[em-broi-duh-ree, -dree]
embroidery, ornamental needlework applied to all varieties of fabrics and worked with many sorts of thread—linen, cotton, wool, silk, gold, and even hair. Decorative objects, such as shells, feathers, beads, and jewels, are often sewn to the embroidered piece. The Bayeux tapestry is among the most famous examples of embroidery. The art probably antedates that of weaving. Needlework is mentioned in the Vedas and in Exodus in the Bible. In ancient Egypt, gold was used for the decorative stitches, which often covered the entire garment; such work has been found on mummy wrappings. The borders of Greek and Roman garments were often finely embroidered. In Asia, sumptuous designs of gold and silver thread were produced from remotest times; the intricate embroidery of China became stylized and remained unchanged for centuries. From the richly decorative art of Byzantium (4th cent.) embroidery was introduced into Europe and thereafter followed the great period (12th-14th cent.) of church embroidery. The famous opus Anglicanum, or English work (e.g., the Syon cope, Victoria and Albert Mus.), dates from this time. Monasteries and convents were kept busy adorning vestments and altarpieces, and embroidery ateliers were founded. Secular needlework was far simpler, confined to embroidered bands around the edges of hems, sleeves, necks, and mantles in coarse and dull-colored threads. When Crusaders returned with examples of the superb fabrics of the East, interest in embroidery for nonecclesiastical uses was stimulated, and the technique of appliqué was developed. By 1389 pearls and spangles were being set in the embroidery. After the Renaissance, peasant embroidery flourished in Greece, Scandinavia, the Balkans, and many other areas. Embroidery as folk art was far less varied, complex, and imaginative than the masterworks produced by professional church and court embroiderers. The Elizabethan period was famous for its household and costume embroidery. Gold and silver thread was used on velvet, brocade, and silk, and the allover design was often enhanced with pearls and gems. "Spanish blackwork," black silk on white linen with touches of gold, became enormously popular, while the use of drawnwork and cutwork led to the development of fine lace. In the 18th cent., French influence refined embroidery techniques; quilting was developed using backstitch embroidery, especially popular in making petticoats and coattails. By the 19th cent. embroidery for male attire had declined except for occasional decorative vests and ties. Modern embroidery is most frequently used on lingerie and linens, but with the introduction of machine-made embroidery, the quality has deteriorated.

See U. C. Bath, Embroidery Masterworks (1972); L. F. Day and M. Buckle, Art in Needlework (1900, repr. 1972); Mary Thomas' Embroidery Book (1984).

Embroidery is the art or handicraft of decorating fabric or other materials with designs stitched in strands of thread or yarn using a needle. Embroidery may also use other materials such as metal strips, pearls, beads, quills, and sequins. Sewing machines can be used to create machine embroidery.

Types of embroidery

Embroidery is classified according to the use of the underlying foundation fabric. One classification system divides embroidery styles according to the relationship of stitch placement to the fabric:

A second division classifies embroidery according to whether the design is stitched on top of or through the foundation fabric:

  • In Surface embroidery, patterns are worked on top of the foundation fabric using decorative stitches and laid threads. Surface embroidery encompasses most free embroidery as well as some forms of counted-thread embroidery (such as cross-stitch).
  • In Canvas work, threads are stitched through a fabric mesh to create a dense pattern that completely covers the foundation fabric. All canvas work is not counted-thread embroidery. There are printed and hand painted canvases where the painted or printed image is meant to serve as a color guide. Stitches are sometimes of the stitcher's choosing.

An important distinction between canvas work and surface embroidery is that surface work requires the use of an embroidery hoop or frame to stretch the material and ensure even stitching tension that prevents pattern distortion. Canvas work tends to follow very symmetrical counted stitching patterns with designs developing from repetition of one or only a few similar stitches in a variety of thread hues. Most forms of surface embroidery, by contrast, are distinguished by a wide range of different stitching patterns used in a single piece of work.

Ribbon embroidery is embroidery performed with ribbon rather than standard six-thread string. Silk ribbon or a silk/organza blend ribbon are commonly used for this type of embroidery. There are many different styles of ribbon embroidery, such as woven rose, French knot, feather stich, fly stich, fly stich fern, couching stich, lazy daisy, looped petal flower, Japanese ribbon stich, stem stich rose, split stich, and straight stich. Those are usually taught to beginners who are just learning silk ribbon embroidery. Ribbon embroidery is most commonly used to create floral motifs. It's said to have a certain romantic and antique quality.

  • In Machine embroidery, Embroidery designs are stitched with an automated embroidery machine. These designs are "digitized" with Embroidery Software. They can have different types of "fills" which add texture and design to the embroidery. Almost all basic types of embroidery can be created with Machine Embroidery. These include: Applique, Free Standing Lace, Cutwork, Cross-stitch, Photo Stitch, and Basic Embroidery. Most often this type of embroidery is associated with business shirts, gifts, team apparel and commercial use.


The origins of embroidery are lost in time, but examples survive from ancient Egypt, Iron Age Northern Europe and Zhou Dynasty China. It has many roots all around the world and is being done in many different ways because of their cultures.

Elaborately embroidered clothing, religious objects, and household items have been a mark of wealth and status in many cultures including ancient Persia, India, Byzantium, medieval England (Opus Anglicanum or "English work"), and Baroque Europe.

Hand embroidery is a traditional art form passed from generation to generation in many cultures, including northern Vietnam, Mexico, and eastern Europe.

The Bayeux Tapestry is not a true tapestry; it is an elaborately embroidered wall hanging originally displayed at the Bayeux Cathedral, and now housed at a special museum in Bayeux, Normandy.



Additional Information

  • S.F.A. Caulfield and B.C. Saward, The Dictionary of Needlework, 1885.
  • Virginia Churchill Bath, Needlework in America, Viking Press, 1979 ISBN 0-670-50575-7
  • Readers Digest Complete Guide to Needlework, 1979, ISBN 0-89577-059-8.
  • Di van Niekerk, 'A Perfect World in Ribbon Embroidery and Stumpwork', 2006, ISBN 1-84448-231-6

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