Embroideries from Iceland

Embroidered bed valance from Iceland, 17th century. Embroidered with glitsaumur technique. Embroidered bed valance from Iceland, 17th century. Embroidered with glitsaumur technique.

The National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik houses a large number of embroideries, the oldest of which date to the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. The extant medieval embroideries formed part of ecclesiastical garments and other textiles. These include altar frontals, burses and chasubles. From later centuries there are also embroideries used for secular purposes.

Traditional Icelandic embroidery (see also the illustration) is marked by circles (roundels), hexagons or octagons that surround scenes from the Bible or other motifs, such as saints, animals or plants, comparable to illustrations in contemporary Icelandic manuscripts. This characteristic has given rise to its comparison with Byzantine art.

Icelandic embroidery is mostly carried out with woollen threads on a woollen, or imported linen ground. Linen and silk are occasionally used, and so is metal thread. The techniques used in traditional embroidery included laidwork and couching (both locally referred to as refilsaumur). Compare for instance the fifteenth or sixteenth century antependium in the National Museum of Iceland, click here. In addition, use was made of various types of stitches, including the darning stitch, long-legged cross stitch, eyelets and split stitch. Other techniques were chain stitch, double running stitch, flame stitch, satin stitch and stem stitch. There are also examples of gold and silver embroidery and whitework.

Appliqué work is not broadly attested, the earliest extant clear reference dating to the late seventeenth century. Late medieval references however, to skorningur, may actually indicate appliqué. There is an appliquéd frontal from the church of Reykir, which may date to the late medieval period.

Dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are  number of bed valances, embroidered in many colours with a straight running stitch, locally called glitsaumur. A related technique, called skakkaglit embroidery, made use of a slanting running stitch and was used for valances, but there are also altar frontals being worked in this technique.

Also of a post-Reformation period are a series of coverlets completely covered with embroidery worked in the long-legged cross stitch (flettusaumur) worked horizontally. Some of the coverlets were also worked with eyelets (augnsaumur or augnasaumur). A good example is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there are also coverlets and cushion covers completely covered in eyelets.

Most of Icelandic embroidery being counted thread work, there is also a form of free-style (floral) embroidery, called blomstursaumur, which became popular in the seventeenth century, and which was predominantly worked in split stitch.

Gold and silver embroidery (baldyring, or more particular gullsaumur) was being used, not only for ecclesiastical textiles, but alsodomestically.

Source: GUDJONSSON, Elsa E. (1947). 'Traditional Icelandic embroidery', Bulletin of the Needle and Bobbin Club, Vol. 31. Click here for downlading

Digital source of illustration (retrieved 25 October 20160.



Last modified on Friday, 27 January 2017 17:28
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