One of the most beautiful techniques and uses of storytelling in textiles, embroidery has been used for centuries. From decorative tapestries and throws, through to cushions and artwork, we explore the contemporary designers picking up a needle and thread to tell their stories through the medium of embroidery…
The easiest way to sum-up embroidery would be by historian and author of Embroiderers (Medieval Craftsmen), Kay Staniland who describes it as “the art of applying decoration by needle and thread to the surface of a piece of woven cloth”. It’s hard to know how far back embroidery dates, as sadly, textiles aren’t best for staying preserved. However, early examples of embroidery techniques have been found across the world. Clothing decorated with stone beads and animal teeth date back to 38,000 B.C.E and there has even been an embroidered tunic discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun.
It was the Middle Ages however, where embroidery became hugely popular in Western culture with wall-hangings, cloth and clothes featuring embellishment. One example of embroidery that you may recognise is the Bayeux Tapestry from around 1077. The Bayeux Tapestry is an early example of crewelwork. It depicts the Battle of Hastings and is a prime example of how embroidery can tell a story.
Fast forward 10 centuries and it seems that we take the labour intensive skill of embroidery for granted but there are designers out there whose work is so much more than meets the eye.
Midlands-based Zara Day has her design studio, Rosemary Rose where she combines a series of techniques including hand embroidery with free machine and digital techniques. The same goes for UK based Louise Gardiner. Both designers create tactile and imaginative furnishings, fusing contemporary and traditional techniques.
One designer who we’re currently obsessed with and follow eagerly on Instagram, is American based fiber artist, Sarah K. Benning. We don’t really need to shout too much about Sarah’s work because as you can see for yourself, they’re absolutely beautiful.
Full of leafy greens, Sarah’s designs are inspired by antique textiles, her love for Mid-Century interiors, contemporary trends as well as Sarah’s own potted plant collection. Each individual piece of art reveals a lovely story with the thread becoming like paint.
The techniques have stayed pretty much the same from where it all began however it’s these embroiders and mixed media artists who are becoming more daring with embroidery. Igne Jacobsen is a prime example of a designer who is leading the pack by mixing materials, ideas and styles. By incorporating embroidery with fashion and art, Jacobsen is thrusting embroidery into the front row of design and showcasing it as a forward-thinking art form. Mainly working with commercial imagery and advertising, Jacobsen uses thread to re-adapt the message, distorting the meaning. This is what Jacobsen calls ‘hijacking’ the image and its intended message.
It’s not just Jacobsen challenging the norm. Designers such as Kirsty Whitlock, Lauren DiCioccio, Izziyana Suhaimi, Debbie Smyth and Sarah Walton are also inspired by modern day culture, experimenting with needle and thread to produce inspirational statement pieces.
If you’re interested in discovering a little more about the history of embroidery, then the V&A is currently hosting a whole exhibition dedicated to English Medieval embroidery. Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery is on until February 2017, so plenty of time to swat up on your textiles knowledge.
What you may find coming away from the exhibition and reading this post is how, as well as being beautiful, embroidery is simply another medium of storytelling. Whether it’s a scene from the Battle of Hastings or depicting culture changes in our society today, a needle and thread can be just as impactful as paint and a brush.
Bow down, stitches,
David & Mark x