Jacobean embroidery is a kind of free-form embroidery featuring highly stylized plants, trees, flowers, animals and birds in imaginative and playful designs. Although it is now considered a type of crewel work, meaning wool yarn worked on linen, Jacobean work originally included work with silk, and even metal, thread worked on a variety of fabrics. This style reached its first peak under the English king James I, whose reign in the early 1600s, called the Jacobean era, gave Jacobean embroidery its name.
The Jacobean style of embroidery design merged the twining vegetation and fantastic animals of earlier English decorative arts with motifs taken from stenciled cotton fabric, called palampores, which came from India. In the late 1500s and early 1600s the East India Tea Company was first importing palampores into England, and it greatly influenced English decorative arts. Favorite Jacobean embroidery designs that resemble the Indian fabrics include exotic wildlife such as peacocks and the Hindu Tree of Life.
A wide range of animals and plants are fancifully portrayed in Jacobean embroidery. Existing antique pieces show not only trees and vines, but also a huge array of flowers such as marigolds, carnations, harebells and roses. In addition to deer, squirrels and birds, dragonflies, beetles, caterpillars and snails can be found among the intertwined vines and fantastic leaves of the style. Modern work also draws on all these motifs.
The original Jacobean embroidery was worked on a range of items. Surviving pieces or pictures of the work include jackets and other clothing, table linen, curtains, bed hangings and coverings and wall hangings. Modern work is usually used for display or for curtains and other large-scale furnishings.
Early Jacobean work used a variety of fabrics but usually twill, which is cotton and linen woven together, or cotton. While Jacobean era pieces used wool, silk and even metal threads, contemporary Jacobean embroidery is commonly worked with worsted wool yarn. The selection of colors is wide but drawn primarily from those found in nature. Blues, yellows, greens and browns make up the majority of the shades, with reds for accent.
Jacobean embroidery uses a variety of stitches to outline and fill in designs. Block shading, also called long and short stitch, is the usual choice for solid objects, though some are worked in satin stitch. Chain, stem, basket, double-back, rope and cable stitches are also common. Decorative knots and couching work are often used for added effect.