Many of the various provinces of Spain have their own embroidery traditions, but there are also universal forms of embroidery too, the most popular of which is cross stitch. Other commonly used Spanish embroidery stitches include basque stitch, buttonhole stitch chain stitch, running stitch, long-legged cross stitch and French knots. The one common thread that runs through all these forms of stitches is the extensive use of goldwork and metal thread. Spanish embroiderers have always had a particular penchant for goldwork embroidery, probably inherited from the Moors.
Cotton is grown in southern Andalusia. Silk is produced to the north-east of Almeria, and also further up the east coast. There is also flax production in north-western Spain, and wool production scattered throughout the country. The traditional forms of Spanish embroidery were often worked on a natural-coloured ground fabric. They dyed their threads red with cochineal, an art learned from Mexico at the beginning of the 16th Century, blue or black with logwood also brought from Latin America, or yellow with safflower grown locally. Sometimes wool from black sheep was spun and used as embroidery thread.
The Islamic influence in Spanish goldwork embroidery is particularly prevalent in Toledo, Almeria and Andalusia, the most southern region of the country. The Moors crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa in the early part of the 8th Century. Andalusia’s links with the Moors was so strong that the province even converted to Islam for a period in the 17th Century. Much of Andalusian embroidery was geometric in line with Moorish tradition, and used one colour of silk thread, worked on a ground of local cotton, in running, double running or cross stitch. This is what is sometimes known as Spanish work, or black work, even though the one-colour thread was often not black at all, and there was also an extensive use of goldwork and metal thread in these pieces.
Embroiderers in many parts of Spain have used their talents for costume embellishment, as can still be seen on the capes worn by modern-day matadors. In traditional Spanish costume, typically a man’s shirt with long sleeves gathered at the shoulders and cuffs, goldwork embroidery is only applied to the collar and cuffs, down either side of the front neck opening, or around the hem in a narrow border. Variants of this can still be found in former Spanish colonies in Latin America, modelled on the costumes worn by soldiers and colonists.
Toledo, a province in south-central Spain, was rightly famous for both its goldwork and metal thread embroidery, as well as for its whitework decoration on men’s shirts. They were also known to have used blue embroidery on occasions on a natural linen ground, but whitework and goldwork dominated menswear. Unlike other provinces in Spain, Toledo is also famous for its embroidery on women’s garments. Traditional women’s costumes consisted of black or white sleeveless bodices, with lines of basque stitch embroidered in black or gold thread down either side of the front opening. The bodices were worn with white linen long-sleeved shirts, knee-length full skirts of red flannel, silk scarves and woollen stockings embroidered with geometric patterns of goldwork or metal thread. These regional costumes are now only worn for festive occasions, though silk scarves with heavy goldwork embroidery are still commonplace.