Embroidery originally referred to the stitched decoration on medieval church vestments. Embroidered pictures, or “needle painting” became increasingly popular from about 300 AD, reaching its height in the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy. As well as needle painting, coloured decorative embroidery and white-on-white embroidered linen were produced. In Spain, under Moorish rule, a variety of styles were developed, the most important be embroidery in black wool on white linen – a style which became fashionable in Elizabethan England. In central and eastern Europe, embroidery was a popular folk art for decorating household items, such as pillows and towels, with bright geometrical and floral patterns.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, embroideries were often used to decorate items such as mirror frames and wall panels. In Jacobean woolwork, large fabrics were embroidered in varied stitches and colour for large household items like curtains, bedspreads and wall hangings. Embroidery was used to decorate both men’s and women’s clothing. Late in the 18th century, white embroidery from Saxony become famous as a decoration for cuffs and scarves.
After the French Revolution, the trend was towards simpler styles. The most widespread new style of the 19th century was Berlin work, a variety of needlepoint executed in soft wool, coloured with bright chemical dyes; typically, they were of biblical or historical scenes.
Early American embroidery tended to follow English styles, although somewhat simpler. One popular style was Turkey work; so named because it had a knotted pile similar to Oriental rugs. Quilting was popular in America from early colonial times, with decorative embroidery often being used to attach the pieces of coloured cloth that made up the quilt.
Samplers were widely produced, serving as decorative items in themselves as well as instruction tools for girls, not only in embroidery stitches but also for learning the alphabet and numbers. During the 19th century, samplers grew larger and were embroidered with brighter colours. Around the middle of the century, cursive script and ornate capital letters appeared.
Embroidery was not exclusively for girls; boys were also taught embroidery as a way of teaching them their letters. During the 19th century, soldiers and sailors often turned to sewing during periods of inactivity. They often produced fine needlework accessories such as needlecases, hussifs (strips of fabric with pockets for small tools) and book and cushion covers. Sailors made woolwork pictures of ships on canvas showing carefully detailed sails, rigging and flags.