Embroidered fabrics have always been considered a symbol of luxury and wealth.
This old artisanal craft was firstly developed in private homes and convents and the purpose of the embroidery was to mimic the effect of the fabric, using precious yarns (gold and silver) and creating designs with soft borders.
In the past embroidery was considered as a beautiful painting on fabric.
Each design should have symbolical meanings, inspired by religion and superstition (Sphinx, Dragon and The Tree of Life) or to underline the membership to a certain aristocratic family. But embroidery has evolved during time, changing its purpose and meanings along the way.
Do you know how this challenging artisanal craft evolved over time and came to us?
This is your introductory guide through 900 years of embroidery history.
Roger II of Sicily
One of the greatest and most exquisite example of fine embroidery technique is the Coronation Mantle of Roger II of Sicily.
The Kufic text around the bottom border of the mantle inform us that the mantle was made in the Palermo’s workshops of the Norman King, between 1133-1134.
The mantle is a semi-circle of red samite silk. The central motif is a Tree of Life pattern with stylized animals on either side and a lion attacking a camel (the Normans attacking the Muslims). The embroidery is made with gold yarns, done in underside couching with some details made in polychrome silk of red, light blue, yellow and dark brown. The inner drawings of the palmettes was originally done in silk in chain stitch. Most patterns are outlined in a double row of pearls and precious stones.
One of the most important and interesting testimony of the evolution of embroidery is the painter Carlo Crivelli, which was active in the middle of the 15th century. Most of his portraits show the gorgeous and redundant embroidery on golden backgrounds.
The technical quality achieved was incredible. The embroidery designs seemed to be painted, rather than sewed with needles. The tridimensional effects of the Biblical scenes (most of the embroidery was for sacred vestments and piviali) was a mixture of satin stitch and split stitch (to portrait the faces of the subjects and to create various shades of colors).
At this point of fashion history, qualified centers and workshops were born to create corporations of high skilled artisans (exclusively men). They devoted their entire life to this craft, in order to achieve perfection, and their job was also ruled by strict regulations. One of the most popular was weighing gold. They received just the amount necessary to embroider the patterns, limiting the theft of gold and other precious materials.
Eleonora di Toledo and Bronzino
She was the most elegant woman in all Europe, the most glamorous arbiter elegantiarum of the 16th century.
Eleonora di Toledo was famous for her tasteful wardrobe and great personality. The 1544-55 Bronzino’s portrait of Eleonora shows us how sublime the embroidery of her dress was. The dress was embellished with golden ribbons and a golden web, decorated with pearls. The velvet is the protagonist of the portrait. It was embroidered and then cut, to make the underneath hairy fabric coming out.
During the 16th century sequins also were very popular on clothes, but they were called “tramblantes”, as they were not fixed tightly on fabric, creating a flickering effect. The daughter of Eleonora, Maria de Medici portrayed by Alessandro Allori, show us how delicate the collar embellished with sequins is.
Another testimony of this century comes to us from Francesco Ubertini, aka Bachiacca, a painter, who was called the “Michelangelo of the embroidery”, because of his meticulous way of portraying the huge embroidery on women’s dresses.
Henry VIII adopted the same decorations for his luxurious garments, covering the fabric entirely with golden yarns and ribbons. Leather hats were embroidered too and the camisa, which now was visible through the slashing and puffing, was embellished with words and cross stitch. The dynamism and plasticity of the yarns were typical of the English opulent style. The king passed on the taste for luxurious ornaments and fabrics to his daughter, Elizabeth, who made English embroidery famous around all Europe.
Here is an example of a 16th century undergarments, which probably belonged to a courtesan, with graphic ornaments that says “Voglio il core”.
During the 17th century padded satin stitch became very popular, in order to create bas-reliefs on fabrics. Golden yarns were still popular, as ribbons and sequins. A new technique was developed to apply more volume to fabrics, a sort of bullion knot, which was made with silver yarns and looked like a modern cylinder shaped bead. The most important innovation in fashion history was represented by the introduction of lace. Lace in the 17th century was applied on collars, camisa, socks and gloves.
