By Mathilde Eschenbach
Cotton (?) tablecloth with ends decorated in blue cotton pattern-
darning embroidery, using a design taken from a 14th-
15th century Egyptian fragment.
I enjoy being able to use my embroidery. Over the years
several pieces I have done have ended up being used with my
feast gear – a napkin, a bag for cutlery, and one for candles. I
started not just enjoying, but anticipating pulling things out at
events. It finally occurred to me that the tablecloth we used
took up a lot of space and ought to be one of the things to be
enjoyed. I had never done anything to decorate one because I
was sort of vaguely aware that most tablecloths in period illuminations
are just plain white cloths.
About this time, I acquired a calendar that did show a decorated
tablecloth (Fox, 1998). I started looking for more, and
eventually turned up several (e.g., Fox, 1999; Redon et. al.).
Most of these have blue geometric bands at the short ends.
Given the number of Perugia towels that survive, it seems
likely that the tablecloths shown in manuscripts were produced
in the same way and thus would have been woven, but similar
patterns can be produced by pattern-darning. This is not surprising
since the type of weaving used for the decorative bands
of the Perugia towels is difficult to distinguish from patterndarning
(Cavallo, p. 182). Blue is the usual color for the decoration
on Perugian wares, but it is also by far the most popular
color for Egyptian embroidery, and there was a fair amount
of trade between Italy and Egypt (Baker, p. 70; Ellis, pp. 86-
87). Further support for this possibility is the existence of
several 15th century Norwegian tablecloths decorated in pattern-darning
(Gudjónsson, p. 22; Bridgeman and Drury, pp. 245-46), although these are
rather different from the ones seen in illuminations, especially in the
use of multiple colors.
One problem with with pattern darning as a possible method for decorating
these tablecloths is the scale of the patterns shown in the illuminations, which
come across as being much larger than they would likely be if done in
pattern darning. Using a different type of embroidery such as satin
stitch, or possibly even a linear stitch, could account for this, but
more importantly, the same problem with scale applies to interpreting the
decoration as weaving. However, these are not necessarily accurate
depictions, since scale is frequently distorted in these manuscripts
bumblebees the size of pigeons being one of the most extreme examples.
And the final argument for doing it as embroidery is that my few
attempts at weaving have been truly pathetic, not to mention the
investment in equipment that I would need, whereas pattern-darning is
simple and fun, and requires no tools other than a needle and scissors.
Materials and Technique:
My preference would have been to do this project in silk on linen, but
it needed a large quantity of both, and at the time I started working on
it, I was in the middle of a long stretch of unemployment/underemployment.
I ended up using a tablecloth I already owned, which I believe is cotton
but may be a cotton-synthetic blend, and the thread is a single strand of
DMC cotton floss. While silk on linen was by far the most popular
combination, both cotton cloth and cotton threads were used occasionally
for embroidery in Egypt (see Ellis, pp. 24, 43, 78-79; and all of Lamm),
although I don't think I've seen them used together in the same piece.
Also, while the Perugian towels were woven in linen, the decorative bands
were usually done in cotton. Although the pattern is a good bit larger
than the typical pattern-darning design, the picture I was working from
was large and clear (and post-conservation) so it was fairly easy to
chart the pattern, despite the occasional worn or missing thread or
irregular repeats. The one difficulty came with the edging, where I
couldn't get the pattern to be in proportion to the main body of the
design until I switched from using standard stitch lengths over 1, 3 or 5
threads to using stitches over 2 and 4 threads.
Note: Only one end of the tablecloth is done. Normally, I would not enter
an incomplete piece, but I started this in August, 2000 and have worked
on it during about half the time since, and therefore represents the
single most substantial investment of my time on an embroidered object in
the past five years.
Baker, Patricia L. Islamic Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1995.
Bridgeman, Harriet and Drury, Elizabeth. Needlework: An Illustrated History. New York and London: Paddington Press; Montreal: Optimum Publishing Company Limited; 1978.
Cavallo, Adolph S. The Smithsonian Illustrated Library of Antiques: Needlework. Smithsonian Institution/Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 1979.
Ellis, Marianne. Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2001.
Fox, Sally. The Medieval Woman: An Illuminated Calendar, 1999. New York: Workman Publishing, 1998.
Fox, Sally. The Medieval Woman: An Illuminated Calendar, 2000. New York: Workman Publishing, 1999.
Gudjónsson, Elsa E. Traditional Icelandic Embroidery. Reykjavík: Iceland Review, 1982.
Lamm, Carl Johan. Cotton in Mediaeval Textiles of the Near East. Paris: P. Geuthner, 1937.
Redon, Odile; Saban, Francoise; and Serventi, Silvano. The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Tissus d'Égypte: Témoins du Monde Arabe, VIIIe - XVe siècles: Collection Bouvier.
Thonon-les-Bains: Albaron; Genève: Musée d'art et d'histoire; Paris: Institut du monde arabe, 1993.
Reprinted from the Fall, 2005, issue of Arts and Sciences, a special issue of the Pikestaff,
the official newsletter of the Kingdom of the East. Used by permission.