Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Bravo, Bargello! -- a New Approach to an Old Needlecraft

After completing several large projects, I promised myself some time to play with the kinds of needlework that most delight me. If you read my previous blog post (April 17, 2013), you know I made some puppets. Then I turned to another of my favorites, bargello. Bargello is a “family name” for geometrically patterned counted-stitch needlepoint made with simple upright stitches on canvas. The name comes from the Bargello Museum, where many beautiful examples are housed. It is also known as Florentine embroidery, Hungarian point, and flame stitch.

Annake finishing the "aspen" pillow-top
Why am I so attracted to bargello? Because it's fun! I love to adapt old patterns to new purposes and to invent new ones. The possible combinations and permutations are infinite. They unroll beneath my needle like magic carpets. There's no boredom involved in bargello.

I've always wondered why more men didn't take up bargello.  The strong geometric patterns and the stunning optical illusions they can create ought to appeal to men. I once taught bargello to an Air Force captain and a major.  They said it kept them alert on night duty and made the time pass quickly and pleasantly.

Inspired by Earth Day, I decided to do a set of pillows or pillow shams in patterns that reminded me of habitats: forest, desert, ocean, etc. Then I would accompany each one with a a scenic or whimsical picture done partially in the same bargello pattern, but combined with other tapestry stitches and with a detail done in tent stitch.  I call this technique “Bargello Plus”.

The "evergreen" pillow and picture, together
After viewing my first completed picture, our resident computer guru remarked that I had encompassed several centuries of stitchery history and half a world of geography in one small project. I thought that was a wonderful idea! First the tent stitch was invented in the Middle East. Then came a variety of tapestry stitches out of Eastern Europe, possibly inspired by the elegant embroideries of the Byzantine Empire, including the Hungarian stitch I used for the sky. These stitches were combined into elaborate patterns in Florentine embroidery when Florence was a major European art center. Those patterns, especially variations of flame stitch, came early to the American colonies, where they were used in upholstery. Here I am in the Rockies, using all of the techniques. .I've added to the timeline by using 20th and 21st Century materials: gridded, quickpoint, and plastic canvas and acrylic, craft, and novelty yarns.

The "evergreen" picture close up
I've never hesitated to use and combine new or unconventional materials, even doing bargello on plastic window screen. It's great for inserts and anything that needs to be padded and the silvery gray color makes an unobtrusive background.

Traditional bargello uses several closely-related hues of the same color, but you may use any color combination you like –  the colors of a favorite sports team, for example. I'm working out some patterns now to do in Denver Broncos' blue, orange, and white for fall projects. Mild or wild, the patterns are appealing.

Both the triangular “evergreen tree” pattern and the rounded tree design inspired by our native aspen are adapted from 1970's designs. The tent stitch elements were charted  separately, then added to the design. I chose Hungarian stitch for the forest sky because its double diagonals echo the sloping profiles of the trees, the subtle slant of tent stitch and the strong shape formed by the eagle's wings. The tapestry stitches used in the aspen grove picture include brick and Parisian. I chose the bear to occupy a spot in the grove because his rounded outline fit nicely into the oval area created by omitting one tree.

Finished picture of aspen with bear
Another thing I like to do is to make small changes in alternate rows of the bargello motifs.  Can you spot my variations on the eagle picture and the aspen pillow? (Clicking on the pictures will give you a larger view) To elongate the ovals on the yellow pillow top, I worked in a 5-3 step (each stitch over 5 threads, skip 3 threads when making a step either up or down). Everything else is done in a 4-2 step.

As a teacher, I'm happiest when I can convince someone to try something new. If you've never tried bargello, I hope you will do so. If you would like some of my future blogs to be tutorials for it and/or sources of patterns, please post a comment and let me know you're interested.

Closeup of the "evergreen" pillow

 Creative Commons LicenseThis post by Annake's Garden is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


  1. You haven't named the pictures yet; the Gnome wants to know: can we call the aspen picture "Does a Bear Sit in the Woods?"

    JD (Annake's Garden Gnome)

  2. Naughty Gnome! You know how some people will misread that!



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