A Tudor binding or two

The production of printed books in England was in its infancy at this time and they were often imported from the continent. Books were quite valuable and literacy was not common in the general population.  As luxury items, they were often given as gifts or they were cherished possessions deserving of special treatment such as embroidered covers.  Bindings were often personalized, displaying the cipher or arms of the recipient or owner.  I’ve chosen two to provide an insight into different techniques and materials the embroiderer could use to create a unique and individual treasure.

The first is a very diminutive book – only 11 cm tall and 7 cm wide.  It is a copy of the New Testament in Greek published in Geneva in 1576.  Not surprisingly this little treasure was owned by Queen Elizabeth I.  It has been rebound with a leather cover but the original embroidered binding was conserved and attached to the front and back boards. (The tooled edge of the new leather binding is visible on the header image.)

This is the image of the front of the book from the British Library’s Database of Bookbindings taken some time ago https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/bookbindings.  The shelfmark is c17a14. 
The back cover, badly stained, showing the identical embroidery. You can find also find the book on the Library’s Main Catalogue using the same shelfmark, c17a14 (no image).

The embroidery on the front and back is identical and the ground fabric is white silk satin woven with double wires of silver or silver gilt running vertically.  Both sides are embroidered alike with a central motif of the badge of the Order of the Garter.  The garter is framed in a cartouche of large, couched wire check thread with a vine of double and single roses, buds and leaves.  All the metal threads appear silver, however they may be silver gilt:  in the very detailed photographs, the metal has a gold cast but that could be a result of the lighting available in the reading room.

Much of the red, green and blue colour that can bee seen is provided by a colour wash of paint or dye directly applied to the fabric.  A very close examination reveals what looks to be a design line drawn onto the ground as a guide for the colour placement and embroidery.  However, this may also simply be a residue left behind by the metal threads that have disappeared.  The six little lions in the red quarters are exquisitely stitched with gold filé and the tiny fleur-de-lis are composed with small chips of silver purl.  The centres of the roses are also purl and the outline is lizerine.  The letters of the motto, HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE, are worked in the same lizerine, and the outline of the actual garter is a larger diameter lizerine.  Outside the lizerine on the garter is a split stitch in what was probably a yellow silk but now appears to brown.  There is green silk highlighting the leaves, and the roses are similarly picked out in a pinkish brown silk. A single seed pearl decorates the crown on the front cover now, but there are still five remaining on the crown on the back, along with a single seed pearl on the buckle of the garter. 

Queen Elizabeth I was well respected for her fluency in several languages including Greek. Perhaps this little gem was given to her as New Year’s gift from an admirer, a courtier seeking favour or a token of esteem from a European ambassador.

Next week: An earlier Tudor binding…

A Visit to the British Museum

Challe and I had the great privilege to visit the Britain, Europe and Prehistory Study Room at the British Museum to examine two of their embroidered treasures.  The two small panels will be discussed further in a future post revealing a little more about the method of stitching the knots featured a couple of weeks ago.  For today, the continuing study of the Burse provides an insight into the fascinating and complex work of the professional Tudor embroiderer and every time it is examined, it reveals a few more details of its construction.

Many years ago, on a previous visit, I noticed that it was possible to turn the burse to photograph the reverse, but there wasn’t enough time left in the appointment to arrange to have the whole object be turned over by members of staff.  Instead, the four corners were carefully lifted so I see what kind of backing it had and whether the original stitching was visible.  The conservators had cut away portions of the modern (19th century) backing which had been added when the burse was repaired and framed for an 300th anniversary exhibition of Armada artifacts in 1888.  I was subsequently given permission to return to take the photographs of the underside but was unfortunately unable to make a date during that trip to do so.  The burse has since been conserved again, and this time it has been permanently mounted on a solid backing.  It is also unfortunate that it appears the conservators did not photograph the back before it was concealed.  So here are the only images I am aware of that show a bit of the original stitching on the reverse.

The embroidery is intricate and meticulously executed.  On this visit, with the very generous and skilled help of the two staff members on duty, the burse was placed under a microscope exposing some details not available to the naked eye.  The microscope was not equipped to take images so we attempted to take some with our phones.  Challe took some incredible images through the lens of the microscope but we haven’t reviewed them yet – a treat for a future post.  My phone didn’t work very well but you get an idea of the detail we could see. 

Detail of the cloth of gold in the crown

Detail showing the irregularity of the metal purl

Another matter for consideration is the comparison of the BM burse to the V&A burse.  Here are some photos that reveal a preliminary look at the development of design, material and technique.

