Skip to main content
Student with mannequins

Gallery Exhibit: "History in Stitches"

Six Centuries of Embroidery

This Exhibit ran from March 1 to September 30th 2005

The practice of stitching designs on a cloth began as early as the Bronze Age in China with silk threads and in Syria with flax threads on linen. People have had many reasons for embroidering designs on fabrics. Since early times embroidery has replaced body paint and tattoos and expressed individuality in personal adornment. Embroidery identifies the maker or user with a group or culture, spiritually as well as aesthetically. It reinforces membership or rank within a tribal, family, or community group as the maker earns respect for her/his skills.

In some cultures, highly developed needle skills are believed to merit spiritual rewards in the next world. Spirituality can be associated with the placement of embroidery; for example, stitching over seamlines to repair discontinuity produced by needles making holes in a seam. Embroidery also can guard areas of a garment, particularly openings, from perceived malevolent forces.

The craft is an outlet for creativity; the opportunity to produce beautiful and meaningful designs. It may express opinions or ideas that are not spoken. Often embroidery is the world wide decoration of choice for both ecclesiastical and secular ceremonial dress. Embroiderers have copied designs of expensive textiles such as figured silks, printed cottons, Kashmir shawls, or tapestries. Sometimes designs in non-textile art work such as paintings and porcelains are reproduced by embroidery.

Hand-embroidered fabrics show the pecuniary strength of the wearer who can afford hand work on embroidered bed hangings or a court suit and vest, for example. The trade has long been a source of income for professional embroiderers, men and women, and the merchants they worked for.

Black Work and Red Work EmbroideryBlack Work and Red Work Embroidery

Moroccan Azemmour work panel with peacocks, ca. 1650


Moroccan Azemmour work panel with peacocks, ca. 1650. Donor: Robert P. Bainbridge; URI 2003.12.164



Eastern European/Western Asian Embroideries
Eastern Europe acts as a geographical and stylistic bridge between the east and the west. Embroideries of Eastern Europe contain unique combinations of religious and regional motifs. The former Turkish occupation of eastern European countries created a strong Islamic influence in design. Catholic and Orthodox Christian religions also play an important role in the embroidery designs of the region. Embroidery often decorates Eastern European blouses and shirts, chemises, dresses, towels, tablecloths, head coverings, and decorative aprons. The most prevalent color of embroideries is red. The most common stitch is the cross stitch. Embroiderers used many variations of the cross stitch, and the examples in the case represent cross stitching and numerous types of other stitches.

Eastern European/Western Asian Embroideries


Eastern European/Western Asian Embroideries







Eastern Asian Embroidery
Third-rank (peacock) square,

China, nineteenth century;

URI 2003.13.12

Chinese shoes for woman's bound feet.

Whitlock Collection;

URI 1962.31.445


Eastern Asian Embroidery

The rank square with a peacock is to be sewn to the center front (or back) of a Chinese robe. It identifies the wearer as a civil servant; animal motifs symbolize military rank. This rank designation began with the Ming Dynasty in the l5th century. This peacock is applique'd on top of another bird, whose couched gold yarns are visible along the edges.

From the 11th century onward, Chinese women of high rank bound their feet at a young age. The practice served a dual purpose - creating small feet esteemed as beautiful in Chinese society and symbolizing that a woman's wealth sheltered her from mobility or hard work. Eventually, to emulate the rich, women of lower classes bound their feet as well. As this "trickle down" effect took place, wealthy families eventually abandoned the practice, although instances of foot binding persisted into the twentieth century.

Eighteenth-Century En Position Embroidery

En position embroidery was worked on a flat textile before a tailor cut the fabric to construct a garment. The embroiderer laid the pattern of a waistcoat or jacket on flat goods and then stitched only where the embroidery would be visible on the finished garment. This took much skill to execute making the fabric very expensive and a symbol of the wearer's pecuniary strength.

Brown man's suit with lace embroidered waistcoat from 1780-1800

Man's suit, c. 1780-1800.

Donor: Robert P. Bainbridge;

URI 2003.12.205

Silk embroidered beige sleeveless dress by Elsa SchiaparelliPanel for waistcoat. Donor: Robert P. Bainbridge;

URI 2003.12.206


Dress by Elsa Schiaparelli.

Donor: Hortense H. McDonald; URI 1960.22.01



The square of silk fabric has been embroidered for a man's waistcoat with pocket, front, and lower front borders. Designer Elsa Schiaparelli, inspired by embroidered eighteen-century men's waistcoats, created the bodice of the white silk dress in the exhibit. The owner had it made into a floor length gown for her sixteen-year-old granddaughter. The man's court suit was embroidered by the en position method.

Samplers and Other Early Embroideries

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, women and professional embroiderers worked linen samplers in silk or linen to record stitches and designs. They rolled the rectangular embroidered panels for storage and unrolled them when they needed to recall a pattern or stitch. They did not date them or make them to be framed. These early samplers consisted of bands of embroidery, lace, canvas-work designs, or combinations of these techniques. Some appear to be unfinished because the embroiderers often reserved spaces for adding new bands of stitching as they acquired new skills or designs.

By the early eighteenth century, girls as young as five years old began to make samplers for practice in working numerals and alphabets. A single sampler might contain as many as eight styles of letters along with several different sets of numerals. The same letters and numerals recorded on these samplers marked clothing and household linens as "proper" housekeeping required.

Dated samplers demonstrate a gradual shift in emphasis from recording stitches and patterns towards creating decorative pictorial designs. By the mid-eighteenth century, square intricately stitched pictorial samplers became more common than before. Another change about 1760 was the inclusion of pious verses on samplers.

When samplers emerged in America, they provided sources for both owner identification and/or ornamentation. Sampler makers in seventeenth-century America used many of the stitch and design techniques used abroad with almost no change. In the eighteenth century, however, designs and stitches began to take on a particular American flavor with a more naturalistic unrestrained character than European samplers. The American pieces often are more individualized in conception and more flamboyant in appearance but may lack the discipline and polish of English or Continental examples.