What is Cutwork?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 October 2019
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Cutwork is a type of embroidery in which pieces of the foundation fabric are cut away, creating a network of holes and eyelets that are accented by the embroidery pattern. At a glance, the result might look like lace, but it is actually embroidery, because it is worked on a foundation fabric, not from scratch. Numerous fine examples can be seen in museums, and the style continues to be popular today, with many new garments featuring cutwork accents done in various styles. This type is often accomplished by machine, rather than by hand, since handmade versions are quite time consuming to create.

The tradition of cutwork appears to have emerged in 14th century Italy, although the basic form may have been done in eras prior to this. The trend spread, with numerous nations developing their own schools and styles of the embroidery. Many techniques have specific names, such as Richelieu, Broderie Anglaise, Spanish cutwork, and Hedebo. These techniques are characterized with certain stylistic trends that make them easy to identify.

The holes in the fabric are reinforced with buttonhole stitching to ensure that they do not unravel. Large holes may be bridged with bars, and some styles, such as Italian cutwork, are characterized by an abundance of such bars. The embroidery may also use lacework techniques; Venetian cutwork, for example, is made much fancier with the addition of elegant stitches commonly used in the production of needlelace.


This school of embroidery may be done with multicolored threads, including gold and silver, or it may be accomplished in plain white thread for a more austere look. It was often used to ornament the edges of formal shirts and gowns, and it can also be seen on sheets, pillowcases, placemats, tablecloths, and other household goods. The openwork design can be a bit itchy and stiff, but is often made softer and more smooth with the use of soft, sturdy threads in the embroidery.

People who want to learn cutwork may want to try seeking out a local sewing group that works on embroidery projects. It is possible to learn the technique from books, but mentors or classes are extremely helpful for learning the tricks of the trade. Crafters can try asking around at the local sewing or craft store, especially if examples are on display or if the store stocks classic embroidery supplies including thread, hoops, and needles.


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Post 4

I tried to learn how to do cutwork from a book. I think I grasped the basic concept, but nothing can compare to being shown in person. I had to give up, because I could not get the hang of it.

I just so happened to be in my local fabric store about two weeks after giving up, and I saw a sign for cutwork classes being offered once a week there. I signed up, and it made all the difference.

I’m the kind of person that needs a visual, and being able to see the actual process done step by step in front of me was the only way I could have learned. I got the chance to follow along with each step, so I learned by doing as well as by seeing. Now, cutwork has become my favorite pastime.

Post 3

My favorite spring pants feature some impressive cutwork on the legs. They are a light green color with rose vines climbing up the outer seam and gathering around the bottom of the legs.

The thread is quite soft, yet it stands up to the washing machine and dryer. Intricate red and peach roses cross the holes. Twisting green vines of two shades end in spreading tendrils at the top of the cutwork.

The vines wrap around the base of the legs with a mass of roses and leaves. I got these pants at a thrift store for a cheap price, but I imagine they must have cost a good bit when new. This design had to have taken some time to craft.

Post 2

I own a cutwork shawl that looks like lace. The fabric is light pink all over, and the embroidered holes have cobweb-like stitching that looks so delicate and elegant.

This shawl must have taken a long time to make. It is just full of cutwork. Sections of solid fabric encircle the holes for added reinforcement, but the holes really do seem to make up the majority of the garment.

I wear it in the summertime to lightly shield my sensitive skin from the cold air conditioning of restaurants and movie theaters. It offers just enough warmth while adding decoration to an outfit.

Post 1

My grandmother’s best friend is awesome at doing cutwork. She uses soft thread for comfort. She even trained my grandmother for free so that she would have someone to embroider with as a hobby.

For my birthday every year, my grandmother consults with her friend on a design for a new dress for me. I am very impressed with the dresses they have made over the years, and the style is so timeless that I can wear them forever.

One particular dress has cutwork along the collar and the bottom of the dress. The body of the dress is emerald green, and the cutwork alternates between black and gold. It is the most elegant dress I own.

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