Next week: an embroidered Tudor book binding or two…

Five days in London

A wonderfully exhausting week! 

Monday morning off to the Worshipful Company of Saddlers to examine their Hearse Cloth. 
Afternoon to the Guildhall Library to learn a little more about how they were used by searching City Livery Company histories.
Tuesday morning it was the Vintners’ Company hearse cloth featuring the story of their patron saint St Martin of Tours.
After lunch a quick visit to the banks of the Thames for a little mudlarking…
…and then on to to the British Library to see the special exhibition Elizabeth and Mary:  Royal Cousins, Rival Queens.
All day Wednesday was spent back at the British Library examining six 16th century embroidered book bindings.
Thursday a day spent a little off topic travelling down the Thames to Greenwich via the river boat for a spectacular look at London from the and from the Royal Observatory.
It just so happens that all three Armada Portraits are on exhibit at the moment.  You can always find Tudor embroidery – painted representations count too!
Friday back to the City and the Merchant Taylors’ two hearse cloths.
An enormous thanks to Challe, fellow Tudor enthusiast, for her company, her exceptional knowledge and her superb photography skills.  More to come!

Tudor Rose Leaves

The Douce bible is one of the Bodleian Library’s great treasures.  It can be seen on their collection website at https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/db9330ae-0b61-413a-8751-cdc31235d898/.  The description that accompanies the image is as follows:  A Bible, presented by the printer, Christopher Barker, to Queen Elizabeth on New Year’s Day, 1584. it was described at the time as “covered with crymson vellat alouer embradered wythe venys golde and seade perle” and the donor received 11 1/8 ounces of gilt plate for his gift. With Tudor Rose.

The image on the website is very poor quality and it is impossible to appreciate the creativity and skill of the embroiderer.  I ordered special photography for my research and while it is far superior to that on the website, it still cannot provide the details required to understand the very diverse materials and techniques used.   According to the website, the “upper cover” of the bible measures 430mm by 280mm, however, on the images that I purchased there is a scale in the photograph that indicates the front cover measures less then 28cm from the top edge to bottom edge and is less than 20cm wide.  Is it possible the website measures the entire surface across the front, spine and sides? For the purposes of this experiment, I used the measurements provided on the most recent images – approximately 11 inches by 8 inches.  These dimensions are similar to the embroidered bible in the Museum of London of approximately the same date.

The design is the same on the front and back.  A large Tudor rose is featured in the centre with smaller roses facing forward and from the side with buds, leaves and rosehips arranged on a curving stem above and below.  Each element is worked differently in a variety of metal threads layers with red and green silk providing a little colour and incorporating seed purls in the stems.  The spine is divided into 4 sections with two roses in the centre spaces and a sprig in the upper and lower compartments.  The embroidery is trimmed with gold file and plate lace.

I haven’t seen the bible in person as yet but I have examined the images very carefully.  There is so much to explore on this object and I have not encountered some of the layering sequences on any other object.  I looked for something familiar to start with and the leaves were the obvious choice as they were quite recognizable.  They use threads in a similar manner to the some of the leaves on the Broderers’ Crown and the BM Burse.  As I was having a closer look, though, I noticed that the outlines of some were treated a little differently.  On the front cover, the sprig of three leaves in the top right and the bottom left use a coiled wired to outline and not the zig-zag file used on the rest of the leaves that so clearly emulates the zagged edges of rose leaves. 

After drawing the outline to scale, I was surprised at just how small the leaves actually are – smaller than my fingernail.  I’m a bit pressed for time this week so I won’t describe all the steps involved.  I hope the images will convey the delicacy of the embroidery, the challenge of working on velvet and how beautifully the aged and tarnished metal threads show the embroidery in a way that it may not have been evident at the time it was worked. 

I’m not quite sure what will be posted next week – I’ll be on my way to the UK on Monday to see some more spectacular examples of Tudor embroidery.

Silk and Gold Tudor Feathers

Sometimes you just have to seize the opportunity when it arises… This beautiful red velvet cloak was not the reason I went to the Museum of London that day but I knew it would be important to future study.  I took as many close ups of the embroidery as I thought I might need but when it comes right down to it you can never take enough!  And at the time, I really had no intention of trying to reproduce the threads or techniques.  Hindsight…

Luckily, I have enough to begin with one of the motifs that you can’t see on this image from the website.  The three feathers alternate with a stylized leaf flourish situated between pairs of crescent shaped motifs on the deep embroidered border around the circumference of the cloak.

At the time, I was only interested in the techniques used to create the embroidery and I didn’t take any specific measurements, but I did get some information from the conservation report.  The border is about 4.3 inches wide so I made a drawing to fit that scale.   It isn’t perfect – but that won’t affect the experiment.

