the West Kingdom Needlework Guild

What Stitch is Period (#4 in a series)

Probably the most common question we get in the Needleworkers Guild is “Is this stitch ‘period’?”
This is the fourth in a series of articles exploring the historical uses of needle-work and comparing them with modern uses.

This article first appeared in the Guild newsletter, the Filum Aureum, Spring 2003

NOTE: Most images are in reduced format. To see full size, click on the image.

 



Beadwork

— by Christian de Holacombe

If there is anyone out there still harboring doubts as to whether embroidered bead-work was done in Europe before 1600, perhaps the cover of this issue will be an effective counter-argument! This huge, spectacular and very accomplished piece from the 14th century is embroidered almost entirely in beads.

huge beaded tapestry

There is a good reason, though, that medieval beadwork, especially the use of seed beads, is news to many of us. Much of what’s available in English about the culture of the European Middle Ages discusses England and France, areas where beadwork did not come into fashion until somewhat later. Where spectacular beadwork is common in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries is in the Germanies and Eastern Europe, areas with which many of us aren’t so familiar.

Pearls, Coral & Gold

The earliest medieval “bead” work actually used small pearls, small hand-made beads of red coral, and a lot of gold thread. Interestingly, we can sometimes detect that pearls were once used by their absence — by the appearance of embroidered outlines showing rows of little white bare spots where pearls used to be. We see these on the embroidery of Sts. Harlindis and Relindis from about 850, for instance. We also see them on the tunic of St. Bathilde from the 600s, where there were probably never actual pearls, just white spots as “imitation” pearls. (There are embroidered “jewels” on this tunic as well.)

beaded glove of the Emperor Frederick II Glove of the Emperor Frederick II. Part of the insignia of the Holy Roman Empire. Sicily, before 1220.

From the early 1100s we have items with the pearls surviving. The gloves of the Holy Roman Emperor in Palermo are thickly sewn with tiny pearls, jewels and little gold plaques or spangles. The “seed pearl” tradition clearly continues to develop, in later years. Look at the “lamb of God” (below), worked for the top of a small box in southern Germany in the mid 1400s, and the panel of a saint, worked entirely in pearls (tiny, tinier and tiniest!) at about the same period.

beaded box top -- lamb of God  
panel of a saint, worked in tiny pearls
“lamb of God”
a panel embroidered in pearls, showing a saint; 1350-1375, Prague, Czechoslovakia.

Glass Beads

large beaded altar hanging

Somewhere around the middle of the 1200s, we begin to see colored glass beads added to, and eventually dominating, pieces of this kind of embroidery. (In German, glass beads are “glasperlen,” literally “glass pearls.”) There is a spectacular altar frontal from Lower Saxony from the middle 1200s (left) with large figures and motifs solidly embroidered in coral, pearls, and both opaque and transparent glass seed beads in red, two shades of green, blue, turquoise, purple, very deep blue and gold.

 

Detail of a heavily beaded altar hanging
from Halberstadt, Lower Saxony: 1250-1300
 

The beads are remarkably similar to modern glass seed beads, although generally with rougher edges. They seem to be made by basically the same process as seed beads today; a hollow glass rod is heated and drawn out to form a long thin tube, which is cooled and cut into slices. Seed beads may be rounded and smoothed by re-heating, grinding or some of both. Some beads are ground to have 3 or 6 flat sides, rather than being round. Beads may be oval or round, but in the Middle Ages we don’t see the seed beads with silver foil linings or fancy iridescent finishes that are popular types today. Instead, the “sparkle” in medieval beadwork seems to come from faceted beads, metal beads and spangles. The seed beads are plain glass.

Materials & Techniques

Much of the beadwork (and descriptions of beadwork) that we have is items from church furnishings and royal palaces. These pieces have the advantage of having been worked with the best materials available, and have also been carefully kept and protected from damage. Many of these rich pieces are worked on silk, often with a backing of parchment or linen for support — beads are quite heavy, and must be well supported so as not to distort the working fabric. Beads can also be worked on linen or canvas, which may be cut out when the beadwork is done and applied to another fabric, or used to cover a small object.

