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.