History of Needlework

To trace the history of cross stitch, we must look back to the very beginnings of embroidery, since it is only relatively recently that cross stitch has been used as the sole stitch in a piece. Ancient wall paintings and sculptures show that embroidery was worked on clothing from the earliest times. An ancient Peruvian running-stitch sampler has been dated to 200–500 AD

The word Embroidery comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for "edge", but the technique itself was being used long before that. The term was first applied to decoratively stitched borders on medieval church vestments. But over time it came to cover all stitched decoration on any textile fabric.

The first textiles were probably made from intertwined stems and grasses, until a way of twisting short fibres and animal hairs into continuous strands evolved about 10,000 BC.

Fragments of cloth dating from between 5,000 BC and 500 AD have been excavated from tombs and monuments in South America, Egypt and China, and these show crude examples of darning, half cross stitch and satin stitch. Many of the fragments are made of linen; the regular warp and weft of this fabric, one of the oldest of all woven materials, provided the basis for the development of counted thread stitches.

The earliest known Embroidery examples are from 3000 B.C They are hand work over the woven threads on clothing.

The earliest example of a complete cross stitch is a design worked in upright crosses on linen, and the piece was discovered in a Coptic tomb in Upper Egypt, where it was preserved by the dry desert climate dating from about 500AD in Upper Egypt. Very few pieces of decorated fabric have survived from ancient civilisations, but this does not mean that decorative stitching was rarely used. Natural fibres are perishable and do not survive as well as most metal and ceramic objects excavated from archaeological sites.

From the historical and archaeological evidence available, there is not yet enough accurate information to trace the exact origins of cross stitch embroidery. Some historians suggest that the development of cross stitch owes much to the craftsmanship of the Chinese, since this type of embroidery is known to have flourished during the T’ang Dynasty between 618AD and 906AD and a strong rural tradition of counted cross stitch still existed there during the early twentieth century.

It is feasible that techniques and designs spread from China via India and Egypt to the great civilisations of Greece and Rome, and from there throughout the countries of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. An alternative school of thought believes that the spread of cross stitch embroidery may have been in the opposite direction, since the first important migration of foreigners into China took place during the T’ang Dynasty. Persians, Arabs and travellers from Greece and India followed the silk routes to China and many eventually settled there. There is evidence that these immigrants influenced the designs of Chinese arts and crafts, particularly those used for textiles. The patterns on many Chinese textiles show great similarity to those found on Persian fabrics.

The only certainty is that the technique and designs of cross stitch spread from many of these countries throughout the European continent. The Crusaders probably brought home embroidered textiles from the Middle Eastern countries after the Crusades. The well-travelled trade and spice caravan routes carried not only merchants and their stock of articles which were for sale but also itinerant craftsmen, who practised their skills wherever they settled. The spread of cross stitch designs from their place of origin to so many different locations makes it difficult to identify accurately any one design as having originated in a particular region.

Designs and stitches have been exchanged between so many different cultures and geographical areas, through travel, trade and the availability of printed design books, that many design elements are now common to several cultures. Even today, it is fascinating to see the same motifs occurring in the traditional peasant embroideries of countries as far apart, geographically, as the Greek Islands, Mexico and Thailand. There are many regional variations of similar cross stitch shapes, including eight-pointed star, heart, flower and bird motifs, as each basic shape is translated to fit the grid of the fabric in a slightly different way. Many earlier stitches are now our most common and more easily executed ones

One of the most important and widespread functions of cross stitch has been to ornament peasant garments and household linens, often as a way of indicating family wealth and status in the community. Peasant embroidery is a purely domestic skill which is passed down through the generations from mother to daughter. The stitches are simple to work and the fabric readily available - usually regularly woven linen, sometimes cotton. Colours were often limited to two or three, but these would be brilliantly dyed and often accentuated by dark brown or black outlines. In rural areas of western China, cross stitch was nearly always worked in indigo blue thread on coarse white cotton fabric. Peasant embroideries stitched in just one or two colours are perhaps the most striking of all and show off a complicated design to best advantage.

