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embroidery, ornamental needlework applied to all varieties of fabrics and worked with many sorts of thread—linen, cotton, wool, silk, gold, and even hair. Decorative objects, such as shells, feathers, beads, and jewels, are often sewn to the embroidered piece. The Bayeux tapestry is among the most famous examples of embroidery. The art probably antedates that of weaving. Needlework is mentioned in the Vedas and in Exodus in the Bible. In ancient Egypt, gold was used for the decorative stitches, which often covered the entire garment; such work has been found on mummy wrappings. The borders of Greek and Roman garments were often finely embroidered. In Asia, sumptuous designs of gold and silver thread were produced from remotest times; the intricate embroidery of China became stylized and remained unchanged for centuries. From the richly decorative art of Byzantium (4th cent.) embroidery was introduced into Europe and thereafter followed the great period (12th–14th cent.) of church embroidery. The famous opus Anglicanum, or English work (e.g., the Syon cope, Victoria and Albert Mus.), dates from this time. Monasteries and convents were kept busy adorning vestments and altarpieces, and embroidery ateliers were founded. Secular needlework was far simpler, confined to embroidered bands around the edges of hems, sleeves, necks, and mantles in coarse and dull-colored threads. When Crusaders returned with examples of the superb fabrics of the East, interest in embroidery for nonecclesiastical uses was stimulated, and the technique of appliqué was developed. By 1389 pearls and spangles were being set in the embroidery. After the Renaissance, peasant embroidery flourished in Greece, Scandinavia, the Balkans, and many other areas. Embroidery as folk art was far less varied, complex, and imaginative than the masterworks produced by professional church and court embroiderers. The Elizabethan period was famous for its household and costume embroidery. Gold and silver thread was used on velvet, brocade, and silk, and the allover design was often enhanced with pearls and gems. “Spanish blackwork,” black silk on white linen with touches of gold, became enormously popular, while the use of drawnwork and cutwork led to the development of fine lace. In the 18th cent., French influence refined embroidery techniques; quilting was developed using backstitch embroidery, especially popular in making petticoats and coattails. By the 19th cent. embroidery for male attire had declined except for occasional decorative vests and ties. Modern embroidery is most frequently used on lingerie and linens, but with the introduction of machine-made embroidery, the quality has deteriorated.


See U. C. Bath, Embroidery Masterworks (1972); L. F. Day and M. Buckle, Art in Needlework (1900, repr. 1972); Mary Thomas' Embroidery Book (1984).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a widely practiced form of decorative, or applied, art, in which a design and its rendering are executed by hand (with a needle, sometimes a hook) or with an embroidering machine on various textiles, leather, or felt with usually colored threads of linen, cotton, wool, or silk and also with hair, beads, pearls, precious stones, sequins, coins, and so on. Sewn applique (a form of embroidery, usually in relief) uses textiles, fur, felt, or leather.

Embroidery is used to decorate apparel or objects of everyday use and to create self-contained decorative panels. The types of stitches are infinitely various: “solid” embroidery (on unbroken fabric) uses cross-stitch, satin stitch, composition stitch, half-cross stitch, chain stitch, and others; drawn-thread embroidery (embroidery on fabric from which certain threads have been cut or drawn out) uses hem-stitch, twist stitch, long and short stitch, guipure, and others. Separately, as well as in combinations, they make it possible to create objects that range from completely flat to protruding and from the finest outline, or openwork, net (“lacy”) to a tapestry with the whole surface densely covered. The designs with geometric shapes are mainly executed in counted-thread embroidery (counting off threads in linen), while curved-line designs are executed in free-form (along a previously drawn outline).

Embroidery is an art form and its three main expressive devices are stressing the aesthetic properties of the material (the iridescent sheen of silk; the even gleam of linen; the radiance of gold, sequins, and stones; and the fluffiness and matte surface of wool, for example); employing the lines and areas of color to the embroidery design to complement the impression by rhythmically precise or whimsically free play of stitches; and creating effects through the combination of the design and its rendering with the background (the cloth or other base) that can be either similar or contrasting to the embroidery in both texture and color.

