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Pattern darning: Decoration in Dots and Dashes

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Pattern darning: Decoration in dots and dashes
by Sabrina de la Bere

Pattern darning is an embroidery technique that follows the warp and weft of the fabric fibers. At its simplest, it is a running stitch that moves in either a horizontal or vertical line. The part designed to show is on top of the fabric and the remainder is behind. Usually done with more than one strand of embroidery thread, it is an extremely versatile form of embroidery.

There are three relatively distinct times and places where pattern darning was used prior to 1600. The oldest is on middle eastern fabrics, primarily Egyptian. In Europe, we see it emerge as part of the embroidery known as Opus Teutonicum, mostly in Germany. Then in the 15th & 16th C. it appears on Icelandic embroideries. Each incarnation has distinct characteristics and patterns.


Medieval Islamic

(Ayuubid 1172 – 1249 & Mamluk 1250 – 1517)

Some of the older samplers from Egypt include a wide variety of examples of pattern darning. Ellis [1] notes that although the technique was labor-intensive, it was used extensively to decorate light clothing, household linens and soft furnishings for everyday use. Most of the designs are geometric or small figures. Some are wide and some narrow. Frequently they are used as multiple bands of differing designs to create a wide edging or collar. Most of the embroidery is worked on bands and then incorporated into garments.[2]

The geometric patterns appear in almost an infinite number of variations. The most common are “S’s”, “Z’s”, diamonds, waves, and rosettes. All are designs that make extensive uses of the voids that are left by the embroidered areas. Some of the embroideries have extremely complex designs built up from combining patterns. The small individual figures are frequently birds or sometimes fish. These, along with some rosettes, may be used as single designs or in an all over pattern.

Some of the designs include short running stitches rather than long runs of thread on the surface. For these designs, the running stitches create a speckled pattern that is sufficiently dense to set off the voided areas. On a couple of examples, the white areas are then outlined by running a thread along the edge.

Periodically, you also see motifs based on kufic letters which represent blessings — like “good health” or “success”. When multiple motifs are used, they are often in rows with the motifs offset, making an allover pattern.[3]

Many of these designs traveled to Europe, as we see the same patterns in the early16th C. modelbuchen (pattern books) — as you can see in the illustration at right, from Nicolas Bassée’s New Modelbuch (1568). Rosettes, waves, birds, and interlace are the most common.

The Egyptian pattern darning was done on linen, primarily with silk. The most common colors for the silk are dark brown, blue, red, and green. The thread count on the linen varies from a rougher linen 15/11 to finer linen 24/24. Multiple silk strands are used to make the line of the embroidery approximately equal in width to the base linen threads.

illustrations from Bassée that may have been copied from pattern darning In most of the decorative bands from the Middle East, the embroidery is worked perpendicularly, from one edge of the band to the other. In a few instances it is worked along the band. The motifs most commonly worked along the band are inscriptions, which may be a blessing, a sign of safe passage or other meaningful phrase. Inscriptions with decorative lettering quickly became popular in Islamic cultures because motifs of animals and people were frowned upon as irreligious.
At left, illustrations from Bassée that may have been copied from pattern darning

An Islamic fragment showing dotted filling with, and without, outlines. An amusing animal with wrapped outlines from an Islamic fragment.



Opus Teutonicum

Opus Teutonicum figures from the Alternburg altar hanging, photographed to show details of clothing worked in pattern darningOpus Teutonicum refers to a style of embroidery done primarily during the 14th C in Lower Saxony/Germany. It is consists of white linen thread embroidery on linen with some definition added by light colored silks or dark colored wool. These embroideries were primarily done for the church and took the form of altar clothes, chalice veils and Lenten veils.[4] As such, they tend to have biblical scenes represented, sometimes in great detail.
To create the forms and give the embroidery definition, a large number of different stitch types and patterns were used. Pattern darning, along with satin stitch, brick stitch, eyelet, chain, and herringbone were the primary stitches.

Most of the patterns are variations of diaper patterns, diamond shapes, or basket weave. To increase the patterns and definition, the embroidery was done both vertically and horizontally, sometimes in adjoining sections.

Icelandic Embroidery

Scandinavian altar frontal from around 1500Pattern darning appears on several Scandinavian altar frontals from around 1500, including the one whose detail is pictured (left). The pattern darning is used primarily in interlocking patterns to create borders. In one piece it fills one large section with different interlacing patterns. On another there are also bird patterns similar to the Egyptian textiles.

The Icelandic pattern darning is primarily done in various colored wools on tabby weave linen. The wools are various browns, golds, blues, and greens. The colors are intermixed and do not always follow the pattern lines.

When stitching the Icelandic pattern darning (modernly called skakkaglit), Gudjonsson notes that the stitches pass over 1, 3 or 5 threads. Then the next line of the pattern shifts over diagonally 1 thread for the next row. [5] This creates intricate and dense patterns.

Concluding notes

Whether you choose to do pattern darning in the tradition of the Egyptians, the Germans or the Icelandic, it creates a rich textured look to your embroidery.


A Book of Old Embroidery, by A. F. Kendrick. Published by The Studio, London, 1921.
A Pictorial History of Embroidery, by Marie Schuette and Sigrid Muller- Christensen. Published by Frederick Praeger, New York, 1963.

Batsford Book of Canvas Work, by Mary Rhodes. Published by BT Batsford Ltd, 1983. ISBN 0 7134-2669 1.

Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt, by Marianne Ellis. Published by Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, 2001. ISBN 1 85444 135 3.

Samplers, by Carol Humphrey. Published by Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN 0 521 57300 9.

Embroidery Masterworks: Classic Patterns and Techniques for Contemporary Application, by Virginia Churchill Bath. Published by Henry Regnery Company, 1972.

Tissus D’Egypte, Temoins du monde arabe, VIIIc. – XVc. Siecles. Published by Societe Presence du livre, Musee d’art et d’histoire, Geneve, 1993. ISBN 2-908528-52-5.

Traditional Icelandic Embroidery, by Elsa E. Gudjonsson. 2nd edition, self published, 2003. ISBN 9979-9202- 6-2.

“Icelandic Medieval Embroidery Terms and Techniques” by Elsa E. Gudjonsson, pages 133-143. From Studies in Textile History, edited by Veronika Gervers. Published by Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 1977. ISBN 0-88854-192-9.


[1] Ellis, pg. 24

[2] Ellis, pg. 30

[3] Ellis, pg. 32

[4] Schuette, pgs. XVIII-XIX

[5] Gudjonsson, pg. 27

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