The Exquisite Needlework of Appenzell Embroidery

Some of the finest white-on-white hand embroidery comes from a small town at the foot of the Alps in northeast Switzerland. Named for the town where it originated, Appenzell embroidery has been produced since the late 1700s.

towels are nice examples of Appenzell embroidery, although because they are only floral without any figures, they are not as highly desired.

These towels are nice examples of Appenzell embroidery, although because they are only floral without any figures, they are not as highly desired.

Through the 18th and 19th century, this exquisite needlework was done by hand by thousands of women working at home. The industry flourished during the early 1900s, when some of the best work was produced. Today, there are only a few embroiderers who continue to do this fine, time-consuming needlework. Strolling down the main street of Appenzell today, by the many early homes, you can look up at the rows of windows that provided bright daylight for the upstairs workshops and imagine the women bent over their embroidery hoops creating beautiful heirloom pieces.

Buratto work fills the center of the flower.

Buratto work fills the center of the flower.

Appenzell is usually done on a fine Irish linen fabric with linen embroidery thread. The background consists of Buratto work, which is a grid or net type of needlework. True Appenzell embroidery will have lots of tiny five-petal flowers. The embroidery consists of a very fine satin-stitch embroidery and delicate seed stitches that are so tiny and exquisite, it’s hard to imagine it was done by hand. In fact, often women doing the embroidery worked under a magnifying glass. The satin stitching is used as a filer for various parts of the embroidery from full figures to the smallest flourish, or as a fine scallop along the border. Although Appenzell is considered whitework, often pieces will have a soft gray, silver or light blue shadow, which accents the fine stitching. In addition, the borders often are highlighted by a row or two of fine hemstitching.

Notice the tiny seed stitches in the bottom center of this towel.

Notice the tiny seed stitches in the bottom center of this towel.

Figures are commonly found in Appenzell embroidery, ranging from Victorian couples in all their finery to hunt scenes, or, less commonly, battle scenes. Sometimes children are depicted, or just a man or woman’s head. Pieces with figures are more desirable than, for example, a piece with just an urn of flowers, which is another common theme.

Appenzell embroidery is becoming harder and harder to find. It is also difficult to accurately identify a piece of true Appenzell, since similar types of work were done in other parts of Europe, particularly during the early 20th century. The most accurate way to verify a piece as true Appenzell is if it still carries the original label or tag. Since most labels were removed, however, it’s rare to find a piece with the label still attached. Most textile experts refer to pieces as Appenzell-style or Appenzell-type if the origin cannot be documented.

Delicate, five-pedal flowers are characteristic of Appenzell embroidery.

Delicate, five-pedal flowers are characteristic of Appenzell embroidery.

Lynda Kolski is a Worthologist who specializes in early linens and textiles.

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