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Embroidery Inspiration – Ribbonwork

Ribbon embroidery and ribbon work reached a height of popularity in the 1920s, although it’s actually been around for some time. The three-dimensional texture of these designs is unmistakable, and working with ribbon instead of thread means designs can be completed comparatively quickly. You’ll see it on everything from designer evening gowns to delicate lingerie, as well as handbags and other accessories.

There are few extant pieces of ribbon embroidery from the 18th century, but those few are breathtaking. The antique ombré ribbons commonly used in this type of embroidery add a beautiful depth of color and shading to each design. 

This 18th century example is in the private collection of Suzi Clarke. The pieces appear to be dress panels, and are lavishly embroidered with large bows and sprays of flowers. The design is worked in ombré silk ribbons barely 1/16″ wide.  Even so, some of these ribbons are woven with 3-4 colors in that narrow space. 

This tiny French baby bonnet has a similar design of bows and sprays of flowers. Given the small size, I’d hazard a guess that the ribbons are again a mere 1/16″ wide. The front edge is decorated with lace and knotted fringe and it has silk ribbon ties. In the collection of the Met Museum

This 1790’s baby bodice is another early example. Delicate ribbon flowers accent the front, sleeves, and back of the bodice. This tiny spray is featured on the center back. RISD Museum

One of the few examples of menswear I have seen is an 18th c. court suit embellished with garlands and sprays of ribbon flowers. It is worked in both solid and ombré ribbons and accented with silk embroidery. It is in the collection of Hampton Court Palace

The early 19th century has even fewer extant pieces with ribbon embroidery, but this 1830s pelerine is an impressive example. Even without the big sleeves and whimsical hair popular in the period, this piece would make quite the fashion statement. Each triangular point features a different spray of flowers worked in solid and ombre ribbon. In the collection of the Met Museum

By the mid to late 18th century, many pieces use forms of ribbon work rather than true ribbon embroidery. That is to say, ribbons and/or fabrics are folded, gathered and manipulated in various ways before being applied to the surface of the fabric, rather than ribbon being pulled through the fabric in the manner of embroidery thread. 

For example, this 1850’s bag is embellished with delicate flowers made from silk crepe and accented with silk thread. It’s a gorgeous piece, but the ribbon (or fabric) is used as embellishment and not embroidery. In the collection at LACMA.

This Jaques Doucet ballgown from 1902 is festooned with ribbon garlands, ribbon roses, and embroidered leaves. In between the ribbon work, it is sprinkled with silver spangles arranged to look like bees. In the collection of the Met Museum.

In the 1920s, the Boué Soeurs became known for the delicate, feminine styles, many of which incorporated ribbon work and embroidery. This delicately embroidered white gown at FIDM is brightened up by a dramatic pink bow at the waist and this little bouquet of ribbon roses at the shoulder. 

They also excelled at the 1920s Robe de Style, which was the perfect backdrop for ribbon flowers of all descriptions. Two stunning examples are held in the collection of the Met Museum, one in yellow and one in pale blue

What are your thoughts about ribbon embroidery and ribbon work? Have you tried them, or do you have favorite examples I missed? I’d love to see them in the comments.

Resources:

*Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you choose to make a purchase. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers, and I do not recommend products solely to get a commission.

Classes: My online Ribbon Embroidery class has additional historical notes and more images of Suzi’s dress panels, as well as designs and patterns for samples from the 18th through early 20th centuries. Class kits can be purchased in the shop.

Pinterest: I’ve pinned additional examples of ribbon embroidery and ribbon work to my Pinterest page. Many of these examples are originally from auctions or online shops, so they are difficult to date but are still wonderful examples of the art. 

Books:

Supplies:

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