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A Thread of History

This week it is my pleasure to welcome guest blogger, Judy Rand. In thinking about future posts for WomenfromtheBook, the topic of embroidery was intriguing, and who better to consult than my friend, Judy. Wife of a retired minister, a mother, grandmother, and thread artist in her own right, Judy Rand enjoys the arts of smocking and embroidery as well as mastering the challenges confronting an accomplished seamstress and machine embroidery enthusiast. I am delighted that she agreed to contribute an entry about something so near and dear to her heart. I know you will enjoy her post, “A Thread of History.” —KM

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What do you think of when you hear the word “embroidery”? Probably the little logo on your polo shirt. Or maybe the elaborate garments worn on Downton Abby by the elite class in old England. Most of the embroidery produced now is machine-made, but originally embroidery was done by hand by dedicated needle artists. Even though they’re increasingly rare, there are still embroiderers who work by hand to create stunning artwork–appropriately called “thread painting.”

Cunning work  tabernacle_pictures__image_4__sjpg761

In the book of Exodus the Israelites were directed to build a tabernacle in the wilderness. God gave them precise instructions for the size, materials and embroideries to be used on the draperies and priests’ garments (Exodus 25:9). The priestly ephod was made “of gold, of blue, and of purple, of scarlet, and fine twined linen, with cunning work.” The ephod was a garment made in two parts that were clasped together at the shoulder by two onyx stones set in gold. Each of these stones was engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, six on one shoulder and six on the other (Exodus 28).

When the Israelites fled into the wilderness, they may have fashioned looms from available wood, or they may have brought their looms and implements with them. Whatever they did, it seems they were able to spin yarn, weave and embroider with a great deal of skill.

Covenant gift

Embroidery is mentioned in the blessings bestowed on ancient Israelites when they agreed to keep His commandments. God made a covenant with Israel and lavished them with beautiful garments of embroidered linen and silk. These fine embroidered garments were an extra blessing given by God to make life more beautiful and enjoyable (Ezekiel 16:10-13).

In Psalm 45:14 we read of a beautiful wedding procession where the bride is brought before the king clad in magnificent raiment with broidery to meet with her future husband, attended by her virgin companions, or “bridesmaids.” The word broidery used here means “something variegated” or “versicolored.” [1]

Skills and supplies

Exodus 35:31-33 indicates that the skill in art and science is a direct gift from God. Weaving was especially the business of men in Egypt. In Exodus 35:25, we see women, “gifted artisans,” spinning yarn for the men to weave fabric. The embroideries were either woven into the fabric or added later with needle and thread. Others offered their services in fabricating the needed tapestries which the Israelite women probably learned as bond slaves, in the houses of Egyptian princes (Exodus 35:29).

Where did the dyes come from to make these colorful embroideries? Historically, the color purple has been associated with royalty. Purple dyes were rare and expensive and only the rich had access to them. The most expensive dyes were from Tyre and purple was the rarest. It was made by extracting the essential oils from a species of shellfish that lived on a small stretch of coast near the city-state of Tyre.

Sumptuary Laws

Purple was so rare and so hard to make, and considered so beautiful that the Roman emperors decreed how it could be used by instituting Sumptuary Laws. The word sumptuary comes from the Latin word which means expenditure. These laws were imposed by the rulers to curb the expenditures of the people in order to maintain a specific class structure.

Royalty could have as much purple dye as they wanted and could wear it any way they wanted. Patricians and equestrians could have it only as bands, and the width was dictated by how high up they were in the Roman pecking order. [2]

This implies that Lydia, spoken of in Acts 16:14-15 as “a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira,” must have been a wealthy Roman citizen of Tyre. Apparently her house was large enough to accommodate the disciples when they came to baptize her. [3]

Numbers 15:38 describes the fringes which the Jews wore upon their garments. They had a ribband dyed blue or purple to remind them to keep the commandments and be holy.

Evolution of design 

Silk ribbon embroidery by Judy Rand. Photo: J. Rand

Silk ribbon embroidery by Judy Rand. Photo: J. Rand

Many forms of embroidery have developed over the centuries. Needlepoint (filling in spaces of a grid), Crewel (working thread over a blank canvas), Blackwork or Redwork (using only one color throughout the design), Drawn Threadwork (pulling threads from fabric and working a design in the space), Smocking (pleating fabric and working designs over pleats), Silk Ribbon Embroidery (using ribbon instead of thread), Cross Stitch (designs using x’s).

Over the years embroidery has continued to appeal to artisans in all social levels. In fact, during World War II when embroidery threads were scarce, determined needle artists deconstructed old garments and draperies and painstakingly pulled threads from the discarded fabric in order to have threads to create new designs.

Example of Cross Stitch in progress by Judy Rand. Photo: J Rand

Example of Cross Stitch in progress by Judy Rand.
Photo: J Rand

The Internet has opened doors for anyone with an interest and a few basic supplies to partake of this craft with videos available and step-by-step instructions to guide one through each phase of the process. is an excellent site for beginners and advanced embroiderers.

Hopefully, this entry will give you a deeper appreciation for the work of the embroiderer—both ancient and modern.—Judy Rand


About womenfromthebook

Mine is a life-long interest in the women of the Bible, and I enjoy exploring the world in which they lived, and discovering the challenges that they faced. I have enough curiosity about them to last the rest of my life.

10 responses

  1. Thanks “digger” for your note. Hand work is so relaxing and therapeutic. I can’t go a day without picking something up for even a few minutes.

  2. Thank you Judy for this wonderful account. I dabbled a liitle 30+ years ago. I smocked only once, a dress for my daughters first birthday. It is definately a labor of love. I admire you artistians for your craft.

  3. Hi Mary,

    Thanks for your comment. We are so very blessed today.


  4. Thanks, Lorinda. It’s a lot of fun.


  5. Lorinda Springer

    Hi Judy,

    What an interesting article! Thank you for sharing your beautiful work as well!

  6. Hi Lynne, enjoyed your post so much! Thank you for the info and websites.


  7. Hi Judy,

    Thanks for the interesting article with the lovely photos of your work. I appreciated the history about purple dye and the laws regulating its use. What a blessing we have so many colors available today!


  8. Hi Lynne. Thanks for your comment. I’m a great “Starter” but *finishing* is another story. It’s such a nice feeling to finish a project, isn’t it?


  9. Hello Lynne. I too have a deeper appreciation for this lovely art form. And like you, I have a couple of projects that desperately need finishing. Thanks to Judy Rand, perhaps they will given the attention they deserve in the near future. KM

  10. As some who has dabbled in needle art off and on since the 80’s, I so enjoyed reading this post. Not having given much, if ever any, thought to embroidery work during the Biblical time frame , I have a much deeper appreciation of it now.
    And…this has given me inspiration to finish a couple of needlework projects that I had laid aside!

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