Overview of Historical Embroidery Styles, Part 3

This week, we continue our embroidery journey into the 1700s. Embroidery returns to clothing in full force after a bit of a lull in the previous decades. Embroidery thrived in the 18th century and embellished both men and women’s clothing, including coats, waistcoats, gowns, petticoats, stomachers, and accessories.

Jacobean-Inspired Designs

When the use of embroidery on clothing picks back up in the early 1700s, the motifs and colors strongly resemble the Jacobean Embroidery in use over the previous century. However, instead of being predominantly crewel work, they also used silk and gold, as well as every possible combination of these, on fine silk and cotton fabrics.

For example, this mid-century petticoat at LACMA (M.63.55.3) is bordered with the same rolling hills and stylized trees as crewel work bed hangings from the previous century. However, the design is stitched in bright shades of silk accented with metallic threads.

Designs could also be white-on-white or other tone-on-tone applications, especially for men’s waistcoats. This sleeved waistcoat from the 1740s features an elaborate yet subtle design stitched in the same shade of blue as the fabric it’s made out of. LACMA, M.2007.211.811.

Polychrome Silk Embroidery

As we move further into the century you can still see the Jacobean influence, but the shapes of flowers and leaves are starting to become more realistic. There is also a shift away from the somber green and red tones common to 17th century crewelwork. Mid-century designs include more pinks, blues, and yellows in softer and brighter shades. This wedding gown from 1750-60 is one example of this transition. Rijksmuseum BK-1978-247.

During the second half of the century, embroidery becomes a common feature of gentlemen’s clothes, such as suits and waistcoats. The majority of extant examples are stitched in bright polychrome embroidery. In some cases, embroidery was completed on lengths of fabric and could be purchased and made up to your size by your local tailor. These embroidery designs ranged from delicate, muted borders to floral explosions in wild colors, such as these pink blossoms on purple silk satin. MFA 43.1667a-b.

At the same time, embroidery becomes less common on women’s clothing. Instead, gowns more often feature brocades, satins, striped silks and printed cottons accented with ruched self-trim or yards and yards of passementerie. Embroidery is generally reserved for fichus, aprons, garters, work bags, and other accessories. Fichu, LACMA M.82.23.

While not common, there are a few existing examples of women’s gowns featuring polychrome embroidery in the same style used on men’s court suits. Europeana Fashion has an example of an embroidered robe a l’anglaise from 1780, and another can be found in the Agreeable Tyrant exhibit. This blog post features two unusual pieces from the Bayerische Nationalmuseum – a woman’s embroidered court gown and a court suit made for a larger gentleman.

Tambour Work

Tambour Work gains popularity in the 18th century, as both an import and a handicraft. This style of embroidery uses a hook rather than a needle to create a chainstitch on the surface of the fabric, much like a single crochet stitch. The combination of chain stitch and heavier threads means this style of embroidery works up quickly, which was no doubt part of its popularity.

Tambour embroidery can be found on gowns, petticoats, caps, and pockets. Fine Tambour Work is sometimes seen on embroidered coat suits or sheer muslin accessories. Detail of Tambour Embroidery on an uncut waistcoat c. 1760. (LACMA M.2007.211.814)

Example of tambour embroidery 1700s

Gold Work

Gold Work is a term used to describe metal thread embroidery, and is often used even when the embroidery is done with silver, copper, or imitation gold. It’s not a new technique, and we’ve been seeing it all along this timeline. However, the 18th century has some pretty spectacular examples of suits and gowns encrusted with Gold Work, and it’s not just reserved for royalty. Detail of uncut waistcoat c. 1760. The Met #1981.14.6a, b.

The metal “threads” used in Gold Work are generally not thread at all. Passing threads, which are a thin strip of metal wound around a silk or cotton core, are the finest and are often couched to the fabric using silk thread. Bullion and Purl are hollow coils of metal, and can be smooth, crimped, faceted, or rounded. These are typically couched down around a shape or cut apart and applied like beads. Flat strips of metal called plate are folded back and forth to fill a shape and couched into place. Paillettes or spangles are real metal sequins stitched down individually with silk thread.

Gold Work is often worked over layers of felt, string, or other materials in order to add padding and dimension to the piece. It was often used alongside polychrome silk embroidery on suits and waistcoats, such as the one below.

This example c. 1765 combines silk polychrome embroidery with gold passing thread, smooth purl, areas of pink and gold foil, and spangles in pink, blue, and gold. If you zoom in, you can see the silk core peeking through the passing thread and the individual sections of purl that were cut and stitched down. The Met #1994.405.1a-f.


Whitework was also popular in the last half of the century, particularly on women’s accessories, such as fichus, aprons, and engageantes. Whitework describes embroidery stitched completely in white thread, generally on white fabric. Whitework can be almost any style of embroidery using any combination of embroidery stitches. You’ll see many of the same designs stitched in color on aprons or fichus, as well.

This brings up an interesting point. Blackwork is associated with distinctive motifs and stylistic elements as well as the commonly used black thread. As we saw earlier, even pink or green designs can still be called Blackwork. However, the only difference between Whitework and any other embroidery style is simply the color of thread. It has to be white to call it Whitework.

This c. 1793 whitework fichu from The Met (2009.300.5913) was the inspiration for our fichu design. In the next installment, we’ll take a look at how these styles evolve in the early 19th century.

What style of 18th c. embroidery is your favorite? Please let me know in the comments!


  • Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.
  • Please see my Pinterest boards for more examples of these styles.
  • If you liked this brief overview, my online class covers the history of embroidery styles from 1500-1950, including more examples from the 1700s not shared here.


*Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you choose to make a purchase. These are marked with an * after the product name. 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.

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