27 February 2008

Global Seminars & Invited Speaker Series


Introduction to the art of embroidery and its techniques

Dr. Ana María Ágreda Pino

Embroidery is the art of applying, by means of thread and needle, a decoration to a piece of cloth called a background. Embroidery is not to be confused with woven fabrics, i.e. fabrics decorated on the loom. Embroidery is an additional ornamentation executed after the completion of the weaving process and was often embroidered on richly worked fabrics. Embroidery should also not be confused with tapestry, which is also made on a loom and in which the weft thread completely covers the warp thread. Embroidery is a work guide, which is done with thread and needle and which does not cover the background completely, so that it becomes an active element of the composition. 

When studying the art of embroidery, specialists distinguish between two types: one popular, carried out by an anonymous 'artist', often without a previous design , who traced the motifs directly onto the fabric, following the techniques and models that tradition passed on with little change, and another, also known as scholarly, which is distinguished by the application of the stitches on quality fabrics, generally silk. This embroidery is also characterised by the use of noble Materials threads, as well as by the use of a complex technique. The result would be a very elaborate work that can be related to the evolution of the different artistic fields of each period and which is capable of imitating the effects of volume, depth and chiaroscuro of painting. This embroidery subject was done by professional embroiderers, who carried out their work in organised workshops. 

Embroidery was frequently used to embellish and enrich clothing and personal accessories, as well as furniture and fabrics and sacred vestments used in liturgical services.

Tapestry of the Annunciation

Tapestry of the Annunciation. Mantua. 1516-1519.

When embroidering a piece, the embroiderer needs a basic material, thread. The threads used by embroiderers were wool (in the Middle Ages average), but above all, silk and gold (from the Modern Age onwards). The artist used the stretcher frame for decorative work. The hoop was used to stretch the fabrics, which were then embroidered with various types of thread and needles. In the act of embroidering, the embroiderer's right hand was placed on top of the canvas or fabric to receive the needle and the left hand under the hoop to pick it up, once it had passed through the fabric in the execution of a stitch. The motifs were designed and drawn in advance. The documentation refers to tracings, samples, designs or patterns. Sometimes this design was provided by the embroiderer himself, but on other occasions artists from other fields were used to carry out this task.

Embroidery workshop frames

Frames in an embroidery workshop. L'art du Brodeur. Charles Germain de Saint Aubin. 1780.

There are different types of embroidery, the most important being: overlay embroidery, in which the embroidery work was not executed directly on the rich silk fabric that formed the field of the garments, but the motifs were embroidered on other, less expensive fabrics, which were then sewn onto the silk fabric; appliqué embroidery, in which the decorations, drawn on paper, were placed on a quality fabric, cut out and applied to the base of the piece to be decorated, and finally, back-embroidery, in which the work was done directly on the rich fabric of the garment's base. All these varieties of embroidery were done with a series of stitches that are classified according to the material used. Thus, we speak of silk stitches, such as the shading stitch, plain stitch, chain stitch, backstitch, sand stitch or cord stitch; of gold stitches, group , which includes laid gold or plain gold or chopped embroidery, and, finally, gold and silk stitches, of which the most important is shaded gold.

Caplet with a border embroidered with nuanced gold

Caplet with a border embroidered with nuanced gold