I fell in love with Assisi work many years ago but researching
and collecting patterns of it has proved an elusive task. At times
I have felt like a detective, and so I decided to share some of
my frustrations and experiences with you. My interest in the subject
started when I was researching SCA period needlework, just over
20 years ago. I would occasionally see some fascinating designs
pushed to the back or side of a page or an article. The technique
was the opposite of regular counted cross-stitch, as the design
was outlined, then the background filled in densely with cross
stitch. The actual pattern was made by the unworked ground fabric.
This "negative" effect gave the Assisi work a woodcut quality
that I found very rich and unique.
In 1977 I started doing counted cross stitch. I remembered those
wonderful designs and decided I would just find a few and at some
point try my hand at this interesting way of doing cross stitch.
I have a Fear of Double Running. The patterns I found seemed
to rely heavily on double running not only for outlining patterns,
but for some lacy edging on top and bottom. Despite this fear
I did what I could do, in my small way, to collect booklets of
I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts and had the advantage of
using their wonderful libraries, including Harvard's. Digging
and burrowing during my lunch hours at the Fine Arts Library turned
up one (count it one!) book on Assisi . It was called Punto
D'Assisi, Insegnamento Pratico Illustrato, by Adele Della
Porta (Milan, Italy, 1919, Fogg Libary call number 1098, p. 84).
Mrs. Della Porta's patterns and photos show all sorts of basic
household uses for Assisi work. Ten years later an Italian acquaintance
skimmed the text for me and gave me rough translation. Her text
extolls the virtues of using the patterns to beautify your home,
but there was no historical information.
The patterns in Della Porta's book show an interesting variant
on what I had come to regard as Assisi work -- the figures are
drawn freehand (not counted), outlined in stem or outline stitch.
The background in most of the photos appears to be regular cross
stitch done on a design which is stamped on the fabric -- no countwork.
I have never seen Assisi work done this way other than in Della
Porta's book, and cannot judge how wide-spread it was.
In 1978 I added to my resources a private press volume by Jane
Zimmerman, titled Assisi Embroidery. Ms. Zimmerman's book
unfortunately has mostly modern patterns but gives good working
directions. I made several attempts to contact her, especially
since her bibliography included a book called Exploring Assisi,
by Rosemary Cornelius and Peg and Hardy Doffeck (self-published,
1976). I did not succeed, nor have I found the above mentioned
Continuing on my personal quest during the years, I went through
the various libraries available to me. In 1985 I bought the Pamela
Miller Ness book Assisi Embroidery and decided to try one
design. I did not do double-running... I used backstitch instead
to outline the motifs. Although the front looked nice it did not
look particularly attractive on the wrong side of the lacy top
and bottom borders. As all I had read on the subject said that
Assisi work was reversible, I was again discouraged. Inter Library
Loan searches resulted in pamphlets published by DMC or Anchor
showing simple and very modern patterns.
While practicing this inefficient and random method of research
I began to be motivated by another interest. I started to look
more thoroughly at plates in historical needlework books. I found
something very interesting -- not all of those extant pieces used
double running. Most did but some captions described backstitch.
Now this was delightful! Another fact caught my eye -- the historical
pieces did not have those very lacy top and bottom borders of
These two facts really focused by search and revived my interest
in finding patterns and historical information on how SCA period
Assisi work was really done. In 1986 I made a real breakthrough
when I discovered Marie Schuette's masterpiece, A Pictorial
History of Western Embroidery. There were plates that showed
Assisi-style work, but they were done without the double running
decorative lacy borders, and with classical figures instead of
the animals, which I had been expecting. This was a real revelation
to me and I found this intriguing, as was the lack of the term
A wonderful find in 1987 was a copy of a DMC book on Assisi
needlework. I Xeroxed it, even though the text was in German.
Countess Marieke Van der Daal very kindly translated some parts
of it for me a few years later and I eventually found an English
version through Inter Library loan.
The Lipperhide Books
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At the same time that I discovered the DMC Assisi book, I made
an even more exciting find. I was in a research library and the
title Leinen Stickerei caught my attention. I knew that
this meant "Linen Embroidery" so I pulled down two volumes. It
is hard to put into words what a treasure trove these two volumes
are. I Xeroxed a few patterns for personal use days before I moved
to Philadelphia, and I didn't think much more about the book because
I didn't think I would need the documentation. Three years later
I decided to do a book. I made inquiries, then a special trip
to Boston to Xerox the books in their entirety.
The Lipperhide books were written in 1881 and 1883 by Franz
and Freda Lipperhide. These books contain handsome designs --
many of them Assisi work. All of them appear to be recharted from
extant historical examples -- I have seen photographs of similar
extant work here and there in various survey books.
I made myself a learning sampler from some of these patterns,
and most of these appear with this article.