I began with the central feather.  The embroidery itself looks fairly straight forward but once again there are always challenges in finding the correct threads and methods of application.  It isn’t clear how the linen padding was applied because there is no access to the underside of the embroidery.  For the first half, four separated plies of linen string were couched to the velvet with fine linen thread.  Establishing the correct size of purl for the barbs was challenging without having taken specific measurements but I did take a nice close up of the left side of the motif.  For now, it’s a matter of taking photos of the experimental purls and comparing them with the photo of the original. 

The wire of the purl on the cloak is a larger diameter than the commercially made purl available now.  I started on the left side of the central feather with a #7 rough purl because the rough is made with a round wire (smooth purl is made with a flattened wire), but it was too small, so out it came.  #5 is the largest I have on hand and it seemed to work quite well, however, in comparison to the original, the modern purl is very tightly wound while the Tudor purl is less compact, with space between the coils. 

I carefully stretched the #5 to finish the other side of rest of the feather, but first the padding had to be stitched in.  Changed the linen thread for padding to a doubled strand of 35/3 and put in 4 long stitches in.  It was couched with long diagonal stitches using a finer linen thread in the opposite angle to the direction the purl will go in.  Finished stitching in the purl and found that the stretched #5 purl was very fragile and got quite damaged so the diameter of the wire will have to be larger to make the coils firmer.

The centre vein is called a rachis.  The thread used on the original is a coiled purl with a threaded core.  It took a few tries to get the correct size of purl stretched just enough and coiled again to the correct diameter to thread with the core. The images are not quite detailed enough to tell exactly what type of thread is used so I started with a linen thread on the turn over.  It was couched between the coils with a finer linen thread but that didn’t look quite right.  For the main part of the rachis, I used 4 strands of a coloured silk couched with one strand of the same. 

Moving on to the curved feather on the left, the gaps between the barbs are filled with coloured silk and the padding is visible but it really doesn’t help to identify how it is applied.  The curve made it difficult to put in long stitches but I persisted.  It wasn’t very pretty but it was firm so I left it in and moved on.  For the barbs, I purled a 0.20mm wire around a 22 gauge wire.  A 0.20mm wire is more or less the same size as a 36 gauge wire and a 22 gauge wire is about the same as 0.6mm.  So confusing for a dyslexic… I read backwards much better than forwards… and never ask me for directions! 

I filled between each barb with 8 strands of floss silk in a light green.  Working with 8 strands in the needle is not ideal and I will work on finding something else.  The rachis went in very nicely.

Finished up the feather on the right using a brighter green just to see how it would work.  I extended the rachides to quills with a core of passing because I thought I saw a little bit of metal that looked like wrapping, but the passing I used really wasn’t heavy enough.  The centre line of the tie is a piece of heavy check that I removed from something else.   It’s not quite the same as on the cloak and I’ve never been able to find any check made with wire as heavy and square.  It was used quite often on Tudor goldwork so I’ll have to keep looking!

As I worked on this motif and struggled to find the correct wires and purls, I was thinking about how the Tudor embroiderers might have worked with the metal threads.  Did they purchase them embroidery ready as we do now?  Or did they purchase wires and coil them as required?  Did they experiment with them to create new threads as they worked out a design? I have no answers yet but the picture may become clearer as I continue to experiment.  There are certainly many more techniques, wires, threads and fabrics to investigate!

Next week: A Tudor Rose Leaf

A Tudor Knot Mystery Part 2

Experiment #2 Individually Cut Purls

I almost gave up before I started because the knots look so continuous and compact on the original.  The ends of the purl aren’t really visible and it didn’t seem possible to put the purls in, tucking all the ends under other purls.  I took another very close look and decided it might be possible and the logical place to start would be the four pairs in the centre.  Below is the result… a bit loose and wonky but it was promising.

Above left, the centre was a bit too open and the larger loops on the outside tended to lift.  In the picture on the right, I closed the centre up by making the four pairs into a pinwheel and then (below) I tried a series of two knots to see if the join would help the outside loops to sit a bit flatter.  It turned out better than expected!

Below, using the same sequence of stitching, I tried to make a series of four knots equally spaced.  I started by marking the centres at one centimeter apart. To keep the centres square, I began each pinwheel with an “X” to help place the pairs of purls and kept the cut lengths of purls uniform.  I was trying to establish a rhythm of stitching by doing the same action down the row and then moving on to the next step. 

