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What is Embroidery?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 16, 2024
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Embroidery is a craft with ancient origins, dating back to early cultures across the globe. By using a needle, thread or yarn is sewn on to a base material or fabric to create a pattern. Today, embroidery continues to be a popular craft and is often featured on clothing and decorative housewares. Learning how to embroider is fairly simple, but true mastery can take years and an untold amount of patience, not to mention pricked fingers.

In Europe, embroidered clothing was a sign of wealth and prosperity for centuries. Primarily considered to be a woman's craft, many noble and royal ladies spend otherwise empty hours embroidering coats, shirts, tapestries, and linens with their waiting women. Even the capable and brilliant future Queen Elizabeth I of England enjoyed the craft, presenting her half-brother King Edward VI with a shirt she had hand-embroidered to celebrate his coronation. Nearly two centuries later, Madam de Pompadour, the powerful mistress of King Louis XV of France, sat for a portrait posed with her embroidery frame.

There are several different forms of embroidery, many with rich cultural histories dating back hundreds and even thousands of years. Most designs follow one of two basic concepts: either the design is stitched on top of the base material, or the thread is worked through the base material to form a flat pattern in the original fabric. A third popular design, called drawn thread or cutwork, is often used in lacemaking. In this form, part of the base material is cut out and the resulting hole stitched over with lace or embroidered with thread or yarn.

Top-stitching forms are generally the easiest type for beginners to grasp. Using thread or yarn, any type of design or pattern can be stitched into a bottom fabric. For anyone with experience in basic hand sewing, embroidering alphabet letters, flowers, or basic shapes should be quite simple. Although there are more complex stitching techniques, basic whipstiches or running stitches work well for most basic designs. Monogramming a towel or embroidering flowers on a handkerchief can be a matter of hours even for a beginner.

One piece of equipment recommended for beginners is an embroidery hoop. This is a simple wooden frame often formed in a circle, composed of two rings of wood that fit together. By slipping the fabric between the rings, it can be tightly stretched and held still and flat to ease embroidering. There are also larger frames that can hold an entire piece of fabric taut in order to allow easy access to the entire piece rather than just a specific section, although these are commonly not used in basic work.

Most fabric and crafts stores offer books and supplies that can help the interested novice get started. Many also offer classes geared toward specific types and styles of embroidery. Embroidered work has started passionate romances and wiped away royal tears, entertained queens and adorned kings, given historians insight into ancient culture, and also can make an old skirt seem fresh from a designer's boutique. Becoming skilled at embroidery will allow the craftsman to create beautiful gifts and decorations that echo a long and rich history.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for HomeQuestionsAnswered. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By judahariel — On Jun 07, 2013

I have read your post, and I got a lot of information about embroidery. I agree with all your points. I think embroidery is a skills. It is a beautiful skill.

By bagley79 — On May 18, 2011

Using the cutwork for lacemaking sounds very interesting to me. I am fascinated by such fine, detailed work. There is quaint embroidery boutique close to my home where they display many completed items in their store. It is hard to pass by without walking in to take a look or pick up some items to start a new project!

Even though this craft has been around for a long time, it seems like there is still quite a bit of interest in it. With so many vibrant color choices and interesting patterns to choose from you are sure to find something that would please most anybody.

By Mykol — On May 17, 2011

Embroidery does take a lot of time, but for me it is very relaxing and a stress reducer. I have done several monogrammed embroidery projects for wedding presents. You can be very creative with what you choose to embroider your initials on to.

There are also many free embroidery patterns available online if someone is looking for some patterns for the beginner or the experienced. What I like about this craft, is you can really personalize a gift for yourself or for a friend, which makes it very unique.

By LisaLou — On May 16, 2011

Embroidery and tapestry and both beautiful forms of artwork. It was very interesting to read some of the history of this craft. One of my favorite wedding presents was a country cottage embroidery design with a lovely quote.

I have done a little bit of embroidery, but when I realized how much time and patience it took to complete a small project, I didn't stick with it very long. When I see a completed embroidered item, I am quick to realize the amount of labor and love that was put into the final project.

By anon118877 — On Oct 15, 2010

Tapestry was a favored form of embroidery. Many handbags, capes and cloaks were produced in this style. In fact, ladies' fashion still uses these types of fabrics today, especially in coats.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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