In this episode, Isabella discusses the technique and history of tambour work (including tambour embroidery, lace, and beading) and punch needle. She also spends time exploring American rug hooking.
As always, images and sources are available at @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The podcast has a website, sewwhatpodcast.com, and a Patreon, patreon.com/sewwhatpodcast.
Whatsup stitches!! I’m Isabella Rosner and I’m here to welcome you to episode 16 of season 2 of Sew What?. The end of the season is already near, just five episodes left! Time flies when you’re having fun and when the pandemic rages on. Today’s episode is all about the history and art of punch needle embroidery and tambour embroidery. Why both, why am I putting these two different techniques together? Well, because, in both techniques, a needle is used in a somewhat similar way for very different purposes and ends. I haven’t seen any writing or videos or anything else that juxtapose tambour work and punch needle, but I think it’s a very interesting and fruitful match, so let’s get into it!
Before I do, of course, I gotta say that images of what’s discussed in today’s episode, as well as the sources I used to write it, are posted on the Sew What? social media pages. And they are also on the podcast website, sewwhatpodcast.com. We love visual content yay.
Okay, let’s get into it – let’s start with tambour embroidery, followed by tambour lace and tambour beading. Clearly, the same technique is used for different means. But all of them involve stretched a material, whether it be a tightly woven fabric or net or whatever, very taut on a tambour frame and then stitching using a specific tool called a tambour hook. By using a tambour hook, one punches through fabric and wraps their thread around the hook so that once they pull the hook back out, a stitch is formed. Tambour embroidery creates what is essentially a chain stitch. We’ll start by going over tambour equipment then talk about the stitch itself before talking about its history and surviving history examples. And then we’ll move onto how tambour work is used to fashion lace and beaded stuff. Cool? Cool.
So. A tambour frame is a frame used to hold fabric, exactly like an embroidery hoop. In India, Iran, and parts of Asia, tambour frames have always been rectangular, whereas in Europe, both rectangular and round frames were historically used. The use of the round frame explains the name of the stitching technique – tambour means “drum” in French. These tambour frames are quite similar to the embroidery hoops used today, except they were and are sometimes attached to stands that allow you to place the frame on a table or on the ground. You’ll see examples with frames and stands in paintings like Francois-Hubert Drouais’ painting of Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame, painted circa 1763/4 and now at the National Gallery in London. Madame de Pompadour sits with her right hand on top her tambour frame and her left hand below, pulling the stitches through. The frame is placed parallel with the ground, so she can sit above it and see her work, and is attached to a tall stand that is placed on the ground. There are lots of paintings and prints and other 18th- and 19th-century examples of women with these long stands that hold up their tambour frames from the ground or their laps, just as there are many pieces that depict women using frames without stands, held in their hands. One example is Sir Joshua Reynolds’ 1780 painting The Ladies Waldegrave, now at the National Galleries Scotland. That painting was discussed by Dr Freya Gowrley in her interview last season of Sew What? and now it’s back again! We love a blast from the past.
Right, okay, now you know about tambour frames. But what’s up with tambour hooks, the thing that makes tambour work so unique and unlike embroidery made with just a classic needle? A tambour hook looks like a needle with a small, bent tip. That tip is similar to a crochet hook or rug hooking tool. The hook is attached to a wooden or plastic or whatever handle so the overall piece is much longer than a simple sewing or embroidery needle. It’s a quite hefty, substantial stabby thing. But stabby for fabric, not for people. We love only to stab surfaces we want to cover in embroidery or beads.
So, that tambour hook is used to make chain stitches. But how? You may ask. Well, it’s worked from the top of the fabric, which will also be the correct side of the stitching as opposed to the back. The top/correct side is the one facing the stitcher. The working thread is kept on the underside of the fabric. One pushes the hooky needle through the fabric, wrap the thread on the underside around the hook, turn the hook, and then pull the hook up while catching the thread. And then you do that again and again! Talking through how to do tambour embroidery without pictures is hard, so I’d recommend checking out the tutorial video I linked to on the Sew What? social media pages. It’s tricky to get a hang of tambour work, but once you get it it goes pretty speedily. So yes! That’s how you tambour stitch your lil heart out. Now let’s move onto the history of this type of embroidery, shall we?