Embroidery began in earliest times and is associated with stitching and seaming garments from animal hides. The perfection of its technique was determined by the transition from the stone or bone awl to the bone needle, then to the bronze one, and later to the steel needle and also by the development of spinning, weaving, dyeing, and other processes. Its evolution may be traced by the embroidery representations in artifacts of the ancient civilizations of Asia, Europe, and America, through literary sources, and from preserved examples of embroidery of various times and peoples. The traditions of ornamental embroidery, which arose in ancient times in certain nationalities and ethnic groups (with their own characteristic local compositional and technical devices, ornamental and representational motifs, color systems, and so forth), continue to develop and are preserved longer in the ornamentation of everyday objects and in the characteristics of dress than in any other aspect of life; they are maintained to this day in the folk creations of a number of countries. These traditions are also seen in the ornamental embroidery for the upper strata of society (the 16th-century Spanish court costume, for example) which is more influenced by the effect of the general evolution of style in art.

Subject embroidery is more closely associated with its own contemporary representational art. Vivid examples of subject embroidery and the earliest preserved embroideries are the saddle covers with animal figures characteristic of the Scytho-Siberian “animal style” (embroidery from the Pazyryk barrows of the fifth through third centuries B.C. and from the Noim-Ul burial ground of the first century B.C.-first century A.D., all in the Hermitage, Leningrad) and the ancient Peruvian mantles embroidered with stylized figures of menjaguars from the Paracas Necropolis (first centuries A.D., National Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, Lima). Traditional Chinese panels, particularly the famous 14th-century hsiuhua (“painting with the needle”), are stylistically similar to Chinese landscape painting with ink on silk. Ancient Russian subject embroidery (needlework) on liturgical vestments and altar cloths in its early examples (preserved from the 12th century) is associated with the Byzantine icon-painting tradition and is characterized by the Byzantine-inspired trend to rich color play of natural materials (the silk of the background, gold threads, pearls). The needlework of the 14th-17th centuries is characterized by the expressiveness of whole silhouetted figures typical of Russian icons (often intensified by an outline of pearls) and purity of exquisite color combinations.

The flatness and emphatic expression of outline traditional in Roman miniatures was uniquely rendered in an embroidered frieze—the so-called Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1080, Museum of Queen Matilda, Bayeux), in which representations of episodes from the history of the Norman conquest of En-gland are aligned with naive spontaneity in solid rows. Polychromatic Gothic embroidery using gold threads and pearls combined enamel-inspired vividness and lancet framing of individual figures and scenes, which brought embroidery closer to stained-glass work, with the device common in miniatures of joining scenes into narrative series. The “white on white” embroidery that appeared in the 13th and 14th centuries in Germany and England (known as broderie Anglaise) was infused with the openwork monochromaticism of the Gothic cathedral facade. It attained its highest flowering in the 15th and 16th centuries in Venetian lace (a form of hook embroidery).

During the Renaissance, embroidery was distinguished by high technical perfection and artistic refinement. Sketches for embroidery were executed by such noted painters as II Perugino and Botticelli. Embroidered altar cloths appeared in Flanders, with broad ornamental bands of self-contained multifigured compositions. Embroidery drew closer to the chapel image and the easel picture. During the baroque and early classical periods subject embroidery more and more imitated the tapestries or the grotesque palace murals, and, although such first-rate embroidery ensembles as the trimming of the artificial-jet study of the Chinese palace in Oranienbaum (now the city of Lomonosov) were created in that period, embroidery gradually declined, becoming by the mid-19th century primarily a medium of reproducing popular pictures.

The achievements of subject embroidery were rapidly mastered and elaborated in ornamental embroidery (needlework on full-dress costumes, especially complex and refined in the 17th and 18th centuries). In transmuted form, new devices emerged as organic elements of folk embroidery, which absorbed from the new only that which was consonant with its traditions and was open to elaboration in a spirit close to them. Thus, in Germany, France, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, designs characteristic of the national art of those countries began to be embroidered in the 18th century on peasant apparel in satin stitch white on white, and in the Scandinavian countries, in addition, in a technique inspired by English ecclesiastical needlework of the 16th century that combined wool, silk, gold, and silver threads. The devices of Old Russian needlework of the 15th-17th centuries using gold and pearls on liturgical garments began to be used in the 18th century on the holiday attire of Russian peasant women. The relative constancy of the basic collection of motifs in folk embroidery did not exclude the advent of new subjects prompted by life and ornaments borrowed from court or religious art. But these new motifs were quite rapidly trans-formed by treatment characteristic of a given folk art and were organically included in traditional composition.

