Assissi work

October 2007 – With a spare bit of linen and some gorgeous red DMC floss I decided to finally learn how to do embroidery in the Assisi style. Broadly, Assisi style embroidery was a voided technique. You fill in the background, leaving the motif itself as a void. Some patterns has outlines done in black inside the voided areas, other just outlines the pattern itself and lets the human mind fill in the blank. It is often referred to as Assisi work because the town of Assisi in Italy was known for producing these kinds of embroideries. The ones that remain today remain as table cloths often, and this seemed like the perfect size on which to practice.

Stitches and Materials

To work this kind of pattern the outlines would first be done in black using either backstitch or Holbein stitch (also known as double running stitch). Then the background would be filled in with an overall covering technique. Often simple cross stitch was used, but equally long-armed cross stitch was a favourite depending on how much coverage was desired.

The materials used for this style of embroidery is linen ground cloth, and silk embroidery floss; black for outlines, and the fill pattern very often done in red. Blue was also used, but slightly less often.

Assisi-work table setting

The patternsFor the table setting I went, as so often before, to the On-Line Digital Archive of Documents on Weaving and Related Topics hosted by the University of Arizona. The source this time was the facsimile of Paganini’s book “Il Burato” with patterns for Burato lace. Many of the patterns used at this time were used in different forms. From wood-carvings, to painted borders, to embroideries, to lace – the popular patterns were used and re-used in many forms. For my inspiration I used one pattern from page 64 and one from page 65 of the pdf document (plate vii verso and plate viii).

Hearts border finished Scroll border startedScrol border finishedTo begin with I took the hearts pattern and interpreted the black in the design as void, and the white squares as background and proceeded to fill this with long-armed cross stitch. The question was, should I always go from left to right, or right to left, or should I alternate? I chose to alternate rows so as to save some thread, and aso because that enabled me to go up and down in between the voided hearts in a very efficient manner. The back is, as you can see in the photo, nearly as neat as the front and the hearts stand out there as well.

For the other end of the cloth I decided to try something a little more close to the originals I found at the V&A among other places. That is to say, outline first in black, and then fill in with the slightly less ground covering cross stitches.

Embroidered apron

Apron embroidery row 1 & 2January 2008 – The table cloth was the first bit of assisi-work I finished, true, but it was not the first I started. Having been given a hank of gorgeous quality hand dyed silk floss in an orange/red tone I wanted to put it to use in a setting worthy of the gift. In the renaissance, if you owned more than one apron you had one that was crisply white and freshly starched with crease-marks still in it from the pressing to wear on dressed up occasions. This type of apron could be additionally adorned with embroidery, and in the inventories of Eleonora of Toledo and of Queen Elizabeth I are listed white linen aprons decorated with silk embroideries. Typically in-graine red (kermes bugs that produce a red dye) and a true black were most favoured for the embroidery thread for two reasons. One being that red and black contrasts very well with white. The second reason being that both these colours were difficult and expensive to achieve.

Though the colour of my floss was not quite the red desired, coming from madder, it wants to be properly red, and it is not inconcievable that a less well-to-do lady had to settle for a cheaper silk for her apron embroidery. So, I looked for inpiration. Again looking to the Universty of Arizona weaving site I found “La Vera Perfezione del disegno di Giovanni Ostavus”, published in 1561, and the pattern for a three-row high border on plate LXXXI (page 91 of the pdf document) that would be gorgeous, I thought.

The first line was no trouble at all, although I created problems for myself later on by unthinkingly choosing to always embroider from left to right. Working with the silk floss on linen was such a lovely experience though, and the silk positively sparkles once it is done.

The second line of embroidery is three times the height of the first and third, and is a much more involved pattern. Finding the best path to take from left to right to avoid jumping too many threads took quite a lot of thought effort, and the first few repeats have threads that carry unnessecarily far on the back. The third and final row took practically no time at all in comparison. If I had this to do over again I would do all vertical rows in long-armed cross stitch as well as the horizontals. The singlet stitches and the diagonals you have no choice about, but it was not until well into the second row that I figured out that the verticals could, and probably should, also be done using the long-armed cross stitch technique. However, as the apron is worn and with all the whitespace in the pattern, the fact that the verticals cover the ground cloth a little less fully is completely disguised.

I thought I should also report on a success I had at Double Wars XXI, in 2008. Meisterinne Katheryn Hebenstreiz asked me in the middle of the week to enter the A&S competition with my apron, which I had out at the time to show off, and I agreed. My documentation was not exhaustive or very long, so I quote it here:
Apron on display at DWITEM: Embroidery, 16th Century on an apron. PLACE: Italy.
The embroidey on this apron is done in madder dyed silk thread on linen. The pattern is taken from the facsimile of a 1561 pattern book by Giovanni Ostavus(*) and the stitch is long-armed cross stitch(**) which was commonly used in the period(#).

This kind of counted embroidery was commonly applied to aprons, shift, smocks and shirts. Black and red were the most common colours, being very effectful against white linen. Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlockd lists an apron with “carnacion in graine silke”(##) – being a red colour. In Moda a Firenze a photo of a detail of a painting by Alessandro Allori shows an apron with embroidery done in black(¤).

* La vera perfezione del disegno di Giovanni Ostavus, 1561. Available on-line at the University of Arizona.
**, # Embroideries at Hardwick Hall, a catalogue. Levey, Santina M. (Stitch diagram drawing here).
## Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlockd. Arnold, Janed. Page 225.
¤ Moda a Firenze. Orsina Landini, Roberta & Niccoli, Bruna. Page 130.

I had no expectations, so when they called my name in court as the winner of the competition it was a complete surprise. But there you go, embroidery can be a winning concept.


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