Embroidery is Cool Again, Historical Part 1 of Whatever

Mexico at the Royal Ontario Museum

Back in 2015 I visited the ROM for the Viva Mexico exhibit on Mexican textiles, clothing and embroidery. I took a ton of pictures, hoping that I would have a good use for them one day–and that day is today!

Most of the pictures are my own; I’ve taken a few from elsewhere where necessary and will credit when that’s the case.

Image result for rom viva mexico
Like this one, which clearly is not mine. It’s from the ROM

Everything at this exhibit was created by regular people in out-of-the-way places. Everything was made by hand; some garments were traditional and some more modern. But all were beautifully embroidered and embellished. Professional embroiderers were commissioned for many (maybe all) of them, but in this case “professional embroiderers”  means “local nameless expert,” not “D&G” or “Alexander McQueen”–but they’re all producing work at that level.


Satin stitch, with beautiful sharp borders and gorgeous shading. The shading, however, isn’t particularly blended; there are borders between shades.

And then they wore it. Imagine spilling dinner on it.

From this article. Both dresses were commissioned. There are a lot of construction similarities between these dresses and the above, including bands of unadorned black cloth to show off the embroidered panels, similar colour schemes, stitching styles, and attached wide lace bands at the bottom.


This is apparently a huipil. Apparently traditionally they were construction from single pieces of intricately handwoven cloths, either gathered or sewn up the sides and with holes left for the head and arms.

This one has more long-and-short stitch, used to effect a more gradual transition between colours. But look at those borders. And see too how, even though the fabric is very sheer, you can’t see any threads or knots from behind.

The whitework is stunning too. Those flowers are perfectly regular.


A detail from the neckline. Some of the tendrils look to have been done with a stem or back stitch.

The leaves have a naturalistic border, while the flowers have dark outlines, further highlighted by bright light colours immediately adjacent. It makes them slightly more graphic, but still the overall effect is of “beautiful shiny bright flowers” not “hand-stitched.”

The knots are most likely buried within the stitching on the reverse to ensure nothing shows on the right side.

I believe this is also a huipil.


On the garment as a whole:

The hem is plain. All of the attention is drawn to the top half.

The embroidered motif in the centre is quite stiff, and that pushes the lightweight fabric out to either side.

There is a nearly-but-not-quite-symmetric pansy motif (in particular, colours change between sides while shapes remain the same). There’s a lot of little birds, and a few non-pansy flowers.

Look how flat and smooth it all is. From this distance, the main stitch is a satin or long-and-short stitch.


A little closer.

At the top of the smocked/gathered panel in the middle, human figures are stitched in a band. They’re all wearing slightly different outfits.


And a close-up:

The shading between colours on petals and leaves is flawless. You have stem stitches and french knots for stamens and buds.

Someone made this by hand. Isn’t it incredible?And then they wore it.

The garment’s outer edge looks, to my eye, to be a crocheted border embroidered with a buttonhole stitch in bright blue. It gives that frilly, scalloped look you see in the first two photos.


This one is cross stitched. I bet you could wear your eyes out looking for a single stitch that is less than perfectly square.

It’s less naturalistic and more geometric, because that’s what cross stitch does best; but the overall colour scheme is much the same and you still have repeating motifs of flowers, leaves and birds.


Another garment with perfectly even cross stitches, again with flowers and leaves. This one is more naturalistic than the first one. The ribbons around the neckline are pleated and the three embroidered sections appear to me to be joined by the pink ribbon. It’s not quite symmetric; the motifs on the left and right haven’t been mirrored, for one thing; and for another, the colour of some elements is changed.

My guess is that this was done without the aid of waste canvas.



More pleating and smocking between embellished panels, but this one has been beaded. The beads are applied in a line, creating an illustrated effect.

Again you’ve got flowers, leaves and birds.

In the middle the words “libertad” has been embroidered into the sun, so I guess this is an early example of political clothing.

The centre panel has been completed with more of a bead-weaving style, where the shapes are filled in.


It’s hard to make beads behave as regularly and predictably as thread, as you can see here; but also when you zoom in, you can see that some of the wonkiness in the line is because the beading is used to embellish smocked sections.

I think this also helps to illustrated different looks created by outlining a shape, filling it in, or outlining and filling it in. Outlined shapes have more weight, particularly if a dark outline is immediately adjacent to a bright or light area. toronto-55-18

A Brief Mention of Cultural Appropriation

A) I’m not an expert.

B) It seems fairly obvious nonetheless that borrowing cool elements of an embroidery heritage with historical, political, religious, cultural and ethnic significance can be, at the very least, tacky. So I can’t quite recommend that you go out and make yourself a huipil.

C) That said, flowers, birds, and repeating motifs are hardly unique to Mexico, and embroidered tunics are not a North American innovation. Just exercise some common sense and don’t be an asshole.


You can’t go wrong with a brightly coloured floral.

Packing the motifs in and covering the textile is very visually effective. It will also take forever.

Keeping motifs in a similar scale works well, even if it’s not quite realistic (such as the small birds in amongst the flowers).

Beads like to be wonky. You can make them less wonky if you are exceptionally careful and outline larger shapes.

Cross stitches, when used to create pictures or motifs, should be as square, even and regular as you are capable of making them.

Satin stitches should be shiny and smooth with even borders. They should follow the shape so that they can reflect the light well.

Embroidery makes fabric stiff, particularly when it’s dense, and the embroidered fabric will hang differently.

If you wanted to recreate something similar as a beginner, I’d choose an opaque, medium-weight, white cotton like muslin or poplin, stabilized with maybe more muslin or poplin behind, with a medium-sized floral motif in either cross-stitch or long-and-short stitch. Cross stitch will be easier to do well with a larger stitch size, in the 11 ct range, using 3 or 4 strands of cotton floss. Long-and-short stitch is normally done with one strand of floss or thread at a time, but you could use two to save a bit of time, particularly for larger motifs. To make a nice clean border, particularly if you’re not sure about being able to make even satin or long-and-short stitches, use a buttonhole or chain stitch around the edge. Buttonhole will blend easier with the long-and-short if that’s the way you go, but inevitably it means the border colour will be blended into the motif.

If you are, as I am, a person with a job and responsibilities and the desire to spend free time doing something other than embroidering one garment and also a desire to finish and wear the garment before it goes out of date, I’d also recommend embroidering a small part of a garment: a collar, cuff, neckband, button band, part of a yoke, waistband, pocket.

The needle painted butterflies for this bookmark project took me an hour or slightly more each, and they are just about one inch square. Just to give you an idea of how much time to allocate to a smallish motif–plan on an hour, especially if you’re just getting started.

2 thoughts on “Embroidery is Cool Again, Historical Part 1 of Whatever

  1. I am utterly charmed by the scribbliness that the beaded embroidery gives. I wouldn’t have expected to like that – the regularity of the cross stitch or the satin stitch is usually more my speed. But I actually gasped ‘oh!’ when I saw it.

    Thank you for posting this, it’s wonderful.

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