Tambour work originated in India and likely in China and Persia, too, but it’s not known exactly when this technique developed. The Indian version is called Ari work. Ari means hook in Hindu. As you can guess, Ari work involves making a chain stitch with a long thin tool with a hook at one end and a wooden handle at the other, so just like the tambour hooks that are used around the world today. Ari embroidery moved from Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh to Kutch in Gujarat, where cobblers started applying the technique to first leather and then to cloth. Those cobblers created ornate patterns with floral and wildlife motifs which were favoured by the royalty of the Mughal Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. I talked a fair bit about the types of embroidery that came out of the Mughal Empire in my episode about Indian embroidery styles from earlier this season. Anyhoo, Ari work was exported across the Middle East, to the Persian Gulf, and arrived in Europe in the second half of the 18th century. It took hold across Europe and then North America and was used to decorate all sorts of clothing and accessories in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a popular pastime for wealthy ladies and was often used as an embellishment on the very light, diaphanous dresses of the 1790s and early 1800s.
It became a huge deal in a French town called Lunéville in 1810, where a bunch of embroiderers had settled in the late 18th century. The embroiderers of Luneville were quick to adopt tambour embroidery because it was so speedy and efficient. These stitchers stitched on a very fine tulle cloth, which means that Luneville tambour embroidery can be classified as a form of embroidered net lace. As you can see, there’s a strong overlap between tambour embroidery and net lace, an intersection I will talk more about in a few minutes. So, the Luneville embroiderers had been stitching along for several decades when, in 1865, a local embroiderer named Louis-Bonnechaux Ferry began to add beads and sequins into his tambour work. This caused a boom in Luneville tambour work, as it came at the same time as a boom in heavily beaded garments and trimmings. In 1858, a French embroidery house, called the Michonet Embroidery Atelier, was founded exclusively to produce beaded embroidery. In 1924, it officially switched to the Luneville tambour technique, which is still used by Michonet and the other haute couture embroidery ateliers of Paris. Michonet has created embroidered embellishments for gowns designed by Charles Frederick Worth, Jeanne Paquine, and Madeline Vionnet. But beaded tambour work didn’t just stay in Paris.
This beaded tambour trend, which I will talk more about in a moment, spread across Europe. The trend continued to thrive until World War I, when the war, obviously, plus a change in fashion, led to a decline in Luneville embroidery. But theeeeen the 1950s hit and tambour beaded bags became popular! That was followed by a vogue for beaded haute couture garments. So yes, lots of ups and downs! But mostly ups! Luneville became so famous for its exquisite tambour embroideries that tambour work is often known as Luneville Hook Embroidery, or rather “La Broderie de Luneville” in France. So yes, there we are! From India to Paris to the world. Tambour embroidery has been made for hundreds of years and it shows no signs of stopping, which we truly love to see. What a delight! So yes, there was your speedy historical overview of the technique. Shout out to textile artist, researcher, and educator Rebecca Devaney for the most thorough history of tambour I’ve found on the internet thus far!
And now, lemme just say a bit more about tambour lace and beading. Tambour lace involves using a tambour hook on net instead of a woven fabric. The chain stitch is made the same way, just on a different ground fabric and using white thread only. Tambour lace was practiced in Europe alongside tambour embroidery and remained very popular there from approximately the middle of the 18th century to the 1840s, when machine-made lace became more popular. While Louis-Bonnechaux Ferry did much to make Luneville tambour work popular by adding beads and sequins in the 1860s, he was far from the first to use tambour embroidery to embellish fabric with beads and sequins. Some people think tambour beading or something very similar originated in India in the 17th century, while others think it started in Europe in the late 18th century. Who knows. Not me! Let me know If you do.
The Textile Research Centre has a really helpful description of how tambour beading works, which I wanna share with all you fine people. The description reads, “Beads are strung onto the beading thread in advance of working the design. This takes a considerable amount of time and it is essential that the threading is accurate in order to get the correct design. The beading thread is then secured on the reverse side of the cloth. The tambour hook passes through the ground material from the obverse to the reverse and catches the thread just below the first bead. The thread and hook are then brought back to the obverse side of the cloth and a small chain stitch is made in order to secure the bead in place. The next bead is then pushed into place on the reverse side of the cloth and the process is repeated until the design is completed. Then the cloth is turned over and the 'reverse' becomes the obverse side and used as 'normal'.” Does that all make sense? I hope so. If not, may I recommend checking out the video I’ve posted on the Sew What? social media pages? We gotta make this verbal medium visual somehow!
