Sicilian Embroidery: An Ancient Tradition

January 18, 2023 2023-06-20 11:53

Sicilian Embroidery: An Ancient Tradition

Sicilian Embroidery: An Ancient Tradition

The Sfilato Technique

Sicilian embroidery is synonymous with the island. Yet when talking about hand embroidery, we probably think of grandmothers, deep in focus, stitching a tablecloth or a painting, sitting by a window. In our collective imagination, it remains linked to a domestic and bygone era. However, hand embroidery is evolving to keep up with contemporary fashion and design trends.

In Sicily, embroidery meant community and sharing. People embroidered in the streets in front of their houses at the height of 40 degrees in the height of summer. Hand embroidery has played a key role in creating a community of women who pass on their knowledge and keep their techniques alive, such as the sophisticated sfilato technique.

Sicily is rich in the most incredible handicrafts and is famous for its embroidery. Dating back to the 11th century, embroidery in Sicily reflects the cultural influences that have determined the uniqueness of the island. Everyone from the Phoenicians to the Greeks, the Romans to the Normans, and the Arabs to the Spanish have left their legacy on the island.

Embroidery workshop

The first records we have of embroidery in Sicily dates back to the 9th century, when the country was under Arab rule. The workshop, called Tiraz in Arabic, was in Palermo and seems to have been annexed to the Royal Palace. Production was also supported by the cultivation of cotton and mulberry trees for silkworm breeding. Later under Norman rule and Frederick II, the workshop was maintained and the production of precious pieces was increased.

For many centuries, men set the standards according to which women should lead their lives. This meant that women embroidered, sewed and knitted silently in the background. Their beautiful creations were often for castles and mansions, and contributed significantly to the owner’s image in society.

They achieved immense amounts of success in the 16th century, thanks to the use of their wonderful works by the nobility and clergymen. The artefacts are the fruit of the imagination and expertise of skilled women who passed on the culture of embroidery. From a simple pastime, it became a real job, mostly on commission. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries saw women overturn the nature of women’s craft, turning it into both an important source of income and an instrument of artistic, and political, expression of women’s rights.

Empowering craftswomen

Etymologically, the word craftsmanship means power: and women have begun to claim back the power and value of their crafts.

The rediscovery in Ragusa of the sfliato style is due to Ester Manari La Rocca di San Germano, a Piedmontese woman married to Baron La Rocca in Ibla. She was a sensitive and cultured woman, and by chance discovered an embroidered cloth in a trunk at home. Intrigued and not knowing its origin, she brought it to Sister Maria Luna of the convent of Santa Teresa. The rebirth of the fashion show in Ragusa dates back to that time and to the skill of the two women, and it is no coincidence that the spinning mill commissioned by the Baron of Donnafugata, where cotton, linen and hemp fibres were processed, was built in 1850.

The Sicilian sfilato style is a highly prized embroidery technique that is performed on high quality linen cloth and with fine thread whose beauty reflects the centuries old history of its land of origin. It is a work that requires time and patience, attributes that skilled craftswomen have always treasured.

Sicilian Embroidery

Sfilato literally means thread pulling. As an embroidery technique it is carried out by pulling out the fabric to obtain a net (lattice) that is then left alone, both in the warp and weft directions, to create the pattern. The different stages of its development are the result of the collaborative work of several people, each one an expert in that specific phase. Namely these phases are drawing, threading, embroidery, washing and ironing.

Pure linen is strictly always used for embroidery, because only its weft allows this type of workmanship. The design is always made or copied inside out; the threads are always of the highest quality (cotton and silk), and of different sizes and vary according to use.

Each masterpiece can be completed using three different working methods: the 400 with the embroidery executed in canvas stitch, the 700 with the embroidery executed in darning stitch and, finally, the 500 with the motif to be embroidered left on the canvas and threaded around it, all to give life to sheets, towels, curtains and much more, made entirely by hand.

Using Sicilian Embroidery to tackle social issues

With globalisation, old traditions such as making dowries for maidens from wealthy families have started to disappear. MANIMA aims to change this situation by teaching unemployed and vulnerable women to find decent, well-paid work by becoming professional embroiderers.

Saline is MANIMA’s first collection, celebrating the sweet, salty breeze of the Mediterranean on a warm summer evening. Inspired by the iconic salt lakes scattered across the region, the pieces reflect the crisp white of the salt and the blue skies reflected in the water. As salt lakes change with the seasons and colour, the Saline collection follows this cycle and reflects the natural variation of the lakes. Each piece is carefully hand-embroidered by supreme Sicilian artisans using the ancient art of pulled thread techniques on the finest Italian linen.

Today, more than ever, handicrafts offer a real chance for economic revival in Italy. With almost two million craftswomen in our country, female artisans represent an important economic driver and an opportunity in the fight against female unemployment, which in the south of Italy reaches a record of almost 70% with a lack of infrastructure and academic or professional education.

by Will Scott


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