What Does Embroidery Mean in Textiles?

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever wanted to decorate a shirt or your favorite pair of jeans? Ever considered a type of sewing called embroidery? In this lesson, learn about embroidery and how it's used on textiles.

What is Embroidery?

Textiles can be decorated in many ways. You can dye them or paint images on them. You can also sew designs on them with colored thread. Embroidery is the process of embellishing the surface of textiles with decorative stitching using colorful threads often made of silk or cotton.

Embroidery is an old art form. It's been found on ancient textiles from China and Russia dating back thousands of years. One famous example of embroidery is the Bayeux Tapestry from circa 1076. This decorative work, almost 230 feet (yes, that's feet!) long, is a narrative scene of the Norman Conquest of England. It's created entirely of many kinds of embroidery stitches on linen cloth.

Section of the Bayeux Tapestry, a famous work done in embroidery
Section of Bayeux Tapestry

Cultures all over the world have embroidery traditions. Throughout history, embroidery on textiles sometimes denoted status in society or wealth. You can find examples of beautiful, elaborate embroidery on royal garments and religious vestments.

Detail of embroidery on a fancy suit jacket from France, circa 1774
Detail of embroidery on a suit

Types of Embroidery

There are several kinds of embroidery, including crewel embroidery, a type of embroidery that creates decorative images done with a sturdy wool thread called crewel.

Example of crewel embroidery using wool threads
crewel embroidery

Cross-stitching is a type of embroidery done with counted threads. That means it uses pre-planned patterns that lay out a certain number of stitches on fabric with small holes or squares. Cross-stitch uses a type of stitch shaped like an X.

Example of cross-stitch embroidery
example of cross stitch

How is Embroidery Done?

Today, embroidery can be done by hand or by machine. We're focusing on embroidery as a craft that you might try, so we're going to look at some of the many embroidery stitches that you can do at home (an embroidery machine does similar stitches but it completes them much faster and at greater volume). Many different types of embroidery stitches produce different effects on a textile. Let's discuss a few basic ones.

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