Most of the team at Patchion.uk spend many hours every day in front of computers or computer-controlled embroidery machines. All the machines work using 230V power supply, there are displays, controllers, actuators and buttons connected with each other with the use of modern technology. It’s not easy to operate all the machines. It was Chris from our team who began to wonder how it all started. How did embroidery look like in the past? After a few weeks of thinking, a brief version of history of embroidery was created. So.. just leave the embroidered patches job for a while as we invite you to read.
Short History of Embroidery
An outstandingly human feature that distinguishes all representatives of our species from the animal world is the ability to produce tools, as well as giving meaning to the manufactured products, which is called culture creation. Eminent Polish philosopher Tadeusz Kotarbiński taught: it is something that defies nature in a global way. With the increase of knowledge and skills, there was an unquestionable need to create increasingly sophisticated artifacts that often reached the heights of the artistic level. The inborn pursuit of beauty was satisfied in both artistic and craft work.
Embroidery, as a kind of textile technique, is undoubtedly an artistic craft. Its beginnings may probably be found in the mists of history, nevertheless, it surely appeared much later than the invention of the needle, which was after all essential for this skill. In historic times, the skill of embroidering is attributed to the first great civilizations, i.e.: Egyptian, Hindu, Chinese and also the peoples of Mesopotamia. However, in the case of the first three embroidered ornaments were mainly geometric figures, while the Assyrians were the first who depicted figures of animals and people. Most probably they were the ones who passed the embroidery skills to the ancient Greeks and then the Romans. Greek Attica is where the oldest embroidery was found, dating back to the 5th-4th centuries BC.
The Greek fascination with the embroidery art was reflected in myths and legends. One of the well-known Greek myths is about the rivalry between the goddess Athena and princess Arachne. Boasting of Arachne angered the goddess who challenged the princess. It turned out that the duel remained unresolved. Athena’s rage lead the unfortunate mortal weaver to suicide. After Arachne’s death, Athena felt immense grief and for that reason she decided to bring her rival back to life in the form of a spider weaving her intricate web.
The Middle Ages were the real “golden age” of embroidery art. It is possible that it was considered more valuable than painting. It was developing in various cultural circles, both among Christians and Muslims. In Islamic civilization rich ornamentation was used particularly to indicate a high social position and was a kind of lure, meant to seduce women and men. Embroiderers often used the most sublime fabrics, such as silk, silver and even gold threads. In Muslim countries, however, geometric ornamentation prevailed, which was of course related to the religious precepts contained in the Koran that forbade depicting of human and animal figures. Therefore, embroidery can be associated with the life of the upper classes. Certainly, it also accompanied the lower social classes. All kinds of historical sources, including written and iconographic ones, consistently certify the fact that embroidery was mostly the women’s profession. Embroidery was also common in nunneries. In the Brigittine female order, the religious rule required it.
In the developed European Middle Ages, the most famous works of embroidery art were associated with England and Sicily. The most famous historic cloth, known as the Bayeux Tapestry, comes from England. This hand-embroidered canvas, which is 73 meters long and 50 centimeters wide, depicts the conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. It is a major historical source to learn about the history of medieval Europe, however, historians have failed so far to answer the question: who initiated and ordered the tapestry. The autumn of the Middle Ages brought further progress and development of embroidery, which was especially popular in France and Flanders. The works of this period were characterized by dynamism, expression and, above all, naturalism. Embroidery was also developing in Poland and other countries of Central Europe. It reached Central Europe thanks to contacts with the Middle and Far East.Historians agree that the invention of print in the 15th century significantly contributed to the development of embroidery. Various bestiaries and atlases of plants were mass-printed (as per the then standards), whereas the illustrations depicted in them inspired many embroidery motifs. In the subsequent centuries, embroidery was used not only in the handicraft of ceremonial or liturgical vestments, banners and standards, but more and more often it became a decorative element of everyday garment.
The Industrial Revolution, which at the end of the 18th century spread rapidly in England, and then throughout the 19th century across Europe, brought the mechanization of embroidery as well. In 1828, the first mechanical embroidery machines were introduced to the market and in subsequent decades new inventions were promoted, which enabled the mass production of embroidered objects. Since the second half of the 20th century, IT techniques have been used extensively in the production process.
Mechanized production has not replaced handicraft completely. On the one hand, machine production was accompanied by the revival of traditional embroidery techniques, and on the other, a scientific reflection systemizing knowledge about embroidery. Additionally, in the 19th century, embroidery became an important element of girls’ education and one of the most common women’s activities.
Would you like to know more about the topic? You can read more about the history of the embroidery on the website of King John III Sobieski Palace in Wilanów, in the article by Monika Janisz titled “Painted with a Needle and Thread. History of Embroidery Outline”. The text presents extensive history of this craft, from the time of the medieval Bayeux Tapestry, until the end of the 19th century. For those for whom a trip to Warsaw is too long a journey, I recommend visiting the VA Museum in London where you will find many exhibits devoted to the history of embroidery.