STITCHING ON THE MUSEO DEL TESSUTO’S 16TH CENTURY CAMICA
Of late there’s been considerable chatter in historical clothing and embroidery circles about the late 16th century Italian camica (underdress/smock) displayed by the Museo del Tessuto as part of their current exhibit on the life and times of Eleanor of Toledo. The piece is magnificently stitched and in extraordinarily good condition.
The piece’s citation (autotranslated) is listed on their Facebook feed page as Women’s Shirt, Italy, Sec. XVI second half, Prato, Textile Museum, inv. n. 76.01.15.
There has been extensive discussion of how it was made, with Dani Zembi of The Vorpal Rabbit blog contributing an insightful deep dive into construction, and others elaborating on her observations. Seeing so much enthusiasm for this artifact, I decided to contribute to the store of general knowledge as best I could. So I redacted the stitched patterns for the main yoke motif and the seam/hem bands.
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The thing is also available via the Embroidery Patterns tab at the top of every page here on String.
Notes on the redaction:
- There were lots of variations in the pattern repeats on the artifact. I’ve normed my version by relying on the most represented version of each of the motifs. So this is an ideal rather than an as-stitched, include-every-original-mistake replication.
- I have tried to show use of long armed cross stitch on this piece. I do not know what variant of LACS is employed, but I have used solid blocks to show its presence. As anyone who has worked that stitch family knows, working it over only one unit is problematic. The historical stitcher solved this by using plain old cross stitches for one-unit blocks. My chart shows those, and along with the solid areas gives a good indication of the directionality of the LACS variant where it was employed.
- I did not include the pendant tab center of the yoke. That’s a two-repeat crib of the main motif, with fudged ends. Since folk using this design will do so at different ground cloth thread counts, they will have to do something similar themselves, centering a slab of the main design on their yoke and improvising the join. After all, there’s historical precedent.
- I only charted one corner because the photos I was working from didn’t show the others well enough for charting, although they may in fact be more or less symmetrical. And that corner is best guess – especially for the curlicues, which were difficult to parse due to encroachment and possibly some small damages.
- Note the difference in the companion border above and below the yoke motif.
- The spacing of the seam ornament varies a bit in use on the sleeves, gores, and hem. Again I’ve normed it, and although in the original it does NOT align with its “beaded” spine, I’ve done so here to make it easier to stitch.
- From examination of the angled parts (sleeve and gore edges) where the seam treatment was not worked along a straight grain edge, it looks like the sprigs were spaced by eye, and stitched first, normal to the weave’s direction. Then the spine was stitched freehand in close approximation of the size of how it looks when worked on grain.
As to materials, there’s a healthy discussion about the museum’s description. The ground is linen, but some translations claim the stitching is cotton. That’s not impossible. Although a rare luxury material cotton was used and was sumptuary law legal in Italy at that time, but I’d say that claim is met with skepticism by many in the historical stitching community. In any case, even if it were, it’s not the smooth, shiny, hard mercerized and gassed cotton we find in today’s off the shelf embroidery threads. It’s something softer and less tightly twisted. Possibly finger spun (although I’m no fiber expert). I’d love to see it zoom magnified so we could learn about twist and ply.