Broderie anglaise, which is French for “English embroidery,” is a whitework needlework technique that also has a strong relationship with cutwork. White fabric and white thread are always used for broderie anglaise, and the single most dominant design element is always holes, or eyelets, in the fabric. The edges of the eyelets are overcast with white thread stitching. Originally, the entire design consisted of holes and groups of holes, but over time the style has come to include other elements. Broderie anglaise was at the height of its popularity during the Victorian era, when it gave a lacy look to a variety of garments.
The first work called broderie anglaise originated in the Ayrshire district of Scotland in the early 1800s. It bore some resemblance to earlier cutwork from Eastern Europe, especially Czechoslovakia, and Madeira work from Portugal, but no direct connection has been traced from those possible sources to broderie anglaise. The early Scottish variety is sometimes called Ayrshire work. From the beginning, broderie anglaise was generally produced for sale. Uses included cuffs, collars, women’s underclothing and night-clothes, children’s clothes, and handkerchiefs.
To work in this style, the stitcher traced a design onto fabric and outlined it with running stitch, then used a sharp tool called a stiletto to pierce the holes. The worker would make each hole and stitch the edge with satin or button-hole stitch before moving to the next hole. All parts of the pattern, even stems and vines, were entirely made up of holes of varying sizes. Over time, larger holes became part of the designs; the stitcher cut the larger ones with scissors and turned the material back on the underside of the piece. The fabric for broderie anglaise must be firm and crisp, standing up enough to show the work.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s other design elements and stitches became common. Laddering is a series of holes with bars of fabric left between them. Beading, where a thread is pulled and the tiny holes left are worked around, contributes to the lacy look of a finished piece.
Needle lace is sometimes worked in the larger holes, making the piece look even more intricate. Later work incorporates vines, stems and other design elements surface stitched with running stitch or padded satin stitch instead of being made up of holes. Machine-made broderie anglaise is still used in the clothing trade.