In Italy the Saracens were responsible for opening the first embroidery workshops in Palermo, on the island of Sicily, around the year 1000. They soon gained European fame and other workshops were founded in Genoa, Pisa and Venice. The first printed pattern book for embroidery was published in Germany by a textile printer, Johann Schönsperger, in 1523. It was soon followed by others in Italy, France and England. One of the earliest Italian samplers was published in 1530 in the Esemplario di lavori by Giovanni Andrea Vavassore. The design on a red embroidered ground is typical of sixteenth-century household linen patterns.
Samplers were put together as personal reference works for embroiderers, they were a practical tool that consisted of pieces of cloth embroidered with needlework stitches. They were the work of more experienced embroiderers and professionals who assembled such collections in order to record particular effects that could be recreated again. While stitches have there own qualities and characteristics the effects that can be created are almost limitless. The embroiderer’s technical ability (familiarity with the structure of stitches and the hand movements required to make them) can transform a piece of fabric into a unique work of art. There are a plethora of different stitch names. The chain, cross, stem, smocking, blind, buttonhole, tent, Sicilian-drawn-thread and Sangallo stitches are but a few. Marcus Huish explained in his book Samplers and Tapestry Embroideries: “It is hardly too much to say that nearly every stitch has something like half a dozen names, the result of reinvention or revival by succeeding generations, while to add to the trouble, some authorities have assigned ancient names to certain stitches on what appears to be wholly insufficient evidence of identity.”
In the Renaissance needlework was seen as a safe and decorous occupation for young girls and women. They sewed and embroidered items such as hankerchiefs, tablecloths and wall hangings for their cassone or dowry chest. Nuns were especially active in lace-making and embroidery. Johanna of Austria, the grand duchess of Florence until her death in 1578, received great quantities of embroidered shirts, towels and lace from the convents in Florence.
Convents and cloistered monasteries continued to provide the majority of embroidery in Tuscany. Pistoia’s Embroidery Museum (Museo del Ricamo) preserves a vast collection of embroidery that dates from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the nineteenth century Pistoia was considered a major center for the production of embroidery, especially the characteristic needlepoint “in white” and “on white” that was used to decorate undergarments and household linens.
Today, Accademia’s Tuscan embroiderers continue this traditional art form and are able to recreate many traditional stitch motifs by hand. For a complete list please visit customized embroidery.
Handmade Tuscan Leather
Italy is one of the leading countries in the production of artisanal leatherwear, shoes, handbags, and other leather accessories (over two-thirds of all leather produced in Europe). Italian leather is durable, supple, and comes in a wide range of colors. The vast majority of Italian leather production is centered in the regions of Tuscany and Le Marche. The town of Santa Croce sull’Arno (across the Arno from San Miniato, near Florence) is responsible for the lion’s share of Tuscany’s high quality leather working. Today, 35% of Italian leather production and 98% of Italian leather soles are produced here.
Italians have been working with leather for thousands of years and Florence has been famous for its leather production for centuries. Guilds were even formed in Medieval Italy to protect the secret techniques used to produce quality leathers. These techniques are still closely protected family secrets that are handed down from generation to generation.
Italian leather is made from carefully inspected animal hides tanned in Italy. These hides can be turned into full grain or top grain leather depending on whether the hide is taken from just below the hair line (full grain) or treated with a sanding process to smooth any imperfections (top grain). The hides then undergo a process of traditional vegetable tanning. After tanning, the leather is ready to style. To create an Accademia handbag, leather is cut into pieces and stitched together by hand. Such hand crafting or hand stitching techniques are passed down from a master craftsman to an apprentice and can take years to master. Thus, owning a handmade Italian leather bag is like owning a little piece of history.