Silk ribbon embroidery has a surprisingly short, but very interesting history compared to other stitching techniques. While the technique has not been around for long, the ribbons themselves have a very long history. In the first two parts of this series, I will cover the history of ribbon itself, then tackle the development of ribbon embroidery as an embroidery technique.
When people began to weave cloth, somewhere between eight and nine thousand years ago , they used the same materials and tools to weave narrow bands of cloth that we know as ribbons. Today, ribbons are defined by the textile industry “as a narrow fabric, and it ranges from 1/8 in-1 ft (0.32-30 cm) in width”. Early ribbons were used for practical things like tying together bunches of herbs and as closures on clothing. Ribbons were used to keep papers together as early as the 13th century, until this job was given to the paperclip in 1899 . Soon ribbons became decorative accents for personal items. Ribbons with both edges finished as part of the weaving process became common by the 16th century.
Ribbon was used in Asia far earlier than in Europe. In China ribbon was used in their traditional Ribbon Dances beginning in the Han Dynasty (206-420 CE). The dance was developed to honor Hsiang Po, who thwarted an assassination attempt on the Han Emperor. He used his long silk sleeve to block the sword of the assassin. The ribbons in the dance represent his sleeves and are waved around in graceful patterns. Originally the ribbons were attached to the sleeves of the dancers; later longer ribbons were attached to small sticks to add energy to the dance.
In Europe ribbons were very popular by the Middle Ages (500-1400 CE). They were used as decorations for anything from hair braids to shoes. Peddlers sold them as they traveled from town to town. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, he even mentions a ‘tri-colour riband’ stuck into the hats of Constance’s three escorts in The Frenchman’s Tale. During Renaissance times (1400-1550 CE), silk that had traveled from the Orient along the Silk Road was being woven into ribbons along with other precious metals, like gold and silver. Within a hundred years ribbons were covered by sumptuary laws, which restricted their use to those who were noble. During the time of the Reformation, many Huguenot ribbon-makers fled France bringing silk ribbon weaving to Basel Switzerland. The area soon developed into a major ribbon-manufacturing hub that is still known for high quality ribbons with lovely delicate designs.