Today I am going to review a lovely little book most of you would probably never have come across: Traditional Icelandic Embroidery by Elsa E. Gudjonsson written in 2006. In only 96 pages, Elsa gives an overview of Icelandic embroidery made during the past 500 years in English (!). Being a rather barren island where almost everything needs to be imported, the embroidery is of a special nature too. Whilst mainland Europe uses silks both for the threads and for the fabrics, Icelanders used wool on wool or linen. Both for ecclesiastical embroidery and for embroidery on folk dress and household items. The use of metal threads is rare.
The book consists of two parts: History & Techniques and 23 pages of original patterns. The later have all been transcribed as cross-stitch patterns with a key for DMC stranded cotton. The book describes several techniques which are characteristic of Icelandic embroidery: Refilsaumur (laid and couched work), Glitsaumur & Skakkaglit (straight darning and pattern darning), Gamli krosssaumurinn (long-armed cross-stitch), Augnsaumur (eyelets), Pellsaumur (Florentine stitch or bargello), Sprang (darned net and drawn thread work) and Blomstursaumur Skattering (floral embroidery). Each technique is explained with stitch diagrams and pictures of historical pieces. I was especially surprised to find whole embroideries worked in long-armed cross-stitch after AD 1550. They remind me of the much earlier embroidered vestments now in St. Paul im Lavanttal, Austria. Interestingly, the name "Gamli krosssaumurinn" means old cross-stitch. Krosssaumur is the modern Icelandic name for cross-stitch embroidery. As for Continental Europe, modern cross-stitch does not feature in medieval embroidery.
Unfortunately, very little is known about Icelandic embroidery in the Middle Ages due to a lack of surviving pieces and an absence in the written sources. Especially the latter is remarkable as there are plenty of sources describing textiles. However, the few sources that exist indicate that women were the embroiderers. There are no instances of men being named as embroiderers. Especially upper-class women and nuns were involved in the production of high-end embroideries for the church. This tradition continued after Iceland became Lutheran in AD 1550.
One particularly saucy embroidery story involves Helga Sigurdardottir. She was the wife (yup, they did things a little differently in Iceland) of the last Catholic bishop of the see of Holar, Jon Arason. In AD 1526 they drew up a contract in which was stipulated that Helga would make embroideries for the church of Holar as long as she was able. She became a set income per year for her service. Helga's work must have been outstanding as she is named in a poem of AD 1594 as one of the most skilful needlework women of her day. Helga probably trained up her grand-daughter Pora Tumasdottir who became a famous church needlework woman herself. And what happened to bishop Jon? He was killed by the troops of the Danish king in AD 1550 when he revolted and refused to accept the reformation of his church.
Where to find this book? I bought my copy directly from the National Museum of Iceland for about €23 + shipping. They also have a second book that might interest you: a facsimile of Icelandic pattern books from the 17th-, 18th- and 19th-centuries. However, that one is quite pricey at €180. Pictures of several pages of these original pattern books are included in the embroidery book by Elsa. I know that these books can probably be had from Amazon and the like. But please consider ordering from the National Museum directly. Museums are hit hard by the pandemic due to closure or greatly reduced numbers of visitors due to the absence of tourists. The Museum shipped my book immediately and it was here within two weeks. The ordering process is easy with a credit card and completely in English.
P.S. Virginia Sullivan won last week's giveaway and has been contacted. The cross-stitch charts are on their way to her. A thank you to all who participated!
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