Hand Embroidery

Written by Stacy Chbosky
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Hand embroidery has a rich history that is thousands of years old. Many of us think of our mothers' cross stitch patterns or our grandmothers' needlepoint canvases when we think of embroidery. My own grandmother tatted handkerchiefs, embroidered sweatshirts, made needlepoint pillows, and appliqued wall hangings. My mother, in turn, cross stitched Christmas ornaments and crocheted stockings.

Although many of us think of our mothers and grandmothers when we think about needlepoint and embroidery, the history of hand embroidery is actually much older and more exotic. Among the oldest examples of embroidery is a piece of whitework found in a grave in Denmark. This bit of whitework (white stitches on white fabric) has been dated as 3,000 years old.

Hand embroidery reached its heyday in the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, painting and sculpting came into favor, relegating tapestry, embroidery, and other textile arts to a much lower rank. Before the Renaissance, however, hand embroidery was a fixture in royal palaces, aristocratic homes, and churches and cathedrals of the highest order.

Religious and International Hand Embroidery

Hand embroidery has been used to decorate sacred vestments, shawls, and robes for centuries. If you visit Lemburg, Belgium, for instance, you can look upon a chasuble from the 9th century. To this day, Catholic vestments are frequently embroidered. These sacred pieces are often embroidered with gold thread, befitting their importance.

Nearly every country around the globe seems to have created some form of hand embroidery. Even people who claim to know nothing about embroidery are often able to tell the difference between the handiwork of different nations. The simple, colorful stitches of Eastern Europe are entirely different from the silk threads and tiger patterns common to East Asia, for example.

Often, different types of embroidery adorn different types of costume. Wildlife and nature patterns in vivid colors can often be seen on Japanese kimonos. Simple Alpine flower patterns and geometric designs may liven up an otherwise drab German dirndl.

Modern Hand Embroidery

Hand embroidery is still popular in many countries of the world today. Picture a Guatemalan shirt or a Peruvian apron, and you're likely to imagine colorful embroidery on black or blue cloth. Although embroidery is not as popular as it once was in the United States, it is still beloved by many.

As Americans return to the idea of simplicity, crafts and hobbies like knitting, crocheting, and needlepoint are regaining some of their lost popularity. Sitting with hoop and needle, concentrating on one's stitches and busying one's hands while chatting with friends, listening to music, or watching television, is a truly pleasurable sensation. The results of this effort are unique items which beautify the home, or can be given as gifts which are sure to be treasured.


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