Silk Ribbon Embroidery

Ribbonwork was initially used in France for military uniforms and ecclesiastical clothing and became part of fashion in the Rococo period (1750-1780). London dressmakers copied the technique and it spread to the British colonies in North America, Australia and New Zealand. The technique is an embellishment for fabrics and uses simple stitches to attach a wide variety of widths to create three dimensional shapes, particularly roses. It is often added to quilting, knot stitches and stumpwork. The ribbon was made by European peasants renting looms from manufacturers; since silk was expensive, ribbons were associated with nobility and sometimes regulated by sumptuary laws (these laws limited the use of fabrics, colors and embellishment by rank and occupation).

Ribbons were predominant in seventeenth and eighteenth century France on both men and women's clothing and were used to indicate political views on shoes and hats during the French Revolution. Ribbon designs could be stitched on dress fronts or onto a separate cloth that could be switched for others, allowing dresses to be adorned differently for each occasion. Silk ribbon embroidery became a major fashion trend when the couturier Charles Frederick Worth established the House of Worth in 1858; his master embroiderer, Michonet, used “rococo” ribbons to decorate the gowns of Empress Eugenie (the wife of Napoleon III) and created the world's finest embroidery for decades. The design element continued through the Victorian period and well into the nineteenth century.

The invention of the Jacquard loom in 1801 allowed machine weaving which increased the production and lowered the price and ribbons were attached to pillows, hats, blankets and bedding. Popular designs included ribbon roses, flowers, animals, fish and insects. The invention of the sewing machine expanded options and creativity for ribbonwork. Natives in North and South America used ribbonwork to embellish ceremonial dress and they could be seen on clothing, moccasins and dance regalia as early as the late eighteenth century. The results were extremely fragile and few the earliest works survived.

Ribbonwork had a comeback during the 1940s and could be seen on fireplace screens in the White House, couture gowns in the 1950s and doll gowns in the 1980s. Ribbonwork has become very popular in the last few decades, and needleworkers now burn, dye and recycle silk to push the design elements of silk ribbon embroidery.

References and Further Reading
Victoria Adams. (2005). Silk Ribbon Embroidery. 17th Century to the 21st Century.
Catherine Amoroso Leslie. (2007). Needlework through History: An Encyclopedia.
Christen Brown. (2012). Ribbonwork Gardens.

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