From The Silk Road To Silk Cross Stitch

This post was originally in XStitch Magazine Issue 9: Orient, and has been adapted.
 
When I first heard about this issue’s theme, I was giddy with joy. I love all kinds of Asian embroidery, and with a wealth of stories from Asia, such as the origin of the rumor that the back of your cross stitch had to be neat, how a samurai accidentally introduced cross stitch into Japan, and the earliest needle ever found that pre-dates humans (50,000 years old).
 
However, there is one thing that stopped me from talking about those things. It was the term Orient. You see, the term isn’t actually firm in its definition. Originally it described the ‘near East’, modern-day Egypt, Turkey, and surrounding countries. Then it became the ‘Middle East’, modern India, and surrounding countries. Then the ‘far East’, modern-day China and surrounding countries. Then the term ‘far East’ changed to include countries down to modern-day Indonesia. However, regardless of what countries and areas the term include, there is one constant; it’s along the Silk Road.

Woven silk textile from Tomb No. 1 at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan province, China, dated to the Western Han Dynasty, 2nd century BC (Source: Wikipedia.com)
Woven silk textile from Tomb No. 1 at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan province, China, dated to the Western Han Dynasty, 2nd century BC (Source: Wikipedia.com)

To many, the Silk Road is just a way to transport goods, and yes, its exact purpose was that but it carried far more importance than just the movement of goods. In fact, the silk road, the modern term for a series of transport routes from 200BC to the 1340s AD, also had another important purpose. The trade of ideas, skills, and art.
 
Whilst most regard movement of anything to be pretty boring logistics, and in most cases, I do too, the Silk Road is one of paramount importance to us as, without it, we wouldn’t have cross stitch. It’s an often-forgotten part of cross stitch history, however without this trade route, and the world’s love affair with oriental stuff, we wouldn’t have any of the vital parts that came together to create cross stitch.
 
It all starts with another route, and that’s a theme here, the Steppe Route, which allowed trade during a rather tumultuous time in the world. This trade saw many things, notably wild silks, probably from Europe, being moved across the world back in 1040 BC. This trade route allowed Alexander the Great to expand from Egypt to Turkey (near East) some 500 years later and laid the first part of the Silk Road.
Undyed Silk Threads (Source: beautifulsilks.com)

Whilst silks had made their way through this trade route, the quality was seen as poor, being wild silk a course fiber, this is when China enters the picture. Having long cultivated silkworms to produce thin fibers, the silk they produced was nothing the rest of Europe had seen before. But this didn’t make it popular.
 
When the Roman Empire was in swing, they traded across their entire landmass, and thanks to their conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, found the Steppe Route. This wasn’t the Steppe Route from 500 BC though, whilst most of Europe was in flux, the Chinese dynasties had developed heavily used trade routes to Egypt connecting the previously mentioned route to the Middle East and beyond. This trade was mostly that of spices and food, however, the Romans, with their love of decadency, wanted more.
 
This is where the Silk Road starts. Romans of wealth traded spices, perfumes, glassware, and jade, convinced that the gifts of the Orient were precious. However, it was in silk, that they really relished. Seeing silk as the epitome of immorality, showing every curve of the body, the Roman Empire prohibited the wearing of the silk. And as we all know, if I tell you not to think of a pink elephant, you think of one, and so the Romans thought only of silk.
 
As the Roman Empire fell and the Byzantine Empire took over, Empires along the length of the Silk Road were also flourishing. These Empires conspired, fought, and allied, and with it, traded secrets. These sometimes took the form of recipes, but sometimes took the form of silkworm larvae. This allowed Empires to grow their own silk and whilst it wasn’t the best of quality, opened up a new market, silk strands.
6 Purple Silk Threads from DeVere Yarns (Source: devereyarns.co.uk)

During the Islamic era in the 8th century, silk dresses were no longer admired in the same way, being commonplace throughout the route. The far East states responded quickly, making ornate silk embroideries but during this time the city of Baghdad was built and quickly became the most important trading point along the silk road. The route, no longer strong-armed by the Orient or Europe changed its requirements. Islamic repeating patterns became the new standard, with silk being the main thread type. But to cut costs, the fabric stitched onto was cheapened to a hessian, a pre-curser to aida.
 
This is when cross stitch was invented. Many overlook this history, instead thinking that cross stitch is a traditionally English pursuit. This is also completely false, Catherine of Braganza, of Portugal, brought both tea and cross stitch over to England in 1662. Instead, cross stitch is a little bit Egyptian, a little bit Chinese, a little bit Roman, and a little but Islamic. So next time you stitch, just think of how far cross stitch has come, and be thankful to the Silk Road.
 
We delved a little deeper into how the Silk Road impacted cross stitch, such as why we now use cotton threads.
 
Happy stitching!
Lord Libidan

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Carol

    I tried to look up the history of hessian and all Wikipedia has to say is that it was “first exported from India in the early 19th century.”
    “The origins of Hessian lie in India during the 1600s, when jute was recognised for its strength as a fibre and was used for rope and paper as well as small amounts of fabric.”
    Your article jumps from the 8th century to the use of hessian. Any idea what happened to jute cloth in the centuries in between?

    1. LordLibidan

      We’ve taken a few liberties here, in reality, it wasn’t hessian used in the 8th century, it was a hessian-like material. Hessian needs to be made from jute (a fiber made from a flowering reed), which was only found in India at the time, however, there were linen-based fabrics made in the way hessian was made that were used in the 8th century.
      As for hessian itself though (the jute kind), whilst there is evidence of its use before the 17th century, India was almost always in a waring state beforehand, meaning there wasn’t a lot of exports from the area. Jute hessian only really came into its own when exporting started, and it was a great material for goods carrying.

  2. Carla

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I also thought cross stitch was a European art.

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