Sewing and Embroidery in Elizabethan England
Hand-stitching and embroidery are as old as man. Fossilized evidence remains from 30,000 years ago of hand-stitched and decorated clothing. The origins of embroidery can be traced back to China and the Near East, and the Tudor court produced some of the most sumptuous and decorative pieces.
After Henry VIII broke with the Catholic church and dissolved the monasteries, the need for embroidered church vestments and decorations dropped. As a result, the 16th and 17th centuries saw an uptick in embroidery for secular use.
The ability to hand sew was essential to the smooth running of any Tudor household. Those of modest means needed to construct clothing and linens and to repair and resize them as needed. At a manor like Agecroft Hall, clothing was also repurposed for younger children to use in turn – just like we might take hand-me-downs from a relative or friend. A servant could perform the more mundane stiching work (like repairs and resizing) while the women of the manor could produce many of the more decorative household items.
With the relative peace and stability of the reign of Elizabeth I, a larger proportion of society could afford to make or buy rich clothing and domestic decorations. Both men and women learned and used the art of sewing and embroidery, and women played an important role in embroidery workshops and as professionals in the production of ribbons and trimmings.
Young girls and women were taught basic embroidery stitches. The satin, split, tent and cross stitches were the most common. Fabrics used were linen canvas mesh and silks. Those practicing their sewing often created samplers of the stitches they learned. Work was created freehand or by copying patterns and images available in pattern books. The first English pattern book was published in the 1590’s.
Daughters of ordinary citizens learned basic stitches while those with greater wealth progressed to more advanced stitching. As their stitches and motifs became more complex, women used embroidery to decorated items like sheets, bed valances and coverlets, cushions for benches and chairs, coifs (a woman's close-fitting cap), stomachers (V-shaped piece of decorative cloth worn over the chest and stomach), handkerchiefs, book covers and bookmarks, gloves, aprons and sweet bags.
Black embroidery on a white ground was known as "blackwork". It was prominent on towels, tablecloths, shifts, shirts, coifs and cuffs. An all-over pattern of diamond shapes (diaper fillings) was popular. Polychrome embroidery combined metal thread with spangles (sequins) and was worked with a greater variety of stitches and some three-dimensional raised effects. Common motifs included stems and flowers, birds, beasts, caterpillars and butterflies.
You can practice some of these stitches by following the diagrams below. If you have a piece of burlap, linen or cotton, some yarn or thread and a plastic (for burlap) or metal needle, you can get started. An embroidery hoop used to hold your fabric tight is very useful.