Needlework is a term applied to two classes of handcraft involving fabrics. The first, embroidery, is the embellishment of a fabric by designs worked in thread with a needle. The second includes methods of forming a single thread or strand of threads into a loose- or tight-textured fabric. The best known of these methods are knitting and crochet. Such methods are distinguished from lace making (see Lace), which is an elaborate form of plaiting or braiding.
Embroidery was being done long before its name was derived, by way of medieval French from the Anglo-Saxon word for "edge." The term was first applied to decoratively stitched borders on medieval church vestments. In time, the word also encompassed stitched decoration on any textile fabric, as well as on leather, paper, and other materials (See also Quilting). Although the invention of the first embroidery machine in 1828 by the Alsatian Joseph Heilman made possible the mass production of embroideries, embroidery continues to be practiced as a handcraft, as it was in ancient times. Its historical uses have also persisted, as ornament for clothing, vestments, wall hangings, and domestic linens, as well as for upholstery, domestic furnishings, and rugs.
Embroidery stitches may be functional (as are the stitches in nondecorative sewing) or purely decorative. In appliqué work, contrasting pieces of cloth may be fastened to the foundation material with decorative stitches. In smocking, decorative stitches secure gathers or folds, which have been previously formed in the foundation material. Decorative stitches are known by such names as chain stitch, blanket stitch, featherstitch, French knot, satin stitch, cross-stitch or gros point, and tent stitch or petit point. The thread is typically silk, wool, cotton, or linen. Fine metallic wire and, in some 20th-century work, synthetic filaments are also used. Heavy or precious threads are sometimes couched, that is, laid across the ground fabric and tied to it by stitching with a separate thread. Some embroidery techniques produce a basically flat surface; others produce designs in relief. In cutwork, small shapes are cut out of the ground material, the cut edges are embroidered, and the vacant space is often filled in with decorative stitches. In drawnwork, certain threads of the warp, weft, or both, are removed from the ground, and the remaining threads are embroidered. Some types of embroidery are referred to by the kind of thread used (such as crewel work, stitched in brightly colored worsted wool yarns on a natural beige or bleached white linen or, alternatively, wool ground). Other kinds of embroidery are referred to by the type of ground material used, such as gauze embroidery. These include filet embroidery (done on a netlike fabric) and canvas work (stitched onto coarse- or tight-textured canvas and also referred to as needlepoint, a term borrowed from lace making).