During National Embroidery Month, this and every February, we’re taking a moment to appreciate an art that’s perhaps been underestimated, or at least underpublicized. Embroidery, the art of decorating fabric with needle and thread, has a vast and varied history, and still maintains a strong following of crafters today. Everyone has seen examples. From name labels on the breasts of work polos, to military insignia on veterans’ hats, to the old jean jacket your favorite aunt put the design on by hand, it seems as though almost everything in the world of fashion is embroidered, or well could be – and embroiderers today are able to create just about any design.
Though most commercial embroidery is now done by computerized machine, the craft itself is believed to date back to 30,000 B.C. Cro-Magnon men and women, according to reports of an archaeological discovery, used fibrous plant threads and the sinews of animals to sew intricate rows of ivory, shells, and other materials to their various coverings and clothing. Other discoveries reported from Siberia and locations near there, as well as from Egypt, show embroidery used not only as decoration, but as a historical record and as a sign of social status.
History of National Embroidery Month
It remains unclear what the catalyst was that caused the public interest in the art of embroidery to explode into National Embroidery Day back in 1992, but we have a few guesses.
Fans of late-19th and early-20th century history will be cognizant of a custom of that time in the Western world, where girls were taught embroidery during their pre-teen years, and would practice it to pass the time while important matters were discussed in whatever parlor or sitting room they were in. Many girls, bored and complaining about her needlework, heard the sentence, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Young women’s knuckles were rapped with switches or rulers, should their attention wander too far from the detailed and painstaking design work in their laps. That was one of the ways that ladies of society were brought to the age of majority in that specific cultural microcosm, perhaps partially because of what they put together not only with cloth and thread, but also with the overheard deal-making and oath-breaking in those rooms.
As gender norms changed, the strictness of the embroidering custom decreased, and gradually interest waned. But the craft itself never died out. For certain applications, embroidery has always been the way to go. From the hoop-frames and needles of those times, to the slick and quick machines of today, there’s always been a call for at least a monogram.
We’re happy to report that, aside from commercial applications, which can number in the tens of thousands of impressions per design, the current-day personal practice of embroidery for artistic pleasure is enjoying a huge resurgence, with a gigantic number of pages on Pinterest and the other socials dedicated to the craft. Some have suggested that “IRL” is coming back to challenge “online.”
Just one warning: If your interest is piqued and you want to pick up some supplies and try it out, you might want to invest in a thimble, that first time out.
National Embroidery Month timeline
The Industrial Revolution brings machine embroidery to the forefront, with French, Swiss and German technologies combining to create mass-made uniform images in wool, linen and silk.
Embroidery reaches the height of its medieval popularity, with households including furniture, layette (laundry) baskets, and court dress that’s decorated with lavish and intricate thread and bead designs.
Chinese ruling-class men and women use thread embroidery to attach intricate rows of gems, pearls and other precious objects to their robes and other wearable items, which then outlive their owners to be discovered, dated and catalogued by archaeologists.
Primordial humans heavily decorate their clothing in a crude precursor to the embroidery arts, then pass away, become fossilized, and millenia later have their remains be discovered and analyzed by modern-day scientists.
National Embroidery Month FAQs
How is embroidery relevant today, besides logos for companies?
We’d suggest checking out Pinterest and Instagram for examples of how artists are expanding boundaries and crossing genres using the needle and thread. One man, James T. Merry, has been featured in “The Guardian” for his ability to marry ultra-corporate logos with organic embroidery, for example, a beautiful daisy blooming out of the Nike “swoosh,” down to the flower’s tendrils and roots. This dramatic juxtaposition is just one modern use of ancient art.
Where’s the best place online or in person to get supplies?
The national chain crafts stores like “Michaels” and “JO-ANN Fabrics” are longtime suppliers of exactly the kind of tools, manuals and kits you’ll need. If you’d rather have items shipped to you, we recommend doing a simple “Amazon” search by seller or item ranking. Be savvy, and you’ll end up with top-quality supplies at very reasonable rates.
Is it possible to make a living embroidering?
We’ve always believed in the age-old advice, “Do what you love and the money will follow,” though that level of faith in yourself and the universe can seem hard to maintain for the first few months or years. It helps, even before you’ve established your skill level and started to branch out to selling to friends and acquaintances, to draw up and strictly keep both a budget and a daily schedule, down to the hour or even half-hour.
National Embroidery Month Activities
Attend a class or workshop.
Whether you register with friends or make new ones in the classroom, you’ll share your amazement at the skill you see demonstrated by those who have practiced embroidery for years or decades. And who knows? You might come up with a completed assignment of your own that’s worthy of gifting to that special someone.
Visit a textile museum.
Many major cities have top-tier museums devoted to the history of the fabric arts, with the craft of embroidery being no exception. It’s not an adrenaline rush, but there is a certain awe that we associate with being in the presence of ancient art. See if you feel it yourself.
Support a local artist or shop owner.
Chances are, if you go to the arts district of your city, you’ll find a shop that’s owned and run by local people who stock hand-embroidered items made by artists they know. We won’t lie about such a purchase being negligible in monetary terms, but the piece is likely to become a cherished possession to share (or to keep to yourself).
5 AMAZING FACTS ABOUT SILK THREAD
It’s made in a process called “throwing”
Silk that has been reeled into skeins (think of a skein of yarn) is then cleaned, twisted and wound onto bobbins, “thrown” or twisted its full length, doubled and twisted again, then a third time, to finally arrive at a state of thinness and strength suitable for sewing.
It comes from insect larvae … ?
In the process of sericulture, the captive-raised larval form of the mulberry silkworm naturally weaves a cocoon around itself before assuming its adult insect form, and it is the abandoned cocoon that is then harvested for raw silk.
In ancient Eurasia (the “continent” reaching from France and England in the West to Japan in the East), silk was the most sought-after trading commodity, originating in China and kept under lethal anti-leak measures that stood for centuries.
The road most traveled …
The vast network of trade routes that played a crucial role in the cultural developments of multiple Eastern-hemisphere societies was called the “Silk Road” for the dominance of said material and the demand for it.
Confucius says …
The wife of Chinese Emperor Huangdi, according to legend, discovered silk in the year 2,700 B.C. when a silkworm’s cocoon fell from a bush into her tea and stretched into a threadlike form when she plucked it out.
WHY WE LOVE NATIONAL EMBROIDERY MONTH
The best embroidery is handmade
Chances are, if you own or acquire a hand-embroidered item of clothing or other gear, you’ll take good care of it, enough so that it lasts a long, long time. To us, that’s one of the best things about art: that it lives beyond its own creator’s imagination.
It’s trending, and trending hot
Embroidery as an individual artistic medium is enjoying a huge comeback. Pros and amateurs, young and old, anyone and everyone whose hands itch to make something meaningful, you’d be surprised at the sheer number of crafters we’ve heard of who’ve recently picked up the hoop and needle.
It takes an absorbing focus
A large percentage of artists, when asked what they like most about practicing their chosen pursuit, will say, “When I’m absorbed in something I’m working on, my mind isn’t on anything else; I’m not worried about bills, my kids, my parents, it’s just me and what I’m making.” Embroidery, we can tell you, is no exception.
National Embroidery Month dates