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Teaching Tradition: A Sampler from the Scoula d’Industrie Italiane, 1905-1927

Sampler, Scoula d’Industrie Italiane, ca. 1915, embroidered linen, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Larger version of the image is available here.

A young Italian female immigrant in the Greenwich Village in the early twentieth century had few options if she wanted to earn a living outside the small tenement apartment she likely shared with her family. If she found work, it was almost certainly unskilled factory labor in unhealthy working conditions for little pay. In 1905, progressive upper class New Yorkers Florence Colgate Speranza and her husband Gino Speranza imagined an alternative: a clean, light-filled workshop where women might learn a skilled trade and earn decent wages. While on vacation in Italy, the Speranzas had observed small-scale revival textile industries cropping up in Italian cities and towns such as the Aemelia Ars in Bologna and the Scoula di Sorbello in Pischiello. The Speranzas set out to establish a similar studio in the all-Italian neighborhood of Greenwich Village. The Scuola d’Industrie Italiane operated until 1927 producing “embroideries copied from ancient designs and adapted to modern uses.”1

This linen sampler served as a teaching tool to provide step-by-step instructions on how to form the raised knot that decorated many of the Scuola’s embroideries and often represented stylized grapes. Numbered, threaded needles inserted into a piece of linen detail the technique for a young embroiderer just learning to reproduce Italian Renaissance patterns. While the studio’s promotional materials extolled the Italian women’s natural ability as inheritors of a storied craft tradition transported from the Old Country, the young workers learned to copy antique laces in the workshop from instructors using guides such as this one.

Diana Greenwold

Douglass Fellow, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Ph.D. Candidate, University of California, Berkeley

This blog post was originally written for “Object of the Day,” hosted by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. See more objects of the day here.

  1. “Scoula d’Industrie Italiane,” Needle and Bobbin Club Bulletin, V. 1-3 (1916-1919).

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