Klosterstich: convent embroideries in wool

by Christian de Holacombe



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.

 

Among the surviving monastery embroideries are a number of solidly embroidered wall hangings (often called tapestries) done predominantly in klosterstich or convent stitch. Also called “self-couching,” this is a simple filling technique. A long thread is taken across the area to be filled, and then fastened down at intervals by small stitches in the same thread on a return journey. When worked in close parallel lines, this produces a smooth, solid colored surface, almost like weaving. Other names for this technique include figure stitch, brokatstich, and Bokhara or Roumanian couching. [1]

There are more than fifty of these surviving klosterstich pieces in Germany and the surrounding area, ranging from the earliest 14th century (1300s) all the way through to the end of the 16th century, with very little change in technique. An older, but possibly related, piece (bottom of this page) is the Creation tapestry, now in Girona, Spain. It is tentatively dated to sometime in the 11th or 12th century, but where and when it was made are not clear, since the first description of it is in a cathedral inventory of 1884.

 

Klosterstich is well suited to wall hangings, because it can produce a solid and colorful surface while being economical in its use of yarn. It’s also faster to work than tent stitch or Bayeux tapestry stitch, both of which were also used for wall hangings in the 11th to 16th centuries. However, the long stitches used in klosterstich, and the fact that most of the embroidery is in wool, mean that this is not the best technique for upholstery or anything else that will take a lot of heavy wear or abrasion.

The overall designs of klosterstich tapestries fall into a few major patterns. The Girona tapestry, the Philosophy tapestry from Heiningen made in 1516, and several others all have a large central, circular medallion, framing a single figure or scene. Around the medallion are other, smaller scenes and figures arranged in outer circles or in wedge-shaped segments radiating out from the center. Fitting a circular center into a square or rectangular overall shape means there may also be figures in each corner, such as the rivers of Paradise in the corners of the Girona tapestry or the birds and animals on the Osterteppich (Easter tapestry) from Lüne.

 

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.

Several of the tapestries are long horizontal strips with a single row of scenes. These are usually designed to hang in a specific space in the monastery, often above a row of choir stalls in the church. Others, including those with a central medallion, are square or rectangular and must have been designed to cover a larger area of wall.

The subject matter of these tapestries is surprisingly varied. Not all of them are religious. They may feature figures or stories from the Bible, from the lives of saints, from well-known legends or popular romances such as Tristan and Yseult, or even (as in the Philosophy tapestry) allegorical or personified concepts. One tapestry may use several types of motif: the Osterteppich has a scene of the resurrection of Christ in the center, surrounded by angels; in the corners are birds and animals, with an inner border of animals inside wreaths and an outer border of a leafy vine. The “Sybils and Prophets” tapestry from Lüne is a rectangular panel featuring fourteen prophets from the Old Testament (including Moses, Aaron, David and Solomon) and twelve Sybils, legendary women from pre-Christian Greece and Rome who were said to have prophesied the coming of Christ.

Part of the center medallion of the
Philosophy tapestry from Heiningen

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.

Racaire’s embroidery

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.

The frames of the scenes are 8-lobed, with alternating square and rounded corners, and they are worked to give the illusion that they are made of interlacing ribbons. The pink and white outer border and the leaves and flowers around the edges and corners of the scenes are drawn from the original tapestry, but since the original is only one row deep, Racaire added a rose with tendrils in the centers of the spaces between the rows.

This project was inspired by a challenge: Racaire and her friend Mistress Anya Mstyslavyaya challenged each other to recreate a medieval wallhanging, using a stitch technique they were not already familiar with. Anya’s hanging is quite different, showing a single figure, and she is dyeing all her own thread as she goes along, so it’s going more slowly. You can see both their projects at the Wallhanging Project blog [2], and there will be future challenges including other members of the Drachenwald Needleworkers Guild [3].

Racaire at her frame, with Cleo

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 [4] 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 [1] — 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.

Unlike some other embroidery techniques (most notably split stitch), nearly all of the klosterstich is worked in vertical lines, whether filling in figures or background. Although it’s possible to work curves in this stitch, it’s much easier to work in straight parallel lines, because the tension of the long stitch needs to be just right before the couching stitches are taken to hold it down.

Klosterstich is not the only stitch used in these embroideries, although on some of them it is virtually the only stitch remaining. Generally these pieces are worked with large areas of flat color, with no shading or attempt to show three-dimensional shapes. But it’s not uncommon for outlines to be worked in stem stitch, chain stitch, or sometimes split stitch, and then filled in with klosterstich. Details of faces, armor, clothing, and animal bodies are sometimes added in stem stitch, as can be seen in a detail of the Tristan tapestry where a few such details in black thread remain. Other tapestries may have lost these outlines completely. The Girona tapestry uses the same types of stitches in very much the same way, although the images and lettering style are more typical of a time much earlier than the German pieces. (But then, it’s Spanish — Spanish styles and motifs are often very different.)

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.

Resources

WEBSITES

[1] http://www.needlenthread.com/2008/01/bokhara-couching-embroidery-video.html

[2] http://wallhanging.blogspot.com/

[3] Drachenwald Embroiderers Guild website: http://dragonsembroiderers.blogspot.com/

[4] http://www.renaissancedyeing.com/store_crewel-wool/

Racaire’s blog: http://racaire.blogspot.com/

Racaire’s handout on Klosterstich, an 8-page PDF including photos, diagrams and bibliography, is available at:
http://racaire.at/index/embroidery/handouts/Klosterstich_v1-00.pdf

PRINT SOURCES

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.

At left, Prophets tapestry from Wienhausen.

 

Below, a section of the Bartholomäus Tapestry from Lüne

 

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