The Origins of Embroidery

mixed media portrait, fiber art, stories of women, art by carrie brummer
“Ruth” has embroidery in her jacket in this Anonymous Woman painting

Embroidery as a word originates from the French word broderie, which means embellishment. 

In the earliest days of man, we can find evidence of embroidery. Fossilized clothing from 30000 BC shows decorative stitching in boots, clothing and hats.

In Siberia, archaeologists have found shells that had holes drilled into them and then were stitched into as well. These date from 5000-6000 BC.

In China, you can find instructions on paper on how to embroider that date from 3500 BC!

It’s believed embroidery originated in the Middle East and Asia, when people discovered you could stitch animal hides together to make clothing or decorations.

Embroidery was used in Byzantium, India, China, West Africa… it was widespread and across cultures.

It was used to embellish silk robes, and create beautiful decorations also ornamented with gold, like boxes, for example. For many years, it was seen as a respected craft, done to create items of high value. Possessing items that were embroidered was a sign of your wealth.

Because it was a craft, families passed down techniques to children to keep the tradition and their profession going.

Detail from one of my Anonymous Woman Series

Over time, in Europe, it moved from being a craft to a hobby of wealthy young women. It was part of one’s social status to be able to stitch well and create lovely patterns. 

Eventually the enjoyment of embroidery became something for everyone. In the 17th century, we find pattern books people used to help people create their own embroideries.

I grew up watching my mom do crewel work, counted-cross stitch and embroidery. My aunt would have a quilt made where each of us embroidered a patch of the quilt for newborns into our family. Embroidery has always been something I identified as something women do because of the examples of women doing it in my life.

As an adult now, I also see that embroidery and embellishment has also been a demonstration of love.

Is there a greater act of love than giving someone your time? 

“Barbara” reflects over 200 hours of embroidery work alone

For years I’ve thought about ways to incorporate embroidery into my art. I’ve felt called to use this medium women in my life have always used. And I wanted to elevate the craft. People use the word craft in derogatory ways today, and it can diminish the value of the work. So it only felt natural when I began a series of portraits honoring unsung women to use a material that is also often unsung and undervalued.

Not only am I trying to play with the idea of what defines art and craft, but also the value and worth of putting time into something like my art. These women in my current series were documented for the US National Archives. Their decision to go to work while men were at war in the 1940s was seen as a huge shift in cultural norms. But no one found them worthy enough of documenting their names. 

Was it only the novelty of seeing women at work that inspired these photos? 

Who were these women? 

How did their lives change? What did they learn about themselves and their country through making this change?

Giving them time is my way of demonstrating love and appreciation. Embroidering into their artwork is a way to engage in conversation, and honor the lives they led. Using real gold leaf is another way to honor and value the lives of these women. 

Embroidery has been part of human existence since we’ve started documenting our beginnings. It’s been a way to bring beauty into our everyday lives, through the embellishment of objects or clothes. 

We invented art before we invented human language. There is literally nothing more human I can think of than to practice art. Imagine in our early beginnings foraging for food, water, creating shelter and needing to protect oneself from neighboring tribes, but still finding the time to embroider, to make art.

Each stitch we make is an act of love, honoring all of our forebears. The time we give IS love.

References for today’s article:

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