Friday, August 16, 2013

Thinking of embroidery

I have been really busy lately with things that (sadly) has not involved having a needle in my hand. That doesn't stop me from thinking about embroidery though and this time it is not about a new design ...

Embroidery and Stitching - What is the difference? Have you ever thought about it?
I am not talking about the definitions of dictionaries so much as the way in which the two interests are perceived and Stitching describing a more basic style of Embroidery.

At first I thought this would be a fun and quick little question put out there, but the more I think about it and discus the topic with others, the more I am realising that there is not an easy quick answer. So let's call this post...

Embroidery vs Stitching - TAKE ONE
Both Embroidery and Stitching is the practise of adding threads to cloth by the means of a needle. When I look to other needlecrafts such as knitting, crochet and quilting - they don't seem to have different terms like that. If you are a knitter, you knit. So why does decorating fabric with needle and thread? And why are people happy to take up Stitching but run away the minute you mention Embroidery?

When I asked a few friends around the blogs, their responses (other than being greatly appreciated) confirmed for me that this is not at all a silly question, that there are many takes on it and that it is worth pondering and talking about. Why? 
Primarily because, in my humble opinion, Embroidery has SO much to offer in the way of textile creativity. It saddens me that people may shy away simply because they think it is too difficult and perhaps old fashioned (?) before they even try. I, myself once thought of Embroidery as a pursuit for older women in grey suits and tight buns on their heads - but my conversion is a story for another day...

"stitching is something that is done as a hobby, for enjoyment, whereas embroidery can definitely be approached as an art form, with many accompanying rules and expectations..." -  Floresita, editor of Feeling Stitchy
Like you, I follow a number of blogs, social media forums, read books and magazines about Stitching and Embroidery, and across all these media the two words are largely used to describe two rather different things, or approaches if you like.

Based on the current use of the terms, Stitching and Embroidery, to describe images created with a threaded needle, it seems to me that Embroidery generally is presented and perceived as being more refined and in a way superior to Stitching. If that is the case, when does Stitching become Embroidery?
Is it when your stitch vocabulary exceeds a certain number of different stitches - or when you become completely and happily absorbed by techniques and execution?
I think there is more to it than that.

'Sacred Kingfisher' by Trish Burr
"People are intimidated by the name Embroidery whereas the name Stitching implies something simpler - it is a state of mind. I am more intimidated by the word Stitches than embroidery as it conjures up thoughts of learning a multitude of different stitches which I can't do!" Trish Burr
Stitching it seems, is light hearted and a lot of fun. There seems to be a fabulous 'let's have a go' approach to Stitching, which I really, really like. It makes me want to pick up my needle.
Embroidery is generally presented in a much more serious and structured way - it has to be 'properly' taut and there is a lot of history and tradition attached. I find the story and styles of Embroidery fascinating and interesting, primarily as a source of inspiration but not for re-creation. I can see how this might easily be off-putting if you just want to 'kick back' and create something with your hands. Don't get me wrong, I think there is a lot to be learned from tradition, skill and knowledge built up over centuries, but let's not get stuck in tradition and rules just for the sake of it, please!
"...the word embroidery has taken on a meaning that makes it seem inaccessible unless you have been taught how to do it. Rubbish of course." - Kathy Andrews, The Unbroken Thread 
I love to embroider but I think that the word and what it means sadly has ended up with a bit of a bad reputation. I come across so many people who tell me they stitch, but 'no they could never embroider..!'. Really it is not hard: needle in and needle out... simple. 
"Embroidery definitely can be easy-going, and there's a lot of people making patterns, and embroidery art, which feels a lot more approachable. But it does take time to change people's perceptions, I guess." - Carina Envoldsen-Harris Polka & Bloom 
Are you a stitcher or an embroiderer and what makes you think of yourself as such?
As for me, I am an embroiderer who loves to stitch, then again... perhaps a stitcher, who can't get enough of embroidery?

Most importantly, whatever you do - just keep stitching...
... which is exactly what I am going to do this coming weekend.

Have a lovely weekend where ever you are,
Anna x


  1. Personally, I always thought that stitching was what quilters did (by hand) to hold the layers together, needle and sewing thread thing, and embroidery was the floss and needle thing that is just fabric decoration. I think that the term "stitching" has been being misused by people who do not want to appear to have a dull, draggy hobby, because that is what most others would think. Then again, I just do not quilt, so who knows if that is correct. I do know though that when I tell people that embroidery is my hobby, I get weird looks because they think that it is old fashioned and boring, I don't expect it to become an extreme sport any time soon though.

    1. It is exactly that (mis)perception of embroidery that I am trying to work out. You are right that stitching is used to describe the type of embroidery used extensively by quilters - simple and lots of back stitch - but it is still embroidery, Easy Embroidery. I think it is to do with the peoples understanding, or lack off, what embroidery is - it is not cool and no it won't become an extreme sport, but I see no reason why it cannot be up there with the knitting and crochet craze! Sigh.

