Embroidery is a craft with ancient origins, dating back to early cultures across the globe. By using a needle, thread or yarn is sewn on to a base material or fabric to create a pattern. Today, embroidery continues to be a popular craft and is often featured on clothing and decorative housewares. Learning how to embroider is fairly simple, but true mastery can take years and an untold amount of patience, not to mention pricked fingers.
In Europe, embroidered clothing was a sign of wealth and prosperity for centuries. Primarily considered to be a woman's craft, many noble and royal ladies spend otherwise empty hours embroidering coats, shirts, tapestries, and linens with their waiting women. Even the capable and brilliant future Queen Elizabeth I of England enjoyed the craft, presenting her half-brother King Edward VI with a shirt she had hand-embroidered to celebrate his coronation. Nearly two centuries later, Madam de Pompadour, the powerful mistress of King Louis XV of France, sat for a portrait posed with her embroidery frame.
There are several different forms of embroidery, many with rich cultural histories dating back hundreds and even thousands of years. Most designs follow one of two basic concepts: either the design is stitched on top of the base material, or the thread is worked through the base material to form a flat pattern in the original fabric. A third popular design, called drawn thread or cutwork, is often used in lacemaking. In this form, part of the base material is cut out and the resulting hole stitched over with lace or embroidered with thread or yarn.
Top-stitching forms are generally the easiest type for beginners to grasp. Using thread or yarn, any type of design or pattern can be stitched into a bottom fabric. For anyone with experience in basic hand sewing, embroidering alphabet letters, flowers, or basic shapes should be quite simple. Although there are more complex stitching techniques, basic whipstiches or running stitches work well for most basic designs. Monogramming a towel or embroidering flowers on a handkerchief can be a matter of hours even for a beginner.
One piece of equipment recommended for beginners is an embroidery hoop. This is a simple wooden frame often formed in a circle, composed of two rings of wood that fit together. By slipping the fabric between the rings, it can be tightly stretched and held still and flat to ease embroidering. There are also larger frames that can hold an entire piece of fabric taut in order to allow easy access to the entire piece rather than just a specific section, although these are commonly not used in basic work.
Most fabric and crafts stores offer books and supplies that can help the interested novice get started. Many also offer classes geared toward specific types and styles of embroidery. Embroidered work has started passionate romances and wiped away royal tears, entertained queens and adorned kings, given historians insight into ancient culture, and also can make an old skirt seem fresh from a designer's boutique. Becoming skilled at embroidery will allow the craftsman to create beautiful gifts and decorations that echo a long and rich history.