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Assisi embroidery is a form of counted-thread embroidery based on an ancient Italian tradition where the background is filled with embroidery stitches and the main motifs are left void i.e. unstitched. The name is derived from the Italian town of Assisi where the modern form of the craft originated.
Description of the technique
Assisi work uses a method known as voiding in which the background is filled in while the motif itself is left blank. Cross-stitch is used for the background and blackwork, i.e. Holbein stitch is then used to outline the motif and create the surrounding decorative scrollwork. Traditionally, Assisi embroidery was rarely executed in cross-stitch, but most often in long-armed cross-stitch. Examples employing other stitches are also known, such as cross-stitch, Italian cross-stitch and Algerian plait stitch. The colours of thread used were the traditional ones of red, blue, green or gold for the background, and black or brown for the outlines. Traditional motifs were largely heraldic, especially heraldic beasts, and typically featured symmetrically arranged pairs of animals and birds surrounded by ornate filigree borders.
In the oldest pieces, the figures were drawn on the fabric free-hand, surrounded with Holbein stitch and the background was filled as well as possible. For more modern pieces the pattern was constructed carefully on paper, in much the same way as cross-stitch patterns are created. Today Assisi embroidery is nearly always done this way.
Historically, Italy has had a long tradition of bright and colourful embroidery. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries monastic embroideries developed a simpler style where designs and motifs were voided on fine linen cloth with the outlines and background embroidered in coloured silk. Motifs were strongly influenced by traditional designs of bird or animal pairs surrounded by elaborate scrollwork. These early articles were most often used for religious purposes e.g. altar cloths and chasubles.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, this form of embroidery fell into decline and many of the designs and motifs were lost. It was only at the turn of the 20th century that the practice was revived in the Italian town of Assisi from which this form of embroidery gets its name. In 1902 the 'Laboratorio Ricreativo Festivo Femminile San Francesco di Assisi' was established. The aim of this handicrafts workshop was to revive traditional local handicrafts and provide employment to poor women to supplement their income. This cottage industry flourished and these more modern designs, using the counted thread technique, quickly spread throughout Italy, Europe and further abroad.
In the last 20 years, a modern version of Assisi embroidery has evolved. Many different colours and patterns are used for the background, and the motifs are extremely varied. However, the traditional version is still practised in the town of Assisi where one can see the local women sitting in front of their houses and embroidering Assisi work items for the local co-operative embroidery shop.
Leszner, Eva Maria. Assisi Embroidery, London: Batsford, 1988. ISBN 0-7134-5595-0