Somehow, this knot looks more like the original – a little less perfect and more compact – but it may simply be that the experiment #1 knot wasn’t pulled tight enough.  Determining which method was used will have to wait until the 16th century embroidery can be examined.  Hopefully, the back of the little panel will be accessible to see the stitching on the underside. If not, it may be possible to tell from a close study of the front. Next week: A Tudor Feather…

A Tudor Knot Mystery

I was intrigued by this small embroidery (Embroidery Sample British Museum 1895,0810.37a,b) when I first saw it published in The Inventory of Henry VIII: Textiles and Dress Chapter 5: The Art of the Broderers by Santina Levey (Plate 77, page 158). The rose and crown are often embroidered on ceremonial objects, the Elizabethan Burse for example.  The cipher of Henry VIII appears on the panel on the right indicating that it was likely embroidered prior to his death in 1547 making it one of the earliest extant pieces of what we refer to now as traditional English goldwork. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1895-0810-37-b

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Each of these very small panels, only 3½ inches square, has a border of true love knots that is the subject of my next experiment.  I have not had the opportunity to examine this piece, but on very close inspection of the photograph, it appears that the metal purls of the border could have been created in two different methods. The knots could have been sewn individually onto the satin ground fabric with cut purls or they may have been knotted first similar to a braid and then secured to the ground with two purls between each knot.

Experiment #1 The Continuous Knot

How to decipher the knot?  Many of the knots have been distorted so I searched out the most well defined knot and drew it exactly as I saw it.  Then I simplified the path by reducing the number of threads from four to two and added directional arrows.  Then came the hard part – actually making the knot.  I used two different colours of bulky wool and went on to try a number of different materials eventually gaining the confidence to tie the knot in a series with two pairs of threads.

To reproduce the size and colour, I used #5 smooth purl threaded with a strand of linen and put a needle on each end to make it easier to weave in and out.  I used only two lengths of purl to tie the series of knots.  I had to leave it loose enough to thread in the pairs and it was very difficult to keep the correct tension and size as the knots progressed so out came the old macramé T-pins.

The pins were removed and the row of knots was secured to the velvet with small pieces of purl between the knots.  The excess purl was cut and the linen thread was secured on the back.

The knots were not uniform and a little bit large so I drew a ½ inch by 3½ inch rectangle on the foam core and tried to work within the space.   I also needed a guideline on the velvet because the knots loosen during the transfer. 


There must be an easier way!  Once again, the modern thread may have made it a bit more challenging to tie the knots.  The smoothness of the purl made it slippery and difficult to maintain the tension but it had the benefit of making it easier to pull in and out.  The Tudor purl is much less consistent and this may be a result of keeping tension.  In a comparison photograph, the wire used to make the Tudor thread appears to be a larger gauge and much flatter.  I expect there is a machine that will make these knots now.  Next week Experiment #2 Individually Cut Purls.

The Elizabethan Seal Burse in the British Museum

BM 1997,0301.1


I first saw the Elizabethan Burse in a British Museum magazine in 2001. The brilliance of the gold, the multitude of different metal threads and the dimensionality of the embroidery caught my imagination and inspired me to investigate the work of the professional Tudor embroiderer.  That the Burse had survived in beautiful condition for 400 years, and that it came with a fascinating provenance, added to its appeal. For more information about the burse https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1997-0301-1

© Trustees of the British Museum

I was fortunate to be permitted to examine the Burse in the study room at the BM.  At that time, I happened to have a look at the reverse of the embroidery at the border section. The back of an embroidery can reveal many important details that are not always evident from its front. For example, there is no evidence of metal threads on the back so all the starts and stops appear to be on the top, and the cord was stitched in place before the purls were added. These extra details led me to select it for the first of what will be many experiments. 

Experiment #1 Burse Border Motif

There are many challenging embroidery techniques used on the Burse and several types of thread not easily reproduced. Photographs are not the ideal source to size and select materials but the original Burse was not at hand. Instead, I used what I already had in my supplies to achieve a result that would help identify as many details as possible with respect to the size of the motif, and with consideration for how the modern threads would behave and look when compared to the original.  Past experience has taught me that a single experiment would not be enough: this would be the first in a process, getting a little closer each time.  The ground fabric for the experiment is a 100% silk velvet with a fairly deep pile. 

Experiment 1.a

There is no evidence of an inked or painted design on the velvet ground of the burse.  That doesn’t mean the pattern is not there, just that it is not visible.  However, if paint or ink wasn’t used, then how else might the design have been transferred to the velvet?  For this first attempt, the pattern was traced onto a small fragment of silk gauze.  The gauze was basted to the velvet and the twisted cord was stitched in place. The silk was then easily removed from under the twist. 