  2. Interesting discussion. I have never thought of Stitching vs. Embroidery. I think of Embroidery as a type of Stitching, as Stitching encompasses more than decoration. To me, Embroidery is decorative Stitching, whereas Stitching encompasses all that you can do with a needle and thread, such as sewing, quilting, etc. To put it another way, Embroidery is a subset of Stitching, much in the same way that dusting is a subset of housework. I've never thought of Stitching as being a more relaxed form of Embroidery, as you imply.

    1. Hi Cynthia,
      Oh I hope I didn't word that too strongly. I don't mean it in a 'lets battle it out' kind of way. It is really more we even need to words? And why no one bats an eyelid if you say that you stitch where as if you tell them you embroider you might as well be from another planet.
      You are absolutely right that embroidery is stitching, decorative stitching. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. This may be an over simplification, but I think of stitching as the process and embroidery the result.

    Best of luck achieving consensus on this topic!


    1. I do too Sarah, and so does most others who embroider it seems. But it seems the word is increasingly being used as a noun to describe a simpler form of embroidery. Thanks for your input.

  4. I agree to some degree with Cynthia's description of 'embroidery' being a subset of 'stitching' - that makes a lot of sense to me.

    Having said that, 'stitching' can be taken as a subset of 'embroidery' in that I personally find myself using 'stitching' to describe more counted thread styles, such as hardanger, cross stitch etc.

    I also think that Sarah's definition has a lot of value, that of stitching being the process and embroidery the result, but I also think that 'embroidery' as a word is a bigger, posher word and, yes, can make one think of skilled and trained professionals as well as grannies working floral tablecloths. 'Stitching' is something even kids can do, it's a much less overwhelming word. It's as much a linguistic question as one of process.

    PS, Feel free to include me in any future surveys like this! As an avid embroiderer, blogger *and* linguist, it's all right up my street!!=)

    1. Thank you Elizabeth, I will certainly keep you in mind for future discussion on this topic.
      I just find it so interesting the word is increasingly being used to describe those simple, mainly back stitch, little quick embroideries. Imagine if the were marketed as embroidery - they would not be nearly as popular, or would they?

      I really like your word 'overwhelming' about embroidery - I think it is very suiting for what many may feel about the notion of giving it a go.


  5. A very interesting post. When I first heard if stitching I had no idea what it meant. Shortly there after I found a blod fir stitching and smiled, it was simply embroidery.

  6. Love this article. I tend to use both stitching and embroidery to describe what I do. It depends on who I'm speaking to. I think many find the practice of embroidery as being beyond them, too difficult, too creative. Those are the people I describe my practice as being stitching---approachable, easy to pick up, etc.

    Thanks! Julie

    1. Hi Julie, I totally agree that the words are completely interchangeable. It is interesting that you say that as a descriptive word you use the two depending on who you speak to - I realised I do too.
      Thank you for you input. Anna

  7. I think it has to do, in a round-about way, with the history of both England and the English language. "Stitchery" is from, or related to, the German "Stickerei" or Swedish "-stygn" suffix. "Embroidery" is from/related to the French "broderie." Prior to 1066, England had a much more Norse/Germanic government, social systems (the moot, *relative* equality of thegn and carl before the court, etc), and language.
    After the Norman Conquest, European systems (feudalism) and French/Latin language were imposed (well, the Normans tried to impose them) - and if you were a French overlord's lady, doing "broderie," you had more time, household help, and resources to devote to an elegant result that the Anglo-Saxon yeoman's wife doing "stitchery" to provide insulated curtains for her bed.
    This is of course a generalization; I'm sure there are other contributing influences. And I use both words when I write, to make sure I don't repeat the same word too often, which has nothing to do with any relative meanings!
    "The English language is the result of Norman men-at-arms trying to make dates with Saxon barmaids, and no more legitimate than any of the other results."
    - H. Beam Piper.

    1. This is really interesting. Having Scandinavian heritage I knew a little about the Norse influence in England, but had never thought of it from a language point of view. In Danish 'Embroidery' is 'Broderi' closer to the French word, how that came to be, I have no idea.
      I do find your distinction defined by time and practicality VERY interesting though. It is still the case that work described as embroidery is often more complex and time consuming, the embroidery is the primary focus.Wheras designs described as stitching or 'stitcheries' are often much simpler, quicker to work and usually part of a bigger / useful item, such as quilts.
      Thank you so much for your thoughts. Anna

    2. Interesting too that two "Norse" languages should have the two different words . . . I don't actually *speak* Swedish, I was going by a translation of some stitch names. H'mmm; perhaps "-stygn" is actually just "-stitch;" perhaps it refers to an individual stitch rather than the overall process.
      Now I'm curious as to which specific countries the Norse came to England from; they're usually just lumped together as "the Vikings" in American textbooks.