The complex border patterns which appear all over the world - from Eastern Europe to Palestine and from Thailand to Morocco - are actually created in a very simple way. Single motifs are uncommon in peasant embroidery; instead the motifs are usually repeated to form straight bands, which are then arranged above one another. Traditional Greek Island designs can have as many as six or seven different bands put together to form an intricate border, which is usually finished with a pattern that creates a broken outer edge.

In India, where it is unusual to find an evenweave fabric, cross stitch embroidery is worked on plain weave fabric, with the designs spaced out by eye rather than by counting threads. Cross stitch is found on many types of Indian embroidery, often in combination with beads, sequins and tiny metal embellishments. It decorates colourful garments, bags, animal trappings and furnishings, both large and small. One of the most highly decorated items is the toran, a colourful embroidered frieze with a row of pointed pendants along the lower edge, which hangs over a doorway or window for a festive occasion.

There is also a rich tradition of cross stitch embroidery amongst the hill tribes of northern Thailand, particularly the Hmong people, who work geometric cross stitch designs on their garments using brightly coloured thread. Jacket collars, sashes from festive aprons, bodice fronts and bags are all heavily embroidered.

In Spain, under the influence of the Islamic civilisation of the Moors (756–1492), blackwork was popular – this technique is thought to have influenced the development of cross stitch. Blackwork featured geometric designs on white linen, using the wool from black sheep, and it is believed to have been brought to England in the sixteenth century by Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish first wife of Henry VIII.

The earliest printed pattern book was produced in Germany in 1524, and in 1586 "La Clef des Champs" a leaflet containing patterns of various simplified flowers and animals inspired from Oriental designs and symbols.was published in France.

Designs for embroidery came with the traders, first from the Portuguese, then Dutch, and finally the English setting off on long voyages to bring back cargoes of all sorts, especially spices and textiles. Soon from China and eventually India came musk, rhubarb, pearls, tin, porcelain, and silk and wrought stuff of all kinds .but it was many years before pattern books became readily available. Stitchers would record samples of their favourite stitches and patterns on long strips of narrow cloth, hence the name ‘sampler’. These were not intended for display, but were rolled up and kept in a drawer until needed for reference. They became family assets. Often, an intricate stitch would be worked next to the stages used to compose the stitch. Early samplers were often completely covered, with examples of stitches and patterns crammed together, showing the stitchers need to make use of every square inch of her precious linen.

The earliest surviving dated sampler was stitched by an English girl, Jane Bostocke, in 1598 – just over 400 years ago. Jane’s sampler contains floral and animal motifs, samples of patterns and stitches, and an alphabet (the alphabet lacks the letters J, U and Z as was common at that time). There is evidence from the motifs that Jane had access to an early pattern book.

The " Red revolution " started during the 17th century with the arrival in Europe of new natural, cheap and easy to use dyes coming from America and allowing the dying of strands in red All the cross-stitch works became red on a white cloth. Women started to learn how to write, and the samplers were a way to exercise themselves with 1, 2, 3 or even 6 different alphabets stitched on the same cloth. Around the letters were added flowers and religious symbols: the samplers started out being a real peace of art.

Needlepoint was called tent stitching in the 1700s and differed chiefly from cross stitch in that it used only half of the stitch. One slanted stitch is all it took to compose portraits and landscapes, real and mundane to fantastic and faraway. Hundreds of shades of thread could be used to transform plain canvas into the dreams of the needle worker.

Printed embroidery patterns were introduced as early as 1525. These were drawn designs, but outlines only and not on a grid. Then, in 1804 a print seller in Berlin whose name was Phillipson, introduced blocked and coloured patterns on a square grid where each square represented a stitch. The techniques for producing coloured and gridded designs had previously been used by weavers of textiles but never before adapted to embroidery. The embroidery patterns were now made from copperplate prints and then hand painted. The technique consisted of four steps.