The serpent-like beasties can be found in another arrangement
in the Maria Foris book.
The other two borders are from Lipperhide, although I have seen
the interlace border in an Italian needlework book of the 16th
century: Domenico Da Sera's Opera Nuova Composta per Domenico...,
1546. There is one band of a leafy design that I found in Needlework
Alphabets and Designs, edited by Blanche Cirker, Dover Books,
Inc., NY, 1975. I have no proof which century this design dates
to (plate 69) but it is very similar to other patterns I have
seen from the 16th century. I do not reproduce it here due to
I recently found out that there is a modern edition of the Lipperhide
patterns available, with German text translated by Kathy Epstein,
a noted needlework historian. Please see the bibliography below.
In 1988 I wrote to the Victoria and Albert Museum (hereinafter
V&A) in London. The Curator of Textiles at that time, Miss
Santina Levey, wrote back to answer my questions, and helped my
understanding of what SCA period style Assisi work is. The term
Assisi is a modern one, dating from the revival
movement in Italy in the late 19th century. It is still convenient
to use that term, however and I shall do so, lacking definite
knowledge of what a 16th century needleworker might have called
the technique -- although "voided work" or "reverse work" are
In 1988 I purchased a modern book on Assisi work by Eva Marie
Leszner -- but it is highly disappointing. The text on the history
of Assisi work not only shows contradictions but ignorance of
Italian and German needlework pattern books of the 16th century
-- leading her to declare that all Assisi work was done by drawing
the design first on the linen. She says that charts for such work
were not used until the 19th century revival of Assisi work. This
is a statement easily disproved by direct examination of 16th
century needlework pattern books.
The most tantalizing aspect of Ms. Leszner's book was her personal
experience of viewing what she said was medieval Assisi work.
I wrote to the publishers, only to find she had died shortly after
the book was published. I was given her daughter's address and
wrote her a letter. I never received an answer -- possibly due
to the fact that my letter was too technical. I doubt Ms. Leszner
actually viewed medieval Assisi done in a countwork technique.
I have not seen any extant examples of such work that seem to
date prior to the 16th century. Since many people use the term
"medieval" to really mean "Renaissance", this could have been
a technical error in translation.
Ms. Leszner correctly points out that virtually any regular
cross-stitch pattern can be adapted to Assisi work. However, looking
at 16th century Italian needlework pattern books it becomes very
clear that many patterns were intended for dual use as either
"positive" or "negative". For example, a pattern from Niccolo
Zoppino's Esemplario di lavori... (1530)
shows a fleur de lys charted on the left as a positive design,
then on the right as a negative.
I have included two border designs which I have recharted for
the ease of modern eyes. They are from Domenico da Sera's Opera
di Nuova Universali...(1546). If you follow the white spaces
you can do cross stitch, and if you follow the dark areas you
can do Assisi work.
I did not take advantage of several visits to the V&A to
research Assisi work, as I was pursuing other research at that
time. In 1988 I took a brief look at their study trays with Assisi
work and was awestruck at how small the stitching was. In 1991
I planned a few hours out of my honeymoon to photograph and study
those trays, but forgot that the V&A locks the trays on Saturday
at noon. I arrived at 12:15 to find the trays locked. We left
on Sunday and have not been able to return. The V&A photographic
department does have negatives and slides available of most of
its collection, but this is an expensive venture.
I would suggest that anyone interested in this topic be curious;
whenever you are in a new library, hunt up their needlework section.
Look for card catalog entries written in Italian; the word for
needlework is "recami". Don't ignore other foreign language titles;
key German words are "leinen" (for linen) and "stickerei" (for
stitchery). Go browsing through the needlework section, pull down
the big survey books and never stop looking. I found a plate of
Assisi work in a book about an American museum and its collection.
I also found some lovely photos of some pieces in a Russian book
which thankfully had the captions translated into French and English.
Types of Assisi Work
I have formulated two styles of Assisi work based on extant
Narrative: a design which shows fairly complicated scenes
of people, places and things which are outlined, then the background
is worked using:
- Simple cross-stitch (rare)
- Long armed cross
- Italian 2-sided cross stitch
- Montenegrin stitch
- Pulled work (using quadra or 4-sided stitch, which pulls the
background tight enough to give a net effect)
Floral: designs which do not appear to be outlined first,
and are of flowers, foliage, pillars, etc. Some exceptions exist;
Miss Levey sent me a Xerox of a sampler whose Assisi band showed
some stitching outlining the motif first. The fillings appear
to be long-armed cross stitch. The designs for these are virtually
all with squared designs with few (if any) diagonals, which makes
filling in the background easier. Too many diagonal lines leave
"white space" which must be filled with compensating stitches
(half cross). This style is difficult to do with a neat back,
as it isn't outlined first and it's difficult to gauge where your
thread will run out. If you outline your pattern with a thin thread,
you can then use a thicker thread to cover the background.
