Historical embroidery: stitches & styles

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Design and original content Copyright 2005 by Chris Laning.


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A common question from people interested in embroidery is "What stitches are correct for the historical period I'm studying?"

Unfortunately, this isn't really the right question, or at least, the answer doesn't really tell you enough to enable you to work embroideries in a historical style. Knowing what stitches were used is only the beginning of knowing what historical embroideries were like.

A "style" of embroidery is made up of much more than the stitches. To really understand a style, you have to consider not only the stitches used, but how they were worked, which stitches were combined in the same pieces, and which stitches were used for what parts of an embroidery. You have to consider what kinds of motifs were used in this style, what materials were used in its working, and last but not least, what sorts of finished objects were decorated with this particular style.

To illustrate this, let's take a look at a modern style. I call this the "Pillowcase" style because that's one of the more common objects decorated. This is the style that was what most people meant by the word "embroidery" when I was growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s.

THE “PILLOWCASE” STYLE

To begin, let's look at what stitches were used. I learned all these when I first started embroidering, and most of them are present in my 1962 Girl Scout sampler, which I still have stored away in a trunk.

The basic stitches of the "Pillowcase style" include running stitch, back stitch, stem or outline stitch, satin stitch (which I’m still not very good at), buttonhole stitch, chain stitch, herringbone stitch and maybe a few others such as “Lazy Daisy” (detached chain stitches).

What materials are used? Generally these stitches are worked in one, two or three strands of cotton 6-strand embroidery floss, in a wide range of mostly pastel colors. Fabrics range from light to medium-weight cottons, or sometimes tabby-woven “homespun” for a rustic look.

What motifs are used? Mostly small scattered flowers, bouquets, ladies with long skirts, small cute animals, mushrooms, trees, leaves, houses, and mottoes. (Anyone my age or older will remember when there was a fad for decorating everything in the kitchen with red-and-white mushrooms!)

How are the stitches used? Generally stem stitch or chain stitch is used for outlines, satin stitch for small solid areas, and French knots for flower centers. Lazy daisy stitches worked in a circle are a common way of embroidering a flower. Herringbone or fishbone stitch, or sometimes the similar feather stitch, are an alternative for thicker stems and lines.

And what are the objects and uses to which this embroidery is applied? Most commonly, small domestic objects: hand towels, dresser scarves, pillowcases, potholders, cushions, tea-cozies, and children’s clothes.

The Pillowcase style is, of course, modern; but I thought it might serve as a familiar example. As you can see, there are many other factors that have a lot to do with establishing the style or “look” of an embroidery, besides simply what stitches are used.

The same applies to historical styles of embroidery. Which means that “Which stitches are period?” is really not quite the right question, and an answer to it is half an answer at best.

MEDIEVAL & RENAISSANCE

Medieval and Renaissance embroidery, then, is much more a matter of styles than of stitches. The best way to get a “feel” for some historical styles of surface embroidery is to look, look, look — in museums if possible, or in big fat picture books that show embroidery in detail. When you see several pieces in a style you’d like to try, analyze them, and see how each one uses stitches, materials, motifs, and techniques to make finished products in a particular style. Then go and do thou likewise!

SOME STYLE EXAMPLES

I’ll give a few samples of such styles here. Each one could certainly generate an article, or even a book, so I’ll just briefly give the highlights, and I’ll try to point you towards some good resources to start with.

COPTIC CHAIN STITCH

Chain stitches worked as lines, and spirally as fillings, to produce a solidly embroidered surface. Found in Egypt and possibly other Meditteranean countries, before AD 1000.

Materials: 1- or 2-ply wool (one strand of modern 2-ply tapestry or sock-darning wool) in a variety of bright and dark colors (including Tyrian purple!) on tabby woven linen ground.

Motifs: borders of simple geometric shapes, stylized animals, plants, Greek and Roman mythical figures, angels and saints. See contemporary tapestry-woven pieces for ideas.

Uses: Square and circular decorative patches and linear bands, appliquéd onto clothing. (See books for details.)

Where to look: Books on “Coptic” textiles in the library. Unfortunately any one book is likely to have only two or three examples, but look also at the tapestry-woven pieces for motif ideas.

ELIZABETHAN SURFACE EMBROIDERY

Popular in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, this style is worked in a variety of stitches, including stem or outline stitch, chain stitch, satin stitch, plaited braid stitch, trellis stitch, couching, “spiderweb” wheels, and detached buttonhole stitch. Often decorated with metal spangles.

The main stems of the design are frequently in metallic gold thread in plaited braid stitch, which produces a raised line with a criss-cross appearance. This stitch is a bit tricky to learn; try it first on scrap canvas in shoelace-sized cording so you can see what you’re doing.

Otherwise, lines of the design are usually in stem or chain stitch, and solid parts in detached buttonhole stitch and the other stitches mentioned above.

Materials: Silk thread on linen, in a limited and somewhat subdued color range: red, pink, dull gold color, white, a medium and light blue tending slightly towards teal, and medium and dark shades of a slightly yellowish green (not the 20th-century forest green, which is more blue-ish). The metal spangles used are flat 1/8 inch disks of gold-colored metal with a single hole in the center.

