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. 

Conclusion

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

Background

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?

“The study of history requires investigation, imagination, empathy, and respect.” ~ Jill Lepore

The Society of Antiquaries of London supports the legacy of pioneering fashion historian Janet Arnold in the promotion of yearly grants in her honour.  In 2017, I was fortunate to be awarded a grant to investigate and recreate a rare example of professional embroidery from the Tudor period.  The Broderers’ Crown Project was completed in 2018 and an article was published in April 2020 in Volume 16 of the Medieval Clothing and Textile Journal. 

In 2021, the Janet Arnold Award was expanded to also include three-year grants for larger projects, encouraging applications that would “liberate previously unheard voices and explore new approaches to costume studies.”  The project submitted was Professional Tudor Embroidery: Investigation and Re-creation.  The goal is to broaden the conventional narrative of Tudor embroidery and of those who practised the profession, and to research and re-create examples of embroidery produced during the years 1485 to 1603. 

Informal reports will be posted on this page from time to time. 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