Embroidery Pattern Books in the 16th Century

by Mathilde Eschenbach

The first printed book was Gutenberg's Bible, published in 1455. By the end of the 15th century, single sheets of patterns were probably being published, at least in Germany. In 1523, Shönsperger's Furm- oder Modelbüchlein was the first book of embroidery patterns to be published. Other publishers in Germany and Italy quickly followed. Eventually, books were also published in France, England, and the Netherlands. Apparently, these books were quite popular. The usual method of transfering the design to the cloth to be embroidered involved cutting out the page, pricking holes through the lines of the design, and forcing a powdered chalk mixture through the holes. Obviously, most copies were destroyed in this process. However, we still know of 291 editions of 111 titles published between 1523 and 1600. Many patterns reappear over and over again. This was achieved in two ways. One was to buy plates from the original publisher. The other was to simply have your own woodblocks cut with the same patterns. Copyright laws weren't as strong then. Also, some books were translated and published in other countries under new titles.

Literacy rates may have increased during the 16th century, but being able to read was irrelevent to using the books. Although long dedications and short introductions were standard, the best you could hope for in the way of directions was a list of possible techniques. You were expected to already know how to do needlework, and to recognize which techniques were suitable for a specific pattern. As new techniques, such as cutwork and needlelace, were introduced, new types of patterns were introduced in the books.

Generally, these books were intended for wealthy amateurs, as shown by the long and flowery introductions. However, bobbin lace was done by professionals, which explains why just two books devoted to that technique were published. One of them, by a professional lacemaker, is intended as a teaching tool for apprentices. She recommends lacemaking as a good source of income. Not until the 1590's were bobbin lace patterns included with the embroidery and needlelace designs.

Some of the techniques that can be worked from these books include counted work, such as cross-stitch and pattern-darning; openwork techniques such as lacis and buratto; double-running or Spanish stitch; couching; appliqué; cutwork and lace. Judging by the introductions and cover illustrations, some patterns were also used for weaving.

In addition to books intended for embroidery, designs could be taken from any book with an interesting woodcut. Especially popular were emblem books (examples can be seen at the English Emblem Book Project or at Alciato's Book of Emblems, 1531), natural histories, and herbals. These types of sources have received a fair amount of attention, probably because of the "art history effect"--embroideries that mimic painting in some way are considered more important than purely decorative designs such as those found in the pattern books.

Selected Bibliography

Last updated 24 August 2003

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