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  • Writer's pictureSabine Dietzler

The History of a Pillow

Once upon a time there was a bishop.

He lived a long time ago in beautiful Italy, in Tuscany. This bishop had a niece whom he was very fond of. And this niece - it is rumored - made history.

We fast forward.

The bishop died in 1477 AD and, at his request, was buried in the church of Impruneta, where he held office and dignity until his death. A bomb fell on this church during World War II. Damaged them, as well as the bishop's sarcophagus. When the congregation examined the damage, something astonishing was discovered: the bishop had a small pillow under his head as a burial gift. On closer inspection it turned out that this is an artistically sewn patchwork cushion. It was - so it whispers through space and time - the bishop's favorite pillow, which his niece probably sewed for him. It is one of the oldest European patchwork works! On the Internet it is said that this is probably the origin of the "foundation piecing method" in patchwork.

Have a look:

Front of the "Cuscino del vescovo Antonio degli Agli"

This is one of the few pictures of this pillow that can be found on the internet. While one or the other piece of fabric has completely dissolved, the pillow is by and large in pretty good condition. I mean that it was placed in a grave in 1477.

We see a total of 836 individual pieces of fabric. And that only on the front, the back is also sewn together from many parts. And did I mention that this pillow is only about a square foot? There are a few people on the internet who have looked at this pillow and for some reason the English Wikipedia page says that this pillow could have been sewn using the foundation piecing method. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find the source of this claim. The same few lines from Wikipedia are just quoted over and over again.

Can this be?

Anyone who has dealt with patchwork and who is capable of the foundation piecing method (FP) should actually scratch their heads here.

With the FP, you don't just sew the pieces of fabric directly together, but work with the help of a carrier fabric on which the pieces are placed. There are different variations and approaches here, but they have one thing in common: they don't really help with this pattern.

Of course you CAN sew this pattern, which is generally based on the "Rolling Star Block" and thus wonderfully classic patchwork, using the FP method. But that doesn't really make sense. Just to be able to sew the small nine-patch blocks between the star tips of the individual blocks, you would have to start over three times with FP and sew all 3 rows of three of the block individually before putting them together. Does that save anything? I do not think so.

Especially not if you do the math.

The pillow measures a total of about a square foot. This means that one of the nine star blocks including the half diamonds on the outside is around 4 Inches in size. If you calculate that down to the smallest of the squares, you end up with an edge length of 1/4 Inch. (At this point I would like to thank my brothers, who have calculated this for me! I have to round the decimal places a bit, but that's about the same.)

Detail of my work.

This is really small!

Unfortunately, I haven't found any further evidence why so many (or just one much quoted?) people assume that this pillow could have been made with the help of FP.

Second theory: In the worldwide patchwork network, the terms are not always used 100% exactly and on another page it was said that this pillow was the origin of "EPP", ie English Paper Piecing. With English Paper Piecing, the individual shapes are cut out of paper, covered with fabric and the individual parts are sewn together edge to edge. The advantage here: acute angles can be worked out very precisely and accurately. But here again the smallest of the squares are the problem. I cannot imagine that in the 15th century a seamstress would sew fabric around paper squares that were about 1/4 Inch long.

My curiosity was aroused!

I wanted to try out whether it would also work "without". Minimalistic, down to earth. Back to basics.

And what should I say? It works!

It took a while and it's not something you do on the couch in the evening, but I think that it's the easiest way to do it in the classic way. Cut pieces of fabric including seam allowance, draw the seam line and sew together by hand.

In general, my respect for this niece of the bishop, who probably used much simpler needles and coarser thread, has grown immeasurably in the weeks that I needed for this.

Here you can see my work:

Finished Reproduction of the Front

In the end, I was so happy about the completion of the front part that I spontaneously shot a stop-motion film:

What I'm missing now is only the back!

That will also be done!

Sources for more information about the pillow:,_xv_secolo_01.JPG

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