MEDIEVAL EGYPTIAN COUNTED-THREAD EMBROIDERY


INTRODUCTION: Long before blackwork embroidery was being done in Europe,a similar style using double-running stitch was being done in Egypt. During the Mamluk period (1250-1517), this style and the closely related pattern darning became common as cheap methods of decoration for those who couldn't afford the silk brocades being made at the time.

MATERIALS: The ground fabric was usually linen, although silk could be used. It was normally even-weave, ranging from 28 to 60 threads per inch. Linen and wool thread were sometimes used, but silk floss was the most common. Indigo blue and black were used most frequently, but many other colors were used as well: green, yellow, red, turquoise, dark brown, grey.

METHOD: Both types of embroidery are based on running stitch, the simplest of all. Double-running stitch was called Spanish stitch in 16th-century Europe, and is often called Holbein stitch by modern embroiderers. Each stitch is made over or under the same number of threads, usually two, and then a second row of running stitches fills in the initial row, creating a solid line, which is identical on both sides of the ground fabric. A variant of this is sometimes called box-stitch and, as the name implies, is just a series of squares with one stitch to a side, arranged to form the design. Both these variants are well-adapted for the inscriptions which are an essential element of all Arabic decorative arts.

Designs can be formed just with the double-running stitch, but there are examples where it outlines a shape which is then filled in with either a solid color,with drawn- and cutwork, or with pattern darning.

In pattern darning, the stitch length is varied, most commonly going over or under 1, 3, or 5 threads. In the second row, and in each succeeding row, some stitches change in length, and the rest shift. Although the technique is so simple, it produces an incredible variety of geometric patterns.

USES: These embroideries seem to be everyday pieces, and unlike the the elaborate brocades that made their way to the treasuries of Euopean churches, they were used until worn out, possibly re-used if some of the embroidery could be salvaged, and then discarded. There is no way of telling how widespread the style was, since Egypt was the only area to have a climate where some fragments were able to survive.

At least two fragments are large enough to be recognized as tunics/shirts, with embroidery around the neck opening and another two bands going down the front. The hems of skirts and sleeves were probably embroidered, as were the various long strips of cloth used as scarves, sashes and turban wraps. There is one surviving example of embroidered scraps being reused to make a doll's robe. Embroidery may also have been used on household linens.

There are at least five surviving samplers, mostly of pattern darning. These were clearly not decorative wall hangings, but intended as a way of recording the patterns, possibly to allow the customers of professional embroiderers to choose the desired pattern or combination of patterns.

EXAMPLES OF PATTERNS:
Double Running:
I worked two sample pieces using patterns charted from photographs of surviving fragments, the first from Otavsky (p. 105, No. 66) and the second from Abegg (p. 27, fig. 19).
I also made a bag using another double-running stitch pattern, this one charted from a photograph in Ioannou. It is worked in blue and white silk, as is the original, on an even-weave cotton fabric. A popular color combination in Mamluk carpets is medium blue with a deep red, so I used a scrap of red velvet I had on hand to line the bag. The cord is a fingerloop braid made following the directions in a 15th century English manuscript.

Pattern Darning:
This is a Mamluk-style sampler. I charted the patterns from photographs of original pieces in Baker, Humphrey, and Rhodes. It is worked in silk floss on linen.

LINKS FOR MORE PICTURES:
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts currently has an exhibit on samplers, including a Mamluk pattern-darning sampler. Also in the exhibit is a 19th century Spanish sampler with a section of remarkably similar patterns in the upper right quarter.
There is an SCA site on Middle Eastern topics which is mostly focused on costume and knitting, but it does include one photo (at the bottom of a long page) of embroidery, which happens to be the same piece I based my bag on.


SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY


[return to home page] [return to embroidery page]