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    

Fine Pair Of Antique Chinese Embroidered Silk Rank Badges Peking Stitch MandarinExquisite 19th Century Regency Silk Embroidery On Linen, Butterflies C1820Vintage Hand Embroidered Irish Linen Tablecloth - Pink Carnations & LilacsAntique Qing Dynasty 19th C. Chinese Finely Embroidered Silk Robe Cloud Collar..Massive Antique Dynasty Qing 19th C. Chinese Embroidered Silk Robe Cloud Collar.Antique Qing Dynasty 19th C. Chinese Tasseled Embroidered Silk Robe Cloud CollarFine Antique Chinese Yellow Ground Embroidered Skirt Nice Color ButterfliesExquisite Very Good Quality Vintage Linen Hand Embroidered TableclothMassive Antique Qing Dynasty 19th C. Chinese Embroidered Silk Robe Cloud CollarFine Quality Antique Chinese Silk Embroidery 19th Century Embroidered TextileAntique Chinese White Fine Linen Tablecloth Hand Embroidered - Cranes & FlowersAntique Georgian Style Silk Needlework Tapestry And Hand Coloured FinishPair Of Antique Victorian Beadwork Table Face ScreensBundle 13 Items Vintage Table Linen Tablecloth Tray Cloths Hand EmbroideredVintage Large Unused Hand Embroidered Irish Linen Tablecloth - Blue HydrangeasAntique Americana Patriotic Eagle & American Flag Needlework Folk Art Framed YqzEarly 19th Century Regency Silk Needlework Firescreen Panel, Butterflies C1820sAntique/vintage Crewel Work Large Panel Hand Embroidered Embroidery Picture VgcVintage Needlepoint Panel Cabbage Roses Ribbons & Bows Shabby Chic French?Pair Antique Chinese Silk Textile Robe Panel Forbidden Embroidery Sleeve QingBeautiful Vintage Cream Embroidered Roses Piano Shawl Table Cover W/ 15" FringeAntique/vintage Brussels Point De Gaze And Duchesse Lace Collar - DamagedVintage Hand Embroidered Irish Linen Tablecloth - Marigolds & Lace EdgeFine Antique 19thc Qing Chinese Gold & Silver Embroidered Silk Robe Cloud CollarBeautiful 19th C French Aubusson Needlework Silk Panel, Dolphin FountainsVintage Girls Net Lace Dress Baby 24" Chest Hand Embroidered 1920s/30 Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth=beautiful Embroidered FlowersVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth- Fabulous Crinoline Ladies Vintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth=exquisite Delicate EmbroideryFantastic Antique Chinese Silk Embroidered Panel Textile Peking Knot FlowersLarge 47" Vintage Antique Rose Floral & Blue Finished Completed Wool NeedlepointSuperb Vintage Hand Emb Linen Crinoline Lady Tablecloth.Vintage Embroidered Crinoline Ladies In Dutch Costume Tablecloth Tulips RamadanVintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth= Beautiful Embroidered Cottages And Gardens Pretty Vintage Printed Crinoline Lady Cottage Garden TableclothAntique Chinese Silk Embroidery Panel Framed Textile Tapestry 19th Century QingVintage Hand Embroidered Irish Linen Tablecloth - Crinoline LadyAll Petit Point Vintage Antique Botanic Floral Finished Completed NeedlepointAntique Chinese Forbidden Embroidery Appliques For Silk Textile Robe Panel Qing Antique Chinese Silk Jacket / Short Robe With Embroidered PanelsVintage Chinese Embroidered Silk Panel Flower And BirdAntique Early Victorian Sampler Pocket Book / Purse - Flowers & ButterfliesAntique Chinese Silk Embroidered Panel Wall Hanging Bed Spread Blue DragonsLovely Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth Gc.Antique Chinese White Fine Linen Pina Tablecloth Hand Embroidery & PunchworkVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth= Superb Raised Embroidery Pretty Hand Emb Linen Tea Cosy Cover& Traycloth Gc.Antique Qing Dynasty Chinese Silk Panel Tapestry Hand Embroidered Man Woman DeerVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth=exquisite Delicate EmbroideryBeautiful Fine Quality Antique Silk Embroidered Panel-48 Inches By 46 InchesAntique C1910 Children & Dog Redwork Splash Towel 17" X 29 1/2"Pretty Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth Gc.Lovely Set Of 2 Chinese Silk Dragon Embroidered Textile Panels No ReserveHand Embroidered Irish Linen Crinoline Lady PictureRare Antique Chinese Silk Embroidered Panel Of Dragons & Phoenixes NanjingLovely Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth Gc.Beautiful Vintage Linen Tablecloth Hand Embroidered With Crinoline LadiesMagnificent Hand Crochet Deep Edge Tablecloth Excellent Condition 40"sqAntique Silk Birds Flowers Double Sided Canton Silk Embroidered Piano Shawl Antique 18th C Georgian Silk Boutis - Piqué Pannel