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Pattern Darning in Context

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Pattern darning in context
by Christian de Holacombe

When medieval Europeans first saw the clothing of the Middle East, they were fascinated by its colorful, luxurious fabrics and complex ornamentation — and immediately wanted something similar for themselves. But the brocades, lampas weaves and other fabrics they coveted were sometimes far more expensive than they could afford. One solution was to create similar designs on plain fabric with embroidery — a solution Europeans embraced with great enthusiasm.

Pattern darning is a particularly clever way to imitate costly woven patterns. Structurally, it is made by “weaving” thread in and out among the threads of the fabric, just as if it was made that way by weaving in a “pattern weft” while the fabric is still on the loom. In the absence of telltale loose ends or grain patterns, it can be difficult to tell which technique was used to make a given pattern.

In the Middle East

Due to the dry climate, far more fragments of embroidered fabric survive from the medieval Middle East than in Europe — especially fragments of linen, which often decays in European soils. We have samplers, tunic fragments, and lengths of turban fabric to study, as well as evidence of embroidery on clothing from paintings and documents.

The King’s outfit at right shows bands of ornamentation around each sleeve, just below the sleeve’s junction with the body. This idea was quickly adopted by Europeans, so you’ll see similar bands on European tunics as well. What the Europeans didn’t know is that sometimes these bands, called “tiraz,” were marks of particular favor from a ruler. Garments bearing “tiraz” bands were made in each ruler’s official workshops and bestowed upon officials and nobles the ruler wished to honor. While the word “tiraz” simply means “embroidery,” these bands often included inscriptions praising the ruler by name — now very useful to textile historians, since they enable the fabrics to be dated quite closely. Tiraz bands became so fashionable that they were widely imitated by “unofficial” workshops as well, with inscriptions such as “good fortune” or “health and happiness” replacing the official wording. illustration of Middle Eastern king showing “tiraz” — band of pattern darning embroidery

collar and front opening of tunic with pattern darningfragment of bottom of trousers with pattern darningCollars and the front openings of tunics (below left) were another traditional place for decoration. Stripes of decoration were also common at tunic cuffs and hemlines. Below right is a fragment from the bottom of a pair of trousers, which shows not only a decorated band at the bottom, but pattern-darned diagonal stripes up the leg, probably covering all of the trouser that could be seen below the hem of the garment worn over it.

As the picture of the king shows, as well as the detail of his advisors from the same painting below, the long strip of cloth that formed the daily turban was also decorated. Above the King’s forehead you can see a small square pattern that’s quite common on any turban whose front view can be seen. The back views of the advisors’ turbans show that there was also a band of decoration above the loose end of the turban cloth, often worn hanging down the back or carefully arranged to show the design. Many of the surviving “samplers” of Islamic pattern darning are thought to be collections of patterns for clients to choose from for a custom turbanpainting of king's advisors wearing turbans with pattern darning decoration


In western Europe

We don’t have many examples of pattern darning on clothing from Europe; but then, we don’t have as many examples of suriving clothing, period. What we do have is several examples of pattern darning on furnishing textiles.

The most conspicuous examples are church textiles, especially altar frontals — flat hangings used on the front of an altar table. Two such hangings from Iceland are featured in Gudjonsson’s book (Bibliography of Pattern Darning aritcle).

Another use of pattern darning is on long cloth towels. Medieval table service used a lot of linen towels, both for practical hand drying and for show. Towels, like turbans, often had decorated ends, and since pattern darning is attractive on the wrong as well as the right side, it is quite suitable for this. Such embroidered towels imitated the more expensive towels with woven-in designs, such as the “Perugia” towels fashionable in the Renaissance.

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