Brief History of Embroidery, Transcending Cultures, Geography, and Time Across the Globe

Embroidery, from the French word “Broder” meaning to decorate the border of garments, is the craft of decorating fabric or other materials using a needle to apply thread or yarn to create pictures, symbols, or letters. It is one of the oldest forms of art found and practiced across the globe which transcends cultures, geography, and time. Historically associated with the women’s world, this craft used to be seen as a mere form of hobby. However, truth be told, the embroidery was something much bigger. It is more artistic and intimate than what most members of society managed to understand. It is a method of secretly sharing stories in plain view. It is a form of communication, which has also been used as some form of biography.

For those women who were unable to access formal education, they were often taught embroidery and utilized it as a means of documenting their lives. It offers a space for self-expression where many women could leave their mark on the objects around them, creating their own works of art, and telling their stories in their own way. Embroidery has also become a medium to share sentiments. It has given ways for women to voice their minds. In terms of the history of marginalized groups, especially women of color in the United States and worldwide, embroidery has given ways to study the everyday lives of those whose lives largely went unstudied throughout much of history.

Sometimes, embroidery also becomes a valuable heirloom that is part of a bigger legacy, which is being kept safe and passed down from generation to generation. Some samplers may include Bible verses, proverbs, or some personal reflections. Such an example would be a mourning embroidery from the 1834 sampler as seen in the picture below.

1834 Mourning Embroidery Sampler

Across the world, many ancient cultures use embroidery as part of their everyday life. Paintings in ancient Egyptian tombs show that the ancient Egyptians had their clothes, couch covers, hangings, and tents heavily decorated and full of ornaments. In ancient Persia, the quilting technique was known and widely used by the people. Quilted garments were worn as armor during the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE). The vase paintings from the 7th and 6th centuries BCE also depicted the Greeks wearing quilted suits covered with embroidery.

Not only in Africa and Europe, but embroidery techniques were also widely used in ancient Asia. From the time of the T’ang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE) and the Ch’ing Dynasty (1644 – 1911/12), up until the Mughal Empire (from 1556) in India, numerous examples of embroidery has survived and found their way to Europe from the late 17th to the early 18th century through the East India trade.

1070 Tapisserie de Bayeux

The 11th Century Bayeux Tapestry, also known as Tapisserie de Bayeux or La Telle du Conquest, is the oldest surviving embroidered tapestry. It is one of the prime examples of early embroidery artwork. Its size is nearly 70 meters long and 50 centimeters tall, and it contains 58 scenes with many Latin tituli (labels or captions that name figures or subjects in art) depicting the Battle of Hastings. It depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England in 1066 led by William, Duke of Normandy challenging Harold II, King of England. It tells the story from the point of view of the conquering Normans. The tapestry was likely commissioned by Bishop Odo, William’s maternal half-brother in the 1070s. It is widely accepted as a Norman work done in England – not in Bayeux.

In medieval England, elaborately embroidered clothing, religious objects, and household items were seen as a mark of wealth and status. In the 16th century, some fine books had embroidered bindings. The Bodleian Library in Oxford contains one presented to Queen Elizabeth I in 1583. It also owns a copy of the Epistles of Saint Paul, whose cover was reputedly embroidered by the Queen herself.

“Depending on time, location, and materials available, embroidery could be the domain of a few experts or a widespread, popular technique. This flexibility led to a variety of works, from the royal to the mundane.”


The greatest period of English embroidery was 1100 – 1350 when Anglo-Saxon artisans create a blend of gold and silver threads on velvet. It was known all over Europe as Opus Anglicanum (Latin: “English Work”). In 18th century England and its colonies, daughters of wealthy families were producing samplers employing fine silks. It was a skill marking a girl’s path into womanhood and conveying their rank and social standing in society.

“Embroidery was one, on a long list, of the skills expected of an ideal wife, because it was reflecting idealized female qualities such as patience, daintiness, attentiveness, and submission.”

Traditional embroidery in Chain Stich on a Kazakh rug

Conversely, embroidery is also Folk Art, using materials accessible to non-professionals, even though it was historically viewed as a hobby, activity, or pastime intended just for women, many techniques had a practical use. Such a technique is Sashiko from Japan, which was used as a way to reinforce clothing.

With the advances in technology, embroidery has evolved from a traditional, limited-in-number work of art, which requires a high level of craftsmanship to create, into an expandable and massively produced commodity and business. Modern embroidery, which was created with the help of machines, can produce even the most intricate designs within a short amount of time. We can see various embroidery designs on regular clothing items such as; caps, hats, coats, sweaters, shirts and dresses, denim, stockings, and shoes or boots.

We can also find them on blankets, bed sheets, and pillows. We often see famous quotes or proverbs from poets or well-known authors decorating our everyday items. Sometimes, we also find beautiful imagery or illustration from celebrated painters sewn into our favorite articles of clothing with the help of modern embroidery.

Such is the brief history of embroidery as we know it. There are still many things that we can learn and celebrate about embroidery. In the upcoming article, we will look deeper into embroidery lettering. We hope that you will enjoy our journey together to discover more facts about embroidery and its colorful history.