The History of Embroidery

by Jan 24, 2017

Here at Advance Printwear, we have more than 25 years’ experience in creating high-quality custom embroidered clothing. However, the history of embroidery as a technique itself goes back much, much further…

What is embroidery?

Before we dive into the history of embroidery, let’s first talk about the definition of embroidery. Embroidery is the craft of creating intricate decoration using a needle and a thread. Historically, it has been used to decorate fabric most of all but there’s evidence to show that embroidery has existed before fabric itself.

Traditional hand embrodery

The term “embroidery” comes from the French term “broderie” which directly translates to “embellishment”. Throughout history, embroidery has been regarded as a sign of wealth and high social standing but more on that later. Let’s take a look at the very early history of embroidery.

Early Embroidery History

The history of embroidery spans over thousands of years with the earliest examples dating to the Cro-Magnon era (30,000 B.C). The origin of the technique is believed to trace back to the Ancient Chinese who may have been the first to ‘discover’ embroidery, with remarkably advanced examples dated to between the 3rd and 5th centuries BC. Embroidered clothing dating from 300 to 700 AD has been found in Europe too.

Early Embroidery History Chines Robe Detail e

Examples of stunning embroidery have been found throughout the world, each reflecting their culture’s own techniques and aesthetic traditions. Want to know a cool fact about embroidery? There’s evidence that the Vikings also practiced embroidery and had various embroidered designs on their clothing back in the 9th-10th century.
You might also be surprised to learn that embroidery was born not out of a desire to create intricate designs and decorate clothing, but simply the need to fix stuff! According to textile experts John Gillow and Bryan Sentence, embroidered clothing was simply a logical next step from primitive sewing techniques.

As ancient people patched and repaired their clothes, they discovered the decorative possibilities of sewing, and embroidery as an art form began in earnest. With the rise of the Chrisitanity in the year 1000, embroidery began to develop as a status symbol and took a prominent place in the life of nobility across the globe.

Embroidery in the Middle Ages

Embroidery is perhaps unique in the world of textile arts in its versatility and popularity throughout history. Embroidered clothing existed in all walks of life, across all corners of the globe but in the Medieval times embroidery was much more than just decoration – it was a sign of wealth. The rich and powerful would not only wear heavily-embroidered garments but they would also decorate their homes with large embroidered tapestries.

A notable example of opulent embroidery is the Opus Anglicanum style practiced in Mediaeval England. This lavish technique was used to create embroidered clothing and wall hangings, and favoured gold threads and expensive textiles. The most famous example is almost certainly the Bayeux Tapestry – a 70×50-metre embroidered cloth depicting the conquests of the Normans.

Bayeux Tapestry Medieval Embroidery

However, embroidery as a status symbol really came into its own in the Islamic world. Like Opus Anglicanum, Islamic embroidery favoured expensive threads, but with an intricate style all of its own. Thanks to its position as a signifier of social standing, embroidered clothing became popular throughout the region, and was found on shoes, tunics, robes, uniforms and many more garments across Istanbul, Damascus and Cairo.

Embroidery in the 18th – 20th Century

In the 18th century embroidery became an integral part of a young woman’s education across Europe. In England and its colonies, learning how to embroider was part of a youth’s transition into adulthood and all young ladies who had the relevant social standing were trained into the craft of embroidery.

Hand embroidery 18th Century Woman

The Industrial Revolution changed the history of embroidery as it changed European history overall. In the mid-1800s, the first embroidery machine was made in France. It was half-automated and still used hand embroidery as part of the process. Yet, it was the beginning of embroidery’s journey into mass production.

At the turn of the twentieth century, embroidery became more accessible with people using mail order catalogues to buy their own embroidered garments and decoration. Pattern papers simplified the embroidery process so it no longer required master craftsmanship.

Affordable embroidered clothing woman

With more affordable materials entering the production line, embroidery lost its exclusive upper-class status and became something ordinary people could buy for themselves. In the late 20th century, embroidery was no longer reserved for women only either. From the King of Sweden – Gustaf V to Hollywood actor Henry Fonda, men with a high social standing were taking on embroidery as a hobby and they weren’t ashamed to show it. That was a pivotal moment in the history of embroidery.

Embroidery Today

The change that the Industrial Revolution set off continued to transform the world of embroidery as advances in technology allowed embroidery to be digitalised. The advent of computers sped up the process even further, with today’s embroiderers able to design patterns using computer software and upload this file into the machine for a perfect reproduction on fabric.

Despite these incredible advances in technology, however, machine embroidery has much in common with its hand-crafted ancestor, with early techniques like cross stitch, blanket stitch and chain stitch still forming the basis of the art today!

Man wearing modern embriodered jacket

Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to find a unique embroidery design, maybe even create it yourself, and then place an order with an embroidery clothing specialist to produce the desired item of clothing or decoration that you are after. With software and automated machinery, you can have your order, even in bulk, in just a few days. This is why embroidery is commonly used in the production of branded workware across the world.

Interested? To see some examples of embroidery on workwear download our workwear brochure – it’s full of practical workwear that can be embroidered, if you need some advice do call us on 0121 322 2111 – we’d be delighted to help!

We hope you enjoyed going for a journey through time with us as we explored the history of embroidery from the 3 century BC to the present day.

Image: Twelve-symbol imperial robe cut in Qing style, Chinese, late nineteenth century. Courtesy of