Women in monasteries have, over the centuries, produced wonderful pieces of embroidery. Many of these were made to adorn their own monasteries, since working with one’s hands for the glory of God has been considered commendable and virtuous. Saint Birgitta of Sweden, in fact, laid down a rule in the 14th century that in her monasteries all of the altar linens and furnishings should be made in the monastery by the nuns themselves. In Europe, quite a number of monastery embroideries remain today in their original homes.(Monasteries for women are often called "convents", but when referring to those in the Middle Ages, the terms are interchangeable.)
Nuns have generally not come to the convent as full-time professional embroiderers, but many of them have been skilled and well trained. For most of the medieval centuries, nuns were drawn mainly from wealthy and aristocratic families, where they will have grown up learning embroidery along with reading, writing and music.
Other tapestries, including the well-known Tristan and Thomas tapestries, the Heilsspiegel tapestry and the Jagdteppich (all from Wienhausen), tell a story through images arranged in one or more horizontal rows, rather like a comic strip. On some of these, the rows are separated by bands of decorative pattern, or of lettering explaining the story shown above. Within a row, the scenes of the story may be separated into panels or they may all run together continuously.
Another way to deal with multiple scenes or figures is to put each one inside a frame, and then arrange the frames either in a horizontal row which may tell a story, such as the St. George and the Bartholomäus tapestries from the monastery in Lüne, or in several rows to make a square or rectangle. The frames may be circular, lobed, or more complex shapes, many of which look a great deal like the frames used for individual scenes in some stained-glass windows of the same time period. The spaces between medallions may be filled with human figures, angels, flowers, animals or geometric patterns.
The borders are equally varied, and may include flowers, vines, rows of angels or animals, and in several cases, rows of tilted shields showing the arms of various families. The Tristan tapestry has shield borders separating each row of scenes, and each shield is shown under a framing archway. The Malterer tapestry’s first and last panels show the arms of the Malterer family and the names of the donors (Johannes and his sister Anna). In other cases it’s hard to know whether the shields represent specific families, perhaps the families of the nuns or of benefactors of the monastery, or whether they are purely decorative.
The embroidery featured on the cover of the newsletter and above is a spectacular klosterstich hanging by Lady Racaire of Drachenwald, based on the Malterer hanging, one of the best known of these tapestries. The Malterer (see below) is one of the long horizontal tapestries and shows scenes from several legends. The scenes are in pairs, and are all on the theme of men beguiled by women: Samson is shown in one scene opening the jaws of a lion, and in the next, having his hair cut off by Delilah. Aristotle looks out his window at the beautiful Phyllis, and in the next scene (probably the most often reproduced scene from this tapestry) he is down on all fours with Phyllis riding on his back and controlling him with a bridle! Next comes the poet Virgil being left to dangle in a basket outside the tower of the lady he was pursuing, and the Arthurian story of Iwaine and Laudine. The last scene in the Malterer tapestry shows a lady with the horn of a unicorn in her lap.
Racaire chose to make the format of her version a rectangle, with two rows of scenes: on top, from left to right the two scenes with Samson followed by the two with Aristotle, and on the bottom, the stories of Virgil and Iwaine. Since there are eleven scenes in the original, the lady with the unicorn is the fifth scene in the top row at far right, and below her, a new scene of successful lovers, taken from the 1340s Manesse codex, which is very similar in style.
Materials and methods
Most of the klosterstich tapestries are worked entirely in wool on a heavy linen backing. A few have highlights worked in silk, and some use white linen thread for the white portions. The wool is usually a fine two-ply thread, and covers the entire surface of the embroidery. Racaire used Renaissance Dyeing’s  24/2 crewel wools in natural colors for her version.
Klosterstich is worked with a single thread, which is why it’s sometimes called “self-couching:” a long thread is laid over the whole length of the area to be covered, and then on the return journey, the same thread takes several smaller stitches over the longer thread at intervals to couch it down. The couching stitches are slanted, sometimes nearly vertical, and in wool they will blend in with the longer thread and be nearly invisible. This works especially well if the slanting stitches are worked in the same direction as the twist of the yarn: if they are worked in the opposite direction, the yarn may “bubble” and not lie smooth.
It’s also important that the couching stitches are not pulled too tightly. Stretching the embroidery in a frame makes it much easier to control the tension, and as in many embroidery techniques, accurate and consistent tension makes a big difference in how the finished product looks.
Klosterstich, Bokhara couching and Roumanian couching are sometimes used — as on Mary Corbet’s Needle ‘N Thread website  — to describe different variations on the same basic stitch. In Bokhara couching, the couching stitches in matching thread are short, very visible, and often worked to form lines or patterns. In Roumanian couching the stitches are longer and less conspicuous, and in Klosterstich, the couching thread is meant to be as nearly invisible as possible, forming a smooth surface overall.
Fading and color loss may also have affected the original tapestries as we see them today. It is still quite noticeable that they are dominated by intense madder reds and woad or indigo blues, along with bright or golden yellow and some white or ivory. Shades of green, usually a light to medium yellow-green, are common in some but not all pieces, as is a lighter blue, and less commonly pink, brown and tan. Generally any one tapestry uses only one or two shades of each color. In most pieces, black is used sparingly and mostly for outlines.
Few of us have the ambition to undertake a project the size of Racaire’s, but we can all admire these splendid tapestries, and perhaps try the technique for ourselves on some smaller pieces. The Klosterstich tapestries are an outstanding example of how people in the Middle Ages, working sometimes with quite humble materials, could employ their skill to brighten and decorate their homes and churches.
 Drachenwald Embroiderers Guild website: http://dragonsembroiderers.blogspot.com/
Racaire’s blog: http://racaire.blogspot.com/
Racaire’s handout on Klosterstich, an 8-page PDF including
photos, diagrams and bibliography, is available at:
The Art of Embroidery, by Marie Schuette and Sigrid Muller-Christensen. 1963-64, Thames and Hudson, London (no ISBN#)
Black and white photos (Plates 40-45, 181, 185-188, 193-195, 229, 296-298) and color plates (IX, XII, XIX) of several Klosterstich pieces, including details, and a small amount of discussion.
The Art of Medieval Spain A.D. 500-1200, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1993. ISBN #0-8109-6433-3
Page 310 is an interesting article on the Girona tapestry, with color pictures.
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