day such a kimono would have been worn by a lady-in-waiting of the imperial court. It is now the property of Kyoto National Museum.

In ancient Japan, it was thought that stitches had a magical power. For this reason, there was a custom to add an embroidery motif - called “Semori” - on the back of a child's garment. Semori literally means a "back protector". As children’s kimono had fewer stitches than those of adults, Semori was added as a kind of charm to protect children from evil spirits.

Embroidery was added to the junihitoe dress - a formal court lady costume in the Heian period (794-1192) - and to armours for Samurai. A religious element also helped to further develop embroidery in Japan and so embroidery helped to - “stitched up” - the Japanese style of elegance.

A junihitoe dress.

In India embroidery was a rich and ornate craft in which precious metals and jewelry were stitched into the fabric. Folk embroidery had always been a form of self-expression for embroiderers. It mirrored their lives and reflected their hidden desires and aspirations and so expressed their cultural and religious traditions of the society to which they belonged.

Kashmiri embroidery.

India had attracted migrants from pre-historic times and so people came with their cultural traditions, which were absorbed into the Indian multicultural society. Embroidery was an important part of the Indian household tradition. Gujarat, which had an open land route connecting it to Central Asia had a large number of settlers coming to that region. They settled in Kutch and Saurashtra and retained their traditions of embroidery that can be found in these areas to this day.

Rabari embroidery.

There are so many variants of embroidery due to the large number of ethnic groups and so to characterize each would in itself constitute several posts.

Kathi embroidery.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, the brightest room in the castle was usually set aside for embroidered items. Here sat the chatalaine, the mistress of the castle, surrounded by her maidens and by “… the whole paraphernalia of embroidery frames, materials and implements”.

Embroidered alms purse (made in Paris ca. 1340).

In Elizabethan and Stuart England, people collected embroidery patterns. It was not unusual for servant girls to keep a type of embroidery notebook. Generally, her paper was a piece of linen and her pencil was a needle. With those tools, she made “notes” of any pattern she liked of her mistress's newest gown or her master’s best coat.

Scrolling floral embroidery decorates this Englishwoman's dress, petticoat, and linen jacket, accented with blue-tinted reticella collar, cuffs and headdress (ca. 1614–18).

For the peasants of Europe, embroidery was always a method to add color and beauty to their clothes. It was available to anyone with a needle and thread. Hence, every country girl was taught to embroider by her mother. Often they would work together for years to create a trousseau for the daughter - decorating blouses, skirts, petticoats and pillows.

Floral embroidered trousseau dress for evening wear.

Young peasant lads were handsomely outfitted in embroidered shirts, coats and trousers. In Hungary, for example, a "szur" coat was a cherished possession of a marriageable young man. It was an ankle-length elaborately embroidered, white wool coat. It was hung over the shoulders, with his arms never in the sleeves since they were sewn from the wrists to form pockets for carrying food, money or tobacco.

Hungarian shepherd's embroidered cloak.

In the past, bed curtains were necessary to provide warmth and protection in unheated homes. They were often elaborately embroidered.

William Morris’ bed in Kelmscott Manor, Gloucestershire. Alison Smith notes that May’s designs for the embroideries were "...characterized by clear structures with stylized natural features contained within geometrical frameworks." The bedcover is a meadow, with small bouquets of wildflowers like embroidered botanical drawings set in an intricate network of twisting yellow borders; tiny birds and insects can be seen resting and crawling around the edges as if in hedgerows.

In Czechoslovakia, when a baby was born, specially stitched curtains were placed around the baby’s cradle and the new mother’s bed. The gay designs on these childbed curtains expressed the best wishes from all to the newborn baby. If it was a boy, they usually embroidered a deer and for a girl, they usually embroidered blossoms. These curtains were hung around the cradle for the first six weeks of a baby’s life. After a party to celebrate the birth, the baby’s godmother took down the curtains and would throw them over the father, expressing the hope that they may be needed again in the not-too-distant future.

Detail of childbed curtain from vicinity of Rehřimov (ca. 1820).

In the United States, embroidery already existed before European occupation, since it was a craft that the indigenous Indian population practiced. When the European explorers first landed in America they found Indian chiefs wearing leather robes embroidered with shells. There were many other kinds of embroidered work. For example, the hair of the buffalo and the moose was dyed and used for stitching designs on clothing, pouches, moccasins, belts and blankets. The dyed and softened quills of the porcupine were also used for stitchery on leather and birch bark.

Native American themed dream catcher embroidered flour sack hand/dish towel.

Later when white settlers came, they traded beads and silk threads with the Indians. The beautiful quill embroidery was replaced with elaborate beadwork and other types of stitchery. Many Indian girls were trained by nuns in convents replacing more traditional techniques with European methods.

A beautiful Chiricahua Apache woman.
Photographed in 1881, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

During the early days of European settlement in America, a girl was expected to sew a fine seam and to know how to embroider by the time she was 10 years old. She was taught by her mother, how to spin yarns from sheep’s wool and strong linen thread from home-grown flax and she knew how to make colorful dyes from flowers and plants.

Embroidered dress – formal wear of the 18th Century.

Embroidered collar of a man's cloak – formal wear of the 18th Century.

Every New England (USA) girl learned her embroidery stitches at home or in school. To test her skill, samplers were often constructed, sometimes getting ideas from a pattern book or by inventing her own. Some samplers contained many different stitches - others used only one stitch.

A 19th Century embroidery sampler from Tredegar Museum.
Samplers were often not only valued for their decoration but were originally a practical aid to remembering particular stitches and techniques.

Fabrics were also scarce and so ingenious ways were sought to use pieces from worn out dresses and coats. They were turned into beautiful patchwork and appliqué quilts. Often on top of the patchwork and appliqué, they would embroider imaginative designs.

Patchwork Quilt (late 19th century).
Silk, silk velvet, embroidery.
Size: 79 3/4 x 82 in. (202.6 x 208.3 cm).
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Museum Collection.

In conclusion, in all periods of time and in all places around the globe, if there was a needle and thread present, embroidery embellished wearables and non-wearables that human kind required for day-to-day living. Stitchery transformed a functional item into a piece of art!

[1] R. P. Miller and W. Lubell, The Stitchery Book, Odhams Book Ltd., London (1968).

1 comment:

Tania Christoforatou said...

very nice article! thank you!!!!