by Christian de Holacombe, Guild Deputy
Never let it be said that all medieval needlework is painstakingly
worked in thousands of tiny stitches! Appliqué, stitching
pieces of colored cloth onto a background, provides a quick and
easy way to make a big splash of color on banners, buntings, bardings
and clothing making encampments and tournaments truly spectacular.
This indeed seems to have been one of the main ways appliqué
was used in the medieval centuries. By laying cloth on cloth,
you avoid having to solidly cover large areas of your design with
colored stitching. All that needs to be done is to secure the
edges of the appliqué.
Surviving pieces decorated with appliqué include everything
from elaborate Elizabethan pictorial hangings, meticulously stitched
in silk, to banners, religious vestments, story cloths, and heraldic
devices for horse trappings. Some of the surviving work done in
wool or other humble materials is downright sloppy in its stitching,
encouraging to the beginning stitcher who can probably do much
Appliqué is used in several rather different contexts
in our historical examples. One of the earliest and simplest is
a plain (or fancy!) band of cloth added to decorate a fabric edge
(and perhaps hide the raw edges). While modern stitchers might
cut such bands on the bias, most medieval decorative bands are
cut on the straight grain and simply eased or mitered along corners
and curves. Most often the edge of the strip is turned under and
use equally ancient is the recycling of decorative
bands or panels, which may be cut from an old or worn textile
before it is discarded or turned into rags, and then applied onto
a new garment. Surviving Coptic garments often show this, since
the tapestry-woven or embroidered panels on the original garment
are more durable than the thinner fabric around them.
Toward one end of the sewing spectrum, these applied panels and
bands shade off into the plain and humble patch, applied to repair
or strengthen a worn or vulnerable fabric. At the other end of
the spectrum we have the elaborate and glittering sixteenth-century
embroideries composed of individual motifs or slips
worked in fine stitching on canvas, cut out and applied onto a
rich background fabric.One of the most famous examples is the
Oxburgh hangings, which were worked by Mary Queen of Scots and
Bess of Hardwick during Marys capitivity in England.
The most common appliqué method seen in period pieces
has the appliqué piece being laid on and fastened
down by a cord couched on top of the edges. One advantage of this
technique is that the edges of the appliqué do not need
to be turned under. Much of the historic appliqué that
we have is worked in heavy silks or wools, and turning under the
edges of these fabrics would be awkward and probably lumpy.
Cross section of appliqué
As you can see in the diagram, the cord is not mere decoration
but has a real role to play. By laying the cord on top of
the fabric edge rather than beside it, the edge of the applied
fabric is firmly pinched between the cord and the
background fabric, holding it in place.
cords used for appliqué can be anything from a simple bunch
of loosely twisted threads to elaborately braided lengths of rich
materials. They may be stitched with near-invisible stitches in
matching thread, or with stitches that are quite visible and perhaps
decorative. The stitching is most often a simple row of straight
stitches across the cord.
One disadvantage of corded appliqué is that if the applied
fabric is prone to ravelling, the edge may slip out from under
the cord and come loose. This is not usually a problem with wool,
especially if it has been well fulled or felted. Corded appliqué
is most often used on items that are not likely to be washed or
rubbed, but even so, the lifespan of material applied in this
way may not be very long. These disadvantages are balanced by
the fact that this is a quick technique to work, well suited for
running up dozens of banners in a few weeks for a special event.
One major use of cloth-on-cloth appliqué is for the display
of heraldry or heraldic motifs. At least, these are the pieces
that have mostly survived, saved out of family or national pride.
The banner displayed above and on our cover, for instance, is
the 14th-century family banner of the Blonays, a prominent famiy
in Vaud (eastern Switzerland). The roundel shown here at the beginning
of this section, in wools with cotton cording, is a piece of Islamic
heraldry, the emblem of a royal cup-bearer.
Another famous heraldic appliqué from about this same
era is a set of three large semi-circular copes of black velvet,
now in Switzerland, which were captured from the Burgundian forces
at the battle of Murten in 1476. These bear appliquéd shields
with the arms of Burgundy and Artois, and the rest of the surface
is lavishly appliquéd with gold-embroidered flames
and a large fire-steel motif, representing the badge
of Duke Charles the Bold.
