p-x-stitch-art - 3/1/99
"Cross Stitch Embroidery in the Middle Ages and Renaissance" by Karen Larsdatter.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Cross Stitch Embroidery in the Middle Ages and Renaissance
by Karen Larsdatter
Many of the ladies in my local area enjoy working embroidery, and cross stitch is undoubtedly one of the most popular stitches. Nearly all the work done at the Inter-Baronial Needlework Nights I host is cross stitch. Despite its popularity, it is often mistakenly considered to be out of period when, in fact, there are many examples of cross stitch dating from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
One of the oldest examples of cross stitch embroidery is a fragment of cloth, found in a Coptic cemetery in upper Egypt. It is estimated that this piece may date back to the sixth or seventh centuries AD. The fragment -- featuring a roundel with an outer floral border encircling a depiction of the Visitation -- includes cross stitches, as well as satin stitch, split stitch, and couched work.1 Cross stitch embroidery flourished during the T'ang dynasty in China (618-906 AD), and it is thought that cross stitch may have spread westward along trade routes during this time.
It is rare to see cross stitch done as the sole stitch on any pre-Renaissance embroidery in western Europe. Generally, cross stitch was used in addition to other work, as split stitch, satin stitch, and so forth. One such example is seen on an English seal bag dating back to 1319. It features the arms of the city of London -- an escutcheon with St. Paul holding a sword and book. St. Paul (as well as the sword and book) are worked in split stitch and underside couching, but the field of the escutcheon is worked entirely in cross stitch. Another example, the Syon Cope, worked in the first twenty years of the fourteenth century, features cross stitch in addition to underside couching and split stitch on the heraldic orphreys, which were added to the cope when it was converted from a chasuble. Staniland writes that
Cross stitch and counted-thread embroidery are both quickly mastered. Their repetitious nature meant that they produced effective ornament in a fairly short period of time, covering the ground of the work much more rapidly than the finer, more painstaking, needlepainting techniques.2
Cross stitch and long-armed cross stitch are seen on quite a few medieval German pieces. A mid-thirteenth century altar frontal from the Convent of Heiningen, depicting Christ in glory flanked by five saints, features a great deal of cross stitch. A twelfth century chasuble worked entirely in long-armed cross stitch in silk on a linen ground, from the Benedictine monastery of St. Blasien in the Black Forest, has 38 compartments enclosing portraits of saints and scenes from the Old and New Testaments; in the border are medallions with half-length figures of prophets, evangelists, apostles, and princes. A fifteenth century German embroidered band from the Cathedral of Halberstadt is done entirely in long-armed cross stitch, and features a floral motif flanked by the words "SANCTA ODILIA SANCTUS KYLANUS AVE REGINA CELO MATER REGIS"; interspersed among the words are small human figures wearing crowns.3 Abstract geometric patterns are also often seen in medieval German long-armed cross stitch embroidery. Examples include a Westphalian box cover4 and several colorful pouches done in long-armed cross stitch.
In the sixteenth century, embroidery evolved from an art form intended to decorate the church to a domestic pastime. The amount of altar frontals and vestments made in this period declines, and more embroidered garments, home furnishings, and samplers are produced. The popularity of embroidery was partially fueled by the new printing presses, and as the quality of printing and book production escalated, so too did the amount of books available to the aspiring embroiderer. It is thought that single pattern-sheets were being printed in Germany as early as the late fifteenth century; the earliest printed pattern book, Johannes Schönsperger's Ein New Modelbuch, was published in 1524.
Patterns for cross stitch were often among the embroidery patterns offered in such books, along with other forms, such as blackwork, strapwork, lacis, and counted satin stitch. These patterns did not have a series of colors on the graph and a key, as modern patterns do; rather, areas to be cross-stitched were either blacked out or marked with a dot on the grid, and the stitcher could choose the colors for the marked areas as well as for the background. These patterns could either be counted onto the cloth (as Epstein indicates in her introduction to Nicholas Bassée's New Modelbuch -- in fact, she refers to all 80+ of the cross stitch patterns in the Modelbuch as "counted cross stitch") or could be detached from the pattern book, holes punched through the pattern, and charcoal dust pounced through the holes and onto the linen.
One can see the end result of such pattern-books on Jane Bostocke's sampler of 1598, the earliest known signed and dated sampler. On the top portion of the sampler, there are several cross-stitched figures in various stages of completion. One can even see evidence of unembroidered portions -- among the cross-stitched sections there are an elephant, a bird, and a rabbit which have been carefully marked onto the fabric (either via the punch-and-pounce method, or perhaps just pricked though the pattern and onto the cloth). Clearly, these motifs were from a pattern book or broadsheet, although there is no evident link between the motifs on the sampler and surviving examples of contemporary books or broadsheets.
It is interesting to compare the cross stitched motifs on the Bostocke sampler, done in England, to an unfinished and unsigned German spot sampler of the early sixteenth century, done in cross stitch, long-armed cross stitch, double-sided Italian cross stitch, and double running stitches, pictured in Staniland's Embroiderers. Spot samplers featured individual motifs, or spots, arranged haphazardly; they were generally unsigned, and served as practice pieces of experienced embroiderers testing new designs, trial designs made before working a final piece, designs which later could be cut out of the linen and appliquéd to a final piece, or simply records of designs.5 One motif that the two samplers have in common is the pelican in her piety, an image known to us in the SCA as the badge of the Order of the Pelican. Both the Bostocke sampler and the earlier anonymous German sampler have very nearly the same version of the motif -- of the bird piercing her breast to feed three young chicks, in a very geometrically rendered and symmetrical oak tree (although Bostocke adds a squirrel and and unfinished bird to hers as well). In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the image of the pelican in her piety had symbolic religious connotations, a graphic metaphor for the Crucifixion; it is a rather common image in art and embroidery in period. Period embroidery books routinely plagiarized patterns from earlier books;6 it would not be shocking to discover that the Bostocke sampler and the German sampler have their origins in related pattern-books.
