Stalking the Wild Assisi
By Baroness Kathryn Goodwyn, O.L.
I fell in love with Assisi work many years ago but researching and collecting patterns of it has proved an elusive task. At times I have felt like a detective, and so I decided to share some of my frustrations and experiences with you. My interest in the subject started when I was researching SCA period needlework, just over 20 years ago. I would occasionally see some fascinating designs pushed to the back or side of a page or an article. The technique was the opposite of regular counted cross-stitch, as the design was outlined, then the background filled in densely with cross stitch. The actual pattern was made by the unworked ground fabric. This “negative” effect gave the Assisi work a woodcut quality that I found very rich and unique.
In 1977 I started doing counted cross stitch. I remembered those wonderful designs and decided I would just find a few and at some point try my hand at this interesting way of doing cross stitch. I have a Fear of Double Running. The patterns I found seemed to rely heavily on double running not only for outlining patterns, but for some lacy edging on top and bottom. Despite this fear I did what I could do, in my small way, to collect booklets of patterns.
I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts and had the advantage of using their wonderful libraries, including Harvard’s. Digging and burrowing during my lunch hours at the Fine Arts Library turned up one (count it one!) book on Assisi . It was called Punto D’Assisi, Insegnamento Pratico Illustrato, by Adele Della Porta (Milan, Italy, 1919, Fogg Libary call number 1098, p. 84). Mrs. Della Porta’s patterns and photos show all sorts of basic household uses for Assisi work. Ten years later an Italian acquaintance skimmed the text for me and gave me rough translation. Her text extolls the virtues of using the patterns to beautify your home, but there was no historical information.
The patterns in Della Porta’s book show an interesting variant on what I had come to regard as Assisi work — the figures are drawn freehand (not counted), outlined in stem or outline stitch. The background in most of the photos appears to be regular cross stitch done on a design which is stamped on the fabric — no countwork. I have never seen Assisi work done this way other than in Della Porta’s book, and cannot judge how wide-spread it was.
In 1978 I added to my resources a private press volume by Jane Zimmerman, titled Assisi Embroidery. Ms. Zimmerman’s book unfortunately has mostly modern patterns but gives good working directions. I made several attempts to contact her, especially since her bibliography included a book called Exploring Assisi, by Rosemary Cornelius and Peg and Hardy Doffeck (self-published, 1976). I did not succeed, nor have I found the above mentioned book.
Continuing on my personal quest during the years, I went through the various libraries available to me. In 1985 I bought the Pamela Miller Ness book Assisi Embroidery and decided to try one design. I did not do double-running… I used backstitch instead to outline the motifs. Although the front looked nice it did not look particularly attractive on the wrong side of the lacy top and bottom borders. As all I had read on the subject said that Assisi work was reversible, I was again discouraged. Inter Library Loan searches resulted in pamphlets published by DMC or Anchor showing simple and very modern patterns.
While practicing this inefficient and random method of research I began to be motivated by another interest. I started to look more thoroughly at plates in historical needlework books. I found something very interesting — not all of those extant pieces used double running. Most did but some captions described backstitch. Now this was delightful! Another fact caught my eye — the historical pieces did not have those very lacy top and bottom borders of double running.
These two facts really focused by search and revived my interest in finding patterns and historical information on how SCA period Assisi work was really done. In 1986 I made a real breakthrough when I discovered Marie Schuette’s masterpiece, A Pictorial History of Western Embroidery. There were plates that showed Assisi-style work, but they were done without the double running decorative lacy borders, and with classical figures instead of the animals, which I had been expecting. This was a real revelation to me and I found this intriguing, as was the lack of the term “Assisi”.
A wonderful find in 1987 was a copy of a DMC book on Assisi needlework. I Xeroxed it, even though the text was in German. Countess Marieke Van der Daal very kindly translated some parts of it for me a few years later and I eventually found an English version through Inter Library loan.
The Lipperhide Books
At the same time that I discovered the DMC Assisi book, I made an even more exciting find. I was in a research library and the title Leinen Stickerei caught my attention. I knew that this meant “Linen Embroidery” so I pulled down two volumes. It is hard to put into words what a treasure trove these two volumes are. I Xeroxed a few patterns for personal use days before I moved to Philadelphia, and I didn’t think much more about the book because I didn’t think I would need the documentation. Three years later I decided to do a book. I made inquiries, then a special trip to Boston to Xerox the books in their entirety.
The Lipperhide books were written in 1881 and 1883 by Franz and Freda Lipperhide. These books contain handsome designs — many of them Assisi work. All of them appear to be recharted from extant historical examples — I have seen photographs of similar extant work here and there in various survey books.
