Embroidery is more and more present in our modern societies. Everyday when I walk the streets of Paris, I see shop-windows full of creative embroideries on clothes and accessories. The application of embroidery is endless! You can put it on shoes, clothes, bags and even use it to decorate your walls or furnitures. An article in the Telegraph confirms how famous modern fashion brands such as Gucci, Kenzo, Saint Laurent and Dolce Gabbana are using embroidery to give their products a unique and artistic look. Some of my personal favourites are the embroideries in Alexander McQueen’s collections – they are absolutely exquisite! But embroidery is not only present on wearable commodities, but it has also gained significant presence on the contemporary art scene. More and more artists are exploring ways of expressing themselves with thread and needle. But why embroidery? And where does it come from?
A little bit of Embroidery-art history
Embroidery is an ancient art-form, where thread and needle has been used to decorate fabrics. It’s origin traces back all the way to 30 000 B.C., as archaeologists have found fossils of heavily hand-stitched clothes and boots. Other ancient works have been prominently found in China and India, with chain-stitch works in silk. I think we can conclude that all through human history, people have had an eye and need for beauty! However, embroidery as a sewing technique also served its practical purpose of enabling attachment of many fabric-pieces into one.
Traveling from ancient to modern history you find embroidery in most corners of the world. Thus it’s difficult to determine a geographical location for its origin. In short, it can be said to be a cross-culturally practised art form, which makes it even more interesting!
In modern history, embroidery has mostly been associated with exclusivity and luxury. For example, aristocratic women were not allowed to perform hard-labour, but should instead be educated in the arts such as music, sewing and embroidery. Embroidery in this sense was mostly seen in the higher classes of society. Another reason for its “luxuriousness” is the great amount of time and effort needed to produce one embroidery piece. Anyone who has tried to do some embroidery knows that hand-stitching is not a “quick-fix”. It requires time and dedication. Thus before the introduction of machine-embroidery, it was only the wealthy that could afford to pay for the time it took to decorate fabrics.
Embroidery, Social movements and Empowerment
As aforementioned, embroidery has mostly been connected with women, (which makes me even happier of Charles’ excitement to learn hand-stitching haha). My grandmother told me that when she was young, embroidery and sewing was often an excuse for women to be able to “get out of the house” and meet other women . As long as they conducted some of the household work they were excused to meet and chat. In this way, embroidery is also connected to social movements. Women would meet up on the basis that they were “working”, but in reality it created the opportunity to organise social movements for women’s rights. Even the suffragettes were seen bringing their sewing-kits to social gatherings.
Last December I was working for an NGO in India, where they used embroidery to empower women. For example, the organisation would assist women to start up small embroidery and sewing businesses, which would allow them to become more independent from their men. In many of the villages that I visited, the men would use all income to buy alcohol. But if the women would earn some money on their own, they could ensure the well-being of their children regardless of the pursuits of their husbands.
Machine vs. Handembroidery
Today, most fashion embroideries are machine-made, which in my view makes the embroidery lose some of its history. With the industrial revolution,
embroidery just as most other products became victim of mass-production.
However, it made embroidery accessible for more people, which is definitely a positive outcome. I think the embroidery trend that has emerged today, is partly due to people wanting to be “unique” and more “artsy”. But also (especially for those engaged in hand embroidery), due to the greater realisation that we need to slow down and take a step back. To embroider is not only productive, but also very meditative and reflective. For example, embroidery really helps me to balance life in Paris, where everything is passing by at high pace.
A few days ago I came across a guy online who added another dimension to the beauty of hand embroidery:
“Hand embroidery has a freedom and personality to it that is lost with the machine. It’s almost like comparing your handwriting to the typed word”
This article is the introduction to a series of posts about “Embroidery as a modern art form”. The following posts, will among other things include “how-to” guides, which we hope will inspire more people to try to do embroidery! So stay tuned for more!