From 1690 to 1740 fabrics were decorated with extraordinary patterns, representing idyllic scenes and faux laces. The yarns became colorful and the quilting achieved a great success.
The golden background was richly decorated with chain stitch. Every visible part of the male wardrobe was embroidered, also the non official garments.
In fact embroidered fabrics became popular also in everyday life.
Every kind of fabric was embroidered (wool for example) with precious yarns. For men also buttons would represent a new way to express their style. They had different sets to change and buttons became pretty expensive and precious, because of their richly embellishment with precious stones and pearls and sophisticated patterns.
The silk velour was introduced in fashion to create a velvety effect on fabrics and to give to it a polychrome brightness. At the end of the 18th century women’s fashion opened up to embroidered fabric as well.
The 18th century marks a turning point. The embroidery looses completely its sense of preciousness, due to high quality yarns and high skilled craft.
It’s now more a decoration, not so precious, but shimmering and applied everywhere.
The high demand of embroidered fabrics, brought consequentl the use of simpler stitches, as the stem stitch or the satin stitch, which were quicker but gracious and allowed the design to be pleasant and embellished with tiny mirrors, instead of sequins and chenille yarn instead of golden and silver yarns.
Most of the embroideries came already on piece of cut fabrics, ready to be transformed into jackets, vests, boleros… people loved to stand out!
During Neoclassicism, Napoleon used to restore a formal sobriety. A great example is his coronation mantle, which is embroidered with gold and silver yarns, the pattern is concentrated more on the bottom of the mantle and it represents flowers, medallions and neoclassical scenes. The favorite fabrics were light and soft, as silk crepe and cotton or linen muslins and the accent of colors were given by colorful velvety yarns.
From 1820 the embroidery was mostly done on white background, with white yarns.
The so called white embroidery became very popular, to underline the freshness, the pureness and youth of the female figure. The arms were naked for the first time, bare foot with sandals, adorned with rings, and the breast was shown in its natural shape. The embroidery was embellished by ribbons and was focused on the sleeves, the neckline and at the bottom of the dress.
From 1830 fashion changed again, modifying the silhouette of the body and the fabrics became heavier, decorated and printed.
From 1870 fashion began to copy the embroideries of the past. It was considered fundamental in this time to recover the history of humanity, and the same concept was applied to fashion.
Historical styles were applied to current fashions, as the 17th century inspired embroidery to corsets, embellished with ribbons.
Furs, fringes and feathers were fashionable decorations, sequins were applied to silk mantles and golden web with pearls appeared again.
Rosa Genoni for example was one couturier, who contributed to restore the great Italian tradition of embroidery.
She had a great personality, she worked in France and was able to understand the potential of the fashion industry in Italy and proposed solutions of great modernity to reorganize the Italian fashion system.
She achieved great success with the pavilion presented at the International Exhibition of Milan in 1906, where she proposed clothing of great value from the traditional paintings of Italian Renaissance.
For her creations Genoni declared, “our artistic heritage could serve as a model for new clothes and styles [..]“. Among her clothes, one was inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera, made of silk pale satin, outer garment of ivory tulle, embellished with floral pattern embroideries, sequins and golden ribbons.
The beginning of the century was characterized by the new idea of high fashion. And consequently embroidery was considered an high fashion technique. This is the last fundamental turning point for embroidery, making it an artisanal craft know as we know it now. The embroidery began to belong to the world of couture.
This guide is just an introduction to the huge world of embroidery.
The great history of this antique technique tells us its importance and its exclusiveness.
It has been preserved until today with these characteristics. High fashion is the only descendent, which today can maintain the same incomparable beauty behind this artisanal craft.
Artisans can reach perfection after multiple years of practicing and history tells us that women began to embroider in their childhood to achieve a great level of quality. Embroidery connects us directly to the past, with stitches, patterns and traditional methods.
It is a great heritage of our incredible past and I hope you’ve enjoyed the fundamental moments of embroidery’s journey to our times.