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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  • fred kane

    I have some “Bedfordshire Lace” embrodiery from
    the late 40’s. Do they have any value?

  • Lynda Kolski

    Most likely, however, there are so many variables that affect an item’s value, it’s impossible to say without knowing a lot more about the lace. If you’re interested in a valuation on a particular piece of lace, I suggest showing it to a lace expert who can examine it firsthand and give you an idea.

  • Carlieanne Erickson

    Hi – I am currently doing some research on a piece believed to be a later example of Appenzell embroidery. I am trying to figure out if it is hand or machine made. It is currently dated 1900-25, which leads me to believe it is machine. This entry was very informative, and I was wondering if you have further sources of information for Appenzell that might help me in my research.


  • Lynda Kolski

    The most effective way to tell if a piece is machine or hand-done is by looking at the work with a magnifying glass. Some handwork is so tiny and exact, it could appear to be machine done. A lot of handwork was being done during the early 1900s, and although rare, is still done by a few needleworkers today. Dating a piece doesn’t always determine whether or not it was machine or handwork. Some of the best resources are in museum libraries, such as Winterthur Museum in Delaware. Many are open to the public. If you have access to one, I would plan to spend a few hours there doing your research. Often museums will have curators on staff who can help with identifying a piece for a small charge.

  • Legacy Linens

    Actually, those pillowcases are Madeira made, not Appenzell. I have a set with the original Madeira labels.

    • Lynda Kolski

      First of all, they are not pillowcases, but towels as described in the caption. You may very well have pillowcases with Madeira tags that look similar to these towels, however, that does not mean these towels are Madeira. A lot of Madeira embroidery, particularly that done for the tourist trade, copied better, higher quality pieces of embroidery. As I note in the article, well into the 20th century work similar to Appenzell was done in many places throughout Europe, including Madeira, which is the category that your pillowcases fall into.

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