10 Things About Embroidery

Random fact about me: when I was very little there was an older lady who sometimes babysat me. I don’t remember her name or why she was the one watching me (I had three older siblings, three grandparents, and a whole host of aunts, uncles, and cousins in the same town back then), but I remember what I learned from her. She taught me how to crochet and to cross stitch. Going over to her house meant learning how to craft. She had a lot of doilies. A lot.

We moved out of that town when I was only eight years old, and I didn’t crochet anything again until I was in college. Several of my friends had learned how to knit, but I remembered being taught how to crochet and did that instead. It was like sort of like remembering how to ride a simple, but very painstaking bicycle. Eventually, I made baby blankets, hats, scarves, etc for anyone and everyone. I could afford yarn easier than I could afford other types of gifts. I could do a lot with a single skein. I never picked cross-stitching back up, though.

Fast forward to the present (2021). I was cleaning out a room in my house and came across a craft kit that I had actually bought for someone else before changing my mind about what to get them. Instead of returning the kit, I decided to save it for who knows what reason (hence why I have to periodically purge my house of unnecessary stuff). The kit was a “learning how to embroider” starter pack. It had a book of instructions, some floss, a couple of needles, a hoop, and some designs to choose from. I wasn’t having the greatest mental health day, and crafting sometimes helps me hit my emotional reset button, so I decided to give it a go. It’s been two weeks. I have now embroidered a small bag, several bookmarks, and have about five more projects planned out. It’s simple, it’s pretty, and it’s addicting. It gives my hands something to do even when my mind is kind of a mess. Unfortunately, it sometimes makes me go into hyperfocus mode and takes over my whole day. ADHD is a wild ride, y’all.

Anyway, since I have it on the brain, you get to join me in learning about my latest addiction (better books and crafts than dangerous things). Here are 10 Things You Might Not Know About Embroidery:

  1. Historians don’t actually know when embroidery first began as an art form. There are ancient examples of embroidered items from multiple different cultures and on most continents. A few years ago, a dig in Russia unearthed a Cro-Magnon (30,000 BC) with embroidery on his clothing and hunting gear. So it’s not just an old art, it’s literally prehistoric.
  2. In Greek Mythology, Athena is credited with gifting the mortals with embroidery. It is what led to an eventual showdown with Arachne, a mortal.
  3. It comes from a French word meaning embellish. While I’ve never heard it used this way, apparently there are places where to say someone is “embroidering” a tale colloquially means they are exaggerating quite a bit.
  4. The largest piece of embroidery in the world (that we know of) is the Bayeaux Tapestry. On display at a museum in the north of France, the tapestry is 50 cm high and 250 ft long. It depicts William the Conqueror in the Battle of Hastings. The tapestry dates to the 1070s.
  5. There is evidence of multiple ancient Asian cultures using embroidery as a sign of social status for centuries. The higher your rank or greater your wealth, the more intricate and pervasive the design on your clothing or other items.
  6. Cross-stitching, a specific style of embroidery, entered the scene–at least in the West–in the early 1800s. It quickly became all the rage for “well-bred” young ladies. Even after machine embroidery took over, for a young woman to know how to cross-stitch and to do so with skill was seen as a mark of refinement. That probably explains why I did NOT learn how to do it from my own family.
  7. Embroidery machines went through several phases before truly becoming a catalyst for change in the industry. Both of the earliest automated embroidery machines were designed by men from Switzerland. The first only ever sold two of his machines. But he inspired others to piggyback off of his idea.
  8. While artists, shop owners, and manufacturers have all been male dominated fields in pretty much every culture, embroiderers employed women before most other industries would even consider it. In fact, when the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the increasing availability of embroidery machines, many businesses still hired women to run the machines and to serve as quality control for the designs. Men still got most, if not all, of the credit, mind you, but it was an industry that welcomed female labor.
  9. If you are a talented embroiderer and want everyone to know (especially if you’re a merchant), you can get your City and Guilds textile certification. City and Guilds began as a technical and vocational licensure committee in England in 1878. It still operates today. The president of the organization is a member of the royal family. I’ll be honest here and say I didn’t know that certification in a guild was still a thing people did. I thought they were like most professional organizations these days where you paid your money and generally agreed to follow a given set of rules in order to make your own business endeavors seem more legitimate. Apparently, there are still actual classes and exams involved for this.
  10. It is possible to embroider on wood. It involves drilling holes, sanding, staining, and then threading said holes, but it creates a very unique look for signs, plaques, and even furniture. It’s not a style I’m into, but there is apparently a decent market for it because when I looked up examples online I found a plethora and they are not cheap.

Since I generally try to relate these topics back to world building in writing, let’s do that. Here is an art that transcends culture, time, trends, etc and has stood the test of time. Technology has made it more affordable and easier to access, but “the old fashioned way” is still valued by many. I can sit down with needle, thread, fabric, and hoop or frame and literally do the same activity that other women have done for thousands of years. In your fictional world, is there something that can make that claim? Is there something so valuable, so beautiful, so appealing that people are still willing to do it “the hard way”? Why?

Cooking comes to mind, but it was a necessity before it was an art. Embroidery–to my admittedly limited knowledge–was never a necessity. Maybe the beading techniques I’ve read about from certain Native American Tribal Nations that get passed down each generation, though by some definitions that can be lumped in with embroidery. I suppose much like painting, sculpting, or even composing, the tools may change through the centuries, but the art is still the same at the heart of it. A tradition that is never traditional.

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