If you are a keen history of embroidery researcher, especially of the 16th century English sort, you may have noticed that the information available on institutional websites to date is not very explicit when it comes to finding the objects that should be included in this study. To make it a little easier for researchers like me in the future, one of the projects that is on my list of things to accomplish this year is to enter all the extant objects a professional embroiderer may have embroidered into a searchable database. The original idea was to actually physically examine each object so that more data specific to each extant object with regard to the technique and materials used is readily available. I have been fortunate to see a whole lot of embroideries in my recent travels and collect a huge amount relevant information about each of them.
The time has come to start entering that data into the computer. What I am realizing is that so many of the embroideries I have been able to gain access to don’t really fit into either the time frame or the technique category. I think I knew that to begin with, but I hoped that the information gleaned from the search would somehow help with the challenge of identifying exactly what constitutes the work of a professional embroiderer. Most of the objects were selected based on a very brief written description or a very low-resolution image. The major challenge has been that a large number of the embroideries that are pertinent to the study reside in collections that are inaccessible. The Burrell and the V&A are two notable public institutions and then there are the impossible to find out about private collections… I have not been able to access any that reside in private collections and I know there are some significant embroideries there that are crucial to include.
All that being said, there were definitely some very exciting AHA moments on my travels and as I enter the data, review all the images that we took and the exceptional things I noted about each item as they were examined, what I’m realizing is that the exercise has been absolutely essential because the rather nebulous idea I had about what constituted the work of a professional Tudor embroiderer is becoming a bit clearer and, happily, a little broader.
One of the items I really want to see is in the V&A (above) so it seems, deadlines being what they are, I won’t likely be able to get my hands on it (so to speak) in time for it to be included in this study. On the website it is described as early 17th century and the ground fabric of silk which makes it special and very significant. But what makes it even more so is the embroidery which is dated 1590-1600. “It is richly embroidered in silver and silver-gilt thread, purl, strip and spangles.” The technique is quite different than the one used on extant jackets such as the one popularly known as the Plimoth Jacket and the famous Margaret Layton Jacket that is paired with her portrait. These jackets are often described as being embroidered in coloured silks on a linen ground and I didn’t really include them on my list of potential items to search for. Fortunately, sometimes a curator who knows their collection intimately can suggest an item that may otherwise have been overlooked and that is just what happened…
The jacket in question fits into the “embroidered in coloured silks on a linen ground” category but it isn’t the detached buttonhole technique I would have expected to see. The stitches made in silk thread are very uncomplicated – simply satin, stem and couching. The file or passing is worked in what looked like a basic version (if there is such a thing) of the Elizabethan Braid so I looked it up in Jacqui Carey’s Elizabethan Stitches. The closest I could come was on page 106 and a reference to a Modern Vandyke stitch in Fig. 118. I had a vague recollection of the name so I looked it up in my trusty 1967 version of Anchor’s 100 Embroidery Stitches and without actually stitching it with smaller legs to make sure, I think that is exactly what it is, all the others look far too complicated. However, I stand to be corrected if anyone wants to try to stitch it.
The best thing about this object is the fact that the underside of the embroidery is accessible. I know very little about fashion, but even I could tell that it had been remade from a much larger item. What is also apparent is that the original garment was pieced before it was embroidered. The little berries which are stitched in a wide variety of colour are an intriguing combination of layers of satin stitch with further long stitches couched with smaller stitches going through to make a three dimensional and very textured and tidy berry. I’m not sure what all this means just now, but I’m sure they are clues that will help to determine when it was stitched and what it may have looked like originally – time and further study will tell. It was an extremely exciting opportunity to study an embroidered jacket inside and out!
Along with all the extant embroideries and the embroiderers’ wills, there is also a database for images of embroidered items (portraits etc.) so I’m still bouncing from one database to another interspersed with actual embroidery on the sleeve and cushion, and writing blog posts when I get bored with the data entry. Tomorrow will be a relaxing day consisting of one embroidery or Tudor related Zoom after another for about 7 hours – I think I’ll knit while watching!