Assisi Embroidery – Characteristics and History of a Unique Embroidery Style

On a recent trip to Assisi, Italy – the charming medieval hill town where Saint Francis was born – I noticed local women embroidering in a style that was new to me. They were only embroidering the background and not the motifs. Whereas, in the needlework I had learned, I embroidered the motifs and left the background plain. Also the designs were traditional medieval motifs such as you see everywhere in the churches in Italy. In this article, you will discover the characteristics and history of Assisi embroidery.

What Is Assisi Embroidery?

Assisi embroidery is counted-thread embroidery based on an Italian tradition where the motifs are only outlined in a double running (Holbein) stitch, leaving the interior void. Traditionally, the background was filled with long-armed cross stitch. Normal cross stitch is also used.

The following design characteristics distinguish Assisi embroidery from other voided styles and are what make it so powerful and charming.

Traditional motifs were based on medieval symbology featuring grotesque figures of satyrs, demons, ancient mythical birds and animals, beasts. Other patterns look like flowers, branches, leaves, fruit. Often a candelabra design is used to separate the mirrored motifs. The designs are often beautiful and very mysterious. Earlier designs from the 13th and 14th centuries are more primitive, rugged. In the 15th and 16th centuries, they became more sophisticated and natural.

The motifs are laid out in symmetrical pairs surrounded by elaborate scroll work. Some motifs are used to connect different parts of the design so that there is never a lot of empty space. Often these motifs are designed in a very beautiful way that draws the eye to the main motifs. The repetition and symmetry of the motifs give movement and rhythm to the piece.

The top and bottom of the design was usually bordered by repeating geometric or flower motifs. The borders are worked in a straight stitch with an occasional cross stitch. The color is usually the same color as the background. Assisi embroidery is worked in only two colors – one color for the background and a contrasting color to outline the motifs. Traditionally red, blue, green or gold was used for the background with black or brown outlines.

History of Assisi Embroidery

Italy has a long tradition of embroidery and other handicrafts. In the 13th century, an embroidery style was created in the monasteries that became the basis for Assisi embroidery. The motifs were voided on fine linen cloth with the outlines and background embroidered with colored silk. These articles were used for religious purposes such as altar cloths and chasubles.

By the 16th century, Assisi embroidery had become very popular and spread into the secular community. However, it fell into decline and many of the designs and motifs were lost in the eighteenth century.

After the new state of Italy was founded in 1861, a movement was started to rediscover and revive traditional handicrafts and provide employment to poor women. in 1902, the “Laboratorio Ricreativo Festivo Feminale San Francisci di Assisi” was founded in Assisi to accomplish these goals. They took the traditional embroidery techniques and simplified them. Embroidery cotton was used instead of silk. The outlines were counted instead of drawn freely on the cloth. The designs and complicated borders were simplified or new designs created. The background was done in simple cross stitch. The color schemes remained the same.

This cottage industry flourished and the more modern designs spread throughout Italy, Europe and rest of the world. In Assisi, the traditional style is still alive and you can see local women sitting in front of their houses and embroidering for the local co-operative embroidery shop. If you want to try the Assisi embroidery style, you can find free detailed instructions, patterns and projects online.

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