European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

26 June 2017

Patterns for 16th-century Stitchers

It was a recent cataloguing query from a colleague that led me to the pattern-books of Johann Schwartzenberger. One three-part work by him, Ain New Formbüchlin der Weissen Arbait …, was bound with a similar but separate work, Ain New Modelbüchlin des Porten gewürcks …, which had no catalogue record. That was easy to rectify, and I ordered the volume for cataloguing. When it arrived I was delighted and intrigued to discover that all four parts consisted mainly of woodcuts of pattern samples.

Title-page of 'Ain New Modelbüchlin' with woodcuts of embroiderers at work
Above: Title-page of  Johann Schwartzenberger, Ain New Modelbüchlin des Porten gewürcks... (Augsburg, 1534) 555.a.7.(1). 
Below: Title-pages of the three parts of Ain New Formbüchlin der Weissen Arbait … (Augsburg, 1534-1536) 555.a.7.(2-4).

Title-page of 'Ain New Formbüchlin' part 1 with a woodcut of a room where an embroiderer and others are working

Title-page of 'Ain New Formbüchlin' part 2 with a decorative interlace-pattern border

Title-page of 'Ain New Formbüchlin' part 3 with a decorative interlace-pattern border in white on a black background

At first glance I assumed that these were designs for woodcut borders to decorate books, not least because Schwarzenberger was described as a ‘Formschneider’, a word I associated with woodblock-cutters in the printing trade. A closer look at the title-pages made it clear that this was not the case, but still left me uncertain about what actually was the case. There were references in the titles to ‘weisse Arbeit’, and the terms ‘geschnürlet’ and ‘geböglet’. These last two meant nothing to me. I couldn’t trace them in modern or older dictionaries, and searching online didn’t help.

However, a closer look at the illustrations on two of the title-pages offered a clue. They showed figures sitting at what I had first assumed to be writing-desks, but which were in fact embroidery frames:

Detail of woodcuts showing embroiderers at work
Detail from the title-page of  Ain New Modelbüchlin des Porten gewürcks...

I remembered that I’d heard white-work (i.e. ‘weisse Arbeit’) as used an English term relating to embroidery. That enabled me to refine my internet search, which now led me to an article from 1909 about Schwarzenberger’s pattern-books. This explained that ‘geschnürlet’ and ‘geböglet’ refer to raised and flat embroidery techniques. The initially mysterious ‘Porten’ in the Modelbüchlin title also became clear as ‘Borde’, a border or edging.

So these were embroidery patterns. But not for your average home hobbyist, even if such a person existed in 1534. They are designed for professional embroiderers, both male and female as the title-page images show, no doubt working for wealthy and aristocratic clients who would want the finest and most detailed work.

Some designs are fairly simple geometric patterns, or simplified figurative ones:

Geometric interlace patterns

Patterns of foliage and banners

Four narrow decorative borders

Others are more ambitious, involving more naturalistic images of plants and animals:

Patterns for borders with foliage and animals

Patterns for borders with foliage, animals and putti

And there are some pages of with detailed pictures of individual animals, birds and insects. Presumably these were for inserting in other designs or embroidering separately:

Illustrations of real and mythical animals

Illustrations of birds and insects

There are also designs for scenes from Biblical stories or classical mythology:

Decorative border illustrating the story of Samson and Delilah
Samson and Delilah

Decortative borders illustrating the Judgement of Paris, Salome with the head of John the Baptist, and the death of Lucretia
The Judgement of Paris (with Salome and Lucretia below)

Decorative border illustrating the story of Pyramus and Thisbe
Pyramus and Thisbe

Some are very complex. It’s hard to imagine working on these detailed patterns without the benefit of modern lighting:

Detailed patterns for decorative borders

Roundels with interlace patterns in white on black backgrounds

A few, however, do provide a grid for guidance of the sort familiar to modern cross-stitchers:

Geometric embroidery patterns with a grid for guidance

Geometric embroidery patterns with a grid for guidance

Embroidery patterns for decorative borders with a grid for guidance

And on one page, someone has copied part of a pattern by hand: an embroiderer testing their copying skills before transferring the pattern? Or just an idle owner of the book doodling in the margin?

Patterns for decorative borders with manuscript imitations

If any keen stitchers out there fancy trying any of these, do show us the results in a tweet to @BL_European!

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections


Theodor Hampe, ‘Der Augsburger Formschneider Hans Schwarzenberger und seine Modelbücher aus den Jahren 1534 and 1535’, Mitteilungen aus dem Germanischen Nationalmuseum (1909), pp. 59-86. PP.3542.aa (and available online at

Otto Clemen (ed.), Hans Hofer’s Formbüchlein. Augsburg 1545. Zwickauer Faksmiledrucke; 23 (Zwickau, 1913). K.T.C.109.b.1/23.

Design for a decorative border with foliage and rabbits