Hand-stitched embroidery is one of the oldest ways to decorate rugs, clothing, and other types of textiles. Many embroidered pieces were family heirlooms before they became collectors items, while other examples represent the best of their culture's artistic traditions.

One of the most famous examples of embroidery is the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry, which was stitched in eight colors of wool and devotes its entire 224 foot linen length to the Norman conquest of England. Less monumental efforts include samplers produced since at least the 16th century by young girls as a way of learning embroidery techniques.

An especially common type of sampler was the band sampler, which, as its name suggests, was made of a narrow band of fabric. Stitches captured on samplers ranged from running to back, chain to buttonhole, and cross to tent. Other more specialized stitches include herringbone and feather (used on quilts), satin (popular in Arts and Crafts embroidery), lazy daisy, rope work, sanding, and shadow work.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, European samplers were used less for sewing practice and pattern record keeping and more for ornamentation. Decorative samplers featured a variety of embroidered motifs, such as people, animals, quotes, and the alphabet, and they often had an embellished border.

In the Colonial United States, samplers stuck to their traditional role, at least at first. Teachers favored the band format for reasons of thrift, although by the 18th century, samplers began to get shorter and wider. In addition to improving a student’s embroidery techniques, samplers were a way to teach young girls the letters of the alphabet. Map samplers were less common, but once the Colonies became the United States, family-record samplers became quite popular.

Eventually, Colonial girls were encouraged to decorate their samplers with handsome borders, within which they would also embroider flowers, leaves, vases, and baskets. Some featured landscapes with animals and figures amid the scenery. By the late 1700s, regional styles could be discerned. In Essex County, Massachusetts, for example, crinkled silk floss from China was used to create thick, extravagant borders. Teachers in Providence, Rhode Island, encouraged pictorial approaches, while Quaker schoolmistresses in Pennsylvania taught blocky letters and floral elements.

The first half of the 1800s were glory years for U.S. samplers. Evidence of the influence of Federal architecture and design can be seen in the draperies and urns that decorated ...

Embroidery was also used on quilts. In addition to quilting stitches such as the feather stitch, a type of embroidery known as redwork was popular in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Used to make penny square quilts, redwork or Turkey work as it was also called (for a while, the dye that colored the thread came from Turkey) was frequently employed to create small squares depicting scenes from children’s books, flowers, animals, and fruit. The designs for these squares were sometimes found on feedsacks—once a homemaker had completed enough of them, she could then add borders and backing to make a grid-like quilt.

More complicated was the practice of embroidering silk to produce small (less than a foot tall) pictures that would be framed. Many of these pictures were created as memorial pieces for departed loved ones; the genre was more popular in Victorian Era England than the United States.

Finally, one of the most beautiful embroidered textiles is the suzani, an Uzbek wall covering that is traditionally given as a part of a new bride’s dowry. The amount of chain stitching and detail that goes into the average suzani is probably impossible to calculate, but it is known that mothers often begin working on suzanis for their daughters shortly after they are born.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

LACMA Luxury Textiles

LACMA Luxury Textiles

Textile collectors shouldn't miss this microsite from the LA County Museum of Art, a great reference on European an… [read review or visit site]

Sewing Machine Collector

Sewing Machine Collector

Geoff and Norma Dickens' reference site on vintage toy sewing machines from the late 1800s. Browse the images alpha… [read review or visit site]

