Bargello Needlepoint: Art and Craft, Meet Math

Vertical stitches in blue, black, and white are used here to create a Bargello pattern of waves. Rug by Melissa Ursula Dawn Goldsmith on display in spring 2013 at Elms College.

Vertical stitches in blue, black, and white are used here to create a Bargello pattern of waves. Rug by
Melissa Ursula Dawn Goldsmith on display in spring 2013 at Elms College.


ALUMNAE LIBRARY: THIS LIBRARY DISPLAY PROVIDES A HISTORY
AND FACTUAL INFORMATION ABOUT BARGELLO NEEDLEPOINT


Bargello is a popular needlepoint embroidery that is created by using vertical flat stitches that are sewn in a mathematical pattern of lengths and colors. Bargello is usually stitched in wool (using two or three strands at a time) on a variety of canvases, more recently including plastic. The combination of durable materials, needlepoint technique, and density (canvas coverage) of stitches makes it ideal for use as upholstery, rugs, curtains, and pillows. The stepwise mathematical patterns are commonly referred to as motifs. The most challenging aspects of Bargello are the planning, counting, and alternating of the patterns. In contrast, the stitches themselves are simple and once the pattern is established, it is easy to maintain throughout even the largest projects.

Bargello display materials at Alumnae Library, Elms College. The books are from our general collection and may be checked out by those affiliated with Elms.

Bargello display materials at Alumnae Library, Elms College. The books are from our general collection and may be checked out by those affiliated with Elms.

Its Name and Its History

The early history of Bargello, as with other kinds of art and crafts is not well documented. Bargello dates back to the 1400s in Southern and Central Europe (mainly in Italy, Hungary, and Poland). The most common stitches included the Straight Gobelin or Florentine Stitch—the brick stitch, which seems to have come before both, has been seen in garments dating back to the 13th Century. Flame (or Florentine patterns) also existed before the 1600s. Bargello patterns, however, were mostly developed between the 17th and 20th Centuries. Its name comes from its unique patterns of color as well as from the 17th-century “flame stitch” chairs found in the Bargello Palace in Florence. For sometime between the 17th and 18th Centuries, noblewomen may have practiced Bargello as a craft. In the 18th Century, for example, Queen Maria Teresa of Hungary stitched Bargello. Her work has been preserved by the Hungarian National Museum. Most notably, other Hungarian noblewomen were also known for stitching Bargello. The practice may suggest the Hungarian origin of the technique, but it is also possible that the craft experienced several kinds of developments.

On the second floor of Alumnae library, there is a set of chairs with the flame stitch Bargello pattern, which uses gradated pastel colors.

On the second floor of Alumnae library, there is a set of chairs with the Flame Stitch Bargello pattern, which uses gradated pastel colors.

“Bargello” is the most commonly used term now for this kind of embroidery needlepoint, however, in the past it has been referred to as “Florentine Work” (the Bargello Palace, now a museum, is located in Florence, Italy), “Hungarian Point” (in Italian, punto unghero, since the Florentines believed that the technique originated from Hungary; it is also a kind of stitch), or “Flame Stitch” (in Italian, fiamma, which is just one kind of Bargello zig-zag motif that represents the entire technique).

Over many years, Bargello has experienced waves of popularity. It had a strong revival in the 1960s in which patterns were transferred to wearable fabric and used in graphic art. Most recently, another revival took place in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when needlepoint and embroidery classes may have had small projects. The Bargello patterned bag, shaped like a large tote bag or purse, was one such popular project. At the time, expensive and inexpensive materials were combined to make these purses (for example, fine wool tapestry yarn used on plastic canvas). The pattern has transferred over to quilting and weaving. A couple chairs on the second floor landing of the Alumnae Library at Elms College, for example, have machine made Bargello upholstery.

Another photograph of the Bargello display at Alumnae Library, Elms College.

Another photograph of the Bargello display at Alumnae Library, Elms College.

Colors and Patterns

Bargello designs may include bright, contrasting colors or many hues of one color combined with white. The latter can create shading effects from either dark to light or vice versa. Using many hues of one color combined with white is also used more often in recent designs. In the 1980s and 1990s, when pastels were popular, these colors also became used in projects, steering away from the traditionally used bright colors.

As computers have become used increasingly in designing not only Bargello patterns but also cross-stitch ones, this needlepoint embroidery has experienced its most recent resurgence as a quilting pattern. Computers can be used to calculate the pattern and the dimensions of cut fabric. Not only are there straight forward, traditional linear geometric patterns; four-point and eight-point (or four-way and eight-way) Bargello patterns now exist and have been executed successfully in both needlepoint and quilting projects (as well as fabric band samplers). These four-point and eight-point patterns create a sense of a third and fourth dimension on two-dimensional surfaces. The four-point Bargello was developed in the early 1970s in which the canvas was first divided diagonally into quarters. From each side, the same motif was worked, creating a kaleidoscope effect. The four-point Bargello used vertical and horizontal stitches whereas the later developed eight-point Bargello used horizontal, vertical, and diagonal stitches in eight directions.

Stitches and Motifs

The resurgences of Bargello in the 20th Century have resulted in many books on the subject. Located in the stacks, Alumnae Library has a number of resources that can be used as beginning, intermediate, and advanced how-to books. They provide some history as well as show patterns, suggest projects and project ideas, and describe the kinds of stitches used in Bargello work. Below are just a few of the most common stitches and motifs:

    • Vertical Stitches: Most Bargello patterns employ all vertical stitches (as opposed to diagonal stitches seen in other kinds of techniques). Different lengths (or heights) of these stitches are used to create the patterns. These include the Straight Gobelin (or Brick) Stitch, the Florentine (also called the Flame, Irish, Long and Short, Straight, or Cushion) Stitch.
    • Stepping: The vertical stitches are typically stepped in ascending or descending motion. Changing colors also help in revealing the stepping pattern.
    • Flame: Vertical Stitches are stepped to create a sharp, zig-zag pattern across the canvas. These stitches, used in opposite stepwise directions, can create diamonds.
    • Curve: Vertical Stitches are stepped more gradually than in the flame stitch, creating curves. Typical Bargello curve motifs include medallions (spheres) and ribbons.


Resources and Further Reading

Boyles, Margaret. Bargello: An Explosion in Color. New York and London:      Macmillan Publishing Co. and Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1974.

        . The Margaret Boyles Bargello Workbook: A Collection of Original Designs.      New York and London: Macmillan Publishing Co. and Collier Macmillan      Publishers, 1976.

Kaestner, Dorothy. Four Way Bargello. Revised ed. New York: Charles Scribner’s      Sons, 1974.

       . Needlepoint Bargello. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974.

Williams, Elsa S. Bargello: Florentine Canvas Work. New York, Cincinnati,      Toronto, London, and Melbourne: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1967.

Author and Photographer: Melissa Ursula Dawn Goldsmith
© 2013-2014 Melissa Ursula Dawn goldsmith