Motifs: Flowers of all kinds, fruits, leaves, insects, caterpillars, snails, birds, occasionally deer and other animals, most often in a network of characteristic coiling stems.

Uses: Cushion covers, coifs, women’s jackets (especially after 1600), men’s nightcaps, and sometimes embroidered smocks, chemises and shirts.

Where to look: Books are fairly easy to find, but be sure to look at the real thing in books and museums to see the colors and the style of the curling-vine motif.

BAYEUX TAPESTRY

This famous work, made in the late 1060s to celebrate the Norman conquest of England, is worked in a very distinctive style, possibly of Norse origin. Solid areas of color are in a special type of laid and couched work; occasionally a tiny area will be simply filled with straight stitches.Thin lines are sometimes a single couched thread, more often a version of stem or outline stitch where the stitches barely overlap, looking like backstitch.Materials: Wool thread on linen. Colors used are a reddish yellow, a dull gold, terracotta red, blue-green, sage green, a striking olive green, and a bluish black. Interestingly, there were other colors available at this time that were not used.

Motifs: People, animals, ships, buildings etc. in lively narrative scenes.

Uses: Decorative wall hangings seem to be the only documented uses of this style. A very few similar fragments are found in Scandinavia, and the motifs of the Bayeux tapestry are quite similar to those in the “tapestry” found in the Oseberg ship burial. It seems likely that there were other wall-hangings in this technique that have not survived.

Where to look: This one’s easy: several whole books have been published on the Bayeux tapestry.

“UNCOUNTED” BLACKWORK

We often think of blackwork as a counted-thread technique, but there were also “surface” styles of blackwork that were not counted. Some pieces have only simple outlines in stem stitch; others use a wider stitch repertory, including chain stitch, buttonhole stitch, satin stitch, braid stitch, and “speckling” (tiny detached single stitches in random directions) are among the stitches used. Many of the pieces with speckling use it for naturalistic shading of motifs.

Materials: Silk floss on linen, in black or red (a single color per project) or occasionally pink, lavender or some other color.

Motifs: Similar to those in the style we’ve called Elizabethan surface embroidery: scrolling vines, birds and animals, embroidered lattice patterns with a flower or fruit in each compartment.

Uses: Ornamented smocks, chemises and shirts, cushion covers, coifs, jackets, men’s nightcaps. It does not seem to have been used for table linens.

Where to look: Blackwork books will sometimes feature this style, though they often fail to point out that it’s different from the counted style.

SILK SPLIT STITCH

This style can stand alone, or it can be combined with gold-thread underside couching to form the style called Opus Anglicanum. England was famous for its high-quality work in split stitch in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries and exported it all over Europe. The stitch is very closely packed to fill areas with a smooth, satin-like texture, and it often follows the contours of the motif, for instance to show the drape of fabrics in clothing. Hair is worked in parallel wavy lines in several shades of color; cheeks are often worked as circular spirals to produce a puffed effect.

Some split-stitch pieces also use stem, chain, and knot stitches.

Materials: Silk floss on linen or silk background.

Motifs: Geometric, scroll, and vine borders; saints, angels and Biblical characters and scenes; flowers, leaves and animals.

Uses: Ornamental bands for necklines and cuffs; purses; church hangings and vestments.

Where to look: Embroidery books show examples, though usually not close enough to see the stitching. Go to museums — and take a magnifying glass!

OTHERS

I haven’t even mentioned bead embroidery, and there are also some interesting period techniques for attaching jewels to fabric.

Many Tudor and Elizabethan gowns are decorated with elaborate patterns of couched lacing cord and braid. Sometimes these were knotted at regular intervals or in patterns before being couched.

I’ve seen a few fascinating 16th-century pictures worked in laid silk — long vertical stitches running from edge to edge of the pattern areas. I had no idea till I saw them that this was anything other than a modern technique.

And these are only a few of the surface techniques of the middle ages and Renaissance that you can explore.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Embroidery in Britain from 1200 to 1750, by Donald King & Santina Levey. Victoria & Albert Museum, 1993, Abbeville Press, New York. ISBN 1-55859-652-6.

The Bayeux Tapestry: Monument to a Norman Triumph, by Wolfgang Grape. 1994, Prestel-Verlag, Munich & New York. ISBN 3-7913-1365-7.

Fashion in Detail: From the 17th and 18th Centuries, by Avril Hart and Susan North. 1998, Victoria & Albert Museum, Rizzoli International Publications, New York. ISBN 0-8478-2151-X.

Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers, by Kay Staniland. 19981, British Museum Press and University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada. ISBN 0-8020-6915-0.

Textile Conservation and Research, by Mechtild Flury-Lemburg. 1988, Abegg-Stiftung Bern, ISBN 3-905014-02-5.

Tissus d’Égypte: Témoins du Monde Arabe, VIII-XV siècles, by Paul André. 1993, Société Présence du Livre. ISBN 2-908-528-525.

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