Fashion,  ThreadTalk

Embroidery: A World Heritage Art

1 – Welcome to #ThreadTalk. This week’s subject: #embroidery.

This fabric art—both fine and folk — is a world heritage art, meaning its inception goes back before recorded times.

So tonight, I’m taking you on a tour around the world.

V & A Museum - Mantua - This is a magnificent example of English court dress of the mid-18th century. It would have been worn by a woman of aristocratic birth for court events involving the royal family. The style of this mantua was perfectly suited for maximum display of wealth and art; this example contains almost 10lb weight of silver thread worked in an elaborate 'Tree of Life' Design. The train is signed 'Rec'd of Mdme Leconte by me Magd. Giles'. The name Leconte has been associated with Huguenot embroideresses working in London between 1710 and 1746.

2 – The word "embroider" comes to English by way Frankish and Proto-German & may mean “braid” or “embellishment.”

From simple decorative stitches to complex beaded patterns, embroidery is often a matter of national pride and identity, too, like this Croatian blouse.

Blouse from the Met Museum, Croatia.  - Highly embroidered blouse from Croatia. Public Domain. Red patches on shoulders, dark red geometric designs on sleeve edges and chest.

3 – The width and breadth of the embroidery on Earth is striking in variety & beauty. It transcends class, status, and rank & has been used both as symbols of the oppressed and the oppressor.

This hand-stitched Mandarin rank badge is from the Qing Dynasty in China.

4 – Human beings learned how to sew. Then we were like, “I like this leather jerkin IN PARTICULAR” and made some fancy sewing embellishments. Or added shells. Or very small rocks.

Eventually, simple stitches developed into far more complex ones, like these from Peru (450-0 BC)

5 – When King Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened, the team discovered incredibly well-preserved floral collars featuring embroidered beads, cloth, and olive leaves. They also papyrus, blue lotus leaves, nightshade berries, and more.

Floral Collar from Tutankhamun's Embalming Cache ca. 1336–1327 B.C. - Met Museum

6 – Embroidery is vast, & knowing I will get utterly lost in definitions of different stitches & methods, I’m going to focus on art.

It really is the perfect #InternationalWomensDay topic, as no matter the tradition, it almost always is made by women

Boy's Frock Kashmir 19th C

Boy's Frock Kashmir 19th C
 - elaborately embroidered boy's frock from the Kashmir

7 – Zardozi embroidery probably originated in Persia, but became a sensation under the patronage of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (mid-16th C).

This ancient method combines gold thread, beads, and precious stones to make. In this case, men and women both practice this art.

Robe, wool and silk with gold embroidery, makers unknown, about 1855, Amritsar, India. Museum no. 0197(IS). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London - incredibly intricate gold embroidery on a man's jacket with paisley.

8 – In the Guizhou Province in China, women have been embroidering with tin (yes, TIN) for the last 500 years.

It’s the only place in the world where it’s practiced & takes a year to craft one outfit. This video does far more justice than I will:

9 – Phulkari is the folk embroidery of the Punjabi & is recognized by its geometric and flower designs—darned on the reverse side of the cloth. It may be as old as the 7th C, & is still made today.

The vivid colors! The shapes!

A yellow robe with bright red, green, and white stars. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen
CC BY 4.0 via Wikipedia

10 – In Iceland, embroidery has been a big part of life for centuries. This wedding ensemble dates from the 18th century, but pieces of it are older.

I love that this speaks to the value of the work, likely passed down through the generations.

This bridal outfit is the oldest known more or less complete Icelandic woman's costume in existence. It is in the general style of Icelandic festive costumes from the late 18th century to about 1800, but is extremely rich in decoration and silver jewellery.

Pelisse (Hempa) of black cloth, bordered with velvet and fastened in front with silver gilt clasps. Two circular silver gilt disks on the breast, with cord and pendent ornaments and the monogram 'S. N. D.' in white paste.

Bodice (Upphlutur) of green velvet, with five silver gilt clasps, attached to a petticoat (Fat) of green cloth.

Petticoat (Fat) of dark blue cloth, with flowers in coloured worsted tamboured around the skirt.

Jacket (Treja) of black velvet with gold embroidery and silver-gilt buttons of globular openwork; collar (Kraga) of black velvet and gold embroidery.

Apron (Svynta) of dark blue cloth tamboured with flowers in coloured worsted, fastened with silver gilt openwork bosses. V&A Museum.

11 – Ukrainian embroidery is varied in its design and meaning depending on area. Individual designs were prized among women, & producing embroidery was considered a meditative, mystical art.

This dress is from Sniatyn district, Pokuttia, Ukraine.

Dress with red stripes and highly ornate red sleeves from Ukraine. Shoulders of red, deep v, gathered sleeves.

12 – Bulgaria is like, though, wait a minute. Because whoa. Just as varied as Ukraine — and much of eastern Europe — Bulgaria has a wealth of embroidery styles.

This Saya, a woman’s costume, is from the southwestern part of Bulgaria & I absolutely love everything about it.

Female folk costume, Bulgaria, picture source: - ornate dress with metal embellishments and red embroidery.

