To many people the word ‘embroidery’ conjures up images of tray cloths and tablecloths embellished with floral designs and ‘crinoline ladies’. Embroidery is the art of decorating fabric or other materials with thread or yarn, using a needle and other decorations.
Embroidery developed from the methods used to make, patch and mend clothing and other textiles, and the opportunity to make these stitches decorative. One of the oldest surviving examples of embroidery comes from the tomb of Tutankhamun (died 1323 BC). Many other early examples have been found during excavations in China. The oldest examples in this country are the Anglo-Saxon stole and maniple of St Cuthbert on display in Durham Cathedral.
During the ‘high’ Middle Ages English embroidery was one of the most desired and costly art forms in Europe. It was known as Opus Anglicanum (English work) and used the most expensive materials available – gold, silk and precious jewels. This work was reserved for royalty and the Church. Sadly, much of this work was burned in the 16th and 17th centuries to obtain the gold and jewels.
During this time domestic and ‘folk’ embroidery was also being produced. Many examples of ‘samplers’ have survived from the 16th century onwards. Many are the work of young girls who often signed and dated them.
Other types of embroidery which were being worked included stumpwork, blackwork, goldwork, crewel work, lace and quilting. These techniques were used to decorate clothing, purses, wall hangings, bed curtains, book covers and pin cushions to name but a few.
Folk art from other countries includes Hardanger from Norway, Mountmellick from Ireland, Merezhka from Ukraine, Kantha from Bangladesh and Sashiko from Japan.
Today we are able to experiment with any of these techniques, and materials are easy to obtain. Despite this though, there is a danger that embroidery could become a lost art. My Mum taught me to embroider as soon as I could pick up a needle. We had lessons at infant and junior school, and even at Grammar school I joined a lunchtime sewing club. Sadly, these days there seems to be very little time for these activities in the school curriculum. I am sometimes invited into schools to spend a day teaching stitching or rag rugging. I love having the opportunity to pass down my skills and the children are always excited to create something themselves and love being able to choose from the bright fabrics, shiny threads and buttons.
Activities such as sewing, knitting and crochet have been proven to have therapeutic benefits: improving mental health and wellbeing. The rhythmic repetitive movements increase serotonin production and induce a natural state of mindfulness – more reasons to encourage people to take up this type of activity.
Although many of the techniques in embroidery have stayed the same for centuries, the range of fabrics and threads we have today is amazing and very inspiring. Embroidery is so much more than tray cloths, and with just basic skills and minimal outlay you can achieve very rewarding results. Have a go!
I run a wide variety of textile courses from my studio in Croft Myl, Halifax. I am running an ‘Embroidered Stitch Sampler’ day course on Sunday 29th July. You will have the opportunity to learn 25 different stitches whilst creating a sampler to display at home. This course is suitable for beginners and those with more experience. It costs £45 which includes all materials and tuition, plus morning coffee, lunch, tea and cake.
Courses can also be arranged to suit you, for groups of between 2-12 people.