Reserva Work - Voided Embroidery of Spain

Maestra Clare de Estepa

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Due to geographical influences, Spanish embroidery is very regionalized. A style of voided embroidery, called a reserva, developed in Ávila. While this style is restricted to the mountainous areas of the Avila region, there are numerous extant pieces of Reserva embroidery and the style is still practiced today. A reserva, a term meaning 'to the reverse' is a voided style of embroidery in which the background, not the foreground, is embroidered. While Reserva embroidery was fully developed as early as the 15th century, it reached its greatest height during the 16th century (Gonzalez 220).

The Spanish voided work of Avila is almost identical to the better known Assisi work of Italy. The origins of both embroidery styles are unclear; however, there are certain similarities. The Italians think that St. Francis of Assisi brought a sample of an Oriental textile with him when he returned from the Crusades that inspired the development of Assisi work. The Spanish think that Reserva embroidery developed in Spain first as a direct result of Oriental influences brought by the invading Arabs and that the style was adopted later by the Italians (Gonzalez 220). If credence is lent to St. Francis' role, both theories could be true. While it is not clear which style was developed first, Middle Eastern influences have had a profound effect on both Spanish and Italian embroideries (Jones 117).

In addition to being voided and monochromatic, Reserva work has other common characteristics. A wide variety of common motifs, often allegorical, are used. The motifs are always outlined in backstitch and one of several popular filling stitches adorned the background (Gonzalez 225-227). While the Spanish employ many different filling stitches. Long-arm cross-stitch, punto eslavo, is a favorite stitch (Gonzalez 227). In period, Reserva embroidery is domestic embroidery and commonly appears as an altar frontal in church decoration (Gonzalez 96).

Initially, the same color was used for both the outlining and the background. As the style developed and Italian influence grew, a black is often used for outlining the motifs (Gonzalez 224). Favorite background colors are red, green, and blue (Gonzalez 224). Later Reserva embroideries, frequently display blue outlining and yellow filling. Samplers often use other colors for filling the ground. Regardless of the color combination, the outlining is always a darker shade than the filling (Gonzalez 224).

My Reserva work is an original creation and not a reproduction of actual embroidery. While the design is an original creation, it carefully conforms to the typical characteristics of the style. The ground is even weave linen that is similar to the domestic linen used historically (Gonzalez 221). Because the embroideries typical of the 16th century used silk, I used silk thread. The motifs are outlined in black silk. The background is embroidered in blue silk with long-arm cross-stitch. I used long-arm cross-stitch because it seemed to be most frequently used in the larger embroideries (Gonzalez 230-232, Plates 72-74).

In designing the layout, I carefully selected the motifs that I wanted to use and then drew the pattern onto a piece of graph paper. After I was satisfied with the layout, I transferred the pattern to the ground by holding the pattern up to the light and tracing the image (Beck 29). Instead of using charcoal, I used a quilting pen to limit smudging (Staniland 23-24).

The four central human figures are allegorical representations of the four seasons modeled upon examples found in Vinciolo's pattern book, Renaissance Patterns for Lace, Embroidery and Needlepoint. After the expulsion of the Arabs in 1492, Spain started to adopt common Italian patterns while still showing strong Moorish influence (Jones 123). Italian designs were well known throughout Europe by the 16th century (Jones 119). Because of the spread of Italian patterns and the Oriental influences found in both Spanish and Italian embroideries, I thought using Vinciolo's patterns would be appropriate. The human representations of the seasons are not arranged in chronological order. The seasons are facing each other in a Tree of Life motif that is very typical of Reserva embroidery.

An outlandish tree typical of the embroidery style frames each figure. After studying the flora found in Reserva work, I created my own fantastic trees (See Plates 73 and 74). The cornucopia border is an adaptation of a border found in 16th century Spanish sampler (See Plate 75). I felt that the cornucopias were very appropriate for two different reasons. First, the figures representing Spring and Summer both hold cornucopias in their hands. Second, the large and ornate 'S' shape of this border is very typical of Reserva embroidery (Gonzalez 224). The pomegranate motif frequently occurs in Reserva work; however, I have not found in primary examples of how they were executed (Gonzalez 223). While the secondary source provided by Gonzalez is similar of other Renaissance pomegranate motifs, it does not seem quite consistent with the Reserva style. I used Gonzalez' pattern for the basic shape but altered it so that it seemed more consistent with the stylistic characteristics of characteristics of Reserva embroidery.

While Maestra Angeles Gonzalez Mena provided detailed information about the characteristics of the Reserva embroidery of Avila, she did not provide any information about how these embroideries were finished. While one altar is clearly finished with a fringe (See Plate 71), the pictures of the other embroideries do not clearly show the edges of the embroideries. The border of the Virtues (Franja de las Virtudes, Plate 74) shows a ragged edge that could be a decoration of fringe. In Popular Embroidery and Weaving in Spain, it says that Spain remains true to its oriental heritage by being the land of fringes and tassels. Stapely continues by stating that a very narrow silk fringe was often used for church vestments and that the fringe often contains to alternating colors (Stapely 23). Unfortunately, Stapely fails to support her statements with any specific dates.

Because I was trying to replicate a specific look without knowing the involved technique, I chose to simplify the process by making the fringe monochromatic. I used black silk to make the fringe because I thought it provided a nice balance to the entire piece of embroidery. After trying several different techniques, I finally found success with a variation of a couching technique. Each loop was individually formed and anchored to the embroidery with a couching stitch to make the final product appear more like that pictured in the altar frontal in Plate 71A.


Beck, Thomasina. The Embroiderer's Story: Needlework from the Renaissance to the Present Day . Italy: David and Charles, 1995.

Cavallo, Adolph S. Needlework . United States of America: Smithsonian Institution, 1979.

Goodchild, Sabina. Cross Stitch and Sampler Book . New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 1985.

Gostelow, Mary. A World of Embroidery . New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975.

Gostelow, Mary. Mary Gostelow's Embroidery Book . New York: E.P. Dutton, 1978.

Gonzalez Mena, Angeles. Catalogo de Bordados . Madrid: Instituto Valencia de Don Juan, 1974.

Jones, Mary Eirwen. A History of Western Embroidery . New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1969.

Smith, Elly. "From a Medieval Italian Town: Assisi Embroidery" Piecework: May/June 1999

Staniland, Kay. Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers . Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Stapley, Milded. Popular Weaving and Embroidery in Spain . New York: William Helburn, Inc., 1924.

Vinciolo, Federico. Renaissance Patterns for Lace, Embroidery and Needlepoint . New York: Dover Publications, 1971.

(Author retains all copyrights. Copyright 2001 by Katherine Estep Stephenson, also known as Clare de Estepa)