13 – Next is the famed Bayeux Tapestry, which is not a tapestry at all. It’s an embroidered cloth & can be dated around 1077ish. Certainly one of the most important records of the Norman Conquest, it's a whopping 224 ft. long.

Here’s Harold swearing on the relics.

Bayeux Tapestry - Scene 23: Harold swearing oath on holy relics to William, Duke of Normandy. Titulus: UBI HAROLD SACRAMENTUM FECIT WILLELMO DUCI (Where Harold made an oath to Duke William)

14 – If, like me, you are a SUPER NERD, you can actually "tour" the entire Bayeux Tapestry here. (You can swipe right on the whole thing:

Or make your own meme:!/#%2F

15 – In the Middle Ages, England became so well-known for embroidery it got its own name: opus anglicanum (English work).

It often featured 3D effects, puffed up like many an English royal. This is from the Fishmonger’s Pall, a funeral cloth made by nuns (feat: #mermaid).

The Fishmongers' Pall (detail showing mermaid), 1512 – about 1538, England. © The Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, London - an intricately detailed embroidery of a mermaid, looking into a mirror.

16 – Blackwork embroidery is a personal favorite (remember, I love the Chantilly, too) because it's Goth AF. Popular during the Elizabethan era, it was FREEHAND. I can't even start to imagine doing something like this.

This smock is from 1575 or so. Le sigh.

17 – Now before I show some pretty, pretty gowns. I wanted to take a breather during all this heritage for context.

For centuries, fashion in Europe used all these traditions as their own. It's appropriation to the highest degree, often deliberately in the name of Empire.

In the eighteenth century men's formal and court attire expressed, in forms only slightly less constrained than the womenswear of the period, a lavishness that was notable for the elegance of its finish and the finesse of its application of artisanal techniques. The elite of Western Europe and the Americas emulated styles originating in France since the time of Louis XIV. This coat, with its flaring peplum, or skirt, is a persistent silhouette favored at the end of the Sun King's reign that continued in modified form until the last years of Louis XV. - Met Museum, public domain

18 – Yes, I have a fondness for black. And though I usually shy away from the mid-19th poofy fluffy stuffy (that's the official term) I still love this.

Look familiar?

Woman's Dress and Train – Portugal, circa 1845

Woman's Dress and Train
Portugal, circa 1845
Costumes; principal attire (entire body)
a) Silk satin with metallic-thread embroidery and silk net (tulle) trim; b-c) Silk satin with metallic-thread embroidery
a) Bodice center back length: 10 1/8 in. (25.72 cm); b) Petticoat center back length: 44 in. (111.76 cm); c) Train: 120 x 54 in. (304.8 x 137.16 cm); d) Fancy dress bodice center back length: 14 1/2 in. (36.83 cm); e) Standing Whisk (Medici) Collar: 15 x 17 in. (38.1 x 43.18 cm) - LACMA

19 – This English waistcoat from the 1740s has all the influence of China in the color scheme and stitching. Everything, down to the buttons, is pristine handwork. Likely a wedding ensemble for a very well-to-do groom.

20 – These shoes from the French court in the late 17th early 18th century take motifs we've seen and interpret them for footwear. I particularly like the yellow and green color scheme and would wear these to dance on the grave of the patriarchy with no hesitation.

The fashionable eighteenth–century man was expected to convey a certain grace, and was required to enjoy the fine arts, music, and dancing. The romantic curviture of these shoes encourages the voyeuristic eye, each arc paralleled by the sensuality of the male arch and calf. Met Museum, public domain.

21 – This House of Worth bodice from an elaborate ballgown is almost 200 years older than the last shoes, yet they look as if they could go together (although this has a neoclassical flair).

The "look" has certainly remained timeless. Embroidery on silk with lace? Yes pls. 1898

Neoclassical motifs on a silk embroidered bodice from the House of Worth, 1898. Ornate lace sleeves, yellow background, floral arrangements. From the Met Museum.

22 – From the 1880s, we have this American gown, which goes for a less ostentatious application of embroidery. However, the shape of the dress really is unusual–the thick pleats beneath the embroidery and the color choices.

23 – My personal favorite, this velvet & embroidered evening jacket is everything. Yes, I have an aesthetic. Coupling the glittering beadwork with that lace is about enough for me to need smelling salts.

Is it hot in here?

This is murderous women's wear. 1890.

24 – And one more to round out the evening. Because I couldn't avoid the long Regency. This gown uses gold thread as embroidery AND as structure.

It's stunning and surprisingly modern–but also much like the folk costumes we saw earlier. Muslin, naturally… 1815 ish.

25 – I have reams of sources, of course, but I kept coming back to the idea that we all have embroidery in our past and yet… European society, in particular, stole from other cultures freely–especially those they tried to erase. That's a lot to consider

Closeup of Zardozi embroidery.

26 – First batch — LOTS more reading here. Wish I could include it all.

27 – More sources…

28 –

29 – Last sources:

30 – And to make it an even 30, some of MY heritage. This lovely Scandinavian embroidered cloth dates from 1500, w/a centaur, a unicorn, a lion, & a deer.

It made me think of my Swedish ancestors who came to the US 100 years ago.

Thanks for joining me on tonight's #ThreadTalk.

Originally tweeted by Natania Barron (@NataniaBarron) on March 9, 2021.