While embroidery-books were being printed all over Europe, these were not the only books which were responsible for the inspiration of Renaissance-era cross stitch. The Oxburgh hangings -- a series of cross-stitched panels worked in silk on linen, and then applied to velvet -- feature colorful pictures of plants and animals. The designs were drawn up by professional embroiderers in the household of Elizabeth of Hardwick, the Countess of Shrewsbury; these drawings were in turn based on books such as Conrad Gesner's Icones Animalium (1560) and Pierre Pelon's La Nature et Diversité des Poissons (1555), as well as Mattioli's Comentarii (editions from 1568 and 1572). On some panels, such as "BYRD OF AMERICA," one can even see where the pattern has been drawn directly onto the linen. These embroideries were worked by Elizabeth and professional embroiderers under her own employ, as well as Mary, Queen of Scots, who was a prisoner in the custody of the Earl and Countess from 1569 to her execution in 1587. Elizabeth of Hardwick also commissioned or worked several other cross stitch pieces, including a folding screen with thirty octagonal cross stitched panels.
Slips, embroideries worked onto canvas and then cut out and appliquéd to the background fabric (which was often velvet), were most often done in tent stitch, but there are a few examples of slips worked in cross stitch.7 Slips generally depicted flowers and plants, although some featured insects, animals, heraldic monsters, people, and even coats of arms. As with other embroidery, slips could be inspired by designs in pattern books or illustrations in books like the herbals and bestiaries which inspired the Oxburgh Hangings. The slips were applied to bed hangings, cushions, and other household furnishings; while clothing might be embroidered with similar patterns, it was easier to embroider directly onto the cloth, instead of embroidering a separate appliqué.
Several seventeenth century band samplers -- portable records of favorite patterns and stitches worked across long strips of linen8 -- also feature cross stitched patterns. Since band samplers were generally unsigned, it is near useless to define which samplers feature cross stitch; it would simply be easier to look for pictures of band samplers, and to determine which bands were in fact cross-stitched. Many of these samplers feature bands which would be easy to adapt to create your own seventeenth century-style band sampler. Indeed, many period cross stitch designs, with some creativity (and a little bit of graph paper), could be adapted for use on any number of projects -- garb trim, pouches, table linens -- the list is limited only by your imagination!
1 Marie Schuette and Sigrid Mueller-Christiansen, A Pictorial History of Western Embroidery.
2 Kay Staniland, Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers, p. 36.
3 Timothy J. Mitchell, "Long-Armed Cross Stitch Embroidery," http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/Wymarc/cross.htm.
4 Joyce Miller, "A 14th-15th Century Embroidered Box from Westphalia (Germany)," http://web0.tiac.net/users/drbeer/joyce/emb/westbox/westbox.htm.
5 Liz Arthur, Embroidery 1600-1700 at the Burrell Collection, p. 61.
6 Kathleen Epstein, "Introduction: German Pattern Books," German Renaissance Patterns for Embroidery, p. 3.
7 Meg Andrews, "Slips: Late 16th/Early 17th Century (Elizabethan/Stuart) Embroidery," http://www.victoriana.com/shops/andrews/slips.htm.
8 Joanna Foster, "Cross Stitch," Needlework, June 1997, p. 43.
Andrews, Meg. "Slips: Late 16th/Early 17th Century (Elizabethan/Stuart) Embroidery," http://www.victoriana.com/shops/andrews/slips.htm.
Arthur, Liz. Embroidery 1600-1700 At The Burrell Collection. London: John Murray Publishers, 1995.
Beck, Thomasina. The Embroiderer's Story: Needlework from the Renaissance to the Present Day. Devon: David & Charles, 1995.
Eaton, Jan. A Creative Guide to Cross Stitch Embroidery. London: New Holland Publishers, 1991.
Elder, Karen. V&A Needlepoint Collection. London: Brockhampton Press, 1995.
Epstein, Kathleen (ed). German Renaissance Patterns for Embroidery: A Facsimile Copy of Nicholas Bassée's New Modelbuch of 1568. Austin: Curious Works Press, 1994.
Foster, Joanna. "Cross stitch," Needlework, June 1997 (Issue 57), pp. 40-46.
Gostelow, Mary. The Cross Stitch Book. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982.
_____. Mary Gostelow's Embroidery Book. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1978.
Kay, Dorothea. Embroidered Samplers. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1979.
Miller, Joyce. "An Embroidered Box from Medieval Germany," http://web0.tiac.net/users/drbeer/joyce/emb/westbox/westbox.htm.
Mitchell, Timothy J. "Long-Armed Cross Stitch Embroidery," http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/wymarc/cross.htm.
Rhodes, Mary. Needlepoint: The Art of Canvas Embroidery. London: Octopus Books, 1974.
Schuette, Marie, and Sigrid Mueller-Christiansen. A Pictorial History of Western Embroidery. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963.
Staniland, Kay. Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers. London: British Museum Press, 1992.
Swain, Margaret. The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots. Bedford: Ruth Bean Publishers, 1986.
Wainwright, Angela. Renaissance Cross Stitch Samplers. London: Cassell, 1995.
Wardle, Patricia. Guide to English Embroidery. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1981.
Copyright 1998 by Karen Larsdatter <Karen_Larsdatter at yahoo.com>. Permission is
granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is
credited and receives a copy.