Embroidery Art – A Variety of Voices

Fiber arts and thread arts are finding new life around the world, sometimes in radical ways. While the traditional methods of creating beautiful art in lace, hand-stitched embroidery and needle lace still abound, the technique is now being used in everything from the sarcastic to the political. Artists all over the world are looking for ways to express themselves outside of the norm, and fiber arts are a powerful expression of both beauty and subtlety. Let’s take a peek at what the world has to offer in its traditions and exploration of embroidery and fiber artistry!

Around the World in 80 Stitches

Embroidery art looks very different in different cultures. In France, etui and biscornu are both three-dimensional works of art. The etui is a small triangular box, embroidered and decorated with fabric, buttons, and thread. The biscornu is a small eight-sided pillow, embroidered and adorned with buttons. These are currently very popular as pin cushions!

Swedish weaving, or huck weaving, use thread woven in the top strands of toweling to create intricate geometric designs. India, in contrast, utilizes the mandala to create circular and symmetrical designs stitched onto a cloth and often decorated with beading. In Japan, Temari balls are decorated all over with thread, creating a sphere with beautifully intricate patterns woven all around it.

Familiar themes are present throughout cultures, including the Celtic cross and local flowers in the embroidery and lace of Ireland and Scotland, or the sugar skull motif in Mexico, celebrating the Day of the Dead. Turkish needle lace incorporates flowers from around the country to create a language of women on the fringes of scarves, and Armenian needle lace uses motifs such as mountains and flowers to create beautiful round works of art.

From Quaint To Quizzical

When you think of embroidery, many people think of the traditional samplers stitched by girls in earlier centuries, painstakingly and under duress. However, while these are still available as patterns, embroidery artists of the modern era are looking to expand the previously narrow interpretation of fiber arts.

Creators like Sophia Narrett combine both woven and embroidered techniques with found objects to inspire the viewer outside of framed reference point. Her art is more of painting with thread than embroidering an alphabet. Veselka Bulkan, an artist from Germany, creates felted vegetables attached to embroidery hoops by stitched stems.

Severia Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė, a Lithuanian artist, punches holes in cars, buckets, shovels, cans, and anything metal she can find, embroidering them with designs from cigarettes to flowers. She was invited by famous street artist Banksy to show her art at his Dismaland premier.

Another style of non-sampler embroidery is those of artist Ana Teresa Barboza, whose artworks fill and overflow her frames. Embroidery art has moved away from the boxy and stereotypical, and into the vast wide world of whatever it can be attached to!


Offensive, Political, Powerful

Fine embroidery art was a symbol of class and the feminine. No longer is it restricted to its previous limitations. Jordan Nassar, and Kent Henrickson challenge both the gender stereotype of embroidery and long traditions about what is produced in the medium. Henrickson’s art is often sinister and full of torches, guns, and hooded figures, often depicting Biblical stories.

Nassar works in tatreez, a form of traditional Palestinian embroidery traditionally passed from mother to daughter. He approached the use of this embroidery as an opportunity to connect with his heritage, and through it discovered the languages present in many motifs around the world: social cues, important traditions, and stories, superstition, magic, and geometry.

As Nassar is both Palestinian and Israeli, his work has a much more introspective political feel, using lines and motifs that resolve into hills, lakes, and natural settings. He avoids explicit representation of the troubles between Palestine and Israel, because of his belief that any hard political line (or artistic line) will be flawed in its depiction of the people involved in the conflict.

Delicate, Traditional, and Timeless

Lace is a commonly overlooked member of the embroidery family. While lace is created on giant looms now and was previously crafted with bobbins, embroidered lace and needle lace are heirlooms passed down as traditions in many cultures. Historically, needle lace in Turkey was a language all of its own.

Famously known as “Oya,” Turkish needle lace edged scarves and wraps in colorful flowers and motifs. The language of Oya was a feminine communication tool, utilizing the colors and types of flowers in the motif as messages to those who could read them. Specific flower patterns noted an unhappy marriage, happy marriage, hope, loss, grief, anger, or even arguments with your mother-in-law.

Irish lace has always been a large part of Irish needlework, and handstitched motifs were placed onto or integrated into a handstitched ground or fabric. Lace schools were famous for their stylized creations, and each school crafted different methods of stitching. Lace, for women who could already embroider and stitch, was a way of making money in a world that limited their other prospects.

Although the traditions of lace incorporate consistently natural motifs, they are no less beautiful today than they were hundreds of years ago. From Ireland to China to India and the Middle East, African folk embroidery and Latin American geometrics, traditional patterns are being reclaimed, renovated, and honored through the eyes of modern artists.

A Common Language

Around the world, embroidery has a place in cultures as a language, decoration, teaching tool, and tradition. It’s a method for remembering traditional stories and motifs and a way for men and women to express artistic vision. It highlights the pieces of culture that hold superstition and story, social interaction, and the history of peoples. It reinforces language and builds bonds between artists.

Embroidery challenges the viewer to think beyond the framed sampler, to encounter a challenging and sometimes offensive juxtaposition of opinion and presentation. Stepping outside of the strictly feminine handwork into aggressive art using fiber and lace breaks the boundaries of how an individual might express their artistic journey. No matter which culture you come from, there are stories to be found in its embroidery arts, lace, and textiles. See what you can find!

4 thoughts on “Embroidery Art – A Variety of Voices

  1. This is an extremely well-written article! I never realized the historical significance behind embroidery. I absolutely love the look of lace, and it is really interesting to learn about its history, especially that of Irish lace. I will have to look back on your articles again soon! Thank you so much!

    1. Thank you Isabelle! Crafts don’t really appeal to me until I know their origins, and needlework origins are as varied as they are beautiful! I love to find out about the people behind the work – that’s what makes me want to learn it! Thank you so much for your comment!

  2. This is a seriously in depth  review on embroidery, even as one who has only ever done crochet found it fascinating.  If I have a comment it would be that the wonderful lace work of the Maltese was not specifically mentioned, used to love watching the old ladies spending hours over their craft, producing beautiful tablecloths.

    1. Oooh! Yes! I will have to make a post about that! I love their work! Thank you for the reminder! I hope you keep crocheting and thank you so much for the comment. 🙂

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