Historical textiles expert Jill Lasersohn has amassed one of the country’s most significant collections. She expounds on the eternally chic flamestitch motif, an all-time favorite of hers, and what’s behind its enduring appeal.
In my 25 years of collecting, I have only uncovered seven flamestitch documents. They are hard to find. The moths love the wool; the sun absorbs the threads’ colors; and humidity, temperature and improper storage can be even more bruising. I cherish my pieces and keep them in good care.
Do a little digging into the pattern’s origins, and a variety of terms arise—bargello, Irish stitch, point de Hongrie, Florentine stitch. I choose to call it flamestitch because it describes exactly what it is, and since we cannot say for certain the origins of this pattern, the other names are just as confusing.
One thing is certain: a fondness for the general zigzag shape goes back millennia. The ancient Greeks decorated their villas with it, and medieval homeowners swept their floors into chevrons. Flamestitch as we know it probably first emerged in Italy in the 1600s, and may have been the result of a Hungarian princess marrying a Medici, bringing with her the decorative tradition of a jagged embroidery stitch (point de Hongrie), which soon merged with the existing straight or “brick” stitch to produce the animated, variegated motif. It’s also posited that flamestitch reached Western Europe via the Silk Road, as ikats became more accessible and influential.
Large-scale production of the embroidered pattern soon blossomed in France, and woven versions of it were also popular. Believe it or not, it was men who were almost solely responsible for the handiwork required to meet commercial demand for flamestitch yardage. At home, women of all classes turned out pieces incorporating the motif. Empress Maria Theresa, the mother of Marie Antoinette, was an avid fan—examples of her work survive in the Hungarian National Museum. At first, flamestitch textiles were employed primarily for interiors, but gradually the usage of them for fashion accessories became more pronounced.
One of the hallmarks of flamestitch is its gradation of colors. Some examples include as many as 20 different hues. It is the Aurora Borealis of the textile world. Imagine the 17th-century home, the only minimal light coming from candles—you can understand how these exciting patterns and colors would have added life and cheer.