Chain stitch is commonly used today in ways that show off its unique shape and structure. But the chain stitch embroideries I'm familiar with from the SCA's historical period use it in the same way as split or stem stitch - as a filling stitch, one that follows the contours of the motifs (or of their internal details).
When packed closely together in this type of use, chain stitch can be difficult to distinguish from stem or split stitch, and for quite a while I was skeptical about many catalog descriptions of pieces claiming they used chain. The easiest way to tell is if the work is damaged and you can see the loops "unchaining", or if the ground fabric is damaged and you can see individual chain-rows separating out.
Chain stitch was popular in Egypt (and possibly other parts of the Middle East) from a fairly early date - at least from the later Roman Empire. It continued to be popular there at least through the 12-13th centuries, adapting to new fashions, materials and motifs. Examples from Europe proper are much scarcer, and the stitch doesn't seem to be part of the repertoire of the great embroideries of the high medieval period.
It's always something of a matter of chance which pieces have survived, but we can make a few general observations. Surviving works in chain stitch may either be solidly embroidered (the Huysbourg altar hanging - see catalog) or have the ground fabric showing between the motifs (as in the Coptic pillows). The work is most commonly done in wool, either on a linen or woolen ground fabric.
A few pieces differ from this pattern. The embroidered "necklace" on the tunic of St. Bathilde is worked in silk (on linen), as are at least one 12-13th c. Egyptian piece and the Huysbourg hanging. A 9th c. middle eastern piece of uncertain origin is worked in wool on cotton. And the woolen Egyptian pieces in general use linen or cotton to embroider the white parts of the motifs. (There may be a logical explanation for the rarity of silk embroideries using chain stitch, since this stitch is less able to show off the smooth gloss of the silk.)
In some of the Coptic Egyptian pieces, chain stitch is used in combination with stem stitch, where the latter is used for solid blocks of color and the chain is used to create thick free-standing lines (such as the handles of a vase or the stems of foliage).
Catalog of examples
The earliest examples I've found are from ca. 3rd century Palmyra . They are unusual in that the ground fabric is silk, often a patterned damask weave. The embroidery is done in colored silk (yellow, green, and blue) in fairly large sloppy stitches creating rather abstract flower and vegetation designs. The pieces are very fragmentary and their original purpose is hard to determine.
The next pieces are primarily from Coptic Egypt, although some may have been imported from elsewhere. They are very similar in overall style, using classical Greco-Roman artistic motifs, often featuring human or mythological figures.
There are several relatively large pieces that consist of a square frame enclosing a human torso. In some cases, these appear to have been cushion covers, in others the use is impossible to determine.
On the left is a 4th c. example from Harris  where the human figure represents "Autumn", holding a cloth carrying fruit. (There's also a companion piece representing "Winter.") The frame is worked in some decorative stitch forming a lattice effect, but the interior area is worked solidly in chain stitch.
Another very well preserved example from the 5th c. is given in Thompson . The human figure here is also likely to be allegorical, as it has wings and is carrying a basket and some odd-looking staff or rod. In this piece the purple woolen ground fabric shows between the motifs and the frame as well as the interior design is done in chain stitch. The frame is filled with several types of flowers with an outer edge of engrailed points tipped with "pearls" (i.e., white circles). A wide variety of colors are used, several shades each of red, green, and blue, as well as orange, yellow, and white. The white is linen, while the colors are all worked in wool. There are a couple of other very fragmentary pieces of similar for-mat in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Coptic Egyptian examples aren't confined to this one particular motif, however. Thompson  shows several small roundels, probably of the 4-6th century, worked solidly in chain stitch in wool on linen. Each has a single motif: a partridge-like bird or a bowl of fruit. It's possible that these were used as decorations on tunics. (Circular tunic ornaments of similar size are found in tapestry weaving.) The embroidery is done in light blue, pink, red, white, light green, and two shades of brown.
Another piece that may originally have been a tunic ornament is a rather small plain square frame enclosing a vase with flowers emerging from it (right). The piece is mostly worked in stem stitch, with only the linear elements (e.g., stems and vase handles) done in chain. It is also unusual in being done in a monochrome style (in purple wool on natural linen, with details worked in white linen) similar to a style often seen in tapestry weaving of the time.
While many of the Egyptian pieces are somewhat stylized in design, a fragment showing part of a centaur from the 4-5th century is much more naturalistic and sophisticated in its depiction. Schuette and Christensen  describe it as being done in red, green, and brown wool and white linen, on a red woolen ground fabric.
Schuette and Christensen  also includes our cover
picture for this issue, the largest surviving piece I've seen using
chain stitch, although it's a minor part of the work. This is a curtain
or hanging from 4th-6th c. Egypt, worked on linen in blue, yellow, pink,
purple, and several shades of green wool. The solid parts of the motifs
are worked in stem stitch, but the lines (such as stems and vines) are
done in chain. At the top of the curtain, there is a row of pots or
baskets from which grapevines emerge. Scattered over the rest of the
piece are stylized trees and flowers.
So far, I've only found two pieces from Europe proper - although one
of them currently exists in
 Pfister, R. 1934. Textiles de Palmyre. Paris: Les Éditions d'Art et d'Histoire.
 Harris, Jennifer ed. 1993. 5000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press. Page 63.
 Thompson, Deborah. 1971. Coptic Textiles in the Brooklyn Museum. The Brooklyn Museum. #8.
 Thompson, Nos. 11a-c. There is also a similar embroidery with two stylized birds flanking a "jeweled" cross, done in chain stitch embroidery in wool on linen from Akhmim in London; see Kendrick, Catalogue II, pl. VI, no. 318 (1262-1888).
 Currently held at the V&A museum, who ascribe it to 4-5th c. Egypt or Mesopotamia.
 Schuette, Marie & Sigrid Müller-Christensen. 1963. La Broderie. Editions Albert Morancé, Paris. (There is also an English edition of this book.) Figure 1.
 Schuette & Christensen, Figure 7.
 Schuette & Christensen, Figure 6.
 Errera, Isabelle. 1916. Collection d'Anciennes Étoffes Égyptiennes. Bruxelles: Imprimerie J.-E. Goossens. Catalog #269, 270, 271, 272
 Kühnel, Ernst. 1927. Islamische Stoffe aus Ägyptischen Gräbern. Berlin: Verlag Ernst Wasmuth. Catalog #3171, 3172, 4915.
 Tissus D'Égypte: Témoins du monde arabe VIIIe-XVe s. 1993. Paris: Societe Presence du livre. Catalog #179
 Tissus, catalog #175 & 176
 Tissus, catalog #178
 Laporte, Jean-Pierre. 1988. Le Tresor des Saints de Chelles. Ville de Chelles: Societe Archeologique et Historique de Chelles.
 Musée national du Moyen Age, Themes de Cluny: A Guide to the Collections. 1993. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux.
This article is copyright © 2003 by Heather Rose Jones. Reproducing this article is not allowed unless you receive specific permission in advance; please ask.
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