Needlework is an area of handicrafts that covers all the decorative sewing and textile arts that use needles in their production and creation. Within this area are various types of needlework including embroidery, tapestry, quilting, crochet and braiding.
Embroidery can also be found on many items of antique clothing and antique furniture decoration.
Many collectors focus on certain types of embroideries, such as samplers, 18th century French drapes or early Asian silk designs.
Antique Chinese embroidery has become popular in recent years, with decorated dragon robes the most sought after for collectors.
Due to the nature of the materials used, embroideries and tapestries from the 18th and 19th centuries can be rare in good or even average condition.
The most valuable are those once owned by historically significant figures such as royalty, or those from the collections of notable families or houses.
The majority of these are owned and displayed by various museums and institutions, and when examples appear on the private market they can sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
The Bayeux Tapestry
English embroidery work of the middle ages was famous throughout Europe for its high quality and intricacy.
The most famous British embroidery of this period, and the largest hanging to survive the medieval period, is the 11th-century Bayeux tapestry, measuring 70 m long by 49.5 cm wide.
Although technically an embroidery rather than a true tapestry, it portrays in coloured wool on a linen ground the events leading to the Norman conquest of England.
In medieval England professional embroidery guilds and workshops arose, producing the liturgical ‘Opus Anglicanum’ or ‘English work’ which was celebrated as the best of its kind. King Henry VIII was a renowned collector of tapestries during his reign and an inventory of his possessions after his death revealed around 2000 examples, many made with pure gold and silver thread.
Samplers from the 16th century were considered highly valuable and were often passed down through generations.
The earliest surviving example is from 1598 and is displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The earliest record of a sampler is from 1502, detailed in the household expense accounts of Elizabeth of York.
The earliest surviving English-made tapestries date from between about 1580 and 1600 and were made on looms set up at Barcheston, Warwickshire by William Sheldon.
In 1620 a tapestry factory was opened in Mortlake, and it went on to produce some of the most important examples until its move to Soho in 1670.
In 17th century France, Louis XIV established the first embroidery factories, to supply his court with luxurious textiles. At this time, trade with Europe had become commonplace and those richly embroidered silks from Asia were beginning to influence the European needlework trades with those techniques and decorative detailing.
Some of the most collectible work is the popular mid-17th century style known as ‘stumpwork’. It consists of embroidery on a panel of silk using coloured silks, with some of the principal features padded out and often featuring human figures with carved wood heads, hands and feet.
A great deal of basic tent-stitch embroidery from the 17th century has been preserved during the past 250 years, and much of it retains its original colouring. 18th century furniture with its original hand-stitched covering is rare, but the value of a piece is greatly increased by its presence.
After the French Revolution, simpler styles and designs became more popular with both Tulle embroidery and appliqué work.
Of all the techniques of the 19th century, Berlin work, a variety of needlepoint or canvas work created in silk and beads on brightly coloured wool, was the most widespread.
Many designs featured biblical or historical scenes, flowers, literary subjects, or exotic Oriental images. Workers followed designs painted or printed in Berlin that were sold throughout Germany and exported to Great Britain, the United States, and elsewhere.
In the late 19th century the arts and crafts movement led by the British designer William Morris included embroidery and Morris's daughter May became a leading name within the craft. The Royal School of Needlework, founded in England in 1872, gave further impetus to all types of embroidery, not only in England but also in America.
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