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All that glitters...
by Lady Christian de Holacombe
"Marvel not at the gold and the expense, but at
the craftsmanship of the work.
Bright is the noble work; but, being nobly bright, the work
Should brighten the minds so that they may travel,
through the true lights,
To the True Light....
The dull mind rises to truth, through that which is material
And, in seeing this light,
is resurrected from its former submersion."
-- Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis (Paris, 12th century)
I don't know about anyone else, but I'm always ready to "Ooh"
and "Aah" over the glittery stuff. In this article we'll take
a quick look at some of the stitches and styles that produce
these rich effects.
The picture to the right shows one of the simplest forms of
metal ornamentation - though perhaps calling it "embroidery"
is a bit of a stretch. Jewels, spangles, and bright bits of
metal have been sewn onto clothing all over Europe from a very
early period. The Museum of London excavations have medieval
samples of "dress ornaments" very much like these, attached
to belts or sewn to the fabric of gowns, capes, et cetera. This
illustration is a close-up of a gown made for a doll representing
the Christ Child; the ornaments date to the 14th and 15th centuries.
Spangles continue to be used right up through the end of our
period. Period spangles are small flat disks with a central
hole. The Elizabethans called them "spangs" or sometimes "oes"
(O's). They are usually sewed down with two or three stitches
radiating from the central hole to the rim.
Gold is an easy metal to work, and it doesn't tarnish or discolor,
so gold wire was made and used for ornamentation on cloth from
an early date. In the Scandinavian finds at Birka, there are
a variety of ornaments made of gold or silver wire on clothing,
some with wire stitched directly through the cloth as if it
were thread, others made separately of braided and twisted wire
and sewed on. Another type of decoration uses long flexible
coils of very fine wire around a fiber core. The coils are braided
and sewed down to make borders that look like knotwork. You
can just see a bit of such a border (very tarnished) under the
feet of the gold wire "deer" from Birka shown here.
Today as in the Middle Ages, gold "purls" of various kinds
are still used for sumptuous embroidery. Purls range from fine
gold tubes like bugle beads, to crimped, twisted, and coiled
forms. Purl is cut into lengths and sewed down like beads, making
a rich, solid surface that twinkles and catches the light. Often
purls are padded or worked over cord, or they may be combined
with spangles, seed pearls, and silk to make complex and wonderful
embroideries. Unfortunately, many good examples have gone into
the melting pot over the centuries for their gold content, but
others survive for our admiration.
Embroiderers in search of lighter, more flexible, and less
staggeringly expensive gold materials developed gold threads
in the early Middle Ages. The first threads from the 8th or
9th century are a thin strip of fragile gold metal wound around
a silk thread. A less fragile thread has a fine layer of gold
plated onto the surface of a strip of another metal, used in
the same way. Even this is now expensive and hard to find; most
modern thread that uses real gold has a microscopic film of
gold on a strip of paper wound around the silk core. Imitation
gold and plastic materials like Lurex may contain no metal at
I couldn't resist this unicorn from the 15th-century bishop's
miter in gold and pearls from Västerås Cathedral
in Sweden, which shows several gold thread techniques.
Here is another detail which was
on our newsletter cover.
Especially with the stiffer or more fragile gold threads,
surface couching is an easy and efficient way to produce a decorative
gold surface. A gold thread is laid on the surface of the fabric
and stitched or "couched" down with crosswise or slanted stitches
in silk or another strong fiber. Solid areas can be filled with
closely packed rows of gold thread, worked from the outline
inward until the whole area is filled.
In the 12th and 13th century, some of the finest embroidery
in the world was produced by English embroiderers. Church vestments
in this Opus Anglicanum ("English work") were so highly
prized in Europe that they were given as gifts to popes and
kings. Opus Anglicanum has figures of people, animals, leaves,
and other objects in very fine split stitch in silk, worked
so closely as to give a smooth, flowing surface almost like
satin. Backgrounds and further ornaments are worked in gold.
The flat gold backgrounds are worked in underside couching,
a technique that was invented in this period and gradually died
out in the 1400s.
Pictured to the right is the head of St. Katherine in Opus
Anglicanum from an altarpiece belonging to the vestments of
the Golden Fleece.)
In underside couching, gold thread is laid on the surface
of the fabric and couching stitches are taken over it. As each
couching stitch is taken, the needle is carefully re-inserted
into the same hole in the backing that it came out of. The couching
thread is pulled tight, and a tiny loop of the gold thread from
the surface "pops" through the hole in the backing fabric to
the underside. This creates a "kink" or "hinge" in the gold
thread, where it can easily bend. Fabric worked with gold thread
in underside couching is much more flexible and "drapey" than
fabric with surface couched gold. Underside couching is often
done with stitches in a decorative pattern to create a textured
As the Opus Anglicanum style faded, a different, but equally
stunning and subtle, style came into fashion, called Or Nué
(French for "gold shaded;" for "nué" think "nuance").
In this style, the fabric surface is first covered solidly
with parallel lines of surface-couched gold thread. Crosswise
threads of colored silk are then worked along each gold thread,
with stitches placed closer together in areas to be shaded dark,
and farther apart in light areas.
The diagram to the right from Pamela Warner's Embroidery:
A History makes this very clear.
In the detail to the left, of
jugs from the Middleburg altar frontal in Brussels (dated about
1518), you can see that the right sides of the jugs show closely
spaced colored stitches to create a "shadow" area, making the
jugs look rounded.
Or Nué, like a lot of other gold embroideries, isn't
nearly as difficult as it sounds. If you'd like to try a small
exercise in Or Nué, take a look at the article "Very
Simple Or Nué" at the Medieval Embroidery Home
A love of gold and its glitter certainly has continued through
all centuries including our own. Many magnificent embroideries
survive from the 16th and early 17th centuries that use gold
in abundance in all its forms, including spangles, purls of
all kinds, and gold plate, a narrow flat strip of gold metal
that is folded back and forth and sewed down. Gold cord and
thread is couched, looped, and worked in chain, outline, buttonhole
and braid stitches, and even worked into bobbin lace as a finish.
In the Current Middle Ages, we all claim for ourselves the privilege
and respect once reserved for royalty. And with such magnificent
examples to learn from, surely we can all create at least a
little bit of the Middle Ages' golden splendor!
The Conservation of Tapestries and Embroideries:
Proceedings of Meetings at the Institut Royal du Patrimoine
Artistique, Brussels, Belgium, September 21-24, 1987. The
Getty Conservation Institute. ISBN 0-8923-6154-9.
Embroidery: A History, by Pamela Warner. 1991,
B.T. Batsford Ltd, London. ISBN 0-7134-6106-3.
Fashion in Detail from the 17th and 18th Centuries,
by Avril Hart and Susan North. 1998, Victoria & Albert Museum,
London. ISBN 0-8478-2151-X.
Metal Thread Embroidery: Tools, Materials and Techniques,
by Jane Lemon. 1987, B.T. Batsford Ltd., London. ISBN 0-7134-5577-2.