Embroidery has been practised by traditional peoples from all over the world for thousands of years to decorate their clothing and homeware. I find its enormous variation, its history, its use of symbolism and its close ties to culture endlessly fascinating and hence, own a number of books on the subject. One of my earliest reference books was:
Embroidery: Traditional Designs, Techniques and Patterns From All Over the World by Mary Gostelow 1977
Mary Gostelow (1959-) is a great authority on the subject and I was really interested to read about her background on: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1979/07/08/mary-gostelow-a-model-embroideress/37013fe4-8415-4730-af40-03a6ce3d8002/?utm_term=.8645b401ae26.
I loved the description in the article of embroidery as ‘the magic carpet that has flown Gostelow around the world and then some’. She has certainly had an interesting life pursuing her interest in embroidery and has written a large number of books on embroidery. See: https://biblio.com.au/mary-gostelow/author/72018 for a list.
She has shared her knowledge in this interesting book with individual chapters on thirteen different regions of the world, with subheadings for individual countries within those regions: Latin America; North America; Scandinavia; Western Europe; Eastern Europe and the Balkans; The Soviet Union; Eastern Mediterranean; Sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa; Western Asia; India; China; and East and South-East Asia. I think the only area missing, apart from Antarctica, is Australia !!!
In each chapter, she describes the religious, geographical and cultural factors that have shaped their embroidery. She discusses the characteristics of local designs, styles and techniques; traditional uses of fabric, yarn and dyes; and universal themes like the tree-of-life, which are interpreted in different ways by the different cultures. The text is supported by beautiful photographs, drawings, charts and diagrams, as well as adaptations of traditional designs for projects with full instructions. It is a very comprehensive book and even though it is now over forty years old, it is still worth owning!Ethnic Embroidery: An Introduction With Special Reference to the Embroidery of China, India, Palestine and Yugoslavia by Margaret Ohms 1989
A slightly more specialised book with a narrower focus on these four areas famed for their embroidery. After defining embroidery and discussing the characteristics of ethnic embroidery, she looks at the embroidery styles and techniques of each area before discussing universal motifs, which appear in all areas: the rose or rosette; the carnation; the Tree of Life; cypress trees; peacocks; and pomegranates.
The rest of the book has a practical emphasis with chapters on stitches and techniques, including: Graphs and line drawings; borders; counted work; spot motifs and embroidered bags. For anyone interested in ethnic embroidery, especially that of China, India, Palestine and Yugoslavia, this book is fascinating.
World Embroidery: 25 Original Projects From Traditional Designs by Caroline Crabtree 1993
Another book on ethnic embroidery, which has a very practical approach. Caroline presents a variety of projects based on original designs, patterns and motifs with a brief history of cultural influences and detailed patterns and instructions for eight different areas: Australia; North America; Central and South America; West Africa; North Africa and the Middle East; Central Asia; India and Bangladesh; and Thailand.
Projects include: Clothing, bags, curtains, cushions, rugs, footstools, pictures, bed and table linen and box lids.
She explores a large number of different techniques, including cross stitch, appliqué, needlepoint, mirrorwork and surface embroidery. It is an excellent book for showcasing the wide range of different embroidery styles, as well as introducing the reader to more obscure terms like ‘namdha’, ‘bandhani’ and ‘kantha’. You will have to read the book to find out what they are!!!
Embroidered Textiles: A World Guide to Traditional Patterns by Sheila Paine 1990/ 2008
The ultimate reference guide to traditional embroidery!
Sheila Paine (1930-) is another embroidery expert, who has led an amazing life through her research. See: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/4191764/A-life-richly-woven-with-discovery-and-design.html.
She is a world expert on ethnic textiles and tribal societies, especially the lives of tribal women, and has written a number of books on embroidery. See: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/155813.Sheila_Paine.
I love this book! It is so comprehensive and has wonderful photographs! It is divided into four sections titled:
Guide to Identification: Embroidery origins can be identified by regional characteristics: the items embroidered, their cut and fabric; and their decorative materials, stitching, motifs and styles. Sheila examines the embroidery of the Far East (China, Korea, Japan, Indo-China and Oceania); the Indian sub-continent (India and Pakistan); Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kirghizstan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan); the Middle East (Iran, Gulf States, Yemen, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Turkey); West, Central and East Africa (Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali, Liberia, Chad, Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and South Africa); North Africa (Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco); South East Europe (Greece and Greek Islands, Cyprus, the Balkans and Albania); Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia and Caucasus); the Baltic States (Poland, Lithuania and Latvia); Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Finland,Denmark and Iceland); Central Europe (Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic); Western Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Austria, The Netherlands, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal); North America (Native American tribes); Central America (Mexico, Guatemala and Panama); and finally, South America (Bolivia and Peru).
