This section is from the "A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods" book, by George S. Cole. Also available from Amazon: A complete dictionary of dry goods and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool and other fibrous substances,: Including a full explanation of the modern processes ... together with various useful tables.
Embroidery. The art of working with the needle flowers, leaves, vines and other forms, upon wool, silk, cotton, or other woven textures. That it is of the greatest antiquity is proven by the testimony of Moses and Homer. It takes precedence of painting, the earliest method of representing figures and ornaments being of needle-work traced upon canvas. In olden times embroidering was the chief occupation of women of all ranks, from the palace to the cloister, and sharp rivalry existed in the production of sacerdotal vestments and ornaments. Nuns embroidered robes adorned with sacred subjects; girls produced admirable embroidery in appropriate designs for the monasteries; chasubles and mantles were embroidered on silk, embellished with gold and gems by the fair hands of queens and princesses. From the ninth to the fifteenth century was a glorious period for needle-work. Not only were figures and portraits produced, but also floral, rococco, and arabesque ornamentation; flowers in the grandiose style wrought with arabesques of gold and silver were characteristic designs of the period. From an industrial point of view, embroideries may be ranged into two classes: First that described above, in which Persia, China and Japan are the greatest masters in modern times; second, white, or flat-stitch embroidery, applied to dress and furniture, upon cloth, cambric, swiss, etc., in which Swizerland holds first place and Germany next. Eastern Switzerland, with St. Gall as a center, for one hundred years has been headquarters of the flat-stitch embroidery industry of the world. Although the Swiss embroider at a marvelously low rate, they cannot weave the cambric for the foundation. These cloths, cambrics, Swisses, etc., upon which the Swiss embroider, are all obtained from England, being for the most part manufactured at Manchester. In the year 1890 cotton embroideries to the value of $18,000,000 were shipped from St. Gall to various quarters of the earth. More than $8,000,000 worth of these came to the United States. Should these large importations continue, and the tariff on embroideries remain at the present high rate of 60 per cent., the customs income would amount to nearly $5,000,000 annually. The present hand-machine for embroidering was brought into use in 1827. Embroidering by hand alone had long been practiced by the Swiss peasants,but it had only become an organized industry (home-industry) early in the present century, and was confined, as now, almost wholly to the mountainous part of eastern Switzerland, that is, in the cantons of Appenzall, Thurgan and St. Gall, with St. Gall town as headquarters for shipping. A great industry grew. The technical skill and readiness of hand of the Appenzall women was marvelous, and gradually the exquisite embroidery made by them became famous all over the world. Many thousands of people are now engaged wholly in the skilled business. Girls are trained to it from early childhood. Prior to 1827 all the beautiful work was done with the hand and in the people's homes; but the introduction of the hand-machines rapidly changed the whole situation. At present possibly not 5 per cent. of the embroideries are made exclusively by hand, and these only of special articles, fine and expensive. The hand-machine was soon in the houses of half the peasants, and factories were founded where many machines were collected and worked - but still by hand-power only. The character of the work was then, and remains now, excellent, but the production is comparatively slow. The Swiss manufacturers are, as a body, wealthy people, but their workmen have not too much of the good things of of life. The profits are usually large to the dealers; but the embroiderer barely makes a good living, as it is always necessary for him to pay an assistant, known as the "threader," to help work his machine. This common old embroidering hand-machine of 1827, with few improvements, is the one that is used today for the millions of fine embroideries that are sold to all quarters of the globe. There are about 30,000 of them in use in Switzerland, the number of needles averaging about 250 to the machine, and the number of stitches not exceeding 2,000 to the needle, daily. As embroiderers are paid on the stitch basis only, they have very small earnings left after paying their threaders and other expenses. At the present time 50 cents, sometimes less, is a fair average of the daily earnings of a hard-working embroiderer, who must toil all day long with head, hands and feet, working his machine.
A steam embroidering machine that may more than triple the present enormous production of hand-machines, and produce embroidery even of a better quality than the present, is one of the latest inventions. It is called the Arbon. To the many thousands of Swiss people who earn their livelihood by hard labor at the hand-machine, this invention is one of vital interest. A machine that would increase the number of stitches per day, and with less labor, has been the effort of inventors for nearly fifty years. In 1875 a machine, called the "Schiffli," was invented and worked by steam. It produces, however, only simple patterns of inferior quality. The embroideries made by this machine are usually known as "Schiffli goods." The Arbon machines, when placed two together, with the single automatic pantagraph acting for both, will it is claimed, produce 12,000 to 15,000 stitches daily. Two hand-machines, worked by two men and two girls, may if they are experts, produce 5,500 stitches daily, but even then the Arbon machines would nearly triple the production. Hand-machines cost $400; Arbons $1,000 to $1,500. At present the hand-embroiderers of Switzerland regard the new invention of embroidering by steam power with contempt, but this feeling usually exists among skilled laborers with reference to radical revolutions in textile industries. The French hand-weavers 100 years ago ridiculed the invention of the Jacquard loom; seeing it a reality, their next act was to try and burn it up and mob the inventor, because it had revolutionized their industry in a night. There is a possibility that the Arbon steam-machine may yet do for the embroidery industry what the Jacquard loom did for silk weaving.
In the United States there are in operation about 300 Swiss embroidering hand-machines. The men working these are all brought over from Switzerland. They are employed mostly on silk embroidery, fancy trimmings, embroidering of robes in silk and wool. Most of the work could be imported, tariff paid, and sold cheaper than the American work on which they are employed. But one very strong protection of home industries exists which is not found in the statute books. This is protection in the supplying of immediate demands by agencies in touch with the marts and tastes of this country.
In the manufacture of wholly hand-wrought goods, Chinese embroidery is probably the most remarkable that ever came from human fingers. Any lady who has ever attempted embroidery understands the difficulty of giving a neat appearance to the work on only one side of the article embroidered, but the Chinese embroider both sides, so that by turning the work it is impossible to detect a difference or to say which is the neater, and this, too, on material so thin that it seems impossible to work with it at all. The Japanese, as usual in these things, borrowed the art from China, and at present Japanese taste and skill is universally acknowledged, although China was the original exporter of the quaint designs on quaint materials, worked in still quainter colors. The number of firms engaged in the embroidery trade in China and Japan number about 350, which represents a very large number of persons employed in the business. Men obtain an average rate of about $6 a month for first-class embroidery, $4 second class, and $3 third class work. Up to 1886 the trade was comparatively small, and orders were seldom received for more than 100 dozen articles of the same pattern. Now, however, 2,000 and 3,000 dozens of one pattern is not by any means an uncommon demand.
The Persians used silk for their embroideries at least two thousand years ago. Marco Polo in the 14th century wrote of the rare skill of the women of Persia, especially in the South, in the needlework of silk. Many choice stuffs are still in existence, wrought by them centuries ago, of silk and gold and silver thread; and to this day they can be seen still busy with the needle, rivaling their sisters of Cashmere on the east, and surpassing the women of Turkey on the west. A curious fact connected with Persian embroidery is the circumstance that the art is practiced not only by the women but also by the men. The latter work chiefly in the bazars, and go, if required, to do special work at the houses of Europeans. Perhaps the handsomest embroideries of Persia are those called Siliseh, made in Kerman, the most southern province, bordering on the Indian Ocean. Both in material and workmanship they are but little inferior to those of Cash-mere, which they resemble. The needle work is sometimes of silk, but generally of woolen thread, which has a very soft, silky appearance.