Embroidery is a technique for fabric design that dates back at least the fifth century BC. Some of the earliest embroidery work can be traced to the Warring States period in China, but artisans across the globe have been using the technique for centuries. This article will discuss the unique history of embroidered bed linen in the west to give modern artisans and fans of the craft an idea of the rich tradition surrounding embroidery.
The ancient Greeks attributed the creation of embroidery to the goddess Athena. In its earliest forms, stitches like the running stitch, the backstitch, and the stem stitch were used for both decoration and reinforcement of seams. By the medieval times, skills like the ability to craft embroidered bed linen were seen not as a practical one but as a means of conveying social rank and standing among wealthy Englishmen.
In Middle Age England, embroidery was associated primarily with church vestments. By the late sixteenth century, though, embroidered bed sheets and clothing came to be viewed differently. These luxury items had taken their place as social instruments for conveying class, and the responsibility for creating embroidered goods had primarily shifted to women.
A Woman’s Craft
Daughters of noblemen and the gentry learned elaborate, decorative stitches and used them to create embroidered bed linen, clothing, napkins, and more, while young lower-class women focused on plainer and more practical sewing skills. While being a skilled seamstress was a good way to make a living during this era, excelling at embroidery was seen as a sign of piety, diligence, and class.
Interestingly enough, despite all the strong associations that were made at the time and remain in place today between needlework and genteel femininity, the only known embroiderer’s guild in operation during this period was the Worshipful Company of Broderers, which was open only to men. Despite this restriction, women still held jobs as professional embroiderers. Upper-class needleworkers produced decorative household goods and textiles for their husbands and families, while lower-class women worked in the professional production of ribbons and trimmings.
A few of today’s most common embroidery themes can be traced back to this period in England. Then, as now, flora and fauna pieces were popular among the upper classes, as were illustrations inspired by the bible. The first pattern books went into print in the late 16th century and contained patterns for both Biblical and secular designs.
Adding Color and Flair
During the heyday of embroidered bed linen, most household furnishings were relatively plain. Hand embroidered textiles like embroidered sheets offered a touch of comfort and unique visual appeal to the bedrooms of those nobles and gentry who had skilled needleworkers in their families or had the money to buy professionally embroidered goods.
A Personal Touch in Modern Times
Today, machine embroidery has overtaken hand embroidery as a primary means of reinforcing seams and hems. It will never eclipse the art of hand embroidery, though, and as in times past, today’s consumers are drawn to the femininity and the rich cultural history of hand-embroidered goods. That’s part of what makes an embroidered bedding set such a wonderful gift for a recipient who appreciates the finer things in life.