Spanish Stitch Napkin

Spanish Stitch Napkin

Double-running stitch worked in red sewing silk on a linen napkin. The napkin was purchased used, with the cutwork already present. I worked the design from a chart in Pesel, but have not identified the original. However, this type of artichoke pattern was very popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. In fact, one Italian sampler from about 1600 has at least 3 variants of the design, one of which is very similar to the one I used.

Double-running stitch, now often known as Holbein stitch, was worked throughout Western Europe in the 16th century, when it was called Spanish stitch. Its introduction to England is generally ascribed to Katharine of Aragon, who came from Spain in 1501 to marry Arthur, the Prince of Wales, and when he died, eventually married his brother, Henry VIII. There is usually also a vague statement about the Spaniards acquiring this type of embroidery during the period of Moorish rule, which is certainly possible, although there is also evidence that the technique could have been introduced to Europe through Venetian trade with the Islamic world.

The first European patterns are similar to the earlier Islamic patterns in that they both use mostly straight stitches, avoiding diagonals. However, even the simplest Islamic designs have a certain elegance to them, whereas the European patterns can only be described as crude. These early simple stepped patterns were widely published in the pattern books that began appearing around this time in Italy, Germany and France. In fact, the first use of the term Spanish stitch that I am aware of is in the introduction to Peter Quentel’s 1527 publication, Eyn new kunstlich boich, where he mentions “Spansche Stiche” as one of the possible methods of working his patterns. As time went on, the designs became much more elaborate (and more attractive). Unlike the Arabic style, European patterns began to make heavy use of diagonal stitches as they became more complex. In addition to pattern books and surviving pieces, Spanish stitch can be seen in portraits from all over Europe. Spanish stitch seems to have been used on almost anything made of linen. There are many examples on undergarments, especially at the neck and wrist of shirts and shifts. Other types of clothing include Italian aprons, German cap veils and Swiss dress bands. Pillows and sheets were also embroidered with Spanish stitch, as well as handkerchiefs. Note that this list does not include tablecloths or napkins. At the time I made this napkin, I thought that anything that was made of linen would be embroidered, but I have since found that table linens are mostly left plain, and when they aren’t, they usually seem to have woven decoration, not embroidered.


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