Ancient paintings, sculptures, and literary sources indicate that embroidery was applied to clothing and other fabrics from extremely early times. The earliest surviving embroidered cloth is Egyptian, preserved by the dry desert climate. The Egyptians were skilled embroiderers who also used appliqué decoration with leather and beads, and embroidery was also practiced by ancient Mediterranean peoples. Centers of fine embroidery developed in ancient Persia, Babylon, Israel, Phoenicia, and Syria. Few examples of ancient embroidery survive, however, and the history of the craft is difficult to trace until about the 6th century AD.
In medieval Byzantium, court garments, ecclesiastical vestments, and altar cloths were embroidered in rich colors and ornate designs often copied from Persian models and enhanced with pearls and gold and silver threads. In late medieval Greece, linen panels were embroidered in silk in colorful geometric and floral patterns influenced by Persian and Italian decorative motifs. The influence of Byzantine art is found throughout Europe, particularly in Italy and southern Europe. The Byzantine figural style was commonly used on church vestments made in Italian workshops and also in German ecclesiastical embroideries of the 10th and 11th centuries.
The earliest embroidery to survive in England (from 906) is a stole and maniple (church vestments) from the tomb of St. Cuthbert at Durham. The most famous British embroidery, and the largest hanging to survive the medieval period, is the 11th-century Bayeux tapestry, the dimensions of which are 70 m (231 ft) long by 49.5 cm (19.5 in) wide. Technically an embroidery rather than a true tapestry, it portrays in colored wool on a linen ground the events leading to the Norman conquest of England. English liturgical embroidery of the 13th through the 15th centuries-called opus anglicum ("English work")-was famous throughout Europe; ecclesiastical vestments and textiles were embroidered in silks and metal thread with images of saints and designs similar to those found in paintings and manuscript decorations.
Gold became more frequently used in embroidery after about 1300. With a movement to produce embroidered pictures ("needle painting") that would achieve the luminous quality of paintings by contemporary artists such as the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, the use of gold led to the Burgundian technique called or nué (shaded gold) embroidery. This technique dominated 14th- and 15th-century pictorial embroidery. Cloth panels were covered with gold thread, which was couched in patterns in some areas and covered by silk threads in others, creating pictorial representations.
15th and 16th Centuries
During the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy, needle painting (or nué embroidery) reached a peak. Famous painters such as Antonio del Pollaiuolo designed scenes to be executed by embroiderers. By the mid-16th century, embroidery on vestments included secular decorative motifs such as grotesques and scrollwork. This work was done in monasteries and convents and also made by members of professional embroiderers' guilds.
In addition to needle painting, purely decorative embroidery also persisted. For example, white-on-white embroidery was worked with various stitches on linen altar cloths and peasant costumes. In the 15th century white-on-white cutwork gave rise to reticello (Italian, "little net"), which was an early stage in the development of lace making.
In Spain, long under Moorish rule, Islamic influence was strong. Of the various styles of Spanish embroidery, the most striking was stitched on white linen with wool from black sheep. Taken to England in the 16th century (according to tradition, by Catherine of Aragón, the first wife of King Henry VIII), the black-on-white color scheme developed into the popular Elizabethan blackwork. In Germany after the Protestant Reformation, embroidery was used for secular and domestic objects, and crewel embroidery became popular. In eastern and central Europe, embroidery flourished as a folk art and was used to adorn pillows, towels, sheets, valances, and other household items. Geometric and floral motifs are common, and the palette is generally bright and colorful.
17th and 18th Centuries
In the 17th and 18th centuries the previously established techniques continued in use. Although printed books of embroidery patterns existed in the early 17th century, they were not common. During this period, samplers came into use as a means of recording stitches and patterns. In the 18th century samplers also became pictorial.
Two techniques became important in the 17th century. In stump work, designs (often biblical scenes with figures in 17th-century dress) were raised into relief against a ground fabric of silk or cotton wool. Such embroideries were often used to decorate objects such as boxes or mirror frames. In Jacobean woolwork-a variety of crewel work-large wool and linen fabrics were embroidered in varied stitches and colors with exotic leaves, birds, and scenes. Jacobean woolwork was used for hangings, curtains, bedspreads, and other domestic furnishings. Another trend was the use of repeating patterns, such as the zigzag "flame" pattern (also called bargello) used, for example, for upholstery. Embroidery of men's and women's clothing reached a height in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the late 18th century white embroidery from Saxony became famous as a decoration for cuffs, scarves, and similar items.
After the French Revolution, a trend toward simpler styles set in. Tulle embroidery became popular, as did appliqué work (which was sometimes supplemented by paint). The most widespread popular technique of the 19th century was Berlin work, a variety of needlepoint or canvas work executed in silk and sometimes beads on brightly colored wool. The needlework pictures thus produced were of biblical or historical scenes, flowers, literary subjects, or exotic Oriental images. Needleworkers followed designs painted or printed in Berlin that were sold throughout Germany and exported to Great Britain, the United States, and elsewhere (hence the name Berlin work). In the late 19th century the Arts and Crafts movement led by the British designer William Morris included embroidery. Morris's daughter, May, was a leading practitioner of the craft. The Royal School of Needlework, founded in England in 1872, gave further impetus to all types of embroidery, not only in England but also in America.