Icelandic embroidery

From Cunnan
Jump to navigationJump to search


The main sources for information about Icelandic embroidery for the pre-16th century period are extant examples and church inventory records. At the present time there are approximately 20 surviving pieces of work. Most date back no later than the second half of the 14th century.


  • linen ground fabric (most common)
  • wool ground

Threads were usually homepsun woollen yarn (natural or dyed) with only occasionally use of silks, linen or metal threads.


The stitches used in surviving pieces include:

The predominant stitch is Surface Couching (found on eleven embroideries).


Some pieces used a mixture of stitches and materials, others used only a limited number of techniques. Below are some of the combinations in surviving pieces:

  • stem stitch in polychrome wool on linen ground
  • laid and couched work in polychrome wool on linen or wool tabby ground (note: unlike other cultures that used this technique, Icelandic work often covered the ENTIRE ground with embroidery - unlike similar works such as the Bayeaux Tapestry where only figures etc were embroidered and the ground left plain).
  • outlining - secondary stitches such as stem, couched outline, split and chain stitch were used to outline areas that were laid and couched. This was done first and filled in later.
  • one example of split stitch in polychrome silks on linen


Influences on Icelandic embroideries include Byzantine silk fabrics, which resulted in the widespread use of circular and polygonal frames which enclosed various motifs including animals, plants, hunting scenes and religious scenes.

Another design element was the close relationship between medieval embroidery and contemporary Icelandic illumination. Later Icelandic needlework was also influenced by the widely available pattern books (Modelbuch), especially those from Germany.

Altar frontals make up the largest group of surviving works. These were generally free-style renderings of religious topics.

Colours reflect the dyes available, as such the use of blue, green, red and white against a yellow ground is typical of much Icelandic embroidery of the period.


Sources for Further Information

  • Gudjonsson, Elsa. "Icelandic Mediaeval Embroidery Terms and Techniques" in Veronika Gervers, ed., Studies in Textile History: In Memory of Harold B. Burnham, pp. 133-143. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1977
  • Gudj󮳳on, Elsa E. Traditional Icelandic Embroidery. Reykjav� Iceland Review, 1982.
  • Bridgeman, H and Drury, E. Needlework: An Illustrated History, (London: Paddington Press, 1977)