Monday, April 11, 2011

On Fire: Examining the Flame Stitch

A drawer full of pocketbooks...can you spot the flame stitch?
The Winterthur Collections, March 2011

According to the World Wide Web, the needlework commonly known as the flame stitch is part of a larger category called Bargello, originating from some chairs in the Bargello Palace in Florence. Bargello is typically worked in wool thread on canvas, which makes it quite durable for use in home decor. Or, as you may have seen, accessories of the 18th century.

In theory, the flame stitch isn't hard to master. It's composed exclusively of vertical stitches worked in a staggered pattern across the canvas. The variety in patterns is astounding, to say the least. Here is a flame stitched pocket dating from 1761 in the Winterthur collection, and here is another example of a pocketbook, also seen at Winterthur.

It's quite common to see subtle shading of colors in the use of the flame stitch, and the color choices know no bounds, and you'll also often see a repeating pattern in the motif. That's not always true; the pocketbook (laid flat) below looks to be a combination of flame stitch and possibly a cross stitch (?), combined in a vining floral design. Other forms of Bargello work can incorporate undulating curved lines, and sometimes even circular motifs or stylized fruit. From what I've seen of flame stitch work, though, designs are typically more geometric despite the occasional outlier.

Yet another Winterthur find.

Recently, Nicole of Diary of a Mantua Maker did a post about her 18th century accessories, including a flame stitch wallet that she made. She includes a brief description of how she constructed the pocketbook, and a handy photo of the inside. Beautiful! Winterthur's engrossing textile room again provides an extant example of the inside of a wallet circa 1774 (the outside is queen stitched, and dated by the maker). Another blogger here has some in-progress photos of several flame stitched projects. And, if wallets aren't your style, why not consider a pinball?

Not to sound like a broken record, but Winterthur is awesome...

I could (and may very well) do another post just about pinballs, since I've developed quite the fascination with the little nuggets of needlework recently. The one above is a lovely example, and here's another. You can get quite a good view of the diagonal stair-step pattern of the vertical stitches. Rather than working them side by side, row by row, they're staggered diagonally. Worked in bands of color, you get the characteristic "flame" shapes from which the stitch gets its name. As you can see from the above examples, there's plenty of room for creativity with in the framework of the basic stitch!


  1. I can see myself getting really into this. I love geometrical designs.

  2. I have one which belonged to my Great Great Great Great Granduncle Elisha Wilbur of Somerset, Massachusetts. It's initialed "E.W. 1749".