We're all just mad about zig-zags these days, from herringbone floors to chevron to Missoni's upcoming collection for Target. So let's look at the history of flame stitch, a Renaissance-era embroidery technique that's due for a comeback.
Like many old textiles, the origins of flame stitch are pretty obscure. It seems that it developed out of a combination of a straight 'filler' embroidery stitch (now known as Gobelin or brick stitch) and a zig-zag stitch known as Hungarian stitch. Hungarian stitch emerged in Bohemia during the 13th century, where it was associated with the sainted Hungarian princess Elisabeth. Elisabeth made several journeys during her lifetime to Perugia and Assisi, which could be one explanation for how the technique made its way to Italy. Another hypothesis for the development of flame stitch is that it was an attempt to reproduce the aesthetic of Eastern and Middle-Eastern textiles that were entering Italy via the Silk Road, including ikat.
But scholars have not managed to find much extant flame stitch from before 1600. One of the earliest examples is at Parham House in England (above), where Italian flame stitch was hung on the walls and windows in the second half of the 16th century. The fact that these wall hangings are so extensive and refined suggests that there might have been an established tradition of flame stitching already by that point, at least in Italy. There is also evidence that flame stitch embroidery was produced in Elbeuf and Rouen, two Northern textile centers in France, beginning in the 16th century.
Many more examples survive from the 17th century, including a pair of chairs in the collection of the Bargello Museum in Florence, which may be why flame stitch is also often called Bargello stitch or Florentine stitch. In the 18th century, flame stitch was a popular decoration for men's wallets (above), which were often embroidered by a gentleman's future wife as a showcase for her needlework talents. We can tell that it was still a popular decorating style in the 18th century because of the existence of large flame-stitched upholstery panels, like the example below from France, where the stitch was known as Bergamo.
While the traditional embroidery techniques may no longer be in use, the look of flame stitch is still in style today (though backlash to its resurgence in the 1970s made it disappear for a couple decades there). Of course, Missoni's trademark zig-zags are not actual flame stitch, but their home collection does recall the colorful, dynamic effect of the Renaissance-era textiles.
Today, flame stitch is know by many different names, including Florentine stitch, Bargello stitch, Bergamo, fiamma Perugia and Punta Unghero (Hungarian Point).
What do you think? Do you like flame stitch, or did the '70s ruin it for you?
Images: 1. & 3. Bargello Arts; 2. Bayrose; 4. & 5. Cora Ginsburg; 6. Medioevo in Umbria
Select Online Sources for Flame Stitch History: Bargello Arts; Sabrina de la Bere; Cora Ginsburg here and here.