And now, historical examples! This is a historical needlework podcast, after all. Luckily for us, there are lots of extant examples, so I’ll pick a few of my favourites. Probably my favourite ever piece of tambour work embroidery is a woman’s dress, specifically a robe a la francaise, made in France around 1760 out of a textile embroidered around 1750. It’s at LACMA now and it is GLORIOUS. The dress is trimmed with green ribbons and has on its backside pleats at the top of the dress that fall loosely down the back, which is typical of robes a la francaise. The textile is a white, plain weave linen and the tambour embroidery is made of wool threads. The textile has these lil spots of groups of flowers and fruits dotted around the plain linen, so the flower and fruit bundles are these like contained motifs that are spread out evenly throughout the fabric. The flowers and fruits are all sorts of colours, from purples to reds to blues to yellows and greens. The stitching really looks like a normal chain stitch, but the evenness of the stitching, as well as the time in which it was stitched, indicates it is tambour embroidery. It’s a real joy. Whereas that dress’s tambour embroidery was likely made in France, another dress from LACMA is made up of a textile whose tambour embroidery was likely made in India. The dress is from around 1775 and was made in England out of an Indian textile. The assertion that the textile is Indian likely comes from its design and colours, both of which are pretty typical of the aesthetic implemented on goods made in India for European consumption. There are red and blue flowers with swirling green vines and leaves. This dress, as well as a heck of a lot of other extant costumes, show that even though tambour work was being practiced in Europe by this time, there was a demand for exotic Indian textiles and a move, whether it was conscious or not, to seek out tambour embroidery from its original source. This dress is also indicative of the British love of and demand for Indian textiles that really grew as the 18th century progressed. One final favourite tambour worked object is an example of tambour lace. It’s an apron made or at least used in America around 1800, now at the MFA Boston. It’s a very good example of the tambour lace that is still popular today. It involves white cotton thread chain stitched on a very loosely woven gauze, which serves as net, basically. Clearly, tambour in all of its forms has been popular for hundreds of years.
Now, let’s shift gears to get into punch needle, also called needle punch. Punch needle is a needlework technique that involves using a hollow needle to pierce, or punch, thread or yarn through fabric to create fluffy lil loops on one side. Punch needle is considered a form of embroidery, which was jarring to me when I first realised that but does make sense, since, like embroidery, punch needle involves moving a needle in and out of a piece of fabric to create surface decoration. Now that we’re in needle punch territory, I’ll discuss how it actually works and then will go into its history, before talking about American rug hooking, which is related but has a very different history. Okay! Let’s go.
Right, so, punch needle uses an aptly called punch needle tool. These tools have a metal tip with a hole through it, much like a regular needle. Buuuut this needle also has a channel through which thread or yarn runs, as well as a handle that makes it easy to grip, much like a tambour hook. Fabric is, like tambour work, stretched taut in a frame. Punch needlers usually just use embroidery hoops as their frames. To get punching, one must pull a lil tail of yarn through their needle, so the rest of the yarn/thread is threaded through the body of the needle and up through the top, and then push their needle through the fabric. Punch! Pow! Then they pull the needle back up, but only until the tip of the needle reaches the fabric surface. Then they just move the needle and do it again. So basically, the needle remains quite close to the fabric surface. Whereas with tambour embroidery you are looking at the correct side, with needle punching you’re looking at the wrong side as you work. You’ll see a line of stitches but then turn your piece over and you’ll have loops!! And as you punch the lonely loops will be joined by all the rest of your loops and you’ll end up with a texture that resembles a rug. Loops on loops to create a cushy, very textural piece. Delight!
Now, you’re probably asking, what’s the history of this good good punch needling? Well, I am here to enlighten you. I’ll start off by saying the precise origins are unclear! Some people think it started in ancient Egypt and that Egyptians used hollow bird bones as needles, but there’s no archaeological evidence of that. It was used throughout Europe in the Middle Ages for ecclesiastical clothing and panels. But it didn’t really hit its stride until the 17th century in Russia. During the reign of Peter the Great in that century, the Russian Orthodox Church went through a big ol’ change, adopting a new leadership and lots of reforms that included changes to worship rituals. A group known as the Old Believers opposed these changes and split from the church. They were severely persecuted, which led them to become reclusive. Within their reclusive culture, punch needle embroidery blossomed into an art form. The Old Believers embellished their clothing using, at first, a needle that was only as thick as one strand of thread and made from a bird’s bone before they switched to steel needles. Because it really blossomed under the Russians, punch needle is sometimes called Russian punch needle work.
There’s a Japanese punch needle technique called bunka shishu, which may derive from the Russian punch needle technique. Bunka was first done in silk but has since come to be associated with unraveled rayon yarn. It was first made in Japan during the early 19th century and was introduced to the US after World War II. Rumor has it that after the war, an American soldier brought home his Japanese wife and with her came the bunka technique. Bunka designs often include landscapes and lots of subtle shading that makes it resemble painting.