Beads obviously need to be sewn with strong, durable thread. However, countless beads and pearls have been lost from medieval embroideries because the simple laid-and-couched method often used to secure them to fabric has not stood the test of time. In this method, a string of beads is simply laid down on the fabric, following the line of the design, and then “couched,” with a second thread tying down the first thread in between every few beads.

pearl falling off vestment of Order of the Golden Fleece
A detail of St. Catherine from the vestments of the Order of the Golden Fleece, early to middle 1400s.
The problem with this is that the individual beads are actually not sewed directly to the fabric; only the connecting thread is sewn down. The beads are held on the fabric only by the fact that they are all strung on this thread. If it breaks anywhere, beads will start dropping off one by one, each one that drops off freeing the broken end of the thread for the next one to come loose, as in the closeup on the left.

Motifs

Because so much of the surviving bead-work comes from palaces and churches, the motifs that appear are often figures of saints and biblical scenes, and occasionally flowers, foliage, symbols or lettering between and around the main subjects. In later centuries we begin to see more floral and purely decorative beadwork. Heraldry is another common source of motifs for secular beadwork, such as the extraordinary belt and cap buried with the young prince Fernando de la Cerda around 1275.

It’s clear from the examples pictured here that it’s rare for a surface to be completely covered in beads. The beads may be worked solidly to form motifs, but the fabric background usually shows between them— sometimes decorated with gold spangles, scattered beads, or little stamped medallions shaped as flowers, stars etc.

Objects

Beadwork in general seems to appear on almost any object that will stand still to be decorated, including wall or altar hangings, and on ceremonial garments for priests and royalty, such as several bishops’ miters.

However it is rare to find glass beads on ordinary clothing. Usually what you see on garments, like the left sleeve of the German lady (below), is gold thread, gold beads and pearls, used around the edges of embroidered or appliquéd motifs. (There seems to have been a fad around her time for having only one sleeve, or one sleeve and the adjoining half of the bodice, decorated like this.)

woman wearing dress with left sleeve embroidered in beads
Portrait of a woman wearing the Order of the Swan, by an anonymous master active at the court of Ansbach (?) c 1490, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. From the book Early German Painting 1350-1550.

Seed-beaded motifs do appear on very rich belts, headgear and other small accessories. While less expensive than pearls and gold, glass beads seem to have been costly enough that they were used mainly in small quantities or as an accent.

An intriguing group of objects is the half-dozen or so surviving wooden containers covered with beadwork. Again these are church objects, such as the pyx (a small box with a pointed cap), used to hold communion wafers, and at least one larger chalice-shaped box used to hold relics. (These boxes were the inspiration for the project on our Pattern Page.)

heavily beaded pyx -- small box with pointed top
A pyx (wooden box for communion wafers) covered with bead embroidery; Lower Saxony, second half of 1200s.

 

Resources

Lady Elspeth Grizel of Dunfort (“Griz”) from the Middle Kingdom has what it quite possibly the best web page anywhere on medieval beadwork:
http://www.medievalbeads.com
This site includes color pictures of many medieval pieces, a guide to seed beads, and detailed, illustrated instructions on bead embroidery.

A Few Good Books

Good discussion and pictures of medieval beadwork are hard to find — one reason Grizel’s website is so valuable. Unfortunately many of these books are out of print.

The Conservation of Tapestries and Embroideries, by The Getty Conservation Institute, 1989, ISBN 0-89236-154-9.-

Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers, by Kay Staniland; University of Toronto Press, 1991, ISBN: 0-8020-6915-0

La Riqueza del Bordado Ecclesiastico en Checoslovaquia (yes, a Spanish book about Czechoslovakian embroidery...) by Zoroslava Drobna & Bohumir Lifka (Sfinx, Praga, 1949, no ISBN). There is also a French edition.

Pictorial History of Embroidery, by Marie Schuette and Sigrid Müller-Christensen, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963,
Stadt im Wandel: Kunst und Kultur des Bürgetums in Norddeutchland 1150-1650. Aussletellungkatalog. Ed. Cord Meckeper.

More examples of beadwork

beaded altar hanging
Details of an altar hanging from Cheb, Czechoslovakia, from about 1300.
mitre of pearls and silver-gilt motifs on silk
An Annunciation scene worked on a mitre from Minden,
about 1400; pearls and silver-gilt motifs on silk.
At right, a beaded hat, and below, detail of a belt, both buried with Fernando de la Cerda, who died in about 1275. From the royal tombs at Burgos in Spain.
beaded hat of Fernando de la Cerda
beaded belt of Fernando de la

Below, a horizontal border, First half of 1300s, Lower Saxony,
in coral, gold and glass beads.
Saxony belt in coral, gold, and glass beads
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