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Book Review: Traditional Icelandic Embroidery

Book Review: Traditional Icelandic Embroidery

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

Traditional Icelandic Embroidery, 2nd edition.  Guđjónsson, Elsa E.  2003.

List Price: $35.00.  Selling through the Barnes & Noble site at this time for $28.00.

This book is more of a history then a how-to book, yet it still provides some excellent diagrams on how to execute historical embroidery stitches.  The focus of the book is reviewing extent historical embroideries that were created in Iceland.  The author has done extensive research on the subject and shares her knowledge on these embellished textiles that survive from the 15th century through the 19th century.  She provides details on all of the still existing medieval embroideries and on most of the post-reformation embroideries.  There are only a couple score of historical embroideries that were created in Iceland still in existence; through this book a reader will discover the present location, materials of creation, size of the item, and techniques used to create them.

The only drawback is she tends to write about these items in an overview manner, grouped together by embroidery technique.  To figure out exactly what materials, what colors and what techniques were used on each item, one has to go through a chapter and take extensive notes to reassemble the details on an individual item.  Fortunately there is always less then a score of embroideries for each technique.  If you are interested in the scholarly dissertation of each item and can read Icelandic, the author has published a number of articles covering the individual items she has studied; it is from this body of work, which is listed in the bibliography, that she has created this book for the general public.

About half the book, illustrations and text, deal with information from SCA period.  The best part of the book is the fifteen illustrations from eleven little-seen extent embroideries in beautiful color and focus.  There are more illustrations than these, but only the fifteen mentioned deal with the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  In the back are twenty-four pages of designs the author has created based on historical embroideries.  Unfortunately only one of them is from the SCA period, and it is for a piece not covered in the book.

For SCA purposes, this book gives a good overview of the embroidery in Iceland, though not a clear progress from one embroidery and time period to the next.  Overall the book is for more advanced embroiderers who want to look into the history of embroidery or for those gentles of Icelandic personas.  It lacks coherence and detail for deep research, but it is a good start on the topic.

Embroidery: Icelandic Embroidery

CoverArt: Icelandic Embroidery

Icelandic Embroidery

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

From SCA period, Icelandic embroidery covered a wide range of techniques.  The following is a brief overview.


From existing pieces, we know they used wool grounds as early as 1450 and linen grounds as early as 1500 and continued to use both to the end of period.

Linen grounds were either white or a yellow-beige.  The yellow-beige grounds are not a discolored white, as there is clearly white color threads used in the embroidery done upon the grounds; what the original color of these might have been is unknown but most likely something close to the color they are today – maybe a little brighter in yellow.

Wool grounds tended to be in intense colors, such as red or dark blue.  It looks as though if the embroiderer wanted a white ground, linen was used, if she wanted a colored ground, wool was used.  (Please note that in Icelandic tradition, nearly all embroidery was done by females, hence the use of the female pronoun. pp. 55-62)


Wool, linen, metal and silk thread were used on both wool and linen grounds, either by themselves or in combinations with any of the other types of threads throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  An appliqué from the first half of the 16th century used wool, silk and linen threads plus employed leather strips for couching on a wool ground cloth that in turn was attached to a linen ground. (pp. 47-48)

The color of the threads included white, black, blue, light blue, green, and orange as well as the very popular yellow and red.  Within each embroidery, there tends to be only one color of red, one color of green, etc. – there is no variation of shades.  It is similar to coloring in the lines with crayons from an eight-color box if that helps you visualize the results.


All existing pieces from medieval Iceland are church embroideries, most of which are altar frontals. The reformation in Iceland happened in 1550 when the last Catholic bishop was executed; the end of medieval Iceland and the start of the post-reformation, or the Renaissance, period are marked on that date. (p. 6) Extent secular pieces are from after this time, most likely because of use destroying created pieces not because embroidery was used exclusively for religious items.  There are a few embroideries whose original purpose is in question as they are scraps used to back or repair later embroideries. (p. 26)


The techniques listed below are broken into the forms recognized by the East Kingdom embroidery guild, the Keepers of Athena’s Thimble.  Please note that the need to compartmentalize is a modern convenience and was very much not practiced in medieval Iceland.

Couching and laid work, called refilsaumur, is one of the earliest forms and continued to present times.  A piece from 1450 is fairly unique in that it was done as a single color (gray) thread to create void work on a black wool ground. (pp. 6-7)  All other surviving laid work was multi-color with the thread creating the picture.

The most popular counted form was pattern darning or skakkaglit.  Straight darning, cross-stitch and long-armed cross-stitch were also practiced.  These forms were used either individually on an embroidered item or in merry combination.

Counted work could also be combined with free embroidery and couched metal threads.  Free embroidery stitches included stem, chain, split and long-armed cross stitch.  There are a couple of extent embroideries that are executed solely in stem stitch.  But in general the rule seemed to be whatever combination provided the results the embroiderer wanted.  The Altar frontal from Kalfafell church contains a central figure done in free embroidery with silk and metal thread and the surrounding patterns done in counted form with wool thread. (pp. 24-25)

Metal thread embroideries were mostly imported to Iceland, though there are a couple of surviving examples.  In general, if metal thread was used, it was only a small portion of the embroidery.  One exception is the Altar Curtain at Holar, done nearly completely in couched gold threads. (p. 52)

Lacis or Sprang would be done on a knotted net or drawn thread ground.  Cloth stitch was used almost exclusively; there are no surviving medieval pieces done in the weaving stitch from Iceland.  Please note that lacis is done solely white linen thread on white linen net or drawn thread ground, or ivory on ivory.  Colored lacis started in the 17th century.

Finally, appliqué and padded work was done in Iceland during the SCA period.  One spectacular piece previously mentioned in THREADS was worked on dark blue wool. (pp. 27-28)

If you would like to read more about Icelandic embroidery, I would encourage you to read Traditional Icelandic Embroidery, 2nd edition.  Guđjónsson, Elsa E.  2003.  All page references refer to this book.