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    

Fabulous Curtains Heavy Woven Shabby Chic Toile Crewel Embroidered Tapestry *nr*Antique Victorian Beadwork / Berlin Woolwork Embroidery - Child & Pet DogBeautiful Curtains Heavy Woven Shabby Chic Toile Crewel Embroidered Tapestry *nrAntique Silk Piano Shawl Canton Manton De Manila Embroidered Floral Peacocks Lg!19thc Antique James D Smillie American Watercolor Painting Woman Embroidering145 Ins Mid 18th Century Milanese/flemish Bobbin Lace - Pat Earnshaw CollectionStunning Vintage Hand Embroidered Crewel Work Picture Panel Dali Tree 29" X 21"Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth Pastel Daisies & Buttercups 32" X 32"A Delightful Mid Victorian Ayrshire Whitework ShawlAntique Vintage Black Silk Piano Shawl Embroidered W/ Colourful Flowers & BirdsVintage / Antique Embroidery - Chinese / Japanese Theme - Bird, Flowers & Sun - Mixed Lot French Antique Embroidery Gold Applique's~vestment~religious~projects~Vintage Cream/taupe Silk Floral Embroidered Piano Shawl 22" Hand Knotted FringeAntique Victorian Berlin Woolwork Floral Embroidery 2 - Upholstery Or CushionBreathtaking Persian Islamic Ottoman Velvet Purse With Gold And Silver Wire Beautiful 19thc Berlin Woolwork Scottish Hunting Scene Petitpoint Ponies DogsVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth Gorgeous Garden Flowers - 32" X 32"Vintage Hand Embroidered Linens -job Lot Of 12 Pieces -beautiful EmbroideryVintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth + 12 Matching Napkins Garden Flowers 38"x40"98 Ins Antique/vintage Bobbin Lace - Pat Earnshaw CollectionArts & Crafts Hand Embroidered Picture Panel Superb Garden Flowers 20" X 23"Rare Antique Turkish/islamic/ottoman Empire Silver Embroidered Evening Bag 1900Superb Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth Snowdrop Deep Circle 31" X 31" Antique Stunning Hand Embroidered Jacobean Birds Chain Picture Panel 37" X 23" Excellent 19thc Chinese Silk Hand Embroidery Ancient Life Scene Hardwood FrameVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Picture Panel Jacobean Birds Design - 24" X 27"Amazing Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth Art Deco Sweet Peas 52" X 52"Rarest Antique Stomacher Corset Green Velvet Silk Embroidered Beaded PanelAntique Victorian Berlin Woolwork Floral Embroidery - Upholstery Or CushionAntique Hand Embroidered Appliqued Picture Panel Crinoline Lady 18.5" X 11"27 Ins Antique/vintage Early Bobbin Lace - Pat Earnshaw Collection28 Ins Antique/vintage Early Bobbin Lace - Pat Earnshaw CollectionVintage Embroidery Miniature Picture In Brass Frame.Georgian Wedding Slipper-circa 1815-provenanceVintage Embroidered Linen Picture Panel - Cottage Garden - 5" X 3"Vintage Hand Embroidered And Appliqued Cloth/cushion Panel. Crinoline Garden3 Antique/vintage Wooden Spools Gold Wire Thread ~french Church Provenance~Vintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth - Floral Paths - 34" X 32"19 Antique German Copper Embroidery Monogram Letter Stencils For Dowry LinensSuperb Lot Antique Metallic Silver Wire Thread + Sequins ~church Provenance~Antique/vintage 18th C Flemish Bobbin Lace Square - Pat Earnshaw CollectionVintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth - Sweet William & Rose Posies - 47" X 47"Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth- Lovely Crinoline Ladies And FloraVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth Flora & Berry Garlands 38" X 42"Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth - Art Deco Daisies - 33" X 32"Antique Victorian Hand Embroidered Irish Linen Tablecloth - CarnationsVintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth Dancing Crinoline Ladies & Gents 31" X 33"Vintage Ivory Cream Tablecloth - All-over Swiss Embroidery & Scallop Edge 60" SqVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth- Beautiful Crinoline Ladies And FloraAntique Tapestry Purse Made In Austria Marcastite Embroidered Tapestry Evening Vintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth White Daisies On Blue Linen 40" X 40"Late19th-century Antique Chinese Embroidered Silk Scent Purse BagVintage Antique Silk Quilted, Bed Jacket Hand Sewn Gorgeous So Downton AbbeyVintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth=exquisite Raised Embroidery Vintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth=exquisite Pink Roses/raised EmbroideryAnonymous Made England Black Crunchy Square Tip Knit Embroidered Spot Silk TieAntique Estate Hand Woven Embroidered Indian Kashir Shawl Hanging 1800's TextileStunning Antique Hand Embroidered Picture Woodland & Bluebells Framed4 X Myart Vintage Linen Embroidery Doilies/ Duchess Sets - All UnworkedThree Vintage Hand Embroidered Brooches & One Turquoise Wren Warbler Bird Item