Embroidery Through the Ages

Throughout the weaving and bobbin timeline of embroidery’s evolution, the principal combination of needle and thread remains steadfast, whether one is relaxing with needlepoint or running an industrial-sized machine.

By Dustin Shrader, Managing Editor

July 28, 2023

Very few things in life stand the test of time. As natural as the ebb and flow of evolution, most seemingly universal customs are founded and practiced with vigor, only to fade away with a whisper as the years tick by. Embroidery, however, is not one of those long-forgotten rituals. As the world’s oldest decorating technique, it truly is a timeless classic.

The Age-Old Beginning

Although the term may sound simple, the craft of embroidery is anything but. Using a needle and thread to create intricate ornamentation requires a creative mind, an eagle eye and a steady hand. We tend to typically think embroidery was historically only used to decorate fabric, yet there’s evidence to suggest that the technique existed before fabric itself was invented, with early civilizations using the process to repair or “patch” items.

Embroidery papertape

Photo courtesy of John Deere.

The artform of embroidery can be traced back to the Cro-Magnon era, around 30,000 B.C. Archeological discoveries from this time have unveiled serious hand-stitched artifacts with decorations perfectly preserved in fossilization. Archeologists believe modern embroidery’s origin may have been helmed from the ancient Chinese, with fascinating examples from this culture dating back to the “Warring States” period, somewhere between the 5th and 3rd centuries B.C. Interestingly, there’s evidence to suggest the Vikings also practiced embroidery, using one or two techniques to embroider designs on their clothing during the 9th and 10th centuries.

Derived from the French term broderie, meaning embellishment, the art of embroidery, also referred to as textile surface decoration, has indeed been embellished with practice, universally passing down from generation to generation across the millennia.

The Rising Renaissance

By the year 1000, Christianity had taken hold throughout most of Medieval Europe. Embroidery’s popularity was also on the rise during this time being used to highlight the wearer’s status and prominence among the nobility and their religious beliefs. Garments were adorned with heavily embroidered intricacies as well as were large, embroidered tapestries to display various levels of wealth throughout the hierarchy.

The 200-year span between 1100-1350 is notably referred as the “greatest period of English embroidery,” also known as the Opus Anglicanum, a Latin phrase meaning “English work.” And much work was created using golden threads, divine silks and expensive textiles forming historical artifacts and grandeur that can still be seen throughout all of Europe. This trend was echoed around the globe from exotic places to religious states, such as Cairo, Damascus and Istanbul, where embroidery was used to adorn items of all types, similar to what we see in today’s current marketplace.

From Queen Elizabeth I’s reign and beyond, embroidery began to trickle down to commoners as an amateur craft no longer reserved for the elite, an advancement made just in time for the upcoming revolution.

The Revolutionary Industry Turn

As the Industrial Revolution was remaking the rest of the world, it also brought along the invention of first mechanical embroidery machine. Dating back to the mid- to late 18th century, the design for the first embroidery machine resulted in a system that ran on half-automation while simultaneously using hand embroidery to complete the process—not quite the machines everyone can purchase today, but an innovative start on a journey to mass production nonetheless.

Photo courtesy of John Deere.

Over a period of decades, the design of the embroidery machine evolved through the work of inventors such as Thomas Saint, Josef Madersperger, Barthélemy Thimonnier, Walter Hunt and Elias Howe. This passing of the metaphorical baton eventually led to the machinist Isaac Singer, the man mostly commonly associated with the sewing machine and the eventual founder of what became one of the first American multi-national businesses, the Singer Corporation (originally, first established as I. M. Singer & Co.). Singer revolutionized mass production for embroiders, even marketing machines for home use. The company expanded globally, and along with rising competitors, it sped us into the embroidery industry we recognize today.

“Embroiderers are always suspended in time, using equipment whose base concepts stem from the 1800s, a timeless understanding of materials, designs that hearken back to every era of decoration and digital control that only came into its own through the flourishing of modern computing,” says Erich Campbell, program manager with embroidery specialist Briton Leap/Embrilliance.

The Limitless Times

Today’s artform has shifted from the days of old, morphing into a contemporary practice courtesy of technological advancements. Although the basic concept of putting thread to needle has remained the same, embroidery has come a long way with the introduction of the computer completely changing the game for this everlasting industry. The original prototype from the 1800s has now morphed into high-tech, often massive machines consisting of multi-needle, multi-head setups that are a beast for mass production.

“When I first started at the age of 17, I was a ‘puncher’ now known as a digitizer,” says John Deer, owner and CEO of John Deer’s Embroidery Legacy. “With the introduction of computerized systems some 40 years ago, instead of digitizing or ‘punching’ one stitch at a time, we were able to create what are now primitive objects and fill them in with stitches. It was absolutely revolutionary at that time.”

Embroidery machine

Photo courtesy of Erich Campbell.

Digitizing with computer software ushered in an all-new era for embroiderers to surpass what was once thought impossible, opening the door wide for a juggernaut trend that is continuing to take the world by storm.

“My digitizing course I created is based on 12 hours of theory that I learned when I was 17, and to this day it has practical implication for the newest software that’s in the industry,” Deer says. “There’s two parts of the puzzle when it comes to mastering digitizing and software. There’s the program itself, which is important, and then there’s the theory: the rules of all stitch types, how to correctly map your designs by sequencing all the objects you create. That puzzle is exactly what embroiderers were already doing 150-plus years ago. I never would have dreamed that embroidery would become as advanced as it has. If I look back to the old days where I had my first Ultramatic, it’s fascinating to see how far we’ve come.”

How far we have come, indeed. In 2022 alone, the global embroidery market hit an all-time high at $2.7 billion and is expected to surpass $5 billion over the next five years. A feat that is quite mind-blowing considering this ancient decorating technique was once only used to fix tears in clothing and is now a multi-faceted industry that more than plays its part in keeping the global economy turning.

“Digitizers went from punchers that plotted every stitch from a 6:1 scale drawing to a kind of specialized digital artist that blends the understanding of thread, materials and machines with design chops and the ability to steer and explore the functions of modern software as it calculates the stitches we specify as we draw each area of the designs,” says Campbell. “Embroidery really is a timeless art that is bound together with and buoyed by the forward march of technology.”