In folk embroidery, which was usually limited at first to one or two colors of thread, each newly introduced color was subordinated to the previous ones, as a result of which folk embroidery long maintained a color system identifiable with a particular nationality and did not become motley as it became multichromatic. Thus, in the majority of regions in Russia in the folk embroidery of the 18th and 19th centuries (pre-dominantly counted-thread embroidery) a flaming red dominates, with an infusion of blue and black in Smolensk embroidery, in combination with white and blue in Tula, with green in Kaluga, with black in Tambov, and with multicolored additions in Kargopol’. In this embroidery, along with motifs that hark back to ancient Slavic cults (the rhombus symbolized the sun in embroidery of the central regions; three-part heraldic scenes with the mother-goddess or tree of life in the middle were prevalent in the embroidery of the northern regions), there appeared as early as the beginning of the 19th century representations of snow leopards and eagles taken from designs of imported textiles; they were included in symmetrical three-part compositions in the north and in rows of triple-banded friezes in the central regions. Tulips, pomegranate blossoms, acanthus leaves (taken from 17th-century textiles), and scenes of fetes and carriage rides, infused with the lubok (cheap popular print) style, frequently appeared in Vologda embroidery; often they are combined with baroque shells and rocaille curves treated in an original manner; counted-thread embroidery was gradually replaced by free-form chainstitch work. In embroidery of the southern regions (mainly Voronezh) vivid polychromy predominated from the second half of the 19th century; its dense “tapestry” needlework is striking for its subtle color harmony and the energy of the rhythmic strokes of black.

A number of folk-embroidery enterprises arose in the second half of the 19th century as a result of the closing of monastery and landed-estate workshops (Mstera needlework in white satin stitch, Torzhok gold needlework, and others). Former serf handicrafts women, having mastered the devices and techniques of embroidery for the upper classes of society, began working in the market on their own and gradually brought their products closer in character and spirit to folk embroidery. Figured compositions acquired the generalized character and rhythmic severity of symmetrical structures, and ornamentation received flat silhouette treatment.

With the development of factory production in the second half of the 19th century, folk embroidery in industrially developed countries declined. Unable to survive competition with machine embroidery, it gradually lost its artistic traditions and degenerated to imitation of factory models. Folk embroidery has found new life in the USSR and in countries following a socialist path of development; its active centers are maintained and extinct ones are revived as concentrations of high craftsmanship and artistic taste, and artists trained in institutions of higher learning are drawn to work with artisans who have united in production combines. The revival of folk embroidery has favorably affected the artistic quality of machine embroidery—Saratov embroidery is now incorporating motifs of the white drawn-thread embroidery of the village of Kresttsy (Novgorod Ob last), embroidery of the Ivanov and Gorky oblasts, and the satin stitch embroidery of Mstera. In turn, folk embroidery more and more often employs a combination of hand and machine methods of work. This process of mutual influence and drawing together of folk and factory embroidery is also characteristic for other Soviet republics and also for several socialist countries (German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia).

Embroidery is also one of the most widespread and popular forms of amateur art and domestic handwork.


Faleeva, V. A. Russkaia narodnaia vyshivka [issue 1]. Drevneishii tip. Leningrad, 1949.
Rabotnova, I. P., and V. Ia. lakovleva. Russkaia narodnaia vyshivka. Moscow, 1957.
Verkhovskaia, A. S. Zapadno-evropeiskaia vyshivka Xll-XIX vekov v Ermitazhe. Leningrad, 1961.
Russkoe dekorativnoe iskusstvo, vol. 1. Moscow, 1962. Pages 461-80 (bibliography, p. 493).
Dillmont, T. de. Encyclopedia of Needlework. Mulhouse (Alsace), 1890.
Schuette, M., and S. Miiller-Christensen. A Pictorial History of Embroidery. New York, 1964.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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