The Decorative Power of Cult: Universal designs and motifs and their differing depiction in different cultures. They include: the Great Goddess and her acolytes and associated symbols; Other symbols of fertility; the Tree of Life; the Tree of Knowledge; the Hunt, including notes on horned and antlered animals and shamanism; Birds; and the Sun.
Religion and Its Patterns: Embroideries from cultures practising Taoism, Buddhism; Hinduism, Islam, Zoroastrianism and Christianity.
The Magical Source of Protection: Discusses the use of embroidery to protect against evil spirits and includes headwear, breastplates and stomachers, shoulders and sleeves, and the sexual region, as well as edgings, seams, pockets, the neck and the hem. Protective patterns include the triangle, zigzag and rhomb; circles and their derivations, numbers and the hand and fish and are particularly powerful when repeated or positioned strategically or by adding additional protective materials like tassels, beads, sequins, coins, mirrors and shells. Colour symbolism and the power of red is discussed, as well as key times, when ritual and embroidery play a major part: birth, marriage, burial, funerals, mourning, headhunting, festivities and holy places.
In the back is a dictionary of stitches, a glossary of terms, a bibliography for further reading and a list of museums and embroidery collections, as well as notes on collecting embroidery. This is a fabulous book and essential for serious students of embroidery history and ethnology.Embroidery From Palestine by Shelagh Weir 2006
A much smaller and more specific book, focusing on the beautiful embroidery, appliqué and patchwork practised by rural Arab women in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Its origins and influences, cultural context, main types of ornamentation, materials used, different styles and techniques from Galilee, Southern Palestine and Bethlehem, and changes over time are discussed before a detailed appraisal with full colour photographs (general and detailed closeups) of twenty embroidered items, including coats, dresses, jackets and veils. Palestinian embroidery is just so beautiful!Embroidery of the Greek Islands and Epirus Region: Harpies, Mermaids and Tulips by Sumru Belger Krody 2006
Written by the Associate Curator of the Eastern Hemisphere Collection of The Textile Museum to accompany a major exhibition (with the same name in March 2006) of embroidered textiles of the Aegean and Ionian islands and the Epirus region of Greece from the early 17th century to the early 19th century. See: https://museum.gwu.edu/harpies-mermaids-and-tulips-embroidery-greek-islands-and-epirus-region.
The Textile Museum, Washington DC, is a specialised museum focusing on traditional embroidery and was founded by George Hewitt Myer in 1925. This amazing collection contains more than 20 000 textiles and related objects, representing 5000 years and 5 continents, including the cultures of the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Indigenous America. It is well worth visiting its website at: https://museum.gwu.edu/textile-museum.
This book catalogues and describes the huge diversity of embroidery from this relatively small area and the uses, distinguishing characteristics and method of production of embroidery styles in each area, as well as examining its political, economic, social/ cultural and foreign influences (Greece, Venice and the Ottoman world).
The book is divided into the different areas: Crete, Cyclades and Northern Dodecanese, Rhodes and the Southern Dodecanese, Skyros and the Northern Sporades, Epirus, the Ionian islands, and Argyrokastron (Southern Albania) and Chios. Chapters are divided into sections: Function and Form; Method and Motif; and History and Influence.
This is a very comprehensive and beautiful book with fabulous full colour photographs of seventy items produced for the bridal trousseau and used in domestic life: Traditional dresses, skirts, blouses, bedspreads, valances, pillow cases and bed tent curtain panels, complete with detailed close-ups of embroidery stitches and techniques.Bright Flowers: Textiles and Ceramics of Central Asia by Christine Sumner and Guy Petherbridge 2004
Another catalogue, which accompanied a fabulous international loan exhibition of the same name of colourful urban embroideries and glazed ceramics from the state museum collections of Central Asia, which we attended at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney in 2004. See: https://maas.museum/event/bright-flowers-textiles-and-ceramics-of-central-asia/ and https://www.smh.com.au/news/Review/Bright-Flowers-Textiles-and-Ceramics-of-Central-Asia/2005/02/03/1107409979750.html.
This beautiful book introduces the reader to the Silk Road countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, its different peoples and cultures, influences and history, its ancient craft traditions, the role of embroidery and daily lives of women, the symbols and materials used, and the different style and techniques of embroidery and their changes over time.
