Embroidery: stitches in time

Using a needle and thread to embellish clothing can be traced back thousands of years. And while the implements of embroidery (and some of the techniques) haven’t changed, the craft has evolved and developed into a popular, highly visual art that plays well with other crafts.

Archaeological finds have revealed ancient examples of a type of garment embellishment dating back to 30,000BC when the fossilised remains of Cro-Magnon were discovered in Russia. The man’s fur clothes, boots and hat had been decorated by rows of ivory beads. What we call hand embroidery today could possibly trace its roots to Chinese thread embroidery of the 4th century BC. Samples of this style that have been recovered reveal silk gauze garments decorated with satin and chain stitch made using silk thread.

Here in Ireland we have a long and rich tradition of hand embroidery. Early finds suggest embroidery in some form was practised here during the Bronze Age, but in more recent centuries it was used less as a functional craft and more for its decorative qualities. Regarded as a ladies craft, a typical early embroiderer would draw or stamp their design onto a piece of leather. She would then refer to the design and re-create it with her needle and thread.

In early Ireland, religious households, such as the house of St Patrick, employed embroiders who worked on decorating church robes and vestments. While in more recent centuries needlework and embroidery were common crafts practised by Irish upper class ladies.

Mountmellick Embroidery

A specific style of embroidery unique to Ireland is the beautiful and unique Mountmellick Embroidery. This style was developed by Joanna Carter in the early 1800s. At an exhibition in London in 1816 Carter won an award for developing new embroidery stitches and by 1825, she was running a small school in Mountmellick, Co Laois, teaching young girls her craft.

Mountmellick Embroidery is characterised by white-on-white embroidery with an almost three-dimensional stitching. Its motifs are inspired by nature, and more specifically, flora and fauna from around the Mountmellick area including blackberries, acorns, dog rose and wild clematis. There are three main stitches in this form of embroidery: the cable plaits stitch, the Mountmellick stitch and the Mountmellick thorn stitch, however, pieces can also include a wide variety of typical embroidery stitches such as French knots and lazy daisy stitch. Mountmellick Embroidery pieces are often finished with buttonholed and fringed edges.

Mountmellick Embroidery example

Embroidery on a massive scale

Examples of embroidery run the gamut from cushion covers and table runners delicately decorated with Mountmellick Embroidery to arguably the most famous embroidery piece in the world – the Bayeux Tapestry. Despite the fact that it’s called a tapestry it is in fact a work of embroidery on a massive scale – it’s 230 foot wide.

In much the same vein as this historic record of the Norman conquest of England, a significant community project in County Wexford called the Ros Tapestry Project depicts the events around the Anglo-Norman arrival in the South East of Ireland. The project was conceived in 1998 and since then over 150 volunteers have worked on the 15 striking embroidered panels – 6 x 4 foot each. It is a cultural and historical tour de force and a shining example of Ireland’s rich embroidery talent.

Ros Tapestry Panel 6: The Marriage of Isabel de Clare and William Marshall

Embroidery growing in popularity in Ireland

Two guilds focus on the craft of embroidery in Ireland: the Irish Guild of Embroiderers and the Northern Irish Embroidery Guild.
The Irish Guild of Embroiderers was set up in 2000 with 25 members, it has since grown to 110 members. The guild is based in Dublin, but according to guild member Anne Jaffares membership spans the country with members regularly travelling from Cork and Galway to attend meetings.

“We hold meetings once a month which include talks from a wide range of artists from Ireland, the UK and Northern Ireland. We also hold regular workshops where there is always something to learn and we exhibit our members’ work during the year too,” says Anne.

A Sideways Look by Avril Halliday

The Northern Irish Embroidery Guild was founded in 1980 and has a strong link with the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum where it holds many of its meetings. Like its southern counterpart, the NIEG holds regular workshops and exhibitions to promote its 85 members’ work.

There are also strong links between the two guilds, according to Avril Halliday, President of the NIEG. “We exhibit annually in various venues around Ulster and have been lucky enough to participate in an exhibition with the Irish Guild of Embroiderers in Dublin and have them exhibit with us in Armagh.”

Craft cross-over

Both Anne and Avril mention an increasing cross-over of crafts. “I see examples of both hand and machine embroidery at our exhibitions. Our members use everything from linen and silk to paper and plastic. They work using traditional hand stitches in an interesting way and pieces which have been dyed, painted, printed, pleated, stitched, slashed, burnt, glued and gilded! It’s certainly a change from the days when my grandmother made traycloths from printed transfers,” says Avril.

Plastic Bag by Avril Halliday

“There is a real tactile nature to contemporary embroidery,” says Anne who regularly incorporates paint, dye and printing to her stitched works. “There are generally two different embroidery camps in Ireland. There’s the traditional, which is usually hand embroidery and covers styles such as Mountmellick Embroidery, cross stitch, crewel embroidery and gold work, and then there’s the more contemporary style, which includes both hand and machine embroidery with other elements such as dyeing or printing the fabric prior to stitching , using soluble fabric, and other non-traditional techniques.”

“Nowadays there is such a wealth of materials to use; as well as silks and other natural fabrics, there are foils, synthetic pearlescent and metallic floss and plastics. Products such as water-soluble stabiliser and heavyweight adhesive interfacing help artists to stiffen fabric to make free-standing items, bags and small vessels, or to add 3-dimensional sections to an artwork,” adds Avril.

Wedding Belle by Avril Halliday

Both Anne and Avril are heartened by the surge of interest in embroidery. Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram have made it easier to showcase embroidery pieces and capture the imagination of crafters who are looking for inspiration. “We’re definitely seeing an uptake in interest thanks to the power of Facebook, as well as events like the Knitting and Stitching Show,” says Anne.

Likewise, the NIEG is seeing an increase in younger members who are finding the guild online or on their Facebook Page. “It really is a very exciting time to take up embroidery, from the traditionalist to the contemporary maker, there is something for everyone to enjoy,” concludes Avril.

Useful links

Irish Guild of Embroiderers website and Facebook Page

Northern Ireland Embroidery Guild website and Facebook Page

Maree Maher teaches and produces Mountmellick Embroidery

Anne Jaffares is a tutor at Textile Gateways

Hillary Bell and Eleanor Roche of Dublin Creative Textiles offer classes and workshops focusing on mixed media featuring embroidery

Ros Tapestry Project has a dedicated website where you can find out all about this wonderful project