Embroidery is making a comeback, although it never really left
Embroidery is experiencing a renaissance. Designers such as Mary Kantratzou, Jasper Conran, and Delpozo, sequined, whipstitched, and chained all throughout their latest collections. In a world filled with throw away clothes, there is a movement towards clothes that take time. Elie Saab created a gown for the Spring 2018 runway that took seven in-house embroiders three weeks to complete - one gown! All is takes for a simple silhouette to become extraordinary is the right embroidery treatments - and then it becomes one of a kind.
In every corner of the world, the act of embroidering is happening. The universal appeal of this craftwork appears in Peru and on the other side of the globe in Japan. Embroidery goes back to before Cro-Magnon, Russia where a hunter’s fossils were discovered with ivory beads handstitched on his fur clothes, boots, and hat. Fabled Egyptian pharaoh King Tut (died c. 1323 BC) had embroidered textiles in his tomb. Excavations in China revealed pieces from the 5th century BC. Italians used cutwork in the 14th century where “holes” were cut out of the fabric and filled with embroidered designs where this skill then made its way across Europe.
In Japan, the art of Nuido, Nui (techniques) and Do (spirit), uses concepts seen in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony (Sado), where embroidering has become a spiritual art in itself. The act of ‘doing’ and handwork can be healing and meditative. The way in which an embroiderer uses color and technique can tell a lot about their tastes and culture, even lifestyle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” costume exhibit features opulent papal robes embroidered by the Poor Clares, an order of nuns dedicated to poverty. Even religion doesn’t shy away from the beauty and status of fashion and embellishment.
On modern runways, designers such as Alessandro Michele at Gucci, have embroidered on everything from fairytale dresses to bomber jackets. The Italian designer uses artisans from family owned Mumbai-based Chanakya for the brands iconic snake, tiger, and flower icons. Indian embroidery has a long history and is being used in couture salons of Valentino, Alberta Feretti, and Maison Margiela. The Chennai based embroidery workshop, Vastrakala, is owned by Lesage, Paris’ oldest embroidery house. If you flip through the pages of Vogue, you can bet most of the designers on their pages create with Lesage. Lesage and Chanakya both run schools with the goal of preserving the craft and cultivating talent. Interestingly, in India, most of the handwork is done by men while in Europe it’s by women. Both schools are trying to even out those numbers.
What was once associated with grandmothers is going high tech with British designer Alice Archer who is known for her embellished designs. It takes a lot of time to tweak and calibrate the computers and machines that generate Archer’s intricate patterns and colors. Her often floral motifs use digital and Irish embroidery on kimonos and silk tea dresses. Archer’s passion for the art form isn’t dying out as she finds ways to push the envelope.
Old world handwork is being revered and preserved through non-profit organizations like Build a Nest who train artisans and support them through programs that connect them with designers and business development resources. These trades give people opportunities to work from home, so they can still raise their families - this is especially important for supporting women in communities that don’t have much opportunity.
At a recent Build a Nest’s event at Vogue’s Meredith Melling’s rooftop in New York, I complimented a woman dressed in a colorful antique Huipil from Guatemala. She excitedly shared her recent experience of spending four months collaborating with artisans in Central America and befriended a girl who gave the heavily hand embroidered piece to her. It had been her aunt’s and passed down to her and now again has been given another life and story on a rooftop ____ miles away.
Embellishment is part of the fabric of life around the world, whether in modest villages or expensive couture houses. A Ukrainian friend of mine remembers children in Kiev learning embroidery as a form of recreation. Now traditional folk vyshyvanka dresses are all the rage. The world has been enamored with the art of embroidery for a long time. In what feels like uncertain times, universal crafts can create opportunities for many, by offering trade or even solace. In a world where it feels like there’s a constant race for more and fast, the age old art of embroidery feels like a breath of fresh air.