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    

1.32m Exquisite 19thc French Regency Wool Silkwork Canape Sofa Cover Footstool1860 Ottoman Gold Embroidery Sapphire Blue Velvet Paletot Jacket Silk LiningVintage Cream/taupe Silk Floral Embroidered Piano Shawl 22" Hand Knotted Fringe19thc Ottoman Silver Embroidered Velvet Wedding CaftanLovely Victorian Embroidered And Beadwork Panel Unframedno19thc Ottoman Gold Metallic Embroidered Velvet JacketSuperb Antique Vintage French Bonnet Wedding Cap With Lace, Braid, Beads CrystalVintage 20's Madeira Stunning Circular Tablecloth Cut Work Sunflower 2 Antique 18th Century Georgian Individual Whitework Engageantes Sleeve RufflesLovely Antique Baby/dolls Christening Gown.Antique Victorian Hand Stitched Wool & Beadwork Unused PanelExquisite 19th Century Chinese Silk Sleeve Band, Butterflies & BatsAntique Queen Victoria Silk Embroidery Picture In Later Good Quality FrameVintage Large White Irish Linen Embroidered & Drawn Thread Lace Tablecloth VgcBeautiful 19thc Woven Tartan Cross Barred Silk Shawl With Hand Knotted FringeVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth=exquisite Raised Embroidery Antique Indian Banjara Tribal Textile Hand Embroidery Cowrie Shells Felt Tassels Antique French Reversible Religious Stole 19th-century Metallic EmbroideryAntique Prince Albert Silk Embroidery Picture In Later Good Quality FrameLarge Antique19th Century Ottoman Empire Turkish Kurdish Embroided Fringed ThrowRare Antique 18th Century Whitework Trims For Your Georgian Regency Doll!19th Century Elegant Vintage Antique Floral Finished Bell Pull Wool NeedlepointIndonesian Tampan Ceremonial Cloth Palapei Ship Cloth Lampong Pasisir SumatraVintage Handmade Square Embroidery Quilt Scalloped Edge Green Pink 89 X 89Antique Queen Victoria Silk Embroidery Picture In Later Good Quality FrameAntique Victorian Silk/linen Cot Cover Embroidered With Viola Fabulous Antique Victorian Scottish Beadwork Beaded Bell Pull 1860sElaborate Hand Embroidered Lge.tablecloth Applique Roses Hand Embroidery~crochetVintage Unused Irish Linen Tablecloth & Four Napkins - Hand Embroidery ThistlesAntique19th Century Ottoman Empire Turkish Kurdish Embroided Fringed ThrowTwo Pretty Antique Whitework Embroidered Baby/doll's BonnetsAntique Alphabet Sampler Embroidery Pattern Book Germany / Europe Antique Boer War General Silk Embroidery Picture In Later Good Quality FrameA Vintage Silk Work Picture, Panel, 'summer Garden'. NrLarge Square Vintage Floral Hand Embroidered White Irish Linen Tablecloth Antique Miniature Sampler Pattern + Alphabet Book Germany RareLong Vintage Piece Of Embroidered Oriental Chinese Silk Flowers Butterflies BatsSuperb Victorian All Beaded Pelmet, Panel. Very Long. Beautiful Design + ColoursEarly Large Beadwork And Needlepoint For RestorationInteresting Antique Silk Hand Embroidered ?ribbon 8 Antique Miniature Sampler Pattern + Alphabet Monograms Pages EmbroideryVintage Embroidered Crinoline Lady TableclothSwedish Embroidered Tapestry Old MotifUnusual Hand Emb Linen Tablecloth"united Kingdom"unused.Antique Miniature Eight Double Plates Sampler Pattern + Alphabet Book 1880Magnificent Vintage Hand Embroidered & Ikat Textile Guatemala Silk On CottonSanskriti Vintage Indian Saree Pure Crepe Silk Black Sari Fabric Hand BeadedAntique Thomas Stevens Stevengraph Silk Picture - The Good Old DaysLong Length Antique Chinese Embroidered Silk Edging-208" By 2&1/4"Antique19th Century Ottoman Empire Turkish Kurdish Embroided Fringed ThrowDelightful Victorian{1800s}lady's Combinations-good Condition.2 Exquisite 19thc Chinese Silk Embroidered Mats, Indigo Linen BacksMedium Square Vintage Floral Hand Embroidered Cream Irish Linen Tablecloth Embroidered Crinoline Lady Satin Cushion Cover. 1930s.Large Square Vintage Hand Embroidered Crinoline Lady White Linen Tablecloth Vintage Awesome Embroidered Panel/picture Crinoline Lady In The Garden3 Antique Indian Banjara Tribal Textile Panels Hand Embroidery Nomad Tent CharmsVintage Art Deco Hand Made Madeira Work Lrg Circular Tablecloth Bucilla Christmas - "jeweled" Panel "winter Wonderland" - Felt Embroidery KitBeautiful Vintage Linen Tabletopper With 6" Hand Crochet Border