Remains of a Cro-Magnon hunter who lived in Russia 32,000 years ago include a fur garment decorated with rows of beads, the earliest embellished garment yet discovered. Because the desire to dress up utilitarian textiles appears to be universal, embroidery is a worldwide phenomenon.
China was the first culture to elevate embroidery to a high art form. As early as 4500 years ago the Chinese were stitching with silk and precious metals. By 1200 BC, these textiles so beguiled visitors that the known world beat a path to the source (see the related story following). Many embroidery motifs found throughout Europe and Asia can be traced to Chinese designs.
Until fairly recently, embroidery has flourished best when supported by political, religious, or economic power. The intensive labor and great cost of materials ensured that embroidery was reserved for the people of the upper classes as well as for the splendor of important occasions, be they coronations, religious festivals, or simply displays of conspicuous wealth in ancient cultures of Assyria, Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Holy Land.
The Near East is the geographic and cultural crossroads of the Old World, and medieval Europe borrowed heavily from its mix of cultural influences. The Crusades brought Europe in contact with the riches of the Near East, such as embroideries from Constantinople. These treasures were carried homeward, and the work copied. This broadening of understanding of the world led to a great flowering of needlework.
As the Hebrews were cast out of their ancestral homeland beginning with the first Diaspora (circa 597 BC), they brought their decorative embroidery to the new lands where they settled. Their handwork, which decorated their sanctuaries and ceremonial textiles, included embroidery of numerous styles and materials, noticeably silk embroidery, gold work, and crewel work.
In medieval Europe, needlework served ecclesiastic needs, and common subjects were the human figures of the saints. In England a style called Opus Anglicanum (Latin for English work) produced exquisite facial details worked in split stitches of silk thread, as well as gold wire couched down with silk. Often commissioned by popes, these works were stitched by professional embroiderers both male and female, residing in monasteries and convents.
Another style developed concurrently on the Continent, a whitework known as Opus Teutonicum (Teutonic work), which featured designs outlined in white linen threads on linen fabric. The lack of color drama led to the development of many new and different stitches - such as chain, buttonhole, encroaching Gobelin, and long-arm cross, and more - for the purpose of introducing varied textures to break up the monotony of white-on-white. Schwalm work is its descendant.
European embroidery never actually declined in popularity but only in fineness, and later forms never surpassed medieval work in complexity and refinement. New woven fabrics such as brocades, damasks, and velvets offered competition to those centuries remain to this day, to be rediscovered by each new generation of embroiderers.