Stitches from times past

Embroidery has flourished in Tuscany for more than 400 years

The clear-blue Tuscan sky and the heat of the sun have brought the housewives out of their homes.

Settling themselves on the steps of the church, amid urns of bright red geraniums, or sitting outside their houses in their traditional short-legged chairs, their hands quickly become busy with the delicate embroidery that has been the custom for centuries in this part of Chianti.

Except for the difference in dress, this might be a scene from the 16th century.

This is Panzano-in-Chianti, a part of Tuscany noted for its vineyards. Also its olive groves and the exquisite handwork that the women of the area have passed on from one generation to another.

Back in that earlier time, little girls - and sometimes little boys - were taught embroidery stitches when they reached the age of 4 or 5.

At their mothers' knees, they learned the tiny, intricate stitches that covered only one thread of the linen or cotton fabric at a time. When they reached the age of 10 or 12, they were already embroidering bed linen, pillow covers, towels, and tablecloths that would be ready for them to take to their home at the time of their marriage.

These beautiful linens were not just to be decorative. Life for the average peasant was Spartan and practical. These lovely fabrics were used and then washed with plain soap and dried in the sun, which kept them sparkling white.

After generations of use, many are still in pristine condition, although the fabric may be worn a little thin.

The noble families of the city of Florence would flee the city during the hot summer months and spend that time in Tuscany in their castles and villas, where, in spite of the bright sunshine, the air was cooler and the breeze blew over the vineyards and olive groves.

The noble ladies soon discovered the beautiful work the peasant women were doing and commissioned them to make and decorate the household linens for their villas.

The pay scale was probably low, but this gave the women the opportunity to earn some money of their own. As quickly as their daily chores could be done, the women of the household, including the little girls, would move outside to work on their embroidery, at the same time enjoying the company of other women and the chance to discuss their work with traditional patterns, monograms, and the creation of new and individual designs.

As much time as possible was spent on their handiwork, which made overseeing their small children difficult. To solve this problem, the legs on the chair used for sewing were shortened. This enabled a woman to sit with knees spread apart while the little ones were safe between her feet in the little cave made by her long skirt.

Times have changed over the centuries, and many women are seeking careers outside the home, so there is little time to learn or practice this beautiful art form. Fortunately, there are some dedicated artisans who pursue the art of embroidery, so that it does not pass out of existence.

Instead of having to admire this work only in a museum, it is possible to own some pieces and, better still, to use them. Because the embroidered pieces are made of 100 percent cotton or linen, there is no reason not to use and enjoy them, and perhaps pass them on to future generations.

How luxurious it feels to indulge your desire for beautiful things and yet know they are part of your everyday life - to have the joy of knowing they were made to be used.

Time now to enter the Garden of Essences (Il Giardino Delle Essenze) in Panzano and meet the owner, Anna Saccone. As you enter her shop, the scent rising from a basket of lavender at the doorway welcomes you.

Her interest in creating beautiful embroidery, as well as featuring the work of other women who share her interest in preserving this craft, has resulted in a wonderful shop where linens, and cottons, are available in traditional or modern embroidery patterns.

Ms. Saccone's interest in continuing the tradition of embroidery has led her in the direction of giving private lessons in this ancient and beautiful art to individuals and small groups.

Her work is so exquisite that the underside of a piece is as perfect as the finished side, the sign of a true artist.

The joy of creating something beautiful is satisfying, whether the piece will become a personal possession or will be given as a gift to a new bride or a new baby. The Garden of Essences might well inspire you to learn this ancient Tuscan craft.

A visit to Panzano must include a stroll by the church, where, on a bright sunny day, sitting on the steps amid the geraniums, you may see these Tuscan artists bent over their embroidery. And down the street, in front of their houses, the artists sit on the short-legged traditional chairs, needles flashing in the sunlight, as they re-create a scene from the 16th century.

For further information or a brochure, contact Il Giardino Delle Essenze, at P.zza Bucciarelli, 8, Panzano-in-Chianti, Italy. E-mail Giessenze@tin.it or visit the website: www. giardinodelleessenze.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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