I made myself a learning sampler from some of these patterns, and most of these appear with this article.
The other two borders are from Lipperhide, although I have seen the interlace border in an Italian needlework book of the 16th century: Domenico Da Sera’s Opera Nuova Composta per Domenico…, 1546. There is one band of a leafy design that I found in Needlework Alphabets and Designs, edited by Blanche Cirker, Dover Books, Inc., NY, 1975. I have no proof which century this design dates to (plate 69) but it is very similar to other patterns I have seen from the 16th century. I do not reproduce it here due to copyright.
I recently found out that there is a modern edition of the Lipperhide patterns available, with German text translated by Kathy Epstein, a noted needlework historian. Please see the bibliography below.
In 1988 I wrote to the Victoria and Albert Museum (hereinafter V&A) in London. The Curator of Textiles at that time, Miss Santina Levey, wrote back to answer my questions, and helped my understanding of what SCA period style Assisi work is. The term Assisi is a modern one, dating from the revival movement in Italy in the late 19th century. It is still convenient to use that term, however and I shall do so, lacking definite knowledge of what a 16th century needleworker might have called the technique — although “voided work” or “reverse work” are likely candidates.
In 1988 I purchased a modern book on Assisi work by Eva Marie Leszner — but it is highly disappointing. The text on the history of Assisi work not only shows contradictions but ignorance of Italian and German needlework pattern books of the 16th century — leading her to declare that all Assisi work was done by drawing the design first on the linen. She says that charts for such work were not used until the 19th century revival of Assisi work. This is a statement easily disproved by direct examination of 16th century needlework pattern books.
The most tantalizing aspect of Ms. Leszner’s book was her personal experience of viewing what she said was medieval Assisi work. I wrote to the publishers, only to find she had died shortly after the book was published. I was given her daughter’s address and wrote her a letter. I never received an answer — possibly due to the fact that my letter was too technical. I doubt Ms. Leszner actually viewed medieval Assisi done in a countwork technique. I have not seen any extant examples of such work that seem to date prior to the 16th century. Since many people use the term “medieval” to really mean “Renaissance”, this could have been a technical error in translation.
Ms. Leszner correctly points out that virtually any regular cross-stitch pattern can be adapted to Assisi work. However, looking at 16th century Italian needlework pattern books it becomes very clear that many patterns were intended for dual use as either “positive” or “negative”. For example, a pattern from Niccolo Zoppino’s Esemplario di lavori… (1530)
I have included two border designs which I have recharted for the ease of modern eyes. They are from Domenico da Sera’s Opera di Nuova Universali…(1546). If you follow the white spaces you can do cross stitch, and if you follow the dark areas you can do Assisi work.
I did not take advantage of several visits to the V&A to research Assisi work, as I was pursuing other research at that time. In 1988 I took a brief look at their study trays with Assisi work and was awestruck at how small the stitching was. In 1991 I planned a few hours out of my honeymoon to photograph and study those trays, but forgot that the V&A locks the trays on Saturday at noon. I arrived at 12:15 to find the trays locked. We left on Sunday and have not been able to return. The V&A photographic department does have negatives and slides available of most of its collection, but this is an expensive venture.
I would suggest that anyone interested in this topic be curious; whenever you are in a new library, hunt up their needlework section. Look for card catalog entries written in Italian; the word for needlework is “recami”. Don’t ignore other foreign language titles; key German words are “leinen” (for linen) and “stickerei” (for stitchery). Go browsing through the needlework section, pull down the big survey books and never stop looking. I found a plate of Assisi work in a book about an American museum and its collection. I also found some lovely photos of some pieces in a Russian book which thankfully had the captions translated into French and English.
Types of Assisi Work
I have formulated two styles of Assisi work based on extant samples:
Narrative: a design which shows fairly complicated scenes of people, places and things which are outlined, then the background is worked using:
1.Simple cross-stitch (rare)
2.Long armed cross
3.Italian 2-sided cross stitch
5.Pulled work (using quadra or 4-sided stitch, which pulls the background tight enough to give a net effect)
Floral: designs which do not appear to be outlined first, and are of flowers, foliage, pillars, etc. Some exceptions exist; Miss Levey sent me a Xerox of a sampler whose Assisi band showed some stitching outlining the motif first. The fillings appear to be long-armed cross stitch. The designs for these are virtually all with squared designs with few (if any) diagonals, which makes filling in the background easier. Too many diagonal lines leave “white space” which must be filled with compensating stitches (half cross). This style is difficult to do with a neat back, as it isn’t outlined first and it’s difficult to gauge where your thread will run out. If you outline your pattern with a thin thread, you can then use a thicker thread to cover the background.
