What is embroidery?

Embroidery is one of mankind's oldest skills - from the humble origin of simple sewing, a beautiful art emerged.

Textiles were an important trade in centuries past and this, along with the migration of people between countries, enabled a constant exchange of ideas. An embroidery's colour, style, fabric, thread, form and subject can inform us about history and places.

'Embroidery' vs 'tapestry'

For many years the words embroidery and tapestry have caused a bit of confusion. The word tapestry was originally applied to a fabric where the pattern was woven into the fabric as it was being made. Embroidery is the ornamentation of a fabric using a needle and thread. For many years now, the word tapestry has also been commonly applied to canvas work. The word embroidery initially had only a small application, but this has been expanded to mean many different fabric ornamentations either using a needle or machine.

Types of stitches

Although there are many stitches that may be used in either type there are, broadly speaking, basically two main types of embroidery: free or surface work and counted thread work.

Free or surface work

Free or surface work is where the stitches are placed over the background material at the whim of the embroiderer.

Some of the best known stitches that come into this category are straight, chain, running and satin stitch. Cottons, wools and particularly silks were generally materials of choice.

Close up of the detail in a surface embroidery of a mouse
Surface embroidery: Mouse

Counted thread work

Counted thread work is where the nature of the woven background material determines the size and direction of the stitches and to some extent the pattern. In this kind of work you literally count the number of threads across and down the material. Cross stitch and tent stitch are two of the better known stitches employed in this kind of work, but drawn and pulled thread work are also major sub-groups. Linen was largely the choice of material for this type of work but fine cottons were also used. Nowadays synthetic evenweave materials are also produced which can be used effectively.

Close up of the detail in a counted thread embroidery of a cat
Counted thread embroidery: Section of Cat Pack (Design Works kit #2490)

Threads and materials

Many different types of threads and materials are available to the artisan today and encompass natural threads as well as synthetic. Specialist stores exist in most parts of Australia, with several offering online services.

A fascinating subject

Although this article offers a very brief insight into the development of embroidery, there is a fascinating journey through history awaiting those interested in following up this subject.