Sensibility Vintage Images

Sensibility Vintage Images

An extensive collection of photos and ephemera illustrating changing fashion styles from 1795 to 1959. Includes por… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Divine Antique Vintage 1920s Hand Embroidered Silk Canton Piano ShawlAntique Vintage Ivory Silk Piano Shawl Hand Embroidered Flowers & Exotic BirdsVintage Hand Embroidered Large Picture Panel, Jacobean Style Crewel Work.14 Antique Berlin Needlwork Woolwork Design Charts Hand Painted FlowersHuge Vintage Piano Shawl Embroidered Roses & Flowers Long Silk Fringe 53" X 50"1.65m 19thc Silk Woven/embroidered Shawl, Spitalfields Norwich Flower SprigsDivine Antique Edwardian 1910 - 1920 Hand Embroidered Bed Spread Or Tablecloth2 Beautiful Vintage Crinoline Lady Irish Linen Cushion Covers Hand EmbroideredGorgeous Vintage Madeira Style Cream Embroidered Linen Medium Square TableclothAntique Arts & Crafts Embroidery Of A Rose Tree C 1900 To 1920 - FramedColorful Embroidered Silk Piano Shawl - Antique Estate Find New OrleansAntique Stevengraph Silk Picture `the Crystal Palace` In Original FrameBundle Of 12 Items Vintage Table Linen Tablecloths, Toppers Mats Hand EmbroideryAmazing Hand Embroidery Vintage Madeira? Large Tablecloth 12 Napkins SetAntique/vintage Early 19th C Whitework Muslin Collar - Some DamageAntique/vintage Rectangular Irish Crochet Lace Panel/shawlAntique Hand Embroidered Stunning Picture Panel Tudor House Garden FlowersAntique 1920s Deco Ivory Wedding Silk Embroided Shawl Silk TasselsVintage Hand Embroidered Meadow Flowers Picture Panel Shepherd Lambs RabbitVintage Crewel Work Handmade Panel For Cushion, Stool, Project.Job Lot Of 23 Beautiful Vintage Embroidery Items All Hand EmbroidredVictorian Beadwork Picture Unframed Classical Female Figure Antique Stunning Early Vintage Silk Embroidered Piano Shawl With FringeNwt! Lucky Brand Panel Embroidered Top Size XlStunning Antique English Embroidered Banner Fire Screen Turned Wood Support Stunning Hand Embroidery Floral Antique Vintage Ribbonwork Floral Cushion CoverAntique Chinese Robe Panel Embroidery Sleeves Gilt Thread Scholars Objects SilkVintage Hand Embroidered Irish Linen Table Runner - Daffodils & TulipsAntique Society Silk Embroidered Red Rose Linen Fabric CutterAntique Chinese Piano Shawl Hand Embroidery Silk 40"by40" Pure SilkUnique Vintage Tea Cosy~ Crinoline Lady~cottage Garden Floral~ Felt~ AppliqueAntique 1879 Berlin Hand Painted Wool Work Embroidery Tapestry Pattern HuntingAntique Silk Hand Embroidered Piano Shawl 48" X 48 " As-is26 Ins Antique/vintage Gold Glass Bead Fringing Very Pretty Vintage Hand Embroidery Of A Crinoline Lady In Cottage GardenVintage Chinese Embroidery On Silk Panel One Hundred ChildrenVintage Large Hand Embroidered Irish Linen Tablecloth - Floral Bouquets.Antique 19thc Islamic Emboidered Black Velvet Spectacles Case? Turkish OttomanVintage Hand Embroidered Irish Linen Table Runner - Large FloralsExquisite Vintage Long Runner~pretty Pansies~superb Hand Embroidery~crochet TrimStunning Cottage Garden Embroidered Vintage Tablecloth Vintage Hand Embroidered Runner Crinoline Lady Antique Victorian Floral Needlepoint Tapestry Berlinwork Embroidery PictureSuperb Antique Traditional Chinese Hand Stitched Silk Work Embroidery Panel Old Chinese Embroidered Silk Panel, Nicely FramedAntique/vintage French Linen And Hemp Farmers Work ShirtAntique Heavy Woven Silk Fabric Strip,victorian, 56" Long,ideal For Bell Pull. 19thc Chinese Silk Embroidered TextileVintage Linen Beautiful Hand Embroidered Tablecloth 33" By 33"Vintage Hand Embroidered White Linen Tablecloth FuschiaGorgeous Antique Mountmellick Embroidered Case Gc.Vintage Hand Embroidered Irish Linen Tablecloth - Bowls Of Pansies.Antique Vintage Red Wool Hand Embroidery Kashmiri Fabric Pieces X 9 CraftVintage Hand Embroidery Panel For Framing Or Cushion. Floral FlowersOriental Theme Petit Point Needlework Sampler Framed 19thc English?Chinese Antique Embroidered Silk Panel, Flowers And Butterfly's OverVintage 48"+20" Chinese Floral Embroidered Black Fringed Piano Shawl 民国大幅刺绣披肩Antique 18th C Fancy French Masterly Hand Embroidery Silk Dress Panel RemnantFive Vintage Hand Embroidered Edgings For Curtains Or Tablecloth - 8 3/4" (22cm)Large Irish Linen Hand Embroidered Tablecloth