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    

19thc Antique American Eagle & 20 Star Flag Patriotic Stumpwork Silk EmbroiderySuperb 1930s Black Chinese White Embroidered Lined Jacket Piano Shawl Style Emb Stunning Antique Cream Silk Embroidered Flower Chinese Piano Shawl Stole FringedUnbelievable Decorative Antique Victorian Dolls Trousseau, 10 Pieces, 2 SizesAntique Turkish Ottoman Empire Hand Embroidered Fine Linen Towel Or Yaglik..Arts And Crafts Embroidered Linen PillowLarge Antique Chinese Silk Embroidery Foo DogsArt Deco Really Old Needle Work Embroidery Garden Flowers1920ss Vintage Colourful Bird + Flowers Hand Embroidered Wool Crepe Jacket Antique Turkish Ottoman Empire Hand Embroidered Fine Linen~vibrant Colors.Lot 1912 Antique Masonic Silver Bullion Flower Embroidery Collar & (2) Old BooksAntique 19th C Ivory Silk Piano Shawl Densely Hand Embroidered Floral Theme 1.73m Beautifl 19thc French Velvet & Woolwork AppliquÉ Chateau Wall HangingAntique Chinese Silk Piano Shawl Red On Red Flowers Leaves Fringe Damaged CornerVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth- Beautiful Crinoline LadiesVintage Hand Embroidered Picture -miniature - Beautiful Country Cottage/gardens Framed Antique Turkish Ottoman Empire Hand Embroidered Fine Linen~vibrant ColorsExquisite Fragment Antique Regency Silkwork On Leather From Reticule C1810, RefFinest Georgian Silkwork Embroidery - Birds- Circa 1800 - Gilt FrameAdorable Antique Early Victorian Fine Needlepoint Tapestry Picture. Spaniel, DogAntique/vintage Embroidered Net Lace Long Rectangular Shawl - WeddingPretty Antique/vintage Tambour Lace Rectangular Shawl - WeddingAntique Arts & Crafts Embroidered Table Cloth Cover DoilieAntique Late 19thc/early 20thc Silk Embroidered Red & Yellow Roses Piano ShawlVintage/ Antique Chinese Qing Dynasty Embroidered Silk Short Robe/ JacketAntique/vintage Brussels Bobbin And Needlelace Fan LeafBundle Of 20 Items Of Vintage Table Linen Tablecloths, Toppers Hand EmbroideryVintage Hand Embroidered Art Nouveau Flowers/jacobean Style Picture Panel-superbVintage Hand Embroidered Picture -miniature- Beautiful Gardens & Swans On River Beautiful Antique Cream Silk Embroidered Medallion Chinese Robe Woman In GardenAntique Early 19th Century Felt Applique Embroidery - Squirrel & StrawberriesVintage Nike 6panel Cap Embroidered Hat Sport Supreme Polo Rare Swoosh SnapbackC 1920 Drop Waist Cocoa Silk Chiffon & Brown Velvet Dress With Hand Embroidery!!2 Antique/vintage Beaded And Silver Embroidered Collars4.5 Yards Antique/vintage Maltese Lace Insertion1900 High Quality Dense Fine Embroid Silk Canton Shawl White/white Knot FringeCharming Large Antique Ivory Silk Tea Cosy Embroidered Ribbon Work Flower Swags1.5m Beautiful French 19th Century Wool Silk Needlepoint Vestment Valance PelmetFramed Antique Chinese Hand Embroidery On Silk~circa Aprox 1800~subtle Colors..Arts And Crafts Embroidered Linen Table RoundPretty Hd Embroidered Vintage Linen Cushion Cover - Floral Border 19x19" UnusedVintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth111" X 83" Vintage Suzani Silk Embroidery Ethnic Kuchi Wall Tribal Uzbek HangingAntique Beetle Wing Embroidery 1800's Handkercheif Victorian Textile SewingAntique Early 20th Century Chinese Silk Embroidery Panel - Professionally Framed2 Antique/vintage Needle Lace Mats - AcornsVintage 100% Pure Silk Sari; Bandhani Saree In Crepe With Hand Beaded Work Victorian Silk Needle Roll, Tambour Embroidery Dated 1856 Monograme MtcAntique Chinese Emb Black Silk Piano Shawl Pink Peonies Fringe Some Damage As IsFine Old Chinese Embroidered Silk Auspicious Coins & Floral Panel Wall HangingAntique Peranakan Chinese Embroidery Silk Valance Wall Hanging Malaysia China18-19c Chinese & Japanese Silkwork On Silk Embroidery Lot NrAntique Chinese Embroidery Silk Qing Dynasty Cock Fighter Tapestry/panelGood Size Vintage Crinoline Lady Linen Tablecloth, Unusual Circled Corner LadiesAntique Late 19thc Black & Beige Silk Bird Of Paradise Floral Piano Scarf Shawl19thc Ottoman Embroidered Long Border In Gold Thread On Sky Blue Silk SatinVintage Hand Embroidered Tabletopper/traycloth -large/arts&crafts StylePretty Vintage Cottage Garden Needlework PictureHand Embroidered Gold Zari Sequins Beaded Work Vintage 100% Pure Silk Sari SareeVintage *collectible* Banjara Rabari Embroidery Tribal Kuchi Velvet Stole Shawl