I used a strand of Londonderry Linen 50/3, doubled, for the padding. Over the padding for the centre, I used #9 rough purl for the centre and #10 bright check for the inside of the three little petals. All were sewn down with YLI #100 colour 216, waxed and doubled. I used a crimper to pleat the #6 broad plate and, after sewing down the plate, I outlined the petals with twist. Clearly, the texture and size of the modern threads is not the same as those from the 16th century.

What a mess!  However, perfection is not the goal here… so, what did I learn? 

1. The silk gauze is very soft and shifted a bit as I stitched through it, so it would probably have to be basted more securely with smaller stitches, or perhaps stiffened with a light solution of starch (but that may affect how the threads are removed).

2. Stitching on velvet is very difficult.  The pile makes the placement of the needle difficult because you can’t see where it enters the fabric below the pile.  A visual comparison indicates that the velvet on the burse is a shorter pile but is that because of its age, or was velvet less plush in the 16th century?  It would be beneficial to measure the pile of an extant fragment. 

3. The measurement of the border was estimated and it was later determined to be much wider.  The drawing would have to be scaled.

4. The modern twist is not as tight and it is very difficult to stitch in place.  A smaller diameter passing and a tighter twist would be needed.   

5. Although I used the widest available plate, it may not have been wide enough.  The new check purl is very shiny and regular in comparison to the original but the rough purl appears to be quite close to the original.

6. The linen thread would need to be a bit heavier and the padding stitches more carefully placed.

Experiment 1.b

For this attempt, I resized the pattern and pricked, pounced and painted. In the future, I will use a graphics program to produce a pattern closer to the original and if resizing is required, it will be much quicker. There are still many differences in the texture of the purls, the plate definitely needs to be wider and the twist needs to be a bit larger and tighter, but overall a great improvement.  The pile of the velvet peeks through between the plate and the twist, but it is possible that it also did on the original when it was new, and time has encouraged them recede.  The original purls, check and rough, are not uniform at all and were likely twisted by hand.  Perhaps I will experiment with wire to try to produce something by hand.

Experiment 1.c

In answer to the question of securing the twist without sinking the gold, Saint-Aubin mentions stripping the gold and threading the core into a needle. With this end you can make your two little stitches in a place to be covered. This secures the thread, and the cord or passing can then be couched on the surface.  In the case of the three-ply twist below, I stripped all three plies and threaded them into a large needle to sink them to the back. The stripped gold could then be recycled.

At some point in the future all these experiments will be compared to the original, back and front. Any differences will be noted and addressed in further attempts.

There is a second extant Elizabethan Seal Burse in the Victoria and Albert Museum and it is currently on display in the Bags: Inside and Out Exhibition.

This Burse is considered to have been embroidered at an earlier date and its embroidery is actually quite different. The differences illustrate that, as materials continued to evolve, the embroiderers adapted their techniques accordingly. The embroidery on the V&A Burse has not survived in quite as good condition as the BM Burse, but it is in its original pouch form. The border is similar but there are a few differences. Can you identify them?

The Tudor Broderer (brouderer, brauderar, imbrotherer…)

Despite all the research done on this period of English history, Tudor embroidery and those who practiced the profession remain a bit of a mystery.  Most history of embroidery books skirt past this period of important English art.  It was preceded by the very well-documented period of English ecclesiastical embroidery known as Opus Anglicanum, which had effectively drawn to a close by the beginning of the Tudor dynasty.  Religious embroidery continued to be in high demand, but it was produced for local consumption, and did not receive the international acclaim of the earlier era.  

In the 1530’s, Henry VIII famously broke all ties with Rome over his desire to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn in the early 1530’s.  It was a tumultuous period.  First the large religious institutions, such as abbeys and convents, were dismantled.  Then the property and all the ecclesiastical furnishings were confiscated by the crown.  During Edward’s short reign, every parish church in the country was stripped clean.  Effectively, embroiderers had been deprived of their main source of income and were challenged to find a way to maintain their craft and their livelihood.

How did the professional embroiderer survive that difficult period? What type of embroidery was done? How did the craft expand to the extent that we see in the portraiture in Elizabethan period?  How did it become so popular in the Stuart period that many ambitious people, men and women spent fortunes that they didn’t necessarily have dressing in embroidered finery to keep up the illusion of wealth?  Can we discover more about those skilled embroiderers who made it happen?  Who were they and how did they endure that difficult period?  And, importantly, can we reproduce the techniques to ensure the Tudor art of embroidery survives?

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