by Christian de Holacombe
Cross stitch is many people's firstintroduction to modern embroidery,
and a pleasant one it is. The stitch itself is quite simple -
just rows of X's - although of course there are refinements you
can learn later. But once you master the mental 'twist' that lets
you translate dark and light squares on a chart into X's across
thread intersections on cloth, you can follow any chart and cover
just about anything with your embroidery.
Did medieval people do cross stitch, and if so, how did they
approach it? Here's where the 'cross' in our title becomes 'cultural.'
Yes, cross stitch was certainly done in the Middle Ages - but
identifying a stitch is not terribly meaningful outside of its
cultural context and style. We not only have to ask when a certain
style of embroidery was stitched, but in what cultures and by
what kinds of people. What materials were used for thread and
cloth, what kinds of stitches were used together, what kinds of
motifs were considered suitable, and exactly how the stitches
were constructed are also important parts of the cultural context.
Probably the most overlooked aspect of cultural context is what
kinds of items were decorated with a particular style of stitching.
In modern times, other than as an artistic exercise or as a joke,
you'd probably expect to see canvaswork ('needlepoint') chair
upholstery but not canvaswork blouses; lace dresses or gloves
but not lace dishtowels - at least, not if you're actually going
to use them to dry dishes. In the same way historically, you expect
to see Elizabethan blackwork on collars and cuffs, but not on
stockings or shoes.
So let's look at medieval uses of cross stitch, including its
Tissus d'Égypt: Témoins du monde arabe
There has been a great deal written about cross-stitch and long-armed
cross stitch toward the end of our period, in the 15th and 16th
centuries, where it seems to have become increasingly popular.
It's used then for canvaswork, on decorative towels, as a part
of some embroideries worked in double running stitch, and as a
background in "voided work" on linen (often called Assisi work),
which Sabrina de la Bere will be discussing in our next issue.
I'm not going to say much about these later embroideries in
this article, since there's a relative abundance of material about
them. Instead I'm going to focus on the use of cross stitch in
earlier centuries, especially the 13th and 14th, since I have
some very interesting pieces from those centuries for us to look
Like many good ideas, including knitting and the number zero,
cross stitch probably came to Europe from cultures to the east
or south. Cross stitch embroidery is said to have flourished during
the T'ang dynasty in China (618-906 AD), and it could have spread
westward from there to the Mediterranean along the Silk Road and
other trade routes.
A piece sometimes cited as the 'earliest' evidence of cross
stitch is an embroidered roundel, found in a Coptic cemetery in
upper Egypt and dated to the 7th or 8th century. It's done mostly
in split stitch and shows the Annunciation (i.e. the Virgin Mary
and an angel); in fact, it's a very close copy of a slightly earlier
woven silk fabric in the Vatican Museum. There are a couple of
dozen cross- and star-shaped stitches, done on top of the split-stitch
filling, decorating Mary's dress.
To my way of thinking, these are not really 'cross stitch,'
because they are irregularly scattered, oriented at all angles,
and have varying numbers of points (4, 6, or 8). It seems to me
more useful to define "true" cross stitch as regularly spaced
X's, worked in a pattern and oriented on the grain of the fabric
(usually to counted threads).
One of the earlier pieces of embroidery I've seen that uses
true cross stitch is the one on our cover (above). You can see
that there are carefully spaced rows of separated crosses decorating
a fragment that is mostly worked in double running stitch. This
piece is also Coptic, from Mamluk-ruled Egypt in the 13th or 14th
century, and was probably once part of a linen tunic or handkerchief.
These same rows of detached cross stitches turn up from time to
time in later embroideries too, most notably decorating the seams
of a woman's smock embroidered with small animals in stem stitch
from the early 1600s.
Simple cross & long-armed cross
Detail of Icelandic Altar Frontal
More common than simple cross stitch in most of our centuries
is the use of cross stitch's close cousin, long-armed cross stitch.
The long-armed form seems to have been regarded as the "normal"
form of cross stitch in many times and places in the Medieval
and Renaissance eras. In the way it's worked (diagram, p.5), it's
only slightly different from simple cross stitch: one of the two
stitches is simply longer than the other, and as a row is worked,
the stitches overlap, producing a nice braided effect. In these
pieces, such as the 'Ave Maria' lettering illustrated on p.3,
you very often see the long continuous lines worked in long-armed
cross stitch, and the little isolated stitches that form points,
tiny stars, or diagonals are simple cross stitches. (The piece
shown here is a detail of an Icelandic altar frontal, of uncertain
but probably medieval date.)
Icelandic Altar Frontal