the West Kingdom Needlework Guild

Silk: An Endless Thread
(Part 2 Of 2)

A Timeline for Silk Embroidery

- by Sabrina de la Bere, Guild Minister

In Issue #21 we saw a brief history of silk in general, together with a bibliography. Part II of this article, a timeline of silk embroidery, is still a work in progress, and there are tantalizing hints (marked *) of embroideries and pictures I have not yet seen. Here are a few dates and notes on some particularly outstanding historical examples of embroidery in silk.

Embroideries in Time


In these barrows on the Danube, Chinese silk is used for embroidery of Celtic patterns on woollen garments - the silk probably courtesy of Greek traders.*

2nd -1st c. BC: CHINA

Chinese embroidery in silk - chain stitch, satin and plain line stitch.

1st c. AD: CHINA

Chinese embroidery including stem, satin, chain, and long & short stitches. Also "jap" gold (thin metal strips around a silk core) is traded from China to Rome, primarily for weaving

4th c. CHINA

Chinese silk embroidery used for trade - chain stitch in blue, crimson, sand and brown primarily.

Below: legend recounts that the first silkworm eggs came to Europe as a gift to the Emperor Justinian from two monks who concealed them in a cane walking staff.
engraving -- silkworm eggs gifted to Emperor Justinian


Anglo Saxon panel, now in Masseik Belgium. Worked in silk thread, couched gold and seed pearls. Design of arches, birds, animals, and monograms, believed to be church furnishings. Said to be one of the first silk embroidered pieces in Europe.


Peacock stitched in silver, gold and silks on linen (Abegg collection).

LATE 11th c. CHINA

Chinese embroidery in silk - needle loop stitching.


Red and gold silk embroidered and appliquéd, and sewn with pearls and set gems. This embroidery from Palermo is in an Islamic style and bears an Arabic inscription blessing the owner and identifying the city and year when it was produced.


Colored silks and gold thread on a sky-blue silk; kufic inscriptions and roundels of animal and human figures. Example from Almeria of workshop pieces from Spain with Central Asian influences.


Embroidered bands, silk embroidery on cotton-silk fabric - worked in "crewel" and split stitch, with couched gold thread (gold wrapped silk thread). Some bands have kufic letters, animals and trees. Silk colors include blues, green and red.


English embroidery primarily done for the Church and nobility in embroidery workshops - primarily silk split stitch and couched (underside) gold thread. Examples: the Grandson Antepedium, the Tree of Jesse Cope, etc.


Another type of German embroidery. Meaning "wiles of women", these embroideries draw from stories of classical antiquity and the Bible, and focus on "resourceful women thwarting powerful men." These embroideries are not from workshops, but from the hands of patrician and burgher class women, and are based on woodcuts, with the characters in contemporary dress. The embroidery is worked in silk, wool, and metal threads on linen and the stitches are primarily satin and split stitch.

13th c. ITALY

Silks completely covered with gold and silk embroidery are produced in Sicily and Southern Italy, such as the 5-meter-long drape for the funeral of St. Francis of Assisi.

engraving --  ladies sorting silkworm eggs
Top right: sorting of silkworm eggs before incubating.

1303: PARIS

The Provost of Paris, Guillaume de Hangest, implements regulations requiring that anyone doing gold thread work must sew with silk. Similar quality control regulations called "verleger" are implemented throughout Europe.

LATE 14th c.

Rows of running stitches in silk thread on fine wool[?] twill - decoration on every-day garments of other than noble classes. Also examples of silk used on buttonholes.

1600: INDIA

Under the Moguls, cut and voided silk velvets with silver and gold embroideries are made as floor spreads and canopies. Quilted silks and cottons are embroidered in silk chain stitch for summer carpets, hangings, and screens.


S , Z , &Flat Silk: Types of Thread & Historical Examples

Silk that is able to be "reeled off" from the cocoons is most often made into a "flat" or untwisted silk thread. This is the most ex-pensive type of silk thread but also the strongest and most luxurious looking. Other silk threads may be spun from shorter silk fibers, and may be S- or Z- spun depending on which way they are twisted. Single threads may also be plied, and again this may be in the S or Z direction. Historical silk embroideries may use one or a variety of thread types.

One early example of flat silk is the Maaseik embroidery already mentioned, also known as the Chasuble of Saints Harlindis and Relindis, from 850 AD. Flat silk is used to couch gold and to work satin stitch in red, blue, yellow and green.

In the Langors panel (800's) from Wales, the silk embroidery is very fine, in the same size thread as the ground linen, 25 threads/cm. The silk thread is reeled silk. Some of the silk has a slight S twist and is not plied, and some has a slight Z twist and is S-plied to form a 2-ply thread. The stitch is a counted-thread stem stitch, worked 3 threads over and 1 back.

In a 12th c. liturgical sandal in Lyon, the gold embroidery thread is made of gold strips twisted in an "S" formation around a silk core. The gold is couched down and outlined with stem or split stitch in red silk. There are a number of examples of 14th c. buttonholes, done with a buttonhole stitch in the London archeological finds. The silk is 2-ply: Z-twisted, S-plied. This is the type of thread primarily used for stitching in these finds.

In Schuette's book there is mention of a Westphalian cushion of the 14th-15th c. embroidered with untwisted silk floss. The stitching is brick stitch. The colors of silk used are green, yellow, red and white.

In the Altar Frontal from Middelburg, circa 1518, the gold threads are laid two by two and couched in silk. In both the Or Nué technique and the laid-and-couched silk sections, the silk used has no twist. The metal threads have an S-twisted silk core.

In Bursa and other Turkish silk centers, the most highly prized silk was the tightly spun. This was earmarked for the weavers, and the unspun or less twisted was set aside for the embroiderers. Most of the Ottoman (14th-17th c.) embroidered textiles were done with a 2-ply silk thread. Both Z- and S- plied threads were sometimes used on the same textile, as were loosely plied and tightly plied threads, to give dimension to the embroidery. The met-al wrapped threads are predominately Z-twisted, although there are some examples of S-twisted metal threads. The color of the silk core was chosen to enhance the intended effect of the metal.

In the mid-1500's there are regulations in Italy regarding the importation of thin and thick silks. "Thin silk," which was very fine, was costlier, and preferred for making fine garments. The different sized threads also meant different workmanship, different fabric types, and greater differentiation between the silk producers and producing areas. In addition, sometimes the threads imported from different areas were combined in the production of both cloth and threads to achieve various effects.

Parts I and II of this article, and a list of modern silk embroidery threads and sources, are also available together in booklet form from the author.

Notes on the illustrations: Engravings are from "Strandanous Vermis Sericus," engravings of the manufacture of silk in 16th c. Italy, found at:


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