Embroidered workbag, crewel wool on linen and cotton ground, English, 1702. Embroidered workbag, crewel wool on linen and cotton ground, English, 1702. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK, acc. no. T.166-1984.

Embroidery is a late medieval English term derived from the French term ‘embrouder.’ By the sixteenth century the term ‘embroidery’ in English started to refer to rich materials that were embellished with stitches or decorated with appliqué. This form of work was generally free style in appearance. The person (male or female) who carried out this type of work was generally called an embroiderer.

In contrast, during the medieval period the term needlework had referred to a piece of decorative work in which a linen ground was entirely hidden by stitches. By the sixteenth century the term ‘needlework’ became applied to canvas embroidery, whereby the ground was covered by cross stitch, tent stitch or a related stitch (a form of counted thread work). The person (male or female) who carried out this type of work was called a needleworker.

The comparable division between needlework and embroidery, whereby needlework often refers to kit forms, still exists in the twenty-first century, although the two terms are often used synonymously.

There are various definitions for embroidery, and not surprisingly these have changed over time. Some definitions are very precise and concentrate on the notion that embroidery is the art of creating patterns using decorative stitches with a sewing needle and thread. However, these definitions can be immediately criticized because in some countries, India for example, many people use a small hook (ari hook) to make a chain stitch, rather than a needle.

Other definitions are more inclusive and state that embroidery refers to the art of decorating cloth using threads, but also other materials, such as beads, metal, glass or seeds, and in a variety of forms and techniques, not necessarily only using a needle and thread.

For the purpose of this encyclopaedia, the term embroidery is defined as the decoration of a fabric or similar ground material (such as leather or felt) with a sewing needle/hook, whereby the predominant decorative technique is the use of decorative stitches (also known as accessory stitches or supplementary stitches) made with spun yarn or a similar, flexible form. It is essential that the embroidered stitches are primarily decorative rather than structural – although it should be stressed that sometimes these two functions are not mutually exclusive.

The term stitched embroidery is sometimes used to further define ‘embroidery’ (when used in the sense of decorative needlework), but this would appear to be unnecessary, as (decoratively) stitching and embroidery are so closely related.

For the etymology of the word, see a passage from the Exeter Book.

See also: embroidery styles; exhibition what is embroidery?


  • LEVEY, Santina M. (1998). An Elizabethan Inheritance: The Hardwick Hall Textiles, London: The National Trust, p. 48
  • Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: 'Embroidery', 'Needlework'.

V&A online catalogue (retrieved 9 July 2016).


Last modified on Friday, 16 December 2016 19:03
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