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    

Extraordinary Beetle Wing & Gold Thread 1920s Tunic Dress On Net.Deep Flounce Panel Of Very Pretty Antique Victorian Tambour Lace EmbroideryExquisite 19th Century Regency Silkwork Chalice Cover Vestment, Bullion TrimMagnificent Antique Russian Grey Wool Hand Embroidered Shawl~circa 1850~russia.Antique Victorian Needlepoint Embroidery Flowers In A Lovely Unusual FrameC 1900 Chinese Silk Jacket Made From Antique Embroidery Embroidered Badges RobeAntique Beadwork Aide Memoire Purse Double Sided Vgc RareVictorian Sailors Woolwork Picture- Masted Ship Antique Signed Dated Folk Art 1900 High Quality Dense Fine Embroid Silk Canton Shawl White/white Knot FringeVintage Ecru French Tambour Lace Curtain Panel 58" X 26" * Embroidered FlowersAntique 19thc Chinese Embroidered Yellow Silk Panel Skirt. Excellent ConditionVintage Silk Piano Shawl Scarf Embroidered Flowers Long FringeLarge Lot Of 13 Vintage Table Cloths Hand Embroidered Linen Shabby ChicBundle Of 17 Items Of Vintage Table Linen Tablecloths, Napkins, Hand EmbroideryAntique Victorian Beadwork & Needlework Banner - Cherub AngelPair 19c French Needlepoint Embriodery Figures At The Market Gilt Wood Frames NrAttractive Antique/vintage Fan-fabric With Embroidery.Vintage Tapestry Chinese Immortals Silk Embroidery 17 Feet Oriental SatinSmall Bundle Antique/vintage Lace - Dolls, Projects Vintage Hand Emb Irish Linen Tablecloth Crinoline Lady.Vintage Japanese Dazzling Golden Embroidered Formal Uchikake Wedding KimonoVintage Japanese Luminous Silver Embroidered Formal Uchikake Wedding KimonoNice Antique Chinese Embroidered Silk Wall Panel/banner Textile, 142" X 41"Beautiful Vintage Linen Tablecloth~ Superb Ornate Hand Embroidery~blue & PinksGood Antique Chinese Embroidered Silk Wall Panel/banner Textile, 128" X 38"Large Vintage Embroidered Black Silk Fringed Silk Piano ShawlAntique Hand Painted Berlin Woolwork Embroidery Pattern - Posy Roses - A. TodtBeautiful Antique Kashmir Or Indian Piece Of Embroidered Fabric~circa 1850~1880.Two Antique Chinese Embroidered Silk Panels TextileVintage Japanese Dazzling Gold Embroid/couched Formal Uchikake Wedding KimonoAntique Victorian Edwardian White Cotton & Lace Chemise Nightgown NightdressAntique World War Patriotic Silk Needlework Eagle 20 Star Flag July 4 AmericanaA Beautiful Antique Kashmir Or Kirman Amli Shawl Of Red Wool~circa 1880.A Beautiful Antique Kashmir Or Indian Hand Sewn Red Man's Robe~circa 1880~1900.19thc Chinese Silk Embroidered Panel With Goldfish Koi ~beautiful~Antique Circa 1900 - 1920 Chinese Silk Embroidery Of A Dragon - Cushion / Frame 3 Pretty Antique/vintage Lace ScarfsExquisite Antique 19th Century Regency Silkwork Face Screen FanSuper Vintage Italian Linen Hand Embroidered Inset Needle Lace Square TableclothAntique Turkish Ottoman Empire Embroidered Fabric~"the Sultan's Garden".Vintage Hand Embroidered White Linen Tablecloth- Beautiful Crinoline LadiesSuperb Hand Embroidered Vintage Pillowcases, Summer Flowers And ButterfliesAntique/vintage 1930s Machine Guipure Lace PanelPretty Vintage Large Square Crinoline Lady Hand Embroidered White Tablecloth Antique Chinese Silk Textile Embroidery Scene Of Figures Dragon Sun Tree OceanExquisite 19th Century French Regency Silkwork Panel Vestment Head Of ChristFour Vintage Embroidered TableclothsPretty Pink Embroidered Linen TableclothLot Of Four Vintage Chinese Embroidered Silk Panels TextileVintage Linen Embroidered French Tablecloth Fab Quimper 33" By 32"Superb Vintage Italian Linen Hand Embroidered Needle Lace Sml Square TableclothTwo Vintage Crinoline Lady Hand Embroidered Nightdress Case/ BagVintage Hand Embroidered Linen 17ins W X 11ins Floral Nightdress CaseSmall Vintage Hand Embroidered Panel Of CatVintage 1920's 1930s Art Deco Wool Work Embroidery Embroidered Pictures FlamingoVintage V.large Madeira Style Tablecloth~ 9'x 6' ~2.45m X 1.77m~ Ornate FloralVintage Bouquet Floral Roses And Garland Cross Stitch Linen Tablecloth 100 X 72Beautiful Antique Chinese Embroidered Silk Wall Panel/banner TextileHand Glass Sequin Beaded Work Weaving Flower Design Vintage Pure Silk Sari SareeAntique Vintage Ww2 Silk Piano Shawl Tablecloth