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    

Superb Antique Chinese Embroidered Silk Kimono Robe Circa 1920Large Art Nouveau Peacock Embroidery - Antique Silk Thread On Strong CottonFinest 18th / 19thc Antique Chinese Hand Embroidered Silk Screen PanelsAntique/vintage Tambour Lace Wedding Veil Unique & Crazy C1920's Vintage Flapper Silk Velvet Cape Ribbons Roses & Shells!Antique Silk & Chenille Embroidery Diorama Of Fruit - Stump Work 1820 - 1840Antique/vintage Honiton Lace Bonnet Veil - Some Damage.Antique Lot Of 8 Primitive Silhouettes Folk Art Embroidery Painting Prints YqzAntique Vintage Hand Embroidered Silk Canton Piano Shawl FlowersVintage English Crinoline Lady & Doves Hand Embroidered PictureA Large. Quality Antique Vintage Chinese Silk Embroidery Panel Circa 19th CVintage Hand Embroidered Picture Panel-beautiful Assorted FlowersSuperb Antique Raised Goldwork Ecclesiastical Embroidery On Silk ~roses & Lilies2 Shaped Pieces Antique/vintage Tambour Lace - For ProjectsVintage Hand Embroidered White Linen Tablecloth Pansy FlowersAntique Vintage Jeweltone Blue Silk White Embroidery Long Canton Shawl Piano Vintage Hand Embroidered Picture - Thatch Cottage Garden Scene 8 X 5 Inches Antique Victorian 1800s Hand Embroidery Ornate Floral Gold Silk & Velvet PillowFabulous Vintage Irish Linen Tablecloth With Hand Embroidered Madeira EmbroideryAntique Silk Canton Piano Shawl Fragment Colorfully Hand Embroidered ChinoiserieVintage Hand Embroidered Picture Of Crinoline Ladies. Windy Day! Unframed.Vintage Crinoline Lady Hand Embroidered ApronSuperb Designed Vintage Embroidered Table ClothAdorable Vintage Panel Fox Terrier Dog Hand Embroidered Glass Eyes Deco PictureA Fine Quality Antique Vintage Chinese Silk Embroidery Panel Fragment C19th CLarge Antique Hand Embroidered Panel On Irish Linen - Crinoline Lady In GardenExquisite Large Vintage Hand Embroidered Madeira Banquet Tablecloth & 12 NapkinsFine Old Chinese Embroidered Silk Forbidden Stitch Highly Detailed Robe PanelTapestry Blanket Coat Vintage 60s 70s Mod Needle Point Embroidered Long Winter S2 Fragments Antique/vintage Brussels Duchesse And Point De Gaze Lace BorderVintage Hand Embroidered PictureAntique 49" Gold Chinese Silk Embroidery Peacock Butterfly Bird Scarf TextileFrench Victorian Star Flower Ivory Vanilla Tapestry Embroidery Vintage Quilt Wow2 Antique Chinese Textile Panels Embroidery On Pink Birds Water ScenesSanita Dansko Aqua Blue Floral Embroidered Tapestry Clog Shoe 40 Size Us 9-9.5Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Robin & Holly Tablecloth.Vintage English Country Cottage & Garden Hand Embroidered PictureOriginal 1920-1921 Us Air Service Silver Embroidered Cloth Panel - Germany Fine Antique Chinese Embroidered Silk Robe Sleeve Panel ButterfliesPair Original Chinese Silk Embroidery Landscape Panels W/ Silk Mats NrBundle 14 Items Vintage Table Linen Tablecloths, Toppers, Runner EmbroideryVintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth= Fabulous Arts & Crafts Style EmbroideryVintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth-lovely Raised EmbroideryBeautiful Very Large Antique Chinese Silk Embroidery Picture UnframedVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth= Fantastic Raised Embroidery Antique Chinese Rank Badge Pair Hand Embroidery See Photos Usa China Only Nr!77 Ins Antique/vintage Brussels Duchesse Lace BorderFabulous Vintage Irish Linen Tablecloth Hand Embroidery Jacobean Style FloralsAntique Chinese Forbidden Stitch Hand Embroidered Textile Wedding Skirt Bats EtcAntique Chinese Silk Embroidered Skirt Fragment - 5-clawed Dragons, Birds, CraneGlorious Length French Antique C. 1900 Silk ~appliqued + Metallic Trim~Antique Linen Hand Embroidered Australiana.Vintage Lady Looking Out Of Window Hand Embroidered ApronLarge. Quality Antique Vintage Chinese Silk Embroidery Panel Early 20th CenyuryA Good Quality Antique Vintage Chinese Silk Embroidery Panel Circa Early 20th CAntique Wwi Souvenir De France Silk Embroidered Pillow Case Crochet BoarderVintage Embroidered Beige Silk Shawl Piano Scarf Flowers Bird ButterfliesOld Chinese Silk Embroidered Picture Wall Hanging Tapestry: Sleeve Band Sections25 Fabulous Antique Embroidered 'daisy' Dress EmbellishmentLarge Vintage Tablecloth, Embroidered Roses & Lace, App 215 X 180cm, Glen Iris