Embroidery is the art or handicraft of decorating fabric or other materials with needle and thread or yarn. Embroidery may also incorporate other materials such as metal strips, pearls, beads, quills, and sequins. Embroidery is most often recommended for caps, hats, coats, blankets, dress shirts, denim, stockings, and golf shirts. Embroidery is available with a wide variety of thread or yarn color.
The origins of embroidery are unknown, but early examples survive from ancient Egypt, Iron Age Northern Europe and Zhou Dynasty China. Examples of surviving Chinese chain stitch embroidery worked in silk thread have been dated to the Warring States period (5th-3rd century BC). The process used to tailor, patch, mend and reinforce cloth fostered the development of sewing techniques, and the decorative possibilities of sewing led to the art of embroidery. In a garment from Migration period Sweden, roughly 300–700 CE, the edges of bands of trimming are reinforced with running stitch, back stitch, stem stitch, tailor's buttonhole stitch, and whipstitching, but it is uncertain whether this work simply reinforces the seams or should be interpreted as decorative embroidery.
The oldest embroidery works still in existence date back to the Middle Ages when embroidery was often used in ecclesiastical vestments as well as clothing. It also represented a sign of wealth, and rich traders and merchants were willing to pay a large sum of money for the luxury of embroidered clothing. A great example from this period is the Bayeux Tapestry, which is 231 feet long and recounts the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Jacob Schiess started the first commercial embroidery manufacturing establishment in 1848 in New York. He came from Switzerland and within a year had his own embroidery plant in operation. All the stitching was done by hand by fifteen woman stitching exquisite designs by hand.
The development of machine embroidery did not take place until the 1800's. Joshua Heilmann from Mulhouse worked on the design of a hand embroidery machine. Though he did not sell many, it revolutionized the embroidery industry. Heilmann's invention was quickly followed by the "shuttle embroidery" and the "chain stitch embroidery" methods.
The beginnings of shuttle embroidery dates back to the 1860's when Isaak Groebli, from St. Gallen, Switzerland, was inspired by the work produced on the sewing machine.
Around the 1870's there were fourteen companies manufacturing embroidery machines in Switzerland manufacturing hand loom embroidery machines. Today there are four companies manufacturing schiffli embroidery machines.
In 1873, Alphonse Kursheedt imported twelve of the then new embroidery hand looms from St. Gallen, making him the first American to use a mechanized embroidery process. The looms used multiple needles and were an unbelievable improvement over the age-old process of stitching by hand. They were, however, powered manually.
Immediately afterwards, Isaak Groebli of Switzerland invented the first practical Schiffli Embroidery machine. This machine was based on the principals introduced by the newly invented sewing machine. Groebli's machine utilized the combination of a continuously threaded needle and shuttle containing a bobbin of thread. The shuttle itself looked similar to the hull of a sailboat. "Schiffli" means "little boat" in the Swiss dialect of the German language, so his machine came to be known as a schiffli machine.
In 1876, Kursheedt began importing a number of schiffli machines to America, thereby making him the real founder of the schiffli embroidery industry in the United States.
Dr. Robert Reiner, founder of Robert Reiner, Inc., of Weehawken, came to the United States in 1903 in his early twenties. Realizing the potential of the embroidery industry, he persuaded the Vogtlandishe Machine Works of Plauen, Germany, to appoint him it's American agent. This began a mass importation of embroidery machines into northern New Jersey's Hudson County. The banks arranged long-term credit to purchasers. Dr. Reiner made it possible for hundreds of Austrian, German, and Swiss immigrants in New Jersey to become manufacturers of embroidery.
The industry grew until 1938, when suddenly the two sources for the manufacture of machines in Plauen, Germany, and Arbon, Switzerland, ceased operation because of World War 2. No additional machines were produced until 1953, when Robert Reiner Inc. introduced the first American-made schiffli machine. Gradually in time, improvements were made to the machine in America as well as in Switzerland and Germany. Today computers are playing a major role in the embroidery process.
The remarkable stability of basic embroidery stitches has been noted:
It is a striking fact that in the development of embroidery ... there are no changes of materials or techniques which can be felt or interpreted as advances from a primitive to a later, more refined stage. On the other hand, we often find in early works a technical accomplishment and high standard of craftsmanship rarely attained in later times.
In the 16th century, in the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, his chronicler Abu al-Fazl ibn Mubarak wrote in the famous Ain-i-Akbari: "His majesty (Akbar) pays much attention to various stuffs; hence Irani, Ottoman, and Mongolian articles of wear are in much abundance especially textiles embroidered in the patterns of Nakshi, Saadi, Chikhan, Ari, Zardozi, Wasli, Gota and Kohra. The imperial workshops in the towns of Lahore, Agra, Fatehpur and Ahmedabad turn out many masterpieces of workmanship in fabrics, and the figures and patterns, knots and variety of fashions which now prevail astonish even the most experienced travelers. Taste for fine material has since become general, and the drapery of embroidered fabrics used at feasts surpasses every description."
Embroidery was a very important art in the Medieval Islam World, one of the most interesting accounts of embroidery were given by the 17th century Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi called it the "craft of the two hands". Because embroidery was a sign of high social status in Muslim societies, it became a hugely popular art. In cities such as Damascus, Cairo and Istanbul, embroidery was visible on handkerchiefs, uniforms, flags, calligraphy, shoes, robes, tunics, horse trappings, slippers, sheaths, pouches, covers and even on leather belts. Many craftsmen embroidered with gold and silver. And each of these embroidery cottage industries employed over 800 people.