Detail of altar frontal (antependium}, France or Italy, 1730-1740. Silk satin with silk and metallic-thread embroidery, guipure and gaufrure.

Stitching the Story of Cutwork Embroidery, One of the Most Luxurious Goods in Europe

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Different types of embroidery are known in the history of every single civilization. It seems that people liked to create beautiful personal adornments almost since the beginning of time. Cutwork is one of the newest styles of embroidery, and the first known examples come from medieval times.

Embroidery is the handicraft of decorating fabric. The oldest known examples of embroidery were discovered in 1964 in Cro-Magnon, Russia. It was found with the remains of a hunter from 30,000 BC. His clothes, boots, and hat were heavily decorated with handmade embroidery and ivory beads.

The Basics of Cutwork

Over the years, embroidery has been combined with many different materials - such as metal strips, beads, quills, pearls, and sequins. People have enjoyed decorating dresses, shirts, coats, shoes, hats, etc. With every century, the techniques became more sophisticated, but all are based on the basic ones like: chain stitch, blanket stitch, satin stitch, and running stitch.

Cutwork, also known as Punto Tagliato , appeared in Europe, perhaps in the 14th century AD. It was a very different technique in the beginning. Portions of a textile, typically linen or cotton, were cut away and the result is a ''hole'' which was then filled with embroidery or a stitched lace.

It was considered as the most luxurious embroidery in the 14th, 15th, 16th and part of the 17th centuries. The roots of this decorating style are in Italy, but the technique became popular all over Europe. The most popular styles are Borderie Anglaise, Reticella, Hebdo, Richelieu, Carrickmacross lace and whitework.

Whitework is the most universal, and unites various ways of connecting styles based on the color white. Cutwork is also known in other continents. One great example is a Jaali style from India, but in this article, the focus is on European techniques.

Embroidered Cope, 1330-1350, V&A Museum no. T.36-1955

Embroidered Cope, 1330-1350, V&A Museum no. T.36-1955 (CC BY-SA 3.0 )

From The Church to Fashion

Cutwork embroidery came from the monasteries, where nuns created textiles for the church. They started to remove large areas of the background fabric instead of removing individual threads. With the expansion of the Roman Catholic Church, poor people started to be employed to embroider the church vestments. The people hired by the church often had bad life situations, and they began to embroider huge pieces of linens; this is partly why the technique expanded very fast.

Later, during the reign of Elizabeth I, Cutwork became a part of fashion. When nobles and royals started to pose for portraits dressed in the clothes decorated with Cutwork, the new style of embroidery became a synonym of good taste and abundance.

Elizabeth I wears a blackwork chemise and partlet and a gown embroidered with gold thread and studded with pearls. The Phoenix Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1575–76

Elizabeth I wears a blackwork chemise and partlet and a gown embroidered with gold thread and studded with pearls. The Phoenix Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1575–76 ( Public Domain )

Hardanger Embroidery

It is almost impossible to find the origins of Hardanger embroidery. The history of this style starts perhaps in ancient Persia. This technique has had many different names around the world. It was popular in the Ottoman Empire, but also all over Europe. During the Renaissance, it became very popular in Italy and evolved into Venetian lacework, and later Reticella. In the 18th century, the Hardanger style was popular in northern Europe and became a base for Danish and Dutch embroideries, Scottish Ayrshire work, and Ruskin lacework.

Example of modern Hardanger embroidery work.

Example of modern Hardanger embroidery work. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

In Norway between 1650 and 1850 the style known as Hardangersom flourished. With time, it started to be used in all of Scandinavia, in a variety of ways. Hardanger was well known on every royal court of Europe, but, people always like changes in fashion, so even this favorite style of embroidery had to be modified and replaced with something new.

Reticella Embroidery

The Cutwork embroidery style called Reticella is a needle lace which appeared in the 15th century. It was perhaps the first style of cutwork used more to decorate clothes, than for religious textile purposes.

Reticella is a type of cutwork in which threads were pulled from linen fabric to make a ''grid'', which was used to stitch a pattern. It was very popular until the end of XVII century and used in a characteristic geometric design of squares and circles. In the 16th century the shapes had expanded and the most popular designs were flowers, fruits, animals, birds, insects, etc.


'The name comes from the location of Abri de Cro-Magnon (abri is French for rock shelter, cro is Occitan for "hole" or "cavity",[8] and Magnon is the name of the owner of the land[9]) in the hamlet of Les Eyzies in the commune of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in southwestern France, where the first specimen was found.'

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