One of the things I wanted most when trying to learn about Italian needlework in the beginning of my research was a kit... I thought a kit would give me a little window into all aspects of a technique. I imagined a little packet with a design, technical instructions, some Italian fabric and threads with the right needle for the embroidery.
Italian kits, if you can find them, are, for the most part, not anything like that. Most people I wrote to told me they didn't make kits. Since we're talking about 10 years ago, most people didn't have books about their specialty technique either. No one had any written instructions that they wanted to give out, even if you were willing to pay.
When I did find "kits" they consisted mostly of a blurry picture of the finished product, sometimes with a separate drawn design (rarely at actual size), a list of the stitches used and the fabrics and threads recommended (no colours were ever listed precisely either). To be fair, the kits weren't made for going outside of Italy, so it is logical that they wouldn't have details about things Italians would already know, or be able to find out relatively easily. In a time of few websites and even fewer email addresses, this was a slow and often disappointing process for me. Even when I managed to assemble all required materials I then couldn't proceed for lack of instructions.
Making things from the magazines was equally disappointing. More often than not the stitches weren't explained or only some of the project was, for example the central motif but not the hemstitching.
I discovered some essential things necessary for understanding Italian stitching instructions. No one, no one, could understand why I wanted to reproduce an exact replica of a piece. Wouldn't I like to change it a bit to personalize it? It was expected that I would want to change the size, colours, fabric, threads - even the stitches used to make the design my own. I can tell you that when you show "anglosaxon" stitching instructional books and kits to Italians they are amazed at the detail. I believe this to be a fundamental cultural difference and its an important one. I am at my most comfortable and happiest when being instructed on every step... having to make my own decisions (which could be wrong!) is scary to me and I am very reluctant especially when using expensive threads and fabrics that I went to a lot of trouble to acquire.
I bought an Italian encyclopedia of embroidery and an English one and started to compare stitches, finding that some of them were the same and just had different names. This helped a lot with things that weren't exactly "Italian" techniques.
Over time things have progressed quite a bit but we are still very far from equal. At the Italia Invita Forum in 2007, I purchased all the kits I could find at the various booths hoping to be able to work them out later at home. This is a perfect example of what I'm trying to tell you:
It's a kit I purchased at the Puncetto booth. The stitched sample was an attractive bracelet of red and blue thread. Inside an opaque little bag (not unlike a travel make-up bag) was a colour computer printout of the pattern, with the steps for creating one motif. Nothing about assembly, borders or the filling between motifs and no stitch instructions. There was a fuzzy colour printout of the stitched sample (red and blue) on one side. There were two small balls of Finca no. 12 thread in orange and green and the clasp for the finished bracelet. I don't remember what it cost but I remember thinking that it was expensive, at the same time I bought two books as well with a total cost of 50 euros. Unfortunately neither of the books had instructions either, they were just patterns. Okay, so it is my own fault that I didn't look carefully enough at what I was buying but seriously, I don't think it would have mattered. I would still have bought them all in the hopes of getting home and figuring it out. Here we are three years later and there they sit still waiting for me. Even though by now I've done some experimenting on my own and even taken a two hour lesson and had a friend patiently show me some stitches.
Other kits I bought at the Forum that year were: one that had fabric with the traced design on it, a needle and thread and a colour photo of the finished piece. No stitch instructions; One that was a colour printout of a scan of the finished piece with reference to a book written by the same author. I had the book so I wasn't worried... upon arriving home however I saw that the book had the stitches explained but the composition of the kit was no where to be found, meaning I would need to understand enough about the technique in order to assemble the motifs myself; some came with washed out photocopies of stitch instructions; I have not stitched any of them.
This is not to say that by Italian standards they are not good kits. They are excellent kits if you already know how to stitch the techniques. Every single one would be useful to someone who knew what they were doing. I guess what I learned was that Italian kits are not for beginners and they are not like the kits I am accustomed to in my "anglosaxon" world.
As I said, things are beginning to change. I have a completely amazing Italian kit for a cushion that came with a very professional booklet with all the instructions for the stitches and assembly, Italian linen fabric for the front and back, thread, needles even some tips and tricks...
You can't see in the scan here but there are even English instructions below the Italian... comprehensible English!
Just lately there has been some interest in producing Italian kits for the non-Italian needlework world. These kits, produced by Fiorella Collection, will be on Italian needlework techniques or techniques with an Italian flavour. The booklets will come in Italian, French and English to start and you'll need to specify the language you want as each booklet is produced separately. In order to make them affordable, they are instructional books without the supplies, however they will be sold online where you can order the supplies needed in most cases.
Here is one of two already available:
The booklet even has the instructions for executing the picots along the edges! This work is known as Catherine de'Medici Embroidery and it is a Counted Thread Technique. The design is by Rosalba Pepi from the Laboratorio Tessile di Alice in Castiglion Fiorentino, Italy.
They are the closest thing to what I dreamed of long ago - made by the Italian needlework schools and masters. I hope they catch on as they will be perfect for giving us a little taste of the numerous different Italian needlework techniques.
The times they are a-changin'.
You can get the two Fiorella Collection booklets already available from Elena at Italian Needlecrafts.