The Richness of Greek Embroidery

When I think of “household embroideries,” I think of framed cross stitch samplers on the wall, or some pillowcases with daisy-stitched flowers with French knot centers.  But last week I got to visit the Saint Louis Art Museum, and there I saw an exhibit showing how incredibly elaborate embroidery can be.

The exhibit featured household embroideries from the Greek Islands. 

Map showing the groups of Greek Islands, from Wikimedia.

I was struck by the diversity of the styles, and by the lavish amount of stitching.  If I had to grow my own fibers, spin my own threads and weave my own cloth, I just don’t think I could manage to decorate anything on top of all that.

A bed curtain panel from the Cyclades, on view at Saint Louis Art Museum.

This is a classic red and white design for a bed curtain panel from the 18th century, silk embroidered on linen.  Its catalog page with all the details is here.

A silk motif embroidered on linen, on view at Saint Louis Art Museum.

This is from a similar panel, with evenly spaced motifs.  More information is  here.

Totally different than the red-and-white scheme were some towels in vibrant pastels and metallic yarns.  They were laying flat in a case, and it was hard to get a picture without the shadow of my camera shading them, so here how the photo came out in reality —

Turkish towel from the Saint Louis Art Museum, from the first half of the 19th century.

— and here is a better representation with the magical help of Photoshop, to correct camera distortion and bring back the color.

I did not use flash, I would never do that; I used Photoshop later.

Detail showing the honeycomb stitch in the flower center.

While I was poring over the textiles, three women came through the gallery.  It seemed that two of them already worked for the museum, and one was either coming to work there, or study there.  They were telling her about all the textiles they had in the collection, and they stopped and looked at this towel.  One said it was her favorite because of all the sparkly silver threads, and the new one said, “You’d think that they would have tarnished by now.”  And the first one said, “They have, that is why they have those iridescent colors.”

I really wanted to say, “Take me with you!  Let me listen in on all your textile conversations!”  but I didn’t, I was a polite museum visitor.  But I bring you this pearl of knowledge that you will not find elsewhere in any of the printed or online information about this show.  🙂

More information about this towel is found here.

This next one was just unbelievable in the amount of thread packed into the surface.

Embroidered pillow cover from Ioannina, Greece, 18th century, on view at Saint Louis Art Museum.

Detail of the pillow cover, silk thread on linen.

Zoomed in even more, to show the uneven quality of the handwoven base fabric.

Here is its catalog pageIt is from Ioannina, which is not an island, it is on the mainland, but I am very glad it was included.  (There is another pillow cover almost exactly like this one, as well as more embroideries, at the Benaki Museum in Athens.)

One of the exhibition labels said that these were collected by Frank Cook (the grandson of travel entrepeneur Thomas Cook of England), and his wife Beatrice Lindell Cook.  She was from St. Louis, and donated the collection.  Looking around online, I saw that textiles from this collection were on also view in 1969, at the City Art Museum of Saint Louis as it was called then, and that most of them had been published in a 1935 book, Mediterranean and Near Eastern Embroideries from the Collection of Mrs. F. H. Cook.  That 2-volume book with colored plates is still available from used book dealers, and for only $975 to $1500, you can have your own copy!  (It looks like only 250 copies were published so I guess that is why it is pricey.)

Failing that, you can find more information about the whole exhibit, Greek Island Embroideries, hereIf you scroll down to the bottom of that page and click where it says “Large Print Labels,” you will be taken to a PDF with all of the information that was given in the exhibit (except the one about the Cooks), including about 10 high resolution images of different textiles than I have shown here.  You can zoom in on those images.

When I got home and checked through all of my textile books, the only information I could find about Greek household textiles was in 5000 Years of Textiles, edited by Jennifer Harris.  That book has eight pages on Greek embroidery and it covers a wealth of information.  (And it is usually available used for about $6.00.)

…embroidery was more commonly used there for decorating a large range of domestic textiles.  Home in the islands was usually a single room separated into an area for cooking ad living, with another for sleeping.  Privacy, such as it was, was achieved by curtains.  These curtains and the coloured plates and copper utensils which were hung about the walls were the only decoration to be found in the house.  The bed was the most important piece of furniture in the house; it was often the only permanent fixture and always occupied a dominate position, placed on a platform or in a niche and hidden behind a hanging.

A number of other articles were also decorated to match and accompany the bed furnishings — long valances that were stretched along the front of the bed, innumerable long bolster cushions and small, square cushion covers.

Embroidery in Greece was primarily a domestic craft and part of the daily household ritual.  Every household had a loom, and both linen and cotton cloth were woven on it.  Any surplus material was sold locally.  All clothes were made at home and when they were decorated it was by embroidery. Silk was cultivated in many of the islands and was one of the most valuable commodities exported either as a raw material or knitted into stockings.  It was this locally produced silk, dyed at home , that was used for embroidery and which gives Greek island work its richness and quality.  Because such an expensive material as silk was used, special stitches were developed to ensure that as much silk as possible was visible on the outer surface.

— page 244, 246, 248

I loved the exuberance of the embroidery designs and how the motifs were arranged in the space, so I am glad I had the chance to view them in person. 

The exhibition will only be open until May 28, 2018, but you can see all of SLAM’s online textile collection here.