Definition & Technique
Tambour is the French word for drum. Silk, or other lightweight, sheer fabric is stretched and tacked, tightly over a wooden frame. Embroidery is done primarily by touch, as the developing pattern points away from the artist(s) during this process.
A Tambour hook makes a single stitch, the Chain Stitch, which plunges through the top of the silk, and down to the threaded beads, or sequins, held on the working thread underneath. Once the bead is kicked up into position, the hook makes the loop, pulls the thread back up through the silk, securing the bead.
The same threading and wiring techniques are used to embellish embroidery, jewelry, tiaras, and head-dresses, applique, quilting, couching, and passementerie work from the finest silks, to glove leather. The same used by all the great Couture Houses of Europe: Givenchy, Chanel, Valentino, and Versace amongst them.
These are ancient techniques holding spectacular historical, and contemporary examples, worldwide: Zulu, Xhosa, Native American, Russian, Chinese, and were being imported from Gujarat, India as early as the 16th century, by The East Indian Company. In Britain, Elizabeth I’s garments show early examples, as do the dresses and face masks, of the Egyptian mummies. In the National Gallery London hangs, Francois-Hubert Drouais’ painting of Madame Pomadour seated at her Tambour frame, holding her hook.
Tambour arrived in France in the 1720s from China, and instantly became fashionable for European Society. In 1770, Charles St. Aubin, Embroiderer to the French Court, wrote about a new technique he called, “La Broderie en Chainette et au Tambour.” The hook soon became the tool to rival the needle! Another technique of the “Gentle Arts” to be used to display feminine hands, and virtues to calling admirers, as depicted in the painting, “The Ladies Waldegrave,” by Joshua Reynolds.
The technique was also worked in Ireland, Switzerland, and Saxony, and was introduced to America in the early 1800s. We still sit at our frames in the same way today, holding the same type of hook!
Most beaded Couture, theatre and film costumes, and wedding dresses are examples of Tambour. The beautiful 1920s flapper beaded dresses, the glittering dresses of the Hollywood era, Edith Head and Elsa Schiaparelli are a few examples. Current Vintage, 1970s and 80s big name deco classics, are coming from Bob Mackie, Lillie Rubin, Victor Costa, Francesca Of Damon, Oleg Cassini, Halston, Naeem Khan, Laurence Kazar, Judith Ann, Swee Lo, Stenay, and Adrianna Papell.
Citations & Further Reading:
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