Icelandic Embroidery

Silk and Linen Hanging, 14th Century

Altar Frontal from Draflastadir Church in laid and
couched work, wool on linen, 16th Century


The main sources for information about Icelandic Embroidery in the pre-modern period is extant examples and church inventory records. At the present time there are approximately 20 surviving pieces of work. Most date back no later than the second half of the 14th Century.

Materials Used

  • wool thread and ground
  • linen thread and ground
  • wool on linen ground

Stitches and Techniques

  • stem stitch
  • split stitch
  • long-legged (long-armed) cross stitch
  • applique
  • Surface Couching
  • pattern darning
  • double-running stitch
  • Stem Stitch
  • Surface Couching
  • Chain Stitch
  • Vandyke stitch
  • herringbone

The predominant stitch is Surface Couching (found on eleven embroideries). Some pieces used a mixture of stitches and materials, others used only a limited number of techniques. Below are some of the combinations in surviving pieces:

Silk and Linen Hanging, 14th Century

Hanging in Wool on Linen, 14th Century

  • stem stitch in polychrome wool on linen ground
  • laid and couched work in polychrome wool on linen or wool tabby ground (note: unlike other cultures that used this technique, Icelandic work often covered the ENTIRE ground with embroidery - unlike similar works such as the Bayeaux Tapestry where only figures etc were embroidered and the ground left plain).
  • outlining - secondary stitches such as stem, couched outline, split and chain stitch were used to outline areas that were laid and couched. This was done first and filled in later.
  • one example of split stitch in polychrome silks on linen


Influences on Icelandic embroideries include Byzantine silk fabrics, which resulted in the widespread use of circular and polygonal frames which enclosed various motifs including animals, plants, hunting scenes and religious scenes.

Another design element was the close relationship between medieval embroidery and contemporary Icelandic illumination . Later Icelandic needlework was also influenced by the widely available pattern books (Modelbuch), especially those from Germany.

Altar frontals make up the largest group of surviving works. These were generally free-style renderings of religious topics.

Colours reflect the dyes available, as such the use of blue, green, red and white against a yellow ground is typical of much Icelandic embroidery of the period.

Extant Pieces

Links To Further Information

Sources / Further Reading

  • Gudjónsson, Elsa. "Icelandic Mediaeval Embroidery Terms and Techniques" in Veronika Gervers, ed., Studies in Textile History: In Memory of Harold B. Burnham, pp. 133-143. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1977
  • Gudjónsson, Elsa E. Traditional Icelandic Embroidery. (Reykjavík: Iceland Review, 1982).
  • Bridgeman, H and Drury, E. Needlework: An Illustrated History , (London: Paddington Press, 1977)
Silk and Linen Hanging, 14th Century

Pattern darning (skakkaglit) and long-armed cross stitch (gamli krosssaumurinn), wool on linen tabby