There are many fabulous colourful photographs of brightly embroidered or ikat-dyed clothing in bold designs (boots, hats, coats, dresses, robes, headdresses and veils), elaborate tribal jewellery and stunning bed linen, prayer mats, mirror bags, fans, horse blankets and embroidered wall hangings named suzanis after the Farsi word for needle. The latter are chainstitched with a tambour in handspun, natural dyed silk thread on background handwoven cotton in symbolic designs including the fertility symbols of pomegranates, flowers and moons and jagged points to protect the owner from evil. They are absolutely gorgeous!
There is also a large section on ceramics, the flowers of the kiln – its history, glazing styles, potters and wonderful pots dating from the 9th century. It is certainly a very interesting book!
Books about Contemporary Embroidery Artists
There are some amazingly talented contemporary embroiderers and the following books showcase their inspiring work .
Annemieke Mein (1944-)
I am starting with a book about an Australian artist, Annemieke Mein (1944-), whose work I have loved for a very long time and which we have seen exhibited in the Gippsland Art Gallery in her hometown of Sale, Victoria.
The Art of Annemieke Mein: Wildlife Artist in Textiles by Annemieke Mein 1992
A keen environmentalist and lover of nature, Annemieke embroiders beautiful artwork based on her local flora and fauna: Coastal banksia, eucalypts, wattles and pittosporum and birds (white-faced heron, gulls, silvereyes, fantails, blue wrens and fledglings in nests), frogs, reptiles (Eastern water dragon), marine creatures (sea urchins, barnacles, mussels and kelp) and a wide variety of insects (dragonflies, grasshoppers, lacewings, beetles, wasps, mayflies, sawflies, butterflies and moths, and caterpillars and cocoons).
Her work is naturalistic, three-dimensional and highly textural and she uses fabric painting and dyeing; appliqué, quilting and trapunto; pleating, moulding and sculpting, felting, spinning and weaving; plying, stiffening and wiring; and machine and hand embroidery in limitless combinations on silk, wool, fur, cotton and synthetics to create her distinctive sculptures, wall hangings and wearable art.
These works are showcased in the book, along with notes about the flora and fauna depicted, her thoughts on its design, the techniques and materials used, the development of the piece from initial sketch and fabric swatches to the completed artwork and the history of the piece.
I love the way she often mimics natural history illustrations with the inclusion of pencil sketches and outlines in the background; her setting of the creature in its natural environment and the liveliness of the composition and sense of movement; and the 3-D nature of the work, as well as all her different textures, which make you want to touch her work, and her muted natural colour palette. She is an incredibly talented artist, who also produces bas-relief bronze sculptures as well!
You can see more of her work on her website at: http://www.annemiekemein.net.au/contents.htm. In particular, check out her slideshow on: http://www.annemiekemein.net.au/Video.htm. Click on the purple highlighted link for Superb Blue Wrens.
Jane Hall http://clothofnature.com/
Jane is the British equivalent of Annemieke Mein, both in her natural subject matter (British flora and fauna) and the three-dimensionality of her work.
The Art and Embroidery of Jane Hall: Reflections of Nature 2007
This is a beautiful and very inspiring book. Jane loves to work with silk in its natural undyed state, then mixes and merges dyes, which she paints onto the fabric in a loose painterly style, often crumpling the fabric as she works.
In her first chapter, she discusses the materials she uses: the fabrics, needles and threads, wires , frames, found objects like beach combings, semi-precious stones, seeds, dried flowers, lichens, insects and feathers, which she keeps in old printers’ trays; and artistic tools used in fieldwork (camera, sketching pencils and sketchpad) and her studio (drawing boards, water colour pencils). She also discusses her main subjects: Butterflies; Insects (Dragonflies, Lacewings, Bumble Bees, Ladybirds and Spiders); Flowers and Leaves; and Figures and Fish, with brief notes on their depiction and construction.
However, the majority of the book is devoted to a detailed discussion of her artworks: their inspiration and conception and their articulation and development, with closeup photographs of particular techniques or points of interest in the particular work. These artworks include:
Cloth of Bark: Bark, Lichen, Nests and Moths;
Snowdrop Illumination: Snowdrops, Borders; Lacewings, Beetles and Butterflies;
Clematis Reflection: Bine and Butterflies;
Sea Pink: Background; Flowers; and Frame;
Falling Leaves: Leaves and Butterflies;
Sunshine: Butterflies and Background;
Leaf Fall: Leaves and Fish;
Hope: Angel; Feathers; Lacewings; and Background;
Asrai: Mermaid and Background;
Autumn Reflection: Umbels and Leaves; Background; and Butterflies;
Through the Seasons: Umbels and Leaves; Foliage; Beetles; Moths; Lacewings; Cranefly and Cobwebs;
Daisies: Daisies; Butterflies; and Daisy Chain;
Winter Reflections: Background; Frame; and Angel;
Dragonfly Dance: Stream, Dragonfly; Forget-me-nots; and Moths;
Sunlight: Aconites and Butterflies;
Day Spring: Anemones; Stitchwort; Red Campion; Herb Robert; Speedwell and Butterflies.
