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Man, it seems, has an insatiable appetite to liven up his surroundings. From the earliest known fabric examples dating from 3000 B.C. to modern day three-dimensional thread creations, humans seem wont to enliven our clothing, toiletries and linens by adding hand work of some kind over the woven threads. Current Western culture links needle and thread to women. Originally, however, they relegated the task to men - in both Western and Eastern cultures, who served up to an eight-year apprenticeship before being considered a master at his craft.
Many earlier stitches are now our most common and more easily executed ones. The golden age of Western embroidery coincides with the golden age of music: the baroque period during the 17th and 18th centuries. For embroidery, it lasted into the mid-1800's. At that time, the invention of embroidery machines devastated the hand embroidery industry, causing major economic crises in many parts of the world.
Different areas of the globe devised their own peculiar style. The Norwegians created Hardanger, the Danes, Hedebo. In Italy, they devised richly detailed cutworks (Reticella). Peasants in Slavic countries such as Ukraine, Poland (most notably here Kolasca and cutwork embroidery), Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, created elaborately embroidered dresses for weddings and festivals, using darned and satin-stitched patterns along with bright colors. Each country has similar patterns, but conveyed in their own style, stitch and color combinations. The differences are distinct enough to allow anyone with just a little knowledge to determine their origin.
Western Europe is noted for its woolen embroideries: crewel (the name of the two-ply wool) on linen twill which is an art form at least 600 years old. This lush work adorned bedcovers, draperies, wall hangings, and chair coverings. These embroideries, now commonly but inaccurately called "Jacobean embroidery," continue to hold a fascination. Many needle workers are passionate about crewel work - although on a less grand scale.
Egyptians practiced white embroidery, but it was the fine work emanating from Western Europe that takes our breath away. Using only white thread on a white ground, the earliest works contained skill and details that few today can emulate. Dresden work was perfected in Germany, marked by intricate embroidered lace using drawn fabric stitches and diaper patterns in minute detail. Ayrshire Needlework came from Scotland with its roots in France. By some experts' standards, it is the most notable of all embroideries. Heavily padded motifs and openwork fillings characterize the work. The original muslin available was more fine and transparent than anything either manufactured or hand woven today. The openwork was executed by withdrawing threads from the ground fabric and working intricate patterns thereon. As the fabric became more closely woven, they cut areas of ground fabric away, and fine needlelace filled the space.
We usually credit England with broderie Anglaise, the original of this "Whitework" depicting flowers, leaves and stems entirely in eyelets, though its origins may be Czech. Through time, satin stitching and other cutwork techniques were added. Commercially, this work is still being done today on the island of Madeira off the coast of South Africa. Referred to as Madeira Work, it is primarily aimed at the tourist trade, with many different qualities of construction being produced.
India also practised Whitework - its workers being so skilled that the needle doesn't pierce through to the back but splits the ground threads. The resultant embroidery is entirely on the surface. Unfortunately, the prior skill of the Chikan embroiderers has been lost with the changing economies, for it is believed that workers must be trained from a young age. This training is no longer occurring. But India, and this region, is still producing very fine embroideries for export.
China perfected the art of two-sided embroideries - some of which take several years to complete. On one side may be a tiger, and the reverse may be a leopard or lion. Done entirely in silk, these embroideries fetch thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars, depending upon size. Asian embroideries exemplify art, spirituality, and culture through needle and thread, with strict adherence to technique and refined stitches.