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Book Review: Ottoman Embroidery – 4 Books

BOOK REVIEW: Ottoman Embroidery and Friends – 4 Books

(article originally published in Fall 2004, Ironmonger, Barony of Iron Bog)

At the moment there are three Ottoman Embroidery books available In-Print; a wonderful boom to Middle Eastern embroideriers, or so you would think.  While the Ottoman empire started in the fourteen century, with its roots in the eleventh century, all of the books start covering the embroidery in the very late sixteenth century.  Out of the over four hundred illustrations, there is only thirteen photos between all three books from SCA period.

Each book has its own strengths.  “Ottoman Embroidery” by Marianne Ellis has the most SCA era pictures.  “Flowers of Silk and Gold” is the only book with pictures of people wearing clothes and has the best close-ups.  “Ottoman Embroidery” by Roderick Taylor gives the most historical detail, including descriptions on how the embroidery was actually used in day-to-day life.

But if you want a book on how to do period Middle Eastern embroidery, “Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt” is your best bet.  It covers Egyptian needlework until it is conquered by the Ottoman Empire.  Of the four books reviewed, this is the only one worth adding to your embroidery book collection.

I should note that at Pennsic, I attended a class on Ottoman Garments under false pretenses (not caring at all about the clothing).  Joy of joys, the teacher dumped his collection of books before us and I missed most of the lecture pawing through them hoping against hope to find something, anything about the embroidery.  Among his hoard was “Ipek: The Crescent & The Rose.”  I have ordered the book and am awaiting its arrival.  Once it is read, I will let you know if it fills the void these books left gaping.


Ottoman Embroidery. Marianne Ellis and Jennifer Wearden. V&A Publications: London.  2001.

Far from the definitive book on Ottoman embroidery, this book is strangely disappointing despite beautiful full color photographs of uncommon embroidery pieces.  Drawing exclusively from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection on this mid-eastern embroidery style, it is limited to showing pieces that have migrated to England.  While the Ottoman Empire started in the fourteenth century, the earliest piece shown in the book is from the sixteenth century, the start of the (friendly) English interest in the Turkish domain.  The Empire ruled until the twentieth century.

Two hundred years of primary interest for a SCAdian, when the style of embroidery was developing, is missing.  In addition, the one century from SCA period only has a meager nine illustrations of the 155 vibrant color plates.  The photo section takes up a vast majority of the content of the book, devoting a full nine-by-twelve page to nearly every picture.  The book opens with a nine-page overview of the history of the Ottoman Empire and the place of embroidery within its borders; a pleasing quick, informative read.  It closes with an eight-page chapter on the techniques they used to create the embroidery.  Using this chapter and the excellent photographic representations from the previous section, an embroider may be able to recreate a sixteenth century embroidery using pattern darning, THE embroidery form of the Ottoman Empire, if s/he have some experience in the technique to aid in figuring out the fairly confusing how-to diagrams.

Applications:  Ottoman History.  Embroidery technique of pattern darning.
Costs: List Price $45.00.


Ottoman Embroidery.  Roderick Taylor.  Interlink Books: New York.  1993.

This well-structured book has excellent chapter breakdown:  History of the Ottoman Empire, Design & Patterns, Materials (describing ground fabrics and embroidery materials that were used), Techniques (description of stitches, but no instructions on how to do them), Collections (giving a long list of museums which have Ottoman embroidery), and the Embroideries themselves.  Anything they embroidered is covered: clothing items (described down to size and construction), home objects (including bedding) and larger embroideries (such as tents).  I loved the two pages regarding dyes and the section on prayer rugs, plus an interesting bit of about a page on the textile guilds found within the Empire (weavers, dyers, embroiders, etc.).  I found the section on ceremonial textiles, and the ceremonies they were made for, abruptly brief.

The major lack of the book is hard dates.  At one point early on, the author mentions that there wasn’t much change in the embroidery in six hundred years, and then throughout the book, mentions minor changes happening.  I ended up having to create a timeline of the Ottoman Empire in order to figure out what happened within SCA period.

There are 140 color photographs, not displayed in date order, with each embroidery shown given size, materials, stitch and an approximate date (usually something along the lines of  “before 1700”).  Only four pictures are close-up enough to see the stitches in the fabric and only two of the pictures definitely come from SCA period.  There is a quilt-facing opposite the title page with the description under the copyright information on the back of the title page, very easy to miss. The best picture, for which I would recommend checking out this book thru interlibrary loan to view if you are interested, is of a tent from 1525; this richly decorated tent is a jewel.

Applications: Ottoman History.  Maybe dyes, Ottoman clothing, guilds.
Costs:  Checked out thru interlibrary loan.  A number of libraries in NJ have the book.  Available through Barnes and Nobel for $30 (a sales price).


Flowers of Silk and Gold: Four Centuries of Ottoman Embroideries.  Sumru Belger Krody.  Merrell Publications in association with The Textile Museum: Washington, DC.  2000.

This book is a hollow joy for an SCA embroiderer.  Lavishly illustrated with over 100 crisp color photographs, it has only two illustrations from SCA period; neither of which is of exceptional note.  One is of an embroidery, the other is from the Codex Vindobonensis (dated 1590) showing a miniature of ladies sitting in the Harem.  The book was specifically written to chronicle urban Ottoman embroidery from the 17th century to the 20th.

Focusing on the Textile Museum Collection in Washington DC, half the book forms a catalogue with fifty-seven extent pieces, each item having a beautiful picture and description including thread count, dimensions, embroidery style and materials involved.  The balance of the book is broken into three sections:  a brief history of the Ottoman Empire, methods of embroidery production, and designs found in the embroidery.

The best parts of the book, from an embroidery standpoint, is the glossary with several illustrations on how to do some of the more obscure stitches, and the chapter on Makers and Methods which has a number of close-ups of embroideries, allowing a viewer to see the individual stitches.  The map showing the borders of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century is worthy of note.

Unless you actually need to see how the stitches are formed, this book useless to a SCAdian.  If you must view it, check it out through interlibrary loan.

.Applications: Ottoman History.  Embroidery stitches
Costs:  Borrowed from Lady Cellach.  List Price $45.00.


Embroiders and samplers from Islamic Egypt.  Marianne Ellis.  Ashmolean Museum: Oxford, England.  2001.

The collection covered in this book was donated by Percy Newberry to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and contains over 1,000 fragments.  Sixty-six full color pictures were taken of the best of the surviving pieces covering the Tulunid (868-905 AD), the Fatamid (969-1171 AD), the Ayyubid (1172-1249 AD) and the Mamluk periods (1250-1517 AD).  With each picture comes a description giving the thread count of the fabric for both weft and warp, the material of the fabric and thread, the color and twist of the thread, what the original purpose of the embroidery is suspected to be, the size of the surviving piece, and the date of the item.  Most of the dates are guessed based on the design and materials of the embroidery, but some of the pieces have been radiocarbon dated.

This book will spoil you on all further extent embroidery books.  The only thing missing is the diagram of the stitches, but there are plenty of “how-to” books on the market to cover this lack.  The four-page introduction covers how the collection was gathered and a very, very brief historical discussion.  The “must-have” aspect of this book is related to the details shared on each extent piece it covers.  If you are an embroider, and have the basics for your collection, this book is an excellent next-step for specializations.  Most of the embroideries of this book are pattern darning, but there are other counted forms, a few free pieces, some couched items, open work, appliqué and one padded work piece.

Applications:  Egyptian personas (868 to 1517).  Embroidery.
Costs: Available on-line new in hardback and softback, be careful to purchase in the format you want.