The Sampler Sleuth
Negative Space: Assisi Embroidery's Best Friend
Simple but elegant and amazingly adaptive is an apt description of the age-old technique known as Assisi embroidery. In the words of Newnes Complete Needlecraft: A Practical and
Comprehensive Guide, “There is no embroidery at once simpler and more effective than this, with its white design showing boldly against a coloured background of continuous cross stitch.”
Dating to the Middle Ages, Assisi embroidery gets its name from the region where it developed in Assisi, Italy. Worked in geometric patterns, birds, dragons, beasts, flowers and elaborate borders are characteristically found in this countedthread embroidery technique.
One form of Assisi embroidery relies on the four-sided running stitch outlining small squares. The other form requires that the area to be stitched is first covered in double running stitch. Then its background is filled with horizontal rows of cross stitch or long-armed cross stitch.
The end result in both cases is that the main motif (or motifs) is outlined by the stitches, leaving the motif itself void of stitches. Most traditional designs incorporate only one or two colors of floss.
The earliest Assisi pieces are thought to be ecclesiastical embroideries worked by nuns in convents. Some sources attribute the origin of Assisi embroidery to the Poor Clares, a contemplative order of nuns founded by St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi in 1212.
Typically stitched using silk threads on evenweave linen fabric, the more elaborate embroideries sometimes included metallic threads. Some designs also were drawn on the fabric prior to stitching.
During the Renaissance, Assisi embroidery became more secular and featured a wider variety of subjects, including mythical animals. Although not very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, the technique enjoyed a revival in the early 1900s when a workshop was founded in Assisi to promote the technique and provide employment opportunities.
The counted-thread technique is still found today on a variety of household linens, including tablecloths, runners, cushion covers and bags.
Author Hetsie van Wyk's colorful description captured the original source of this needlework in her 1977 book,
Embroider Now: “After a visit to the picturesque little town of Assisi on the slope of the hillock in Italy, the visitor will always have a soft spot for everything connected with it. Above all there will be the lasting impression of numerous gay little embroidery shops along a gray cobbled street. On the outside against the stone walls and the doorframes, dozens of articles hang, embroidered in the typical style known as Assisi work.”
Now again in this century, Assisi embroidery is enjoying a revival as vibrant palettes join contemporary designs in a technique that dates back over 800 years.
Assisi Embroidery: Technique and 42 Charted Designs by Pamela Miller Ness
Assisi Embroidery: Old Italian CrossStitch Designs by Eva Maria Leszner
Dragons and mythical animals are traditional designs for Assisi embroidery.