Some Basic Home Truths About SCA Period Assisi Work
It was not called Assisi work (outside of Assisi) during the SCA period, not was it limited to Assisi, Italy.
The designs were carried out in one color; red seemed to be the most popular. Blue and green are mentioned as popular second choices. They did not outline the pattern design with black or a contrasting thread.
The background is seldom worked in simple cross-stitch. Long-armed cross was the most popular, with two-sided Italian cross stitch being a close second.
The outlining can be done in double running OR in backstitch.
Neo-Classical nymphs, satyrs, mermaid and beasts seem to have been more popular than just fantastical animals that dominate modern Assisi. Flora and fauna seem to have been more popular than either.
Some extant examples of partly done pieces indicate that the pattern was simply drawn on the linen first. When outlining the pattern, the needleworker would “square” the pattern by making sure she counted threads. This would be analogous to the modern needlepointer doing a modern design painted onto her canvas. When she faces a curved area she “translates” that into diagonals or squares to create the illusion of a curve.
Historical works do not have the lacy top and bottom borders of double running that modern designs have. When they had borders at all they were worked the same way as the main design.
In 1990 I felt that my notes and historical patterns might warrant writing a book for SCA publication. Various problems in my personal life have caused the book be put aside. I hope to bring forth my volume in the not too distant future, so that I may share some of the wonderful patterns I have found. I am re-charting some of these designs with special charting software, and I hope to find new patterns with my continued research.
- Bath, Virginia Churchill. Embroidery Masterworks: Classic Patterns and Techniques for Contemporary Applications. Henry Regnery Co., Chicago, 1972.
- The Anchor Manual of Needlework, New Edition. Interweave Press (Loveland, CO), 1990.
- D.M.C. Libraries. Assisi Embroideries. Mulhouse, France, Edition Therese de Dilmont, Printed by Dolfus-Mieg & Co., 1954 and reprinted (NY?) c. 1974.
- Epstein, Kathy (editor). Old Italian Patterns. Curious Works Press.
- Fairfield, Helen. Counted Thread Embroidery. St. Martin’s Press, New York.
- Foris, Maria. Charted Folk Designs for Cross-Stitch Embroidery, (278 Charts of Ancient Folk Embroideries from the Countries Along the Danube). Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1975.
- Gostelow, Mary. Mary Gostelow’s Embroidery Book. E.P. Dutton, New York, 1978.
- Huish, Marcus B. Samplers and Tapestry Embroideries. B.T. Batsford, London, 1990 ed.
- Leszner, Eva Maria. Assisi Embroidery: Old Italian Cross-Stitch Designs. B.T. Batsford, Ltd., London, 1988.
- Ness, Pamela Miller. Assisi Embroidery. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1979.
- Salazar, Kim. The New Carolingian Modelbook. Outlaw Press, New Mexico, 1995.
- Schuette, Marie, and Sigrid Mueller-Christiansen. A Pictorial History of Western Embroidery. Frederick A. Praeger, New York, 1963.
- Miss Santina Levey, former Keeper of Textiles and Furnishings, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
- Countess Marieke van der Daal, O.L., O.P. for the thankless chore of translating German for me.
- Lady Mathilde Eschenbach, for being my cheerleader, nudge, and for vetting the manuscript.
- Charting software used to rechart the 16th century designs was Cross Stitch Designer, Version 4.2.
Taken from information compiled by Master Cathal and Mistress Gudrun in 1993 and later updated March 18, 1995.
- 1 Hughes, Therle. English Domestic Needlework. Abbey Fine Arts, London, pg. 116.
- 2 Ibid. Pg. 116.
- 3 Ibid. Pg. 117.
- 4 Ibid. Pg. 117.
- 5 Ibid. Pg. 119.
- 6 de Bonneville, Francois. The Book of Fine Linen. Flammarion; Paris, 1994, pg. 74
- 7 Hughes. op.cit. pg. 118.
- 8 De Bonneville. op.cit. pg. 74
- 9 Ibid. Pg. 76.
- 10 Ibid. pg. 78.
- 11 Hughes. op.cit. pg. 118
- 12 Ibid. Pg. 128.
- 13 De Bonneville. op.cit. pg. 74
- 14 Hughes. op.cit. pg. 117
- 15 Thornton, Peter. The Italian Renaissance Interior 1400-1600. Weidenfield and Nicolson, London, 1991, pg. 58.
- 16 De Bonneville. op.cit. pp. 176-177.
- 17 Ibid. Pgs. 177-178.
- 18 Levey, Santina M. Elizabethan Treasures: The Hardwick Hall Textiles. The National Trust, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., London, 1998, Pg. 43.
- 19 Ibid. Pg. 43.
- 20 Ibid. Pg. 45.
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