When medieval Europeans first saw the clothing of the Middle East, they were fascinated by its colorful, luxurious fabrics and complex ornamentation — and immediately wanted something similar for themselves. But the brocades, lampas weaves and other fabrics they coveted were sometimes far more expensive than they could afford. One solution was to create similar designs on plain fabric with embroidery — a solution Europeans embraced with great enthusiasm.
Pattern darning is a particularly clever way to imitate costly woven patterns. Structurally, it is made by “weaving” thread in and out among the threads of the fabric, just as if it was made that way by weaving in a “pattern weft” while the fabric is still on the loom. In the absence of telltale loose ends or grain patterns, it can be difficult to tell which technique was used to make a given pattern.
In the Middle East
Due to the dry climate, far more fragments of embroidered fabric survive from the medieval Middle East than in Europe — especially fragments of linen, which often decays in European soils. We have samplers, tunic fragments, and lengths of turban fabric to study, as well as evidence of embroidery on clothing from paintings and documents.
As the picture of the king shows, as well as the detail of his advisors from the same painting below, the long strip of cloth that formed the daily turban was also decorated. Above the King’s forehead you can see a small square pattern that’s quite common on any turban whose front view can be seen. The back views of the advisors’ turbans show that there was also a band of decoration above the loose end of the turban cloth, often worn hanging down the back or carefully arranged to show the design. Many of the surviving “samplers” of Islamic pattern darning are thought to be collections of patterns for clients to choose from for a custom turban
In western Europe
We don’t have many examples of pattern darning on clothing from Europe; but then, we don’t have as many examples of suriving clothing, period. What we do have is several examples of pattern darning on furnishing textiles.
The most conspicuous examples are church textiles, especially altar frontals — flat hangings used on the front of an altar table. Two such hangings from Iceland are featured in Gudjonsson’s book (Bibliography of Pattern Darning aritcle).
Another use of pattern darning is on long cloth towels. Medieval table
service used a lot of linen towels, both for practical hand drying and
for show. Towels, like turbans, often had decorated ends, and since
pattern darning is attractive on the wrong as well as the right side,
it is quite suitable for this. Such embroidered towels imitated the
more expensive towels with woven-in designs, such as the “Perugia”
towels fashionable in the Renaissance.
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This particular web page last updated on September 13 2006.