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The origin of embroidery can be dated back to 30,000 BC. During an archaeological find, fossilised remains of heavily hand-stitched and decorated clothing, boots and a hat were found. 

In Siberia approximately 6000 B.C. elaborately drilled shells stitched with decorative designs onto animal hides were discovered. Chinese thread embroidery dates back to 3500 B.C. where images depict embroidery of clothing with silk thread, precious stones and pearls. Examples of surviving Chinese chain stitch embroidery worked in silk thread have also been found and dated to the Warring States period (5th-3rd century BC).

Medieval embroidery detail | Source: www.jessicagrimm.com

Traveling from ancient to modern history we find embroidery appliqué all over the world. For decorative or practical purposes, embroidery is practised across cultures and classes. Upper-class women would be taught decorative embroidery, whereas the working class women were mostly taught mending, quilting and especially marking.  A symbol of domesticity; crafts were designated as “women’s work,” implicitly inferior to men’s work, whatever that may be. Yet the activities that indirectly oppressed women, by keeping them indoors and occupied, also served to ignite creativity, agency and rebellion. Women used their time together to exchange ideas and forge connections, to test their abilities and express themselves in new and exciting ways. 

Embroidery to Empower Women

Embroidery has mostly been connected with women, taught to young girls and mastered to create handkerchiefs, sheets, tablecloths, napkins and bed-linen with embroidered letters and numbers. A practical and purposeful skill for any young woman to have!  Sewing was often an excuse for women to “get out of the house” and meet other women.  This gave birth to embroidery as a medium used for social movements where women would meet up on the basis that they were “working” or “marking”. In reality it opened for two opportunities: To embroider political messages on their handkerchiefs as well as organise women’s rights movements. For example the suffragettes were frequently seen gathering around embroidery and sewing activities. To embroider is to embellish and can create a fantasy world, allowing momentary freedom in craft, ideas and messages; it gives women a voice when they traditionally had none.

“While on a hunger strike within the walls of Britain’s Holloway Prison in 1912, a woman recorded her experience in an embroidered handkerchief. Her deliberate stitching not only presents us with an intimate artefact that embodies individual experience but a pivotal collective moment in Western women’s history. As one of the imprisoned militants, Janie Terrero created a textile imbued with political importance. The textile, created under extenuating circumstances, engages us with her act to resist, petition and memorialize in her struggle for a political voice for herself and womankind.”

Eileen Wheeler, University of British Columbia

Multi-Media Embroidery

Mixed-media embroidery is also on the rise. In Melbourne, Laura McKellar sews floral masks and crowns on vintage portraits, while Mexican-born Victoria Villasana favours geometric embellishment on black-and-white photos; Noora Schroderus as well as Stacey Lee Webber embroider on banknotes

The Obsolete Bill series hand stitches vintage American paper money from 1782 to 1866, issued by state banks prior to federal banknotes. This series plays with the imagery found on these bills to forecast impending doom.

Obviously having a lot of fun with working with banknotes Stacey goes on to create another series; The Costume Party series, where Lincoln dons a clown wig and Franklin goes full grandma drag.  Embroidered directly onto the linen and cotton bills with delightful precision, Webber’s work transforms a gallery of famous men, adding much needed color and fun. Webber’s Chairman Mao pays tribute both to Warhol’s Pop Art images of the Chinese leader, and to the crazy white fright wig favoured by Warhol himself.”  – Bartholomew F. Bland, Executive Director, Lehman College Art Gallery, the City University of New York

The Costume Party dreams up notorious figures wearing character altering costumes.  These hand embroidered costumes are meticulously stitched through the banknote to create a fantastical illusion.  This playful series questions the history of worldly leaders we often feel like we already know. 

Another artist making a political comment with embroidery is Finnish artist Noora Schroderus. In her body of work Banknotes 2014, Schroderus features banknotes from various countries with embroidered hair dos on the notable figures appearing on the banknotes. The series examines current issues about money and its power. A banknote is a contractual piece of paper. What makes it so sacred that the implementation of these works is illegal in many countries?

Female Money, 2016; Schroderus has embroidered on American dollars hairstyles reminiscent of Disney princesses, and on English pounds the hairstyles of female characters from European folktales. She combines careful embroidery technique with banknotes and in this way highlights opposing elements of society, such as the masculine power of money and feminine passive beauty.

© Noora Schroderus

Alison Carpenter-Hughes a British artist who works with multi-media including embroidery on banknotes.

“Working mostly with sewn full size and partial figures, including installation and animation, I leave loose hanging threads that make them seem as though they are drifting-off into a dreamlike state, highlighting the passing of time. The work exists in that hazy place between consciousness and sub-consciousness; dreams and reality. There is a certain ambiguity to my work as each piece reveals only a fragment of their subject; the loose strands adding to their sense of incompletion, imperfection and impermanence. Indeed, machine embroidery itself is an art form that dwells somewhere betwixt two and three-dimensional states, a breach of one sphere to another, creating a tactile sensuousness.”

Alison Carpenter-Hughes
© Alison Carpenter-Hughes

Mimi O Chin’s Hair Supply series embellishes the figures on banknotes, creating a whimsical take of looking at the bank note differently by embroidering hair styles.

…  “I’ve always been struck more by the sameness of banknotes than by their differences. Countries (and cultures) so otherwise diverse from one another have settled on designs that are relatively similar in size and shape, typically bearing the portrait of a figure of some political, historical, or cultural import, and almost always men.

Mimi O Chin
Shin. Korean banknote, embroidery floss | © Mimi O Chin

Embroidery has always allowed an avenue for messages whether it is the stiches themselves or the images the stiches create to tell a story. Today there are so many options for artists the materials and threads in which embroidery is worked reflect the climate and culture of its origin as well as the message the artist wishes to espouse. From family emblems to the underlying political and social message embroidery has never been more accessible and popular.

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