History of needlework

Spinning and weaving are among the oldest trades of mankind. Their importance is illustrated by the Parkas in the Greek Mythology who hold in their hands the yarn symbolizing peoples' fate.

Textiles first were made of only plant fibres but after the domestication of animals some materials of animal origin appeared as well.

In designing clothes not only expedience was demanded but people also needed decorativeness. First belt clasps and fasteners appeared on the dresses from animal leather sewn with fish bone needles.

Sewing became really popular with the use of woven materials. The edges of the clothes had to be protected from getting frayed out so in the beginning fringes were made from the free threads, later sewn hems were used. With the development of tailoring one dress consisted more and more parts therefore strengthening of the stitches was needed. This offered an opportunity to decorating: thicker and coloured yarns, more sophisticated stitches along the tailoring line gave longer life to the clothes.

The other source of embroidery is weaving. The motifs in the woven cloth were made afterwards with coloured yarns and served as decoration.

This double origin is mirrored in the embroidery techniques. Loop, chain and knot stitches and flat embroidery which are used today in free drawing embroideries come from cloth fastening stitches. Thread counting techniques come from weaving, some of them still possesses their ancient geometrical motifs treasury.

In Hungary as early as the reign of the first king, Stephen I weavers worked not only at the royal court but in the monasteries (founding document of Pécsvárad monastery, 1015) and in the environment of higher priests and lords as well.

Mastery in embroidery consisted a part of girls' education even in ancient times. In the lords' castles a stress was laid on that the lady of the castle would teach "guest ladies" (daughters of other noble families) to embroidery on a high level. Queen Marie Therese issued a decree in 1762 to order the ecclesial schools and the orphanages to teach handworks. Public schools introduced handwork lessons in 1868.

The mastery of embroidery became soon "international": Hungarian kings invited foreign masters from on the 12th century in order to contribute to the development of this art. The great boom was in the time of King Matthew when Italian weaver masters arrived at the royal court. Embroidery soon became an independent branch, founded guilds, and the compulsory "wandering" gave the opportunity to get acquainted with masterworks of foreign countries. The Ottoman conquest brought lots of oriental motifs into the Hungarian hand art and resulted among many others in a characteristic Hungarian embroidery style, the so-called "úrihímzés" (noblemen's embroidery).

Aristocrats' libraries and letters give evidence of the fact that model books and patterns arrived from abroad, first of all from Italy, and splendid brocades were copied, too. Survived dowry lists show that every dress and even sleeping gown was richly decorated with laces.

The spreading of models was supported not only by exchanges of model books and patterns, but castle ladies borrowed embroidery skilled maids from one another.

The art of embroidery spread wider and wider, more and more people had skills in it, spread even among peasants, and by the end of the 17th century folklore art formed. The use of embroidered clothes connected first of all to the important celebrations and family events, therefore mainly house belongings were embroidered (bed sheet hems, eider-down ticks, table covers)

As we can see we have a rich heritage and it consists a good source for those who practice hand art.

© Judit Boldizsár

Katalin Munk
Ferenc Márton