February 2018

Embroidery: the social media that predates the computer

Handful of Colorful Yarn, Photo by Mollie Johanson,

Photo by Mollie Johanson, www.molliejohanson.com

Embroidery is enjoying a rebirth, but this is not your grandmother’s needlecraft.

A craft practiced around the world, from China to India, South America to the United States, embroidery is an art form that’s both meditative and artistic. It’s crossed cultures for centuries. Traditionally a way for women to practice their stitching skills, embroidery has recaptured the imagination of do-it-yourselfers of all ages.

“I’ve watched needlework and embroidery grow in popularity for at least ten years,” says Mollie Johanson, an embroidery designer, artist, and the talent behind Wild Olive. “It doesn’t even feel like a trend any more. People are embracing it both as stitchers and as consumers who appreciate completed work.”

Pillow case, 18th century. Embroidery, crewel-work.

© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Pillow case, 18th century. Embroidery, crewel-work. Gift of Mrs. Barrett Wendell.

Long before social media and television, embroidery was a common way for craftspeople—primarily women—to record daily life, demonstrate sewing skills, and embellish everything from clothing to bedding. In the Middle Ages, churches across Europe showcased fine early examples of the craft on vestments and furnishings. During the 17th and 18th centuries, women and young girls were taught to do “fancy work,” stitching samplers to practice their aptitude with needle and thread as well as demonstrate their artistic talents.

“Knowing how to embroider was a sign of high status because you had the leisure time and money to afford the materials to work with,” says Pamela Parmal, David and Roberta Logie Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Apron, about 1700. Cotton plain weave with cotton embroidery and drawn work and 
bobbin lace trim.

© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Apron, about 1700. Cotton plain weave with cotton embroidery and drawn work and 
bobbin lace trim. Gift of Mrs. Anne B. Freedberg in memory of Miss Katharine B. 

Embellished furnishings and samplers are also key to understanding how women once lived. “Embroidery is the greatest source of material history about women,” says Parmal, who’s researched and written extensively about Colonial women and needlework. “It was a huge part of women’s lives in the 17th and 18th centuries. They not only did ornamental work; many women made money embroidering, teaching sewing, and drawing canvases.”

Garnet Hill Maya Embroidered Beach-Cover UpBeautiful embroidery has long been a fashion trend, once conferring status and prestige to women fortunate enough to wear it. During the Ottoman Empire, rulers in Istanbul commissioned fine embroideries from local seamstresses and workshops. The colorful embroidery found on today’s blouses, skirts, even denim jackets, has its roots in ethnic embroidery and even Native American techniques like quillwork and beading.

Couture designers from the 19th century, such as Charles Frederick Worth and Jeanne Lanvin, used embroidery in their women’s fashions to convey a sense of status. Embroidery was prized for adding texture, color and dimension. The colorful cotton, silk, wool or linen threads could be combined with beads, metal, shells, feathers and other types of adornment to create unique garments.

Embroidered Bed Sheets at Garnet Hill

Now, with the development of machine embroidery and modern sewing techniques, needlework still reflects an eye for intricate detailing and a simpler time. It’s a craft often passed down through generations. Johanson learned to embroider as a young girl, stitching alongside her grandmother. She’s practiced needlework for years.

On her blog and in her Etsy shop, Johanson focuses on a variety of needlework projects and her fondness for kawaii, a Japanese aesthetic meaning cute, reflected in many of her designs. Her online kits are simple introductions to the craft. “What’s wonderful about embroidery is that you only need to learn a couple of stitches to get started,” she says. “It’s instant gratification. It also makes you slow down a little while you’re working. There’s a nice rhythm to it.”

Embroidery: Do all things with love

Photo by Mollie Johanson, www.molliejohanson.com

If you’re itching to stitch, it’s easy to get started. For less than $20, you can purchase embroidery needles, thread and buy a predesigned kit or start embellishing items you already own, like a pillowcase or dish towel. Online crafting communities and shops—like The Spruce, Creativebug, and Spoonflower—offer advice, pre-designed projects, support, and more (plus opportunities to buy finished needlework projects, if you’re not feeling crafty). And if your interests tend toward more historic references, visit Thistle Threads, an online shop created by a textile engineer, offering online courses and cross-stitch kits featuring 17th and 18th century stitching techniques. “There’s a whole group of women interested in reproducing samplers and women who teach different period styles and techniques,” Parmal says.

Stitching is my happy place

Photo by Mollie Johanson, www.molliejohanson.com

Becoming involved in a needlework project helps you unplug. There’s a sense of flow when you become engrossed in a project; according to scientific research, it can help you feel more fully alive. “Working on an embroidery project forces you to slow down,” says Johanson. “And the community aspect, especially online, is a wonderful way to connect with others.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.