Here at Tenuta Cammarana, as befits an elegant country-house bed-and-breakfast in Sicily, you will find embroidered linen sheets on the beds and breakfast is served on crisp white embroidered tablecloths and runners. In keeping with the local tradition, most of the whitework embroidery in the house is in a typical Sicilian style known as “sfilato”.
Sicilian sfilato or drawn-thread work is a needlework technique in which linen is embroidered with precious threads (normally cotton). An ancient craft that has been practiced in Eastern Sicily for centuries, it is famously part of the history and traditions of Ragusa Ibla, Comiso and Chiaramonte Gulfi. Today, as in the past, embroidery is primarily a female art and the embroiderers themselves are the custodians of this precious heritage. Since 2006 sfilato has been listed in the UNESCO-inspired regional Register of Sicily’s Intangible Cultural Heritage (REI) as a precious tradition to be promoted and safeguarded, and Chiaramonte Gulfi in the province of Ragusa has an interesting museum dedicated to the craft (Museo del Ricamo e dello Sfilato Siciliano).
The Italian term “sfilato” literally means “unthreaded”, although when referring to embroidery it is normally translated as “drawn-thread work”. A form of counted-thread embroidery, it also falls under the heading of openwork because the technique involves removing individual threads from the warp and weft of the fabric, creating gaps in the weave that form a grid or “netted ground”. This then becomes the basis for decorative patterns featuring traditional motifs such as flowers, leaves, scrolls, medallions, human figures and animals. The designs can be embroidered in various ways, but three particular styles are most common. In the first, which is known as “400” and is considered particularly precious, linen stitch is used; the second, known as “700”, uses darning stitch, while in the third, called “500”, the motif is outlined and surrounded by the netted ground rather than stitched onto it.
The design is always drawn or copied onto the reverse of the fabric, back-to-front. Motifs can be geometrical, floral or allegorical and vary according to the historical period, the style of embroidery and the fabric’s intended use – so different designs are found on sheets, towels, curtains and church linens.
Sfilato is a collaborative art and those involved are normally expert in a specific element of the work: drawing the design, cutting and securing the threads to create the netted ground, embroidering the motifs, or washing and ironing the finished piece.
The fabric used is always pure linen, because linen’s strength, texture and loose weave make it the only material really suitable for work of this kind.
The threads used are always of very high quality but can be cotton or silk and different sizes or weights are used for different stitches and styles.
The tools used are simple but essential: a needle, a thimble, a finger guard, fine-tipped curved embroidery scissors for snipping the threads to be removed, and an embroidery frame.
Sicily has an ancient and important tradition of embroidery and the manufacture of precious fabrics. The earliest documents date back to the period of Muslim dominion in the 9th century when the island’s Arab rulers established Tiraz (textile) workshops, the most famous of which was housed within the Royal Palace in Palermo . Cotton and mulberry trees (for the farming of silk worms) were cultivated on the island to supply materials for the industry. When the Normans conquered Sicily they maintained and increased production, and silk manufacture continued to thrive during the thirteenth-century reign of Frederick II – the “golden age” of the Palermo Tiraz.
In Ragusa, traditional sfilato was “rediscovered” in the nineteenth century by Ester Manari La Rocca di San Germano, the cultured Piedmontese wife of the Baron La Rocca of Ibla. Whilst looking though an old chest, she found an antique piece of embroidered cloth with an unfamiliar design that piqued her curiosity. To find out more, she took it to Sister Maria Lunanuova at the convent of Santa Teresa in Ragusa Ibla and together they succeeded in reproducing the style – a moment that marked the beginning of a renaissance in sfilato embroidery and textile manufacturing in Ragusa. In fact in 1850, and by no coincidence, the Baron of Donnafugata ordered the construction of a mill in Ragusa (the “filanda”) for the weaving of cotton, linen and hemp. Today the remains of what the old Baedeker guide called the “cotton factory” can still be seen on the edge of Ragusa’s Baroque quarter.