Some Basic Home Truths About SCA Period
It was not called Assisi work (outside of Assisi) during the
SCA period, not was it limited to Assisi, Italy.
The designs were carried out in one color; red seemed to be
the most popular. Blue and green are mentioned as popular second
choices. They did not outline the pattern design with black or
a contrasting thread.
The background is seldom worked in simple cross-stitch. Long-armed
cross was the most popular, with two-sided Italian cross stitch
being a close second.
The outlining can be done in double running OR in backstitch.
Neo-Classical nymphs, satyrs, mermaid and beasts seem to have
been more popular than just fantastical animals that dominate
modern Assisi. Flora and fauna seem to have been more popular
Some extant examples of partly done pieces indicate that the
pattern was simply drawn on the linen first. When outlining the
pattern, the needleworker would "square" the pattern by making
sure she counted threads. This would be analogous to the modern
needlepointer doing a modern design painted onto her canvas. When
she faces a curved area she "translates" that into diagonals or
squares to create the illusion of a curve.
Historical works do not have the lacy top and bottom borders
of double running that modern designs have. When they had borders
at all they were worked the same way as the main design.
In 1990 I felt that my notes and historical patterns might warrant
writing a book for SCA publication. Various problems in my personal
life have caused the book be put aside. I hope to bring forth
my volume in the not too distant future, so that I may share some
of the wonderful patterns I have found. I am re-charting some
of these designs with special charting software, and I hope to
find new patterns with my continued research.
Bath, Virginia Churchill. Embroidery Masterworks: Classic
Patterns and Techniques for Contemporary Applications. Henry
Regnery Co., Chicago, 1972.
The Anchor Manual of Needlework, New Edition. Interweave
Press (Loveland, CO), 1990.
D.M.C. Libraries. Assisi Embroideries. Mulhouse, France,
Edition Therese de Dilmont, Printed by Dolfus-Mieg & Co., 1954
and reprinted (NY?) c. 1974.
Epstein, Kathy (editor). Old Italian Patterns. Curious
Fairfield, Helen. Counted Thread Embroidery. St. Martin's
Press, New York.
Foris, Maria. Charted Folk Designs for Cross-Stitch Embroidery,
(278 Charts of Ancient Folk Embroideries from the Countries Along
the Danube). Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1975.
Gostelow, Mary. Mary Gostelow's Embroidery Book. E.P.
Dutton, New York, 1978.
Huish, Marcus B. Samplers and Tapestry Embroideries.
B.T. Batsford, London, 1990 ed.
Leszner, Eva Maria. Assisi Embroidery: Old Italian Cross-Stitch
Designs. B.T. Batsford, Ltd., London, 1988.
Ness, Pamela Miller. Assisi Embroidery. Dover Publications,
Inc., New York, 1979.
Salazar, Kim. The New Carolingian Modelbook. Outlaw Press,
New Mexico, 1995.
Schuette, Marie, and Sigrid Mueller-Christiansen. A Pictorial
History of Western Embroidery. Frederick A. Praeger, New York,
Miss Santina Levey, former Keeper of Textiles and Furnishings,
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Countess Marieke van der Daal, O.L., O.P. for the thankless
chore of translating German for me.
Lady Mathilde Eschenbach, for being my cheerleader, nudge, and
for vetting the manuscript.
Charting software used to rechart the 16th century designs was
Cross Stitch Designer, Version 4.2.
Taken from information compiled by Master Cathal and Mistress
Gudrun in 1993 and later updated March 18, 1995.
1 Hughes, Therle. English Domestic Needlework. Abbey
Fine Arts, London, pg. 116.
2 Ibid. Pg. 116.
3 Ibid. Pg. 117.
4 Ibid. Pg. 117.
5 Ibid. Pg. 119.
6 de Bonneville, Francois. The Book of Fine Linen. Flammarion;
Paris, 1994, pg. 74
7 Hughes. op.cit. pg. 118.
8 De Bonneville. op.cit. pg. 74
9 Ibid. Pg. 76.
10 Ibid. pg. 78.
11 Hughes. op.cit. pg. 118
12 Ibid. Pg. 128.
13 De Bonneville. op.cit. pg. 74
14 Hughes. op.cit. pg. 117
15 Thornton, Peter. The Italian Renaissance Interior 1400-1600.
Weidenfield and Nicolson, London, 1991, pg. 58.
16 De Bonneville. op.cit. pp. 176-177.
17 Ibid. Pgs. 177-178.
18 Levey, Santina M. Elizabethan Treasures: The Hardwick
Hall Textiles. The National Trust, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,
London, 1998, Pg. 43.
19 Ibid. Pg. 43.
20 Ibid. Pg. 45