Umbria has been called the land of mysticism where the lives of saints like Francis and Clare of Assisi combine with vestiges of Etruscan, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance history to create a woven pattern in art that is unique. The earliest examples of Assisi Embroidery, also known as Punto Assisi or Ricami d’Assisi, date from the 13th century. The evolution of this style of embroidery includes a legend that St. Francis brought an example of the work back from China.
The convents and monasteries of Assisi started to make embroideries where the contours were embroidered with silk in one monochromatic color (usually in black or brown) then the whole of the background was filled in so that the main designs were outlined in silhouette and the background worked. In this technique the pattern is created by leaving the design unstitched and stitching the background in one colour. This photo negative style of needlework where the interior of the pattern is left plain or “void” is as referred to as Voided Work and gives Assisi embroidery a woodcut-like quality that is so compelling.
Assisi embroidery is worked in only two colors, one color for the background (traditionally red, blue, green or gold) with a monochromatic color that outlines the motifs. Fanciful motifs based on medieval symbology with elaborate scrollwork coexist with simplistic patterns from nature like flowers, branches and leaves creating a body of work both sophisticated and natural.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the techniques of Assisi Embroidery were all but lost then revived in the early 1900’s when the “Laboratorio Ricreativo Festivo Feminale San Francisci di Assisi” was founded as a workshop teaching young girls of the city to embroider. They took traditional embroidery techniques and simplified them. Silk was replaced by embroidery cotton, the outlines and contours made by counted stitch. The designs were simplified, made new or borrowed from wood sculptures and stone reliefs found in churches.
Assisi embroidery was commonly used for altar clothes and other ecclesiastic items and decorative items, pouches and tokens or favors and for household items creating exquisite tablescapes.