Her work is so detailed and exquisite and is a celebration of nature and a wonderful source of inspiration, rather than a detailed instruction guide.
Helen M Stevens (1956-) http://www.helenmstevens.info/
Helen is another very well-known British embroiderer, who has written many books and does beautiful work, though it is more two-dimensional and in this respect, more traditional than the previous two contemporary embroiderers.
The Embroiderer’s Countryside 1992
This book, and consequently her artwork, is divided into the different aspects of the countryside: Spring Hedgerow; the Woodland Floor; Summer Meadows; the River Bank; Autumn Leaves; The Vanishing Heath; and Winter Evenings. In each section, she discusses their main features, with colour plates of her artworks and notes to illustrate her rendering of each feature.
She imparts her knowledge generously in a chatty conversational style and gives the reader plenty of food for thought. The appendix covers the practicalities: Lighting; Frames and Hoops; Materials and Threads; Transferring Designs; and Mounting and Framing the Finished Work.
Her love of the British countryside and all its inhabitants is obvious in her lovely depictions of trees and flowers; churches and houses; birds and insects and very cute field mice, hedgehogs, squirrels, rabbits and weasels. I particularly liked the dramatic contrast of the bright silk and metallic threads against a black plain background.
Helen M Steven’s World of Embroidery 2002/2007
This next book is presented in a similar format, but with a larger scope with chapters titled: Sea Fever; Europa; The Sands of Time; New Worlds; City Lights; The High Country; and Xanadu. Like the previous book, inspiration comes from Nature, but also travel, history, literature and mythology, and the imagination. It has allowed her to explore all her passions and show the limitless font of inspiration for embroiderers and artists.Again, the appendices include:
Basic Techniques: Shadow Lining and Voiding; Featherwork; Embroidery Stitches; Floating Embroidery; Etching; Dotting and Dashing; Miniaturizing; and
The Practicalities: Identical to the previous book, but with extra notes on Twisting Floss Silk; Using Blending Filaments; and Working Large Canvases.
Ellen Anne Eddy http://ellenanneeddy.blogspot.com.au/
Ellen hails from the United States and also loves her natural world, but she uses the sewing machine to produce her embroidered artworks. Her style is quite bold and modern and very colourful.
Thread Magic: The Enchanted World of Ellen Anne Eddy 1997/2005
While the previous artists used their artwork to illustrate particular techniques or points of interest, Ellen presents her artworks straight up at the beginning of the book, followed by technical information on:
Materials: Cottons; Sheers; Stabilizers and Battings;
Threads: Embroidery threads; Metallic threads; Thick threads; Novelty Yarns; and Utility Threads;
Tools: Sewing Machines; Maintenance; Needles; Darning Feet; and Basting Guns;
Designing in Colour: Colour Theory; and Hand-Dyeing Fabric;
Background Fabric: Pieced Backgrounds; Thread Effects; Stippling; Outlines and Contrast; and Shading Appliqués;
Drawing and Design: Design Plan; and Copyright Laws;
Machine Embroidery: Threads; Stitches; Controlling Distortion; Embroidered Appliqués; Three-Dimensional Appliqués and Machine-made Lace;
Making Sheer Magic: Cutaway Appliqué; Fused Appliqué; and Encased Edges;
Applying Embroidered Appliqués;
Stitching in Free-Motion: Contour Drawing; Stippling; and Signatures;
Embellishing the Quilt Top: Stitched Details; and Machine Beading;
Building the Perfect Quilt Sandwich and Quilting with Free-Motion Techniques; and Rehabilitating Troubled Quilts: Steaming; Blocking; Getting Even; Fixing Wavy Quilts; Gathering into the Binding; Rebacking; and Adding Rod Pockets.
There is so much information in this book and I like its organized presentation. It is a terrific book, especially if like me, you are new to machine embroidery!
In my final post on embroidery books next week, I am featuring some terrific pattern books, which I have used many times in my hand embroidery journey!