The Assisi stitch
by Anna Bertinelli
Assisi, well-known as St. Francis’s homeland, as well as being considered a mystical land of saints and prayers, preserves and transmits the art of a typically feminine craft. It probably came from the canvases made and used by the Order of Clares in order to take care of their sister Clare, forced to infirmity.
We are taking about the Assisi Stitch, a type of a geometric embroidery made by a simple technique, but with a very refined result. A typical monochromatic pattern is performed on linen cloth and, it is traditionally blue or rust brown (more rarely in green, yellow and red).
Originally the canvases were woven by hand and the yarns were colored by natural dyeing. They made it so until the 19th century. At that time, there were a lot of dyeing plants which permit the main colors to be obtained: from the woad (Isatis tinctoria), for example, they obtained several shades of blue, from the vivid tones to a very pale one. Even from the humble origins of colors and raw materials used in the Assisi stitch speak of the vocation to the essentiality and poverty that strongly characterized the early Franciscans.
The Assisi stitch is a counted thread embroidery – twisted yarn n° 20 DMC – made on a natural linen cloth with a regular warp, which is called also Tela Assisi.
The embroidery is executed in three steps. First, the contours are traced with a filza stitch, using a black yarn or a darker one than the thread chosen for the fill; then the bottom of the tracing is filled with the yarn of the chosen color by cross-stitching. Finally the work is completed with the edges, executed in a square point. As a finishing touch, they used to embellish the corners of tablecloths or the cushions by applying three tassel made with the embroidery thread. They use a needle with a rounded point.
The Assisi stitch in History
There are testimonies of the presence of objects made in Assisi point already since 1300, as well as in the famous pictorial cycle made by Giotto in the Upper Basilica of San Francesco: in the Death of the Knight of Celano is depicted a tablecloth embroidered with the motifs of the Assisi stitch.
The early drawings (those that are now commonly referred to as work patterns) initially rather primitive become, from the 15th century, elegant and meticulous until they reach the great refinement of the 19th and 20th centuries. Frescos, portals, finely inlaid wooden choirs represent the greatest source of inspiration for the motifs to be embroidered on canvas. Each design has a precise name: the little queen is very famous, and represents winged animal figures.
The teaching of the embroidery technique – to which many young people approached because they wanted to create their own outfit for the future marriage, or to obtain a minimum of economic independence – took place inside the convents, while in the 20th century appeared the first schools such as the Scuola delle Figlie del Popolo at the San Francesco Laboratory, founded in 1902. Today, the San Francesco Laboratory is home to the Accademia Punto Assisi, an association that promotes and enhances this ancient art of embroidery. The latter, founded in 1998 on a ministerial project, occupies the historic premises of the first laboratory set up in the city. There are three fundamental words that animate the members: protecting, passing on and spreading. Traditional embroidery classes are organized for children and adults who want to approach this endangered art, providing opportunities for exchange, collaboration and socialization. The Academy also organizes themed events and competitions to promote embroidery at national and international level.
Sources: Tiziana Borsellini, president and founder of the Accademia Punto Assisi www.accademiapuntoassisi.com