In this week's blog, CS Ambassador Grace Bentley explores the history and development of Tambour embroidery.
Tambour embroidery is a traditional technique that utilises a specialist tool called the tambour hook. This tool is used to quickly create a basic chain stitch and can be very versatile when applying different embellishments, such as beads, sequins, feathers, etc. The name comes from the French word for ‘drum’. The technique is so named for the tautness of the fabric when it is stretched in the frame, which is necessary for the hook to pass through the fabric cleanly without catching the weave. The stitch should also produce a satisfying thrum noise when the tension is correct.
While the origins of tambour embroidery are not entirely known, it is thought to have developed in India, known as aari embroidery, in the 17th century and been brought over to France and Britain during the 18th century, where it developed into what we now know as tambour. Aari beading is the Eastern forerunner to the tambour technique. While the aari needle is long and thin so that it can be loaded up with beads, the tambour became shorter and thicker. The embellishments are worked onto the fabric from the right (top) side rather than the wrong side. Zardozi [goldwork] metal threads are applied in this way. The hollow purl wires are cut to size and picked up onto the long slender needle, the thread loop is caught up by the needle, and the wire is slid on to the thread and stitched down. The Aari tool is well known for its use in sari making, and the craftsmen have a reputation for being incredibly fast and efficient in the art. In the tambour technique, the needle passes down through the fabric from above, catches the thread with the bead on it, turns 180 degrees and pulls back up to the wrong (top) side. Once mastered, this technique is an incredibly quick method of applying beads and sequins by hand, and it can also be used to create a decorative chain or satin stitch.
During the 18th century, tambour embroidery became very popular as an exotic and sociable pastime that could be done whilst socialising, as it did not require much concentration . Tambour lace was fashionable in the 18th century. It was produced by using a chain stitch to embellish patterns into a fine net, creating a delicate lace-like effect. This technique was also used in the new industry of ‘limerick’ lace-making in the 1820s. However, though tambour embroidery was extremely popular at this time, its usage came under threat from the new 19th century machines that produced a similar effect in a much shorter space of time .
After the horrors of the great war in 1914-18, the 1920s was a defiant new era of splendour, decadence and celebration. Intricately embroidered ‘flapper’ dresses were worn on the dance floor, where they shimmered and winked every time the wearer moved . The fashion became somewhat flat and boyish, the dresses cylindrical and less restrictive with a waist that dropped lower and lower until it sat on the hips. During the daring Jazz-era, the Art Deco style influenced the beading that encrusted fashionable dresses. These dresses fell straight from the shoulders with little shaping. This simple cut meant that it was easier for women to create their own fabulously embroidered dresses at home. These sheer over-dresses were sometimes scooped or open at the sides and were worn with a simple slip underneath. These evening dresses were heavily decorated in dense embellishments of beading and sequins that had been tamboured in geometric patterns, a characteristic style of the time . To fill in large areas, a ‘lazy stitch’ [a continuous squiggly line] was used to fill the space with no particular pattern. This was a simple stitch to create, which required little skill to design. The weight of the beading itself, often denser at the hem, shaped the low-waisted garment, maintaining the straight line of the body, and gave dazzling movement to the dress .
Unfortunately, the collective weight of the hundreds of little glass beads often caused the delicate silk chiffons, crepes, and laces to tear. Sequins also became popular when Tutankhamun’s tomb was excavated in 1922, and metal sequins were found sewn to the ancient garments. These were thought to ensure the pharaoh would be well provided for during the afterlife. Indeed, the word ‘sequin’ comes from the Arabic word sikka meaning ‘coin’ . Sequins made of gelatine would melt if caught in the rain, so an acetate alternative (the same material used in-camera film) was developed with Kodak; however, these were quite brittle.
Sadly, the Cornely machine is now used as an alternative to the tambour technique in the fashion industry. While tambour is a fast technique, the machine has replaced it as the most efficient method of applying beads. However, the tambour chain stitch is still a speedy and efficient way of applying beads and spangles by hand in couture beadwork. Today it is still used by the couture houses of Paris where the artisans use the traditional techniques to achieve the highest quality of work . Tambour embroidery is also practised individually by some individuals today; classes are taught at Ecole Lesage, and tutorials can be found free of charge online, which has been crucial in keeping the craft alive and more accessible than ever!
 Rickards, S. The Art of Tambour Beading – Well Embroidered. [online] Wellembroidered.co.uk. Available at: <https://wellembroidered.co.uk/the-art-of-tambour-beading-2/>
 Omotoso, M., 2018. Haute Couture Fashion Designers: The Roaring 1920s [online] Fashion Insiders. Available at: <https://fashioninsiders.co/features/inspiration/haute-couture-designers-though-the-ages-the-1920s/> [Accessed 9 May 2021].
 Stevens, S., 2015. Sewing and Construction Skills of the 1890s and 1920s. [online] Pasadena Museum of History. Available at: <https://pasadenahistory.org/fashion-trends/construction/>
 Byrne, M., 2018. Embellishments: Exploring Dress in Detail. DePaul University. Available at https://bit.ly/33zKG4d
 A Brief History of Tambour. [online] Available at: <https://www.londonembroideryschool.com/2015/12/17/a-brief-history-of-tambour/>
 Spivack, E., 2012. A History of Sequins from King Tut to the King of Pop. [online] Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-history-of-sequins-from-king-tut-to-the-king-of-pop-8035/>
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