Patterns and Symbols of Embroidered Textiles Around the World

Embroidered Textiles: A World Guide to Traditional Patterns by Sheila Paine, a world expert on textile and tribal societies, has the potential to be used in a variety of ways. The beautiful cover, featuring a woman’s blouse from Slovakia, makes it an excellent coffee-table book. Better yet, if a guest opens it, they will be pleasantly surprised by fascinating photos and illustrations throughout the entire book.

Embroidered Textiles

Embroidered Textiles: A World Guide to Traditional Patterns

A lover of textiles will get much more from this book than a casual, coffee-table browser, but even someone with little textile experience can be drawn into its exquisite design and captivating information. Those fond of textiles and history might wish to keep the book on a shelf for reference material. The easy-to-follow table of contents, detailed information, glossary, dictionary of stitches, and information on public collections make it an excellent book to have on hand.

Embroidered Textiles

Suzani. Embroidered. Silk thread on silk fabric. Suzanis have been presented as dowry gifts for centuries in Uzbekistan. Collection of Susan Sternlieb. Featured in the September/October 2003 issue of PieceWork. Photo by Joe Coca.

Materials, Colors, Patterns & Stitches
In Embroidered Textiles, Sheila Paine explores the symbolism of motifs and patterns. From the first chapter, “Guide to Identification,” one will find incredibly detailed information differentiating textiles from around the world. Paine takes us through the Far East; the Indian subcontinent; Central Asia; the Middle East; West, Central, and East Africa; North Africa; Southeast Europe; Eastern Europe; the Baltic States; Scandinavia; Central Europe; Western Europe; North America; Central America; and South America, revealing distinguishing information about textiles including materials, colors, embroidery patterns, stitches, and more. (For historical context and step-by-step stitch diagrams, visit our “A Stitch in Time” blog post.)

Embroidered Textiles

Silk shading is a hallmark of Japanese embroidery; shown here are long-and-short stitches in Japanese flat silk embroidery thread. Featured in the May/June 2006 issue of PieceWork. Photo by Joe Coca.

The book then dives deep into the symbolism of motifs, exploring origins and meanings of common designs such as the great goddess, the tree of life, the hunt, and the sun. Most fascinating to me is the history of the great goddess. (For more on the goddess in needlework, see “Exquisite Embroidered Symbolism: Norwegian Ceremonial Cloths” by Mary B. Kelly in the July/August 2009 issue of PieceWork.) When female figures are seen accompanied by such symbols as zigzags, birds, chevrons, toads, or other worshipping figures in embroidered textiles, they are often representative of goddesses rather than a portrayal of a mortal woman. The concept of “mother earth,” or the planet as a nurturing and furtive mother-figure, is nearly universal. Most early societies had a myth that reflected a mother-earth-type goddess. Especially in the Mediterranean region and Russia were the goddess figures paramount in embroidery.

Embroidered Textiles

Assisi embroidery, named for a town in the province of Umbria, Italy, dates back to the 14th century. These two sachets, designed by Elly Smith, use traditional Assisi embroidery motifs and stitches. Featured in the May/June 1999 issue of PieceWork. Photo by Joe Coca.

Certain designs are associated with goddesses, such as chevron and meandering patterns. Such patterns depict water, which is representative of the mysteries of life and birth. The ship, a common motif, represents a vessel that shelters one upon the sea of life; mermaids are the guardians of the waters, present in motifs of seventeenth-century English samplers; fish symbolize the power of water as the originator and preserver of life; kanthas, embroidered textiles common in eastern South Asia, are embroidered with fish in Bengal as a symbol of fertility for a daughter of marriageable age and status. (For more on the long-standing tradition of kanthas, see “Kanthas: The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal” by Linda Lynton in the January/February 1994 issue of PieceWork.) The book also provides information on the designs of embroidery influenced by religions of Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity.

Embroidered Textiles

Colorful embroidery adorns traditional Mayan costumes in many Guatemalan highland villages. At left is a detail from a panel of woven and embroidered cloth and at right, a detail from a pair of woven and embroidered pants. Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. Collection of Deborah Dwyer. Featured in the March/April 2005 issue of PieceWork. Photo by Joe Coca.

Enjoy the Journey
Embroidered Textiles: A World Guide to Traditional Patterns is a journey through many stories, myths, beliefs, and places. It will be a stand-out addition to your library. For other stories about historical needlework around the world, check out the online series from PieceWork, “Trekking the Globe in Stitches,” in which we tour needlework from seven continents.

Happy exploring,

Satisfy your needlework curiosities with these PieceWork back issues; each includes one of the images shown here!


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