When most people think of embroidery, they conjure up images of old ladies stitching tablecloths or department store kits depicting cute kittens. While there are in fact still a great many people who do kits, and even a few remaining tablecloth-makers - and good luck to them - modern embroidery has come a long way.
Under the guise of 'textile arts', contemporary embroidery covers a wide range of disciplines, and is rightly now considered an art rather than a craft. It can cover creative stitchery by hand or machine, and can use all sorts of materials, not just fabrics but also papers, wood, plastics and even metals.
Embroidery in the Past
Embroidery is an ancient art. Although textiles don't normally preserve well, needles often do, and what evidence there is suggests that people have been embellishing their clothing and their homes for as long as they've had them, with examples dating back not just centuries but millennia. A lot of the basic hand-stitching techniques have changed very little in all that time, and are fundamentally the same all over the world; what does differ is the way in which they are applied.
From being a high-status craft in the Middle Ages, often practised by men, by the 19th Century in England the work of professional embroiderers had been largely replaced by industrial processes and embroidery was reduced to being thought a suitable occupation for genteel ladies confined to the home with very little else to do. This remained the case for many years, until a renaissance of this ancient tradition in the mid-20th Century.
The leading light in this revival was Constance Howard MBE. She became principal lecturer in textiles and embroidery at Goldsmith's College, London, in 1947 and in the years after that led the avant-garde movement in textile work, and encouraged many people outside the art world to experiment with design and their own creativity with a series of books. Her influence was, and is, enormous and led to all forms of textile arts being taken seriously and taught by colleges and universities, both in the UK and internationally. Many world-renowned artists work with textiles and stitchery: Paddy Killer, Barbara Lee Smith, and Michael Brennand-Wood to name but a few.
Today, embroidery is seen as a rich and varied art, with many materials and techniques available, both ancient and modern, and a strong emphasis on design. This has lead to a body of innovative work making wide use of texture, form and the sense of movement inherent in fabrics. This ancient art has never been stronger as it moves into the future.