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    

A Beautiful Antique Kashmir Or Kirman Amli Shawl Of Fine Wool~circa 1840~60.Victorian Sailors Woolwork Picture- Masted Ship Antique Signed Dated Folk Art Vintage Tapestry Chinese Immortals Silk Embroidery 17 Feet Oriental SatinC 1900 Chinese Silk Jacket Made From Antique Embroidery Embroidered Badges RobeExquisite 19th Century Regency Silkwork Chalice Cover Vestment, Bullion TrimA Beautiful Massive Size Antique Scottish Paisley Shawl~circa 1855.Large Lot Of 13 Vintage Table Cloths Hand Embroidered Linen Shabby ChicAntique Beadwork Aide Memoire Purse Double Sided Vgc Rare19thc Chinese Silk Embroidered Panel With Goldfish Koi ~beautiful~Long Vintage Irish Linen Banquet Tablecloth Extensive Embroidery Needle Lace 8ft19th~early 20th Century Antique Hand Embroidered Green Silk Chinese Dragon Robe.Antique Turkish Ottoman Empire Embroidered Fabric~"the Sultan's Garden".Antique Victorian Beadwork & Needlework Banner - Cherub AngelFabulous Large Hand Embroidered Cantonese Manton Black Pure Silk Piano ShawlVintage Hand Embroidered White Linen Tablecloth- Beautiful Crinoline LadiesAntique/vintage 1930s Machine Lace Bertha /collarA Vintage Superbly Hand Embroidered Medium Square Cream Irish Linen TableclothAntique Americana 1890's ? American Eagle 44 Star Flag On Silk Patriotic Flag Super Vintage Italian Linen Hand Embroidered Inset Needle Lace Square TableclothBeautiful 19th Century Regency Silkwork On Toile De Jouy Background C1815Vintage White Hand Embroidered Irish Linen Tablecloth - Honeysuckle GarlandsBundle Of 17 Items Of Vintage Table Linen Tablecloths, Napkins, Hand EmbroideryA Beautiful Geometric Antique Kashmir Indian Or Kirman Amli Shawl~circa 1850~80.Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Picture - Fabulous Embroidery/crinoline LadyAntique Circa 1900 - 1920 Chinese Silk Embroidery Of A Dragon - Cushion / Frame Stunning Vintage Embroidered Pictures - Cottage Garden And Crinoline LadyVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth=beautful Raised Embroidery Beautiful Vintage Hand Embroidered Bed Cover - Double/kingAntique Hand Painted Berlin Woolwork Embroidery Pattern - Posy Roses - A. TodtFine Antique/vintage Brussels Bobbin Applique Lace HandkerchiefAntique World War Patriotic Silk Needlework Eagle 20 Star Flag July 4 AmericanaVintage Pink Silk Piano Shawl Throw Scarf Long Fringe Multi Color App 48-50 InchVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth=super Embroidery Arts&crafts Design1.5m Beautiful French 19th Century Wool Silk Needlepoint Vestment Valance PelmetHand Embroidered Tapestry Gros Point & Glass Beadwork Antique Victorian PanelVintage 1920's 1930s Art Deco Wool Work Embroidery Embroidered Pictures FlamingoElsa Williams Crewel Embroidery Kit~pansy Panel~by Carmel Foret~sealed~19" X 9"Bundle Of 18 Items Of Vintage Table Linen Tablecloths, Toppers Hand EmbroideryArts And Crafts Embroidered Linen Laundry BagArts And Crafts Embroidered Table LinenGood Quality Republic Period Chinese Intricately Embroidered Sleeve PictureExquisite Victorian 19th Century French Kid Gloves Petitpoint Cuffs, ButterfliesVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Mix Tablecloth- Beautiful Crinoline LadiesGorgeous Embroidered Red & Pink Roses Vtg Like Lace Net Window Curtain Panel 84"Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Picture -beautiful Flower Garden On Painted SilkVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Table Centre/traycloth - Superb EmbroideryVintage White Linen Hand Embroidered Tablecloth 62" X 47"Lovely Vintage Beige Heavy Linen Tablecloth Transfer Printed Ready To EmbroiderVintage Linen Hand Embroidered Cushion CoverExquisite Antique 19th Century Regency Silkwork Face Screen FanVintage Tablecloth ~4 Crinoline Ladies ~flower Gardens~ Superior Hand EmbroideryVintage Hand Embd.crinoline Ladies On Irish Linen Tablecover Vintage Hand Embd.irish Linen Table Cover Lots Of Hydrangeas And DaisesExquisite 19th Century French Regency Silkwork Panel Vestment Head Of ChristAntique Vintage Chinese Embroidered Dragons/cockerels Lawn Cotton Table ClothSuperb Vintage Italian Linen Hand Embroidered Needle Lace Sml Square TableclothEarly 18th Century Georgian Silkwork Embroidery Textile Picture Shepherdess 1700Antique/vintage Whitework Ladies Bonnet /coifGood Quality Antique19thc Chinese Intricately Embroidered Ancient Sleeve PictureA Lace Petticoat & Bloomers Imperial Crown Princess Louise Campbell