The way the flames were worked demonstrates also
that its quite common to embroider motifs like these on
a base fabric such as linen, and when finished, to cut them out
and apply them to a richer or heavier background. Many of the
rich works in Opus Anglicanum have parts of the embroidered figures
worked in this way.
Another major type of appliquéd piece is what we would
now call a story cloth, figures illustrating a familiar
story or legend, made of shaped cloth appliqués with a
few touches of embroidery. The well-known North German example
below shows an episode from the story of Tristan and Isolde, probably
the single best-known and most-depicted secular story of the 13th
and 14th centuries. There are 22 surviving episodes from what
was probably a wall hanging; the cords at the appliqué
edges are narrow strips of (originally) gilded leather.
later-period pieces we see even more examples of embroidered motifs
laid onto a ground fabric. We have quite a few 16th-century pillows
and hangings, like the black velvet pillow shown earlier, with
flower sprays, and the delightful embroidered puppy from a bed
hanging at Scone Palace, possibly worked by Mary Queen of Scots.
These later motifs include just about anything that could be
found in engraved illustrations of the time: mythical figures,
fruits, insects, exotic trees, animals, figures at work or pursuing
sports, such as the hawking man on horseback shown below on another
late 16th-century pillow. Most of these were worked in fine tent
stitch in wool and silk on linen. A decorative effect seems to
have been more important than any kind of strict realism, so a
thistle may easily appear bigger than a hawk!
are some helpful techniques for appliqué, used by many
modern needleworkers, that would be quite plausible for medieval
needleworkers to have used in some form, but so far there is not
a lot of surviving evidence for them.
One is the use of a stabilizing backing on the appliquéd
piece, such as paper or parchment. We do know that cloth backed
or covered with parchment was used for some bead embroideries
(including parts of a 14th-century Madonna from Halberstatt) to
help support the weight of the beads without distorting the fabric.
Parts of the Oxburgh (16th c.) embroideries also had paper glued
to the back before the embroidery was laid on the background fabric.
Something similar could certainly be done with paper or parchment
lightly glued onto a cloth piece before its appliquéd
onto a background. Stabilizing like this helps keep any long thin
strips or points, or any edges cut on the bias, from distorting
before they are sewn down. The paper can be removed after sewing
is complete through a slit in the background under the appliqué.
If you dont mind wasting a little fabric, you can also
stabilize your appliqué by sewing it first and cutting
it out afterward! To do this, draw your design on the appliqué
fabric, and lay the whole piece of cloth onto the background fabric,
without cutting anything out. Position the design where you want
it (peeking underneath and moving it around as needed), pin securely
all over, and sew a close running or back stitch around the edges
of the design, through both fabrics. Then trim the appliqué
fabric just outside the stitching, add the cord on top, and appliqué
as usual. We have no evidence that this was done in period, but
its hard to be sure from the finished product.
helpful technique is to use some sort of glue to stick the appliqué
to the background fabric, rather than pinning, basting, or simply
laying it on the background. There is indirect evidence that some
sort of paste was used in appliquéd pieces in period, but
its not clear exactly what for. The 15th-century Italian
Libro dell' Arte says: Also, for painting hangings,
you may cut white cloth, and put it on top of the blue cloth,
fastening it on with pastes, like glue; and lay it on according
to the figures which you wish to distribute over the ground; and
you may paint with washes of colors, without varnishing afterward.
This clearly shows cloth being glued, but it seems not to have
been sewn at all!
I admit Im particularly fond of glue basting
because in my hands, pins and basting stitches distort the appliqué,
and the end result is uneven. A water-soluble glue like Elmers
(as a casein-based glue its related to period milk
glue) or the common gluestick (also casein glue, but solid)
enables it to stay smooth as its stitched.
The ease of appliqué is greatly affected by the materials
you use. Many of the difficulties of appliqué seem to be
related to the use of lightweight or slippery materials, like
thin cottons or satin. If youre new to appliqué,
wool flannel or similar washed wool fabric is much easier to work
Notes on the illustrations: the "slip" above is
enlarged from the black cushion.