1). A master copy of a design was made on paper.

2). A copperplate was engraved with faint symbols in each square indicating the color.

3). The design was printed.

4). Colorists painted each square with the indicated color using a tiny square-tipped brush.

Although Phillipson continued to produce ORIGINAL designs, a Frau Witich , a Berliner, sensed the commercial possibilities and encouraged her husband, a painter, engraver, and etcher to produce landscapes, historical subjects and even portraits that were often copies of masterpieces. 1830-1840 was the heyday of printed coloured charts for cross stitch and canvas work. In 1840, 14,000 designs (4000 titles) had been published. In one firm alone, 1200 girls were hired to hand color the patterns

All of this, in some form or other, came to America with the settlers. American women had little time for the making of beautiful things when just existing was a 24-hour a day job. Plain sewing was taught to young girls as early as they could hold a needle and thread, for everything had to be sewn by hand, and any help would have been greatly appreciated.

Obviously, skills learned in the old country were brought to the new, and needle workers had to adapt as best they could. Supplies had to come with them. We find that the first "needlework" was almost always a quilt or comforter of some kind. It was a practical necessity. Fabric was very scarce nothing was wasted.

Many of the samplers made at the time were biblically based and a practical lesson to the girls was to learn the alphabet and numbers in stitchery..

By the mid 1700s, crewelwork was done sometimes called "spontaneous and vigorous needlework." English embroidery used a lot of thread, (such as in traditional satin stitching) while the colonial woman had to be much more frugal with her thread as well as her time. (Popular stitches were, among others, herringbone, conventional cross stitches, and in the 1840s a group of Scandinavian peoples came to America and brought with them the lovely Hardanger embroidery.

The golden age of Western embroidery coincides with the golden age of music: the 17th and 18th centuries. For embroidery, it lasted into the 1850’s. At that time, the invention of embroidery machines devastated the hand embroidery industry, causing major economic crises in many parts of the world. Current culture links needle and thread to women. Originally, however, it was men, who served up to an eight-year apprenticeship before being considered a master.

The patterns became more complicated during the 18th century, less simplified and more realistic, and during the second half of the century, cross stitched landscapes appeared.

Berlin work, starting approximately in the 1850s, became extremely popular in the 1870s, when a colorful graph was all that was needed to create a picture, and less creativity is in evidence since then. Anyone could use a graph, and the choice of wool shades was only dictated by the number on hand, and many women gathered together to sew and compare, sharing the different shades that were available to them.

Size meant nothing Embroideries could be measured in feet or inches and could take years to complete.

Not only were these lovely works hung on the walls, but many of them were used as cushions, bell pulls, upholstery for furniture, fire screens, benches and footstool tops. Rugs were made as well, near the end of the 19th century, some work shows pictures done in more than just the standard cross or half cross stitch in wool. Silks were used in a satin stitch, and color took on texture in this manner.

During the 19th century, in conjunction with the development of the textile industry and the diffusion of women magazines, and of hand-coloured schemes, cross-stitch became the passion of this century, learned at school and practiced by women from all social classes.

For the first time ever, the canvas Penelope were sell, and favoured with their small count, half stitches and small stitches.

During the nineteenth century, sampler making and cross stitch went into decline, due mainly to the craze for Berlin wool work which took over from the 1830’s. Ornate designs from nature were painted or printed onto canvas in Berlin, then sold throughout Germany, Britain and America. Stitchers would cover the designs with wool work, often in tent stitch or half cross stitch but sometimes in cross stitch, to produce many articles for the home – footstools, bell pulls, purses, cushions, fire screens, pincushions. By 1840, 14,000 patterns for Berlin wool work were available in England, all simple to stitch from a coloured chart, but offering subtle shading and increased realism. When improvements in dyeing techniques produced vivid new thread colours, such as purple, magenta and violet, the increased scope and excitement gave further impetus to the widespread craze for Berlin woolwork.