Punch needle also played a big part in the creation of rug hooking, which many argue is the only craft indigenous to the United States. Rug hooking involves making rugs by pulling loops of yarn or fabric through a stiff woven base using a big old needle punch-like tool. You can see now that rug hooking derives from punch needle embroidery. A website called punchneedle.world has a really stellar history of rug hooking written by Micah Clasper-Torch, which I’m gonna read you parts of now because it is GOOD. Ready? Here goes: “Rug Hooking began in Maine in the early 1830’s. In those early years, it was looked down upon and considered a craft of poverty. At the time, floor coverings and manufactured carpet were all the rage in France, and were gaining popularity in wealthier households in the United States. But since the price was still far out of range for people in more rural communities, resourceful women began to develop their own methods to create the type of rugs that they could only dream of owning.
Women in farming communities had plentiful access to burlap from feed sacks, and they began to use a small metal hook with a wooden handle (similar to a crochet hook) to pull strips of fabric, like old clothing and rags, through the burlap to make their own floor
coverings. In the early years these designs were quite rustic and rudimentary, but over time, these women began to create small rugs for the home
that were not only practical, but artistic, designing their own unique patterns
to suit their home and their taste.
Throughout the 1800’s Rug Hooking grew in popularity and in 1886, a man named Ebenezer Ross from Toledo Ohio patented the first punch needle tool, as an alternative to the traditional rug hook. Called “The Griffin”, this tool enabled early Rug Hookers to
work more quickly, punching down from the back of the fabric rather than pulling yarn up through the front.
The Griffin marks the beginning of the industrialization of rug hooking, and it was originally marketed as a machine that would enable individuals to create their own Turkish and Oriental rugs at home, which they could then sell in order to make a living for
themselves and their family. This became a booming cottage-industry up and down
the Eastern Seaboard, and extended into Maritime Canada.
In the 1920’s, a small selection of prominent rug hooking studios opened, including the Mills-Mosseller Studio in North Carolina, and The Ruggery in New York (still in operation today!). By this time, hooked rugs from certain communities were so revered, that in 1930,
a pair of rugs from Walderboro Maine fetched an auction price of $1,550 -- the equivalent of almost $24,000 today!
Through the 1930’s and 40’s, custom hand-punched and hooked rugs made in America became some of the most sought after additions for the home. The work of these artists and craftsmen graced the floors of movie stars and politicians, were displayed in prominent New England estates, and were acquired by institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian.
Sadly, by the 1950’s, most American rug manufacturing was sent overseas to be imitated by the tufting gun (which is having it’s own revival for personal use these days!) and many of these rug studios had to close their doors.” Micah Clasper-Torch, thank you for your knowledge and for your great name.
What is very cool and exciting is that rug hooking is in the midst of a revival, largely thanks to social media and I think possibly a renewed interest in “American craft.” Historic hooked rugs are also a big deal amongst those who like American folk art. Colonial Williamsburg had the first exhibition of rare early-American sewn and hooked rugs in the world in 2018-19 called “Folk Art Underfoot,” so clearly there’s a very real and very present interest in rug hooking. And as a personal aside, I have many memories of making lil mini hooked rugs from kits sold at Michaels, the American crafts store. I was interested in rug hooking because I used to sit with my grandmother as she made hooked rugs. How wholesome! Intergenerational needle craft! Such joy.
So yeah, tambour work and punch needle! What a journey! Why did I put them together? There are several reasons – one, there is of course a similar motion of the needle in and out of fabric. Two, they are both less typical ways to embroider than with a simple embroidery needle. Three, they were and continue to be historically significant. Four, they’re both pretty international, techniques that travelled the world and were utilised in different ways by different communities. And five, on a very superficial level, they both involve needles with handles and I think they look similar.
I also paired them because they expand my understanding of what can be done with a needle and thread. They create different textures and different interactions between a sharp needle-like object and ground fabric. And they remind me of the glorious dissonance between action and reaction when it comes to stitching – there’s a violence to a sharp needle and its piercing of fabric, but what results is usually not violence, but rather something beautiful or fuzzy or graceful or evocative or none or all of those things. These two techniques make me think a lot about the difference between words and actions, too. Tambour embroidery comes from the word drum due to the frame that holds the fabric taut, right? Well I think about how drums are loud and often staccato but the needlework that shares its name is pretty silent and very smooth, with chain stitches literally linked together. And punch needle has the word punch in it, this violent, painful action. But what comes out of punch needle is this soft, fuzzy, often playful needlework. I love that what you hear is not what you get. I think I can summarize all my rambling thoughts by saying needlework has so much to tell us that words can’t. And I love that. And I’m guessing you do too!
So yeah, that’s all I got this week! Thank you so much for listening and for tolerating a more unexpected pairing of needlework techniques. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I enjoyed telling you about it. Thanks for listening to the podcast and remember, please subscribe, rate, and review the podcast if you haven’t already. See you next week.
Now go out and stitch some stories and if you’re ever angry, go punch some fabric instead of a wall. Bye!