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Embroidery - Painting With The Needle
It is said the Crusaders left home in metal armor and returned in embroidered silks. But more than twenty centuries earlier Tutankhamen was buried with richly embroidered clothing much like priests' vestments of today. Exodus tells us Solomon curtained his temple with Babylonian embroideries. Ezelciel mourns for Tyre and her "broidered works and chests (cedar) of rich apparel."
Bas reliefs show us richly embroidered clothing was used in both Babylonia and Assyria. We see Ashurbanipal wearing elaborate embroideries. A portion of a king's coat or tunic shows the Egg and Dart pattern, the Tree of Life, the Palm Leaf, and the Babylonian rosette. A favorite motif was the Lion at the throat of a Fawn-the ancient religious theme of the struggle between day and night, good and evil, power and weakness. Thus the symbolism of the ancient East showed in its needlework patterns.
Trade spread these highly ornate and symbolical embroideries to far places. The grave of the Seven Brothers from the 4th century B.C. near the sea of Azof preserved for us some red wool cloth embroidered in yellow flax by chain stitch. It is now at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.
Flower Embroidered Muslins Intrigued Alexander
Alexander the Great marveled at the flower embroidered sheer linens and muslins of the Persians, little dreaming a few years later he would take the long journey home from Babylon in a gold coffin covered with a purple pall "flowered" in gold.
Roman historians tell of commerce by mule and camel, river boat and by ship over Mare Nostrum, bringing the world's best to Rome where China's "divine cloth and thread" silk to us sold for more than its weight in gold. Egypt's Cleopatra wore a dress embroidered at "home" but on cloth from China dyed at Tyre. Rome's Nero paid the approximate of $800,000 for Babylonian embroidered couch covers.
Trade took the East's rich needlework to native chieftains beyond the Gates of Hercules and to far North lands where it sold for silver, tin, amber and salt fish. But embroidery was actually made by Europe's neolithic woman who left her bone needles and scraps of embroidery in caves for us to find. Pliny, in his day, wrote of the fine embroidered rugs the French then were making.
Rome fell and Byzantium, new center of Christianity, developed new symbols and picture stories from the Christian doctrine. The dove, olive branch, cross and crown, and scenes from the life and passion of Christ took precedence over the old symbolism of the East, yet preserved and blended with it. So we see forms of the Tree of Life, Flame design, Lotus, Iris, Pink, and Rose, Butterfly, Bird, Pomegranate, and Lion at the throat of a Fawn.
Early Christian Embroideries Spread by Holy Men
Holy men carried embroidered Christian symbolism and Scenes of the Passion over Europe. So did pilgrims who visited sacred tombs and took in the great market fairs arranged for their benefit and that of the traders.
Nobles wanted costumes, home furnishings, chapel and cathedral hangings and altar pieces enriched with these "needle paintings" in gold, silver, and even China's divine thread, as well as wools and linens. Costumes grew so excessive and expensive in embroideries the Church scolded worshipers for wearing more gospel on their backs than in their hearts, and kings issued restricting edicts.
The monasteries were great centers of needlework, but queens and courts put in their spare time at it, picturing religion and history. They embroidered pictures, symbols and flowers over their garments, over throne canopies and wall hangings, over book covers, altar pieces and funeral palls, over fire screens, bed hangings and furniture coverings.
When the warrior King, Charlemagne, was crowned Emperor at St. Peters on Christmas Day, 800 A.D., he wore a dalmatic (tunic) of blue silk with Byzantine embroidery. Its field was filled with crosses and crowns in gold and silver thread. A "needle painted" young Christ was enthroned on the front with saints below and angels above. The Transfiguration decorated the back.
Faces were worked in split satin stitch with white silk. Hair, costume shadows, and clouds were stitched in fine gold and silver threads with dark outlining. Some say this is the finest embroidery in all Christendom. Others prefer the set of vestments and altar pieces in Vienna ordered by Philip the Good in the late 15th century for the Order of the Golden Fleece.
The Bayeux Embroidery Tells History
The Bayeux "tapestry," probably made for the Cathedral of Bayeux, embroidered in wool on a coarse linen strip two hundred and thirty feet long, tells the story of William's conquest of England. But the richest assembly of embroideries in history, possibly, was at the Field of the Cloth of Gold when Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England met in tournament. The costs all but bankrupt the nobles.
This was before Henry's Spanish Queen, to ease the burden of her loneliness, turned to the sheer embroideries and black stitchery of Spain. She made much, too, of the heavier needlework with its strong Moorish symbolism.
Europe's explorations began and her Sea Rovers and East India traders brought back India's embroidered Kashmir shawls. Her fine embroidered cottons, as diaphanous as ever Cleopatra's lovely dancing girls wore, made cavaliers' shirts and ladies' gowns, displacing the heavy gold, silver, and silk embroidered velvets, satins and wools so long favored at court.
China's inimitable color art and needlecraft in her embroidered silk mandarin costumes, priests' robes, fans and cases, purses, perfume bags, pictures and hangings, to name a few, caused garments and furnishings to be marked with Western designed patterns and sent to China for the needlework. Many an American shipping baron and merchant prince wore vests embroidered by Chinese fingers with either European or Chinese flowers and figures.
Then the French Revolution destroyed court costume and the rise of the common man changed clothing fashions. Machines began making fine fabrics for all. Fancy needlework languished. But the old stitches were saved and have come down to us in the practice needlework "charts" of little girls, now our precious and prized samplers.
Queen Victoria Brought Embroidery Back to Fashion
England's Victoria revived needlecraft. Embroidered aprons, doilies, table sets, guest towels, pillow shams, petticoats, and antimacassars were a part of most Victorian homes. Crewel work of wool on linen, an English and American favorite, decorated many a curtain, cushion, bedspread and divan or bench or chair seat. So did gros point; while petit point, in fine wool on canvas made dainty opera bags.
Sheer Swiss embroideries made grandma's lawn party dress, wedding handkerchief, or collar. Madeira sent tea napkins. Italy furnished cut work banquet sets. Pineapple fiber tablecloths, napkins and tray cloths embroidered in white or blue flowers came from the Philippines. These are but sample listings.
India's fine muslins with her rice grain seed stitches and her bukhai or satin stitch, so like the shadow of Victorian needlewomen, came West and are now collectors' pieces. So are India's shishadar embroideries with their rich colored flowers and geometrics, sparkling with tiny mirrors appliqued throughout by buttonhole stitch. Her Benares work, with its silver and gold encrusted velvets or satins, is famous.
European peasant embroideries still repeat the patterns reaching back to the days of ancient Greece. Recently Chicago's Art Institute displayed some fine embroidered linen towels from Asia Minor. Maybe the flower gardens of Ur and Babylon live on in the delicate roses and cypress 'trees which the fragile fingers of last century's Turkish ladies "painted with the needle" across the borders of these sheer and lovely linens.