Raised Berlin-work was described in 1858 as a raised stitch, making some or all of the design raised, and any remainder done in cross stitch. Plain background and other areas that weren't to be so prominent were done first, and the raised stitches were begun on the cross stitch, beginning in the upper left corner of the canvas, at the lower edge of the cross stitched piece, and the work proceeded down. This was done on fine flat netting meshes with the wool thread doubled. Old Berlin graphs are part of collections all over the country today, and we see many contemporary graphs printed in color in various magazines and leaflets today.

In 1886, Therese de Dillmont, upper class woman from Vienna, already a member of the Academy of stitching of Marie-Therese, and creator of a school for stitching with Jean Dollfus, a successful man in the textile industry start the DMC firm. The death knell sounded for domestic embroidery, and the hand stitching of clothing and household linens, when in 1828 the first embroidery machine was invented by Joseph Heilman, then American Elias Howe invented the domestic sewing machine, manufactured by Isaac Singer from 1851. As women began to acquire factory-made and machine-embroidered clothing and linen at a reasonable price, their skills went into decline.

During the first half of the last century, hand embroidery was a popular leisure pastime for many women and this hobby occupied many hours of spare time in the days before television. Various types of embroidery were worked, including cutwork, crewel embroidery and needlepoint, but one of the most popular techniques, particularly during the nineteen twenties, thirties and forties, was cross stitch.

World Wars I and II consolidated the decline Those who still had some leisure time and a love of needlework would produce patriotic samplers commemorating events such as the coronation of King George V1 in 1937, though the preference was for free-style embroidery rather than cross stitch. In Britain, cross stitch hung on through the thirties, forties and fifties, with the help of pre-stamped cross stitch kits: crosses were printed onto the fabric, and then stitched over.

Many of these designs, especially those for table linen and other home furnishings, were worked on the fabric by following a ready-printed design rather than by the counted thread and chart method which is more usual today. The items were often purchased in kit form from magazines, catalogues and draper’s shops and were described as ‘traced and ready-to-work’. The kits consisted of plain-weave linen or cotton fabric with a transfer-printed design and sufficient threads to complete the item. Table linen kits were especially sought after as the various sizes of cloth and the napkins were available ready-made with pre-finished edges. Transfers for cross stitch and other techniques could also be purchased separately and they were often given away in the leading women’s magazines of the day, The design outlines were printed on the paper The outlines were transferred to the fabric by pressing with a hot iron and transfers could, be used more than once . After the embroidery was finished, the item was washed to remove all traces of the ink from the fabric.

Cross stitch as we recognise it today was re-discovered in the sixties, when increased leisure time was a factor in the revival of counted cross stitch for pleasure. Once again, stitchers were working from charts. Early kits from this period offered copies of traditional samplers, taking cross stitch back to its roots

In 1980, cross-stitch resurged with new and fresh designs, Now Embroidery stitches come in an extremely wide variety from the non decorative, the kind that most of us consider work and not relaxing, to the decorative, the kind we can do for hours on end. Decorative stitching is typically done with a fine thread of cotton, wool, linen or silk. Also used are very fine metallic wire (or thread), ribbon, hair, and with the advent of the 20th century we now have several synthetic filaments to work with. In some cases heavy or precious threads, such as gold or silver is couched, that is, laid across the ground fabric and tied to it with another separate thread. Also with the advent of the 20th century our choice of fabrics to stitch on has become almost beyond belief. The color selections now cover almost every color know to human kind and new colors and fabric weaves are being developed all the.


Sebba, Anne Samplers: Five Centuries of a Gentle Craft Weidenfeld and Nicholson (1979)

Beck, Thomasina The Embroiderer’s Story: Needlework from the Renaissance to the Present Day David & Charles (1995).

Gostalev Mary The complete International Book of embroidery Simon & Schuster 1977