Embroidery is an art form with a much longer history than most. We have fossilized remains of heavily hand stitched and decorated clothing from 30,000 BCE. Why is it, then, that embroidery isn’t what we generally think of when calling to mind fine art? It takes an enormous amount of skill, and it’s been culturally important across the globe for millennia. The full story is complex; it has to do in part with industrialization and changing fashions. However, if you wanted to simplify the story you easily could. This art form isn’t taken seriously because it is so heavily associated with women and femininity. Until recently, crafts made for use in the home weren’t considered to have much artistic merit. This could be seen as a drawback, but women for thousands of years have used this skill to amplify their voices. Voices that would have most likely otherwise been silenced.
Embroidery seemed to start out as yet another way for wives to serve their husbands and their families. As with many such tasks, this eventually became part of spiritual practice in some cultures. The Ukrainian embroidered shirt, or vyshyvanka (a word that translates into Greek as “cosmos”), was covered in symbols meant to protect the wearer.
Each embroiderer created their own unique patterns; taking the patterns of others was considered stealing their fate. There were some overarching symbols, though. A cross in black thread was thought to split and absorb negative energies, a circle with a dot represented the sun, and a square represented the earth and four elements. Embroidery here was considered a mystical practice more so than work or study. Maybe for this reason, some people draw a parallel between the protective, nurturing power of sewing circles and magical circles.
In Palestine, styles varied regionally. In one interview, a Palestinian embroidery expert explained that often the symbols were a language women used when denied access to school. Arab embroidery is most likely the basis for the patterns and motifs in European embroidery. Europeans brought these pieces back from the Crusades, and in 1523 Arab patterns were released in a German pattern book shortly after the invention of the printing press. A lot of people draw comparisons between ancient Palestinian embroidery and the modern wedding dress; it involved raised motifs embellished with precious gemstones like pearls. To this day there is still a rich tradition of hand embroidered work in Palestine.
English embroidery was practiced by women in the home, noblewomen, and crafts people. It used fine silk floss, gold and silver thread, and precious gemstones. The most famous piece of medieval English art is actually embroidery. It’s called the Bayeux Tapestry; although it is misnomer since it is embroidered and tapestries are woven on looms.
Once the English discovered embroidery it wasn’t confined to just wall hangings; they embroidered everything they could get their hands on, from bed clothes to military garb. Henry the VIII even wore gemstones embroidered onto his clothes; although as king he was the only person in England allowed to do so. Women pioneered most of the newest techniques, like underside couching and split stitching. These allowed for more texture and use of more gold in the completed work. Only about 35 examples of this high quality embroidery survive.
Although the craft floundered after the Black Death swept through England, the tradition does survive to this day. You can take anything from a day class, to a three year course, in embroidery at the Royal School of Needlework. This is who Queen Elizabeth turned to for her coronation robes. The only catch? The people who worked on it couldn’t leave their school until the work was completed to keep the pattern a secret. It took three months in total.
One of our favorite present day embroidery artists who hails from the Royal School of Needle work is Humayrah Poppins. We are of course obsessed with her beautifully detailed yet whimsical depictions of insects.
The idea of needlework being used for expression, especially in spaces where one may not feel welcome or be taken seriously, has been evolving and keeping up with the times. Even if female artists have an easier time than they did in medieval Europe or Palestine, they still often have to work harder for less recognition. Hannah Hill, aka Hanecdote, has been using embroidery to tell her story and state her beliefs in a way that is both timeless and seemingly new. Her embroidered Arthur meme gained her a lot of attention, and directly addressed how art forms that are seen as feminine are often disregarded. A quick Etsy search for “feminist embroidery” yields thousands of results; a sign this ancient art form isn’t going anywhere.
Of the many subversive ways women have been able to reclaim some of the power we’ve been denied, this may be my favorite. It’s a beautiful reminder that women’s hands can create power, protection, wealth, magic, and even new styles of communication with just a needle and thread. Feel free to read more about the feminist history of embroidery here.
Helping to bring new life to embroidery are 10 contemporary artists who create work that is just as meaningful and craftful as any fine art medium.
. banner image embroidery by Juana Gomez .