What Is Chainstitch Embroidery?

Posted by Stephanie McCourt on

It's a recent trend that's popping up on Instagram, on the jackets of rappers and country musicians, on TikTok and on the racks of vintage shops. Words strung together in cursive on an old-timey bowling shirt. Thread coils shaped into animals and letters on a similarly dated letterman sweater. It calls to mind Porter Wagoner's elaborately decorated suits as he sang with Dolly Parton, or perhaps a rocker patch on an old-school biker vest.

It may be easy to imagine these embellishments from the past or find examples with a quick search. But still, the questions remain - what is chainstitch exactly? How does it work? Why are people still doing it?

Chainstitch embroidery is a style of industrial machine embroidery that creates interlocked chains from a single strand of thread pulled from beneath the machine. The designs are created by turning a crank beneath the machine while guiding the piece with the other hand and pressing on a foot pedal. These "Bonnaz" style machines were invented in Europe in the 1800's and have since been stitching in various iterations all over the world.

Chainsitch embroidery is often run by an electric motor, but also can be done in an entirely analogue way using a treadle. This was the machine embroidery available before computers, and the cast-iron frame and metal gears are solid and predictable, even decades after being manufactured. These are true industrial machines, made with efficiency and artistry in mind.

Each stitch is individually placed and rotated as the machine hums speedily along. The process is exactly like making a drawing without lifting your pen off the page, and muscle memory allows the modern chainstitcher to sketch and color just as easily. We write casual cursive script and create fills of threads overlapped, one next to the other.

Chainstitch, by its nature, inhabits a status quo of casually elaborate penmanship, and of knocking out a piece quickly even if you know there are tiny flaws. This vintage embroidery is handmade, intrinsically imperfect, and a stubborn but prolific trade. We do it quickly, and it's rough around the edges.

But, in my view, it's this knowing imperfection that makes chainstitch embroidery all its own. Don't look at chainstitch expecting it to be perfect. Instead, look at chainstitch knowing it came from our hands, stitch by stitch.

We are the modern chainstitchers. We may live in a world of social media and digital drawing, but these tools have only increased the scope of what we can create on these loyal chainstitch machines. We are working the same trade that has been around for over a century - mechanized embroidery that ushered in the future of garment embellishments and yet is old-school compared to computerized machine embroidery of today. When we chainstitch, we go off feeling, sound, and sight. The relationship with the machine is one of mutual trust.

Hand-cranked chainstitch may have fallen out of heavy use in the international garment industry, but we, the indie chainstitchers, remain. We bring your our own artistic interpretations that are no longer bound to the garment industry, but spill over into fine art, kitsch, installation art, and more. To us, chainstitch embroidery is a craft whose boundaries are open for expansion.

Chainstitch is alive. It has remained as it always has been, and will be here, growing alongside us.

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