The folks at the Textile Museum are showing off again, as well they may. They've dug out half a hundred of their Greek embroideries from the 17th and 18th centuries, just to show what they can do.
"This is not the finest collection in the world," said curator James Trilling with manufactured modesty as he showed a visitor around, "but we're pretty proud of it."
Embroidery with silk on a linen ground was the crowning art of Greek island women, who began as young girls to decorate clothing, wallhangings, slipcases, linens and bed canopies in anticipation of setting up their own households.
The works were mended and remended and handed down as heirlooms; it was a sure sign of desperation if a family should sell any. It seems mean to rejoice over such sorrows, which presumably were the reason these pieces came on the market and into the museum's collection, but rejoice one must, for they are a puzzle and a delight.
The delight is in the designs and the execution, which are at once bold and subtle; the puzzle is that there's little resemblance among the styles, nothing much to suggest that these superb craftswomen had the slightest interest in the work being done on neighboring islands. And although the islands were long fought over and/or occupied by Europeans, Turks and Africans, the motifs and techniques seem to owe little to the traditions of any of the above.
What they have in common, besides workmanship that was unequaled on the mainland, is a tightly controlled exuberance that occasionally bursts through, as in several pieces, attributed to the island of Skyros, that would fit easily into an exhibition of Pennsylvania Dutch work.
Anyone who loves embroidery will itch to try some of these patterns, and the museum's Lilo Markrich explains how in the catalogue ($25) that accompanies the exhibition. It's not as hard as it looks, she says, but when pressed she'll admit it may take up to an hour per square inch. "That is a post-Industrial Revolution mindset," she said. "These people were not concerned with time but with quality." GREEK ISLAND EMBROIDERIES -- Through February 12 at the Textile Museum, 2320 S Street NW. Open 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday, 1 to 5 Sunday.