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 only embroidered the background and not the motifs. Whereas, in the sewing that he had learned, he embroidered the motifs and left the background smooth. Also, the designs were traditional medieval motifs, like those seen everywhere in churches in Italy. In this article you will discover the characteristics and history of Assisi embroidery.

What is Assisi embroidery?

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

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

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

The motifs are presented in symmetrical pairs surrounded by elaborate scrollwork. 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 attention 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 were usually bordered by repeating geometric or floral motifs. The edges are worked in a straight stitch with an occasional cross stitch. The color is usually the same as the background. Assisi embroidery is worked in only two colors: a 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 crafts. In the 13th century, a style of embroidery was created in monasteries that became the basis for Assisi embroidery. The motifs were annulled on fine linen fabric with the outlines and the background embroidered with colored silk. These items were used for religious purposes, such as altar cloths and chasubles.

By the 16th century, Assisi embroidery had become very popular and spread to the secular community. However, it fell into decline and many of the designs and motifs were lost in the 18th century.

After the founding of the new state of Italy in 1861, a movement was started to rediscover and revive traditional crafts and provide employment for poor women. In 1902, the “Laboratorio Ricreativo Festivo Feminale San Francisci di Assisi” was founded in Assisi to achieve these goals. They took traditional embroidery techniques and simplified them. Embroidered cotton was used instead of silk. The outlines were counted rather than drawn freely on the fabric. Complicated designs and edges were simplified or new designs were created. The background was made in simple cross stitch. The color schemes remained the same.

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

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