HNW - Tristan quilt (long)

Sarah Randles s-randles at
Mon Mar 26 00:18:52 PST 2001

Hi all,

Well, the book I've been editing for the last 18 days straight (that's no
days off!) is spewing out of the printer and will be on its way to the
publisher this afternoon, so I finally have time to deal with my email.
There have been numerous interesting topics on the list, so it's been
particularly frustrating to have been so busy.

Roberta wrote:
>I am trying to figure out how to recreate the Sicilian Tristan quilt.I just 
>bought Kay Stanilands book, "The Embroiderers".I finally got to see pictures 
>of what the quilt looks like but they are in black and white.Having read 
>verbal descriptions of the quilt doesn't make the colors specific 
>enough.Brownish and various shades of green just aren't descriptive enough 
>to recreate the quilt.Can anyone give me some DMC floss #'s, or a color 
>source of pictures?

I am currently writing the chapter of my PhD on these quilts, so I have
quite a bit to say about them, and quite a lot of information which isn't
readily available which you might find useful in recreating them.  Firstly,
though, these are my own conclusions, based on my PhD research, and the
thesis has not yet been completed or published, so I'd like to remind you
that the information is copyright to me. Please don't disseminate it
without crediting me (Sarah Randles, unpublished PhD thesis, Australian
National University).  Thanks.

In answer to your question about colours, I know of no publication of
coloured photographs of the quilts, and the museums which hold them have no
official coloured photographs in their picture libraries, so I don't think
you're going to be able to find any.  The staff at the V&A took some
coloured photos for me when I was there in 1998, and they brought the quilt
out for me to see, but they stressed that they are unofficial and I am only
to use them for my own research.  I have to check with them as to whether
this means I can include them in my thesis, so it may be possible to
disseminate them that way when I've completed it.

However, I can tell you about the colours.  Essentially, the outlines of
the figures etc. (i.e. the bits that show up dark on the black and white
photographs) are executed in brown thread.  There has never been a fibre
analysis of either quilt, and the fibre composition is described variously
in the different publications, so I can't be certain, but the brown thread
seems quite lustrous, and is possibly silk, although it may be cotton or
linen. On the V&A quilt the brown thread has been completely restitched
(it's possible to see where it it deviates from the original stitching by
virtue of the remaining stitch holes), so it is certainly not original but
there is no way of telling when this repair was made.  I don't have a DMC
chart, but it is a mid caramel colour. On the Bargello quilt, the brown
thread is a somewhat darker, chocolate brown, and does not seem to have
been restitched.  This means that the restitching was done after the quilts
were separated (see my comments below on the issue of the number and
purpose of the quilts).  The background stitching - i.e. the small running
stitches which fill in all the areas which are not raised, is off white, of
a very similar colour and thread type and weight to the threads in the
ground fabric.  This has been described as linen by most of the writers on
the subject, but may actually be cotton - without a fibre analysis, it's
not possible to be sure.  A slightly heaver white thread is used in some
parts of the V&A quilt to outline details of waves.  There is no green (or
even greenish) thread in either quilt.  

As you will have gathered from the above, there are actually two quilts;
one at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the other is at the
Bargello Museum, part of the Museo Nazionale in Florence.  Neither is on
display to the public, and both are considered too fragile to be displayed
again.  When I requested to see the quilts the staff at the V&A initally
told me that their quilt was stored folded in a drawer, and I would only be
able to see the part which was visible.  However, when I arrived for my
appointment the conservator had made the decision that the quilt should be
taken out and refolded along different points to minimise the stress on the
fabric, so I was lucky enough to be the first scholar to see the quilt in
its entirety in 25 years! I believe that it has now been refolded, so that
a different part might be seen.

There is a certain amount of contention about whether the quilts were
initially part of a single quilt, or whether they might have been made as a
pair.  The view that they were made as a pair of bed quilts for the wedding
of Piero Guicciardini and Laodimia Accuoli (sp?) in 1395 or 1396, stems
ultimately from speculation made by Pio Rajna in the only extensive study
of the quilts yet made, in an article published in Italian in the journal
_Romania_ in 1916.  This is a long and detailed article (about 80 pages)
and I hope to make my translation available at some point when someone has
corrected it for me.  Most subsequent writers on the quilts have accepted
Rajna at face value, even though he's only floating a hypothesis, and
Colby, Staniland, Loomis and others have perpetuated the theory as though
it were fact.  I am not convinced by the argument either that the quilts
were made as bed quilts for the wedding, or by the argument that they were
made as a pair - there is quite significant structural evidence that they
were once part of a single textile, which would probably have been too big
to use as a bed quilt, even given the large beds of the late middle ages.
(The argument is quite complex and depends on the identification of seam
types and the placement of seams, so I won't go into it here.) While there
is certainly evidence that the quilts have an association with the
Guicciardini family (and the Bargello quilt was in their possession until
around 1918), the evidence linking the to the Accuoli family is pretty

There is also a problem with identifying the quilts as bed quilts.  As in
English, the same word is used in Italian (coltre) to refer to both an item
that is quilted (ie. constructed using two or more layers that are stitched
together), and a bed cover which may or may not have been constructed in
this way. There is evidence for both bedcovers and for quilting in the
fourteenth century, but not that bed covers were necessarily quilted
(although I'm inclined to think that they could be).

The other common misconception about the quilts is that they are executed
in trapunto quilting, which involves making small cuts on the back of the
quilt, inserting the padding through them and then sewing them up.  I
wasn't able to examine the back of the Bargello quilt, but I did get to
look at the back of the V&A quilt, and this is not the case.  There is no
evidence of any cuts on the back of the quilt, nor of any sewing up.  This
leaves two possibilities: firstly that the padding (which is clearly cotton
wool, not wool as has sometimes been suggested) has been poked through in
small quantities between the separated threads of the ground fabric from
the back or the front, which have then been smoothed into place, or
secondly, that the entire quilt has been padded, and that the small,
closely worked background stitches have been used to control the loft of
the padding in the background areas, allowing the main design elements to
stand out in relief.  Given the large amounts of padding used and the scale
of the designs, I'm inclined towards the second theory.

I hope this helps - let me know if you have any more questions.

Sarah Randles
s-randles at

Australian National Dictionary Centre
Australian National University
ACT 0200
Phone: (02) 6125 0476 Fax: (02) 6125 0475
(On Thursdays and Fridays, I am at the School of English, ADFA on Ph: (02)
6268 8842, same e-mail address.)
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