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”)

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]

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]

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    

Antique 1805 American Folk Art Silk Embroidery Weeping Willow, Woman & Monument19thc Antique Folk Art Mourning Memorial Silk Embroidery Tombstone & Willow TreeAntique American Foster Brothers Boston Painting Frame & Flower NeedlepointSuperb Georgian Silk Woolwork Picture- Antique Biblical Sampler Maple Frame RareAntique Vintage Black Silk Piano Shawl Densely Embroidered W/ Colourful Flowers19thc Antique American Folk Art New Hampshire Embroidery Sampler, NrLarge Antique Late 19thc Chinese Embroidered 5 Claw Dragons Silk PanelExtraordinary 18thc Georgian Silk Hand Embroidered Waistcoat C. 1800Unique Ivory Silk Embroidered Shawl Piano Scarf Manton De Manila Pagodas BirdsBeautiful 19th Century French Silk Brocade Shawl, RosesLovely Vintage Embroidered Crewel Work Panel Jacobean Style Picture Sampler Exceptional Magnificent Large Antique Raised Goldwork Embroidery On VelvetBeautiful Antique 19thc Lace Whitework ApronAntique Victorian Jacquard Paisley Woven Wool Shawl Throw Tablecloth 126"Magnificent Vintage Hand Embroidered And Ikat Textile Silk On Cotton GuatemalaAntique Qing Dynasty 19th Century Chinese Embroidery Panel Pair Of Sleeve BandsStunning Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth Art Deco Garden FlowersEarly Vintage Silk Hand Embroidered Fringed Piano Shawl ~ As IsC1830's Pre-early Victorian Ayreshire Type Lge Collar Beautiful Embroidery, LaceExcellent Antique Georgian Sampler Dated 1769 And SignedC.1920 Chinese Hand Embroidered Silk Shawl With Flowers,butterflies,dragonflies!Delightful But Time Worn ~antique Mary & Jesus Raised Goldwork Embroidery~Exceptional Manila Silk Embroidered Manton 19th Century Piano Shawl With RosesUnusual Antique Church Vestment Applique Motifs ~silks & Goldwork EmbroideryAntique French Fabric Covered Sewing Box, Filled With Paris Sewing Threads.Beautiful Vintage Hand Embroidered Floral Long Table RunnerTwo Pretty Antique Baby/doll's Frilly BonnetsVintage / Antique Shabby Chic Embroidery Sampler Vintage Hand Embroidered And Ikat Textile Silk On Cotton Upland GuatemalaBrocklehurst Whiston Woven Macclesfield Silk Picture - The Goods WharfVintage Hand Embroidered Picture Panel-beautiful Country Cottage By The RiverVintage Embroidered Sampler George Vi Coronation 1937 Royal School Of NeedleworkAntique 18th Century Ottoman Empire Turkish Kurdish Kilim Rug-hand Made-cicimVintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth.beautiful Floral Arrays.wedding,celebration.Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Pictures X 2 -beautiful Crinoline Ladies Antique French Beaded Dress Trim..diamante Metal & Sequins On Gold Net..vintageVintage Pink Irish Linen Guest Towel X 2 Madeira Hand Embroidery & Monogram "c"Exquisite Antique 18th/19thc Goldwork Embroidery On Silk ~long Length~Lovely Vintage Banquet Tablecloth Embroidered Cloth Linen Textile 3.5 Mtrs LongVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth- Exquisite Crinoline LadiesDivine Hand Embroidered **poppies & Floral** 52" Square Table Cloth See PhotosTwo Pretty Hand Embroidered Linenteacosy Covers Gc.Antique Embroidery Of American Flag-motto- Dear Old Glory- FramedVintage Suzani Silk Embroidery Ethnic Kuchi Wall Tribal Uzbek HangingVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth-beautiful Raised EmbroideryAntique Islamic Silk Embroidered Shirt & Cape Estate Find RareBrocklehurst Whiston Woven Macclesfield Silk Picture Sulgrave Manor - Woven 1980Vintage Art & Crafts Round Linen Tablecloth W/ Tinted Embroidery Silk Cherries Antique SamplerSo Pretty Vintage Hand Embroidery Framed Picture ~ Country Cottage Linen HytheVintage Hand Embroidered Picture. Sunflowers.Antique French Titanic Silk Embroidered Trim Flowers Dress Lace Fabric VintageWhite Medieval Renaissance Embroidered Square Neck Peasant Top 99 Ac Blouse LBeautiful Vintage Floral Hand Embroidered Tablecloth Superb Striking StitchworkBeautiful Antique Victorian Lace Petticoat & Drawers.Brocklehurst Whiston Macclesfield Silk Picture - Old Macclesfield, Woven 1961Vintage Suzani Silk Embroidery Ethnic Kuchi Wall Tribal Uzbek HangingVintage Vogart Style Daisies Won't Tell Tinted & Stamped Pillow Top UnfinishedAnthropologie One September Embroidered Panel Tank Cami P XsAntique Large Square French Pillow Case Hand Embroidered Monogram