Working Environment

Towards the end of the century, Elizabeth I’s favoured courtier Robert Deveraux, Earl of Essex was known to be frequently in debt.  At the time embroiderer Richard Ashby wrote his will, the Earl owed him the enormous sum of £400.  Before identifying any bequests Ashby called attention to the debt and stated “for as much as I doubt not of his honest sure payment thereof I will that mine executrix hereafter named shall be an humble suitor to my said honorable lord for payment thereof…”.  He then went on to enumerate his bequests based on the receipt of the money owed.

At this time, richly embroidered garments were so highly prized, money lenders accepted them along with the things normally expected such as jewelry and silverware from their clients as collateral for loans.  Items were often remade to take advantage of the highly prized and expensive embroidery.  Treasured gowns and cloaks were willed to parish churches to create altar frontals and vestments. The velvet panel embroidered in gold with the Royal arms was once used to carry the Elizabeth I’s Great Seal of England but when it was no longer needed it was remade into an elaborate cushion which was so highly regarded through four centuries that it has survived beautifully intact.

Working Environment

It wasn’t always easy to collect payment for work completed.  Embroiderer William Yorke had produced and delivered to James Bishop of Ely £10 in embroidered goods including “a payre of riche books embroidered after the richest manner” but the good bishop had died before paying Yorke any part of the money owed.  After repeatedly requesting payment from the bishop’s executors, including the bishop’s son Sir John Stanley, to no avail, he took his case to court.  Unfortunately, Yorke had not obtained a written obligation from the Bishop indicating that the goods had been delivered but not paid for, so Sir John stood his ground and said if the embroiderer could produce proof that the money was still owing he would pay.

Professional embroiderers often worked for the nobility, sometimes even living in their large manors.  The Earl of Surrey Henry Howard was known to appreciate beautiful clothing and in his manor house at Kenninghall in Norfolk his two embroiderers James and John had their own room.  In an inventory made after his death in 1547, the Earl’s wardrobe contained several suits of doublet and hose in satin or velvet embroidered with gold or silver.  The most elaborate embroidery, however, was to be found on the vestments in the chapel.

Working Environment

There were measures in place to ensure the quality of the work originating in London and its environs.  All embroidery produced for sale was to first be brought to the Broderers’ Hall to be inspected by the wardens and sealed prPackard Seal 3ior to sale. A lead seal was affixed to the edge of the cloth and the unique mark would be impressed into the surface.  It is unclear whether the image would be that of the company or it may have belonged to the warden inspecting the piece.  Thomas Packard was a warden in the middle of the century and his personal seal illustrated his initials separated by a dove.  The warden was also empowered to “search all workshops in the city of London or Westminster, borough of Southwark, and parish of S. Katharine, and see whether the work be good or bad.”  If substandard work was discovered it was to be brought to the hall, the worker identified to the membership and the offending work burnt.

Embroiderers were also known to rent booths in market towns, such as Stourbridge near Cambridge, to sell ready-made items and possibly to establish ties with the more rural religious communities, and maintain relationships with the nobility during longer sojourns in their country residences. The work would be done in the London workshop but taken to market for delivery or sale as in the case of Thomas Typlady. The prior of Canons Ashby had ordered a set of vestments placing a down payment of £10.  They were completed, brought to Stourbridge Fair and then delivered to the Abbey, the prior still owing Typlady a balance of £29.  Before the money could be paid, the monastery was dissolved and the vestments were confiscated and brought to London by order of King Henry VIII.  Fortunately, when Typlady petitioned the crown for the outstanding money, the King honoured the debt in full.


Working Environment

In the early years of the 16th century a large portion of the embroiderers’ work would have consisted of ecclesiastical vestments.  These were often made to order, commissioned by both clergy and private individuals. Sizable items such as chasubles and copes were worked on flat frames having a ground of luxurious imported fabric such as silk velvet, damask or cloth of gold.  The precious metal threads were, for the most part, also imported at the beginning of the century but by the end were being produced in England.  Silk fibre was imported but the silk threads used by embroiderers were produced by and purchased from skilled silk women.  Gold and silver spangles, pearls and precious gems were often used to embellish garments.  Household items and furnishings such as beds, cushions and books were amongst the items elaborately embroidered with goldwork.

German woodcut Much of the room would be taken up with the large frames (tents) on which the fabric to be embroidered was stretched and laced.  The ground was kept taut for ease of stitching and to keep the design true.  To allow the embroiderer to work to best effect, the frames could be supported a number of ways.  In the illustration there is a table with two long pieces of wood extending from the underside on which to rest the frame parallel to the floor.  Another, more adaptable method consisted of two or more separate trestles, similar to saw horses, which could be placed at different distances according to the size of the piece being worked.  The embroiderer would sit on a stool and work the embroidery with one hand on top of the work following the pattern and the other hand receiving the needle and guiding it back to the surface from below.


Working Environment

Upon becoming a Freeman of the City of London, the embroiderer would be about 25 years of age and could consider marrying and, providing he was financially able, he could begin his own practice.  Regulations governing such a venture were set out in the ordinances which had been written by the wardens of the company and approved by three representatives of the Court.  “No person to make work or set up any workhouse or shop before his master appear before the court, and be examined as to his character and ability, and such persons have made a piece of work to the satisfaction of the court.”


A small establishment would typically have consisted of a workroom on the ground floor of his home with a door opening onto the street.   As illustrated previously in the model of an early modern house in the Museum of London,  there would have been windows to allow as much light as possible but they were likely to have been be shuttered and not glazed in the early years of King Henry VIII.  The apprentices would live and work in this room and the “licensed working housekeeper” or master embroiderer, with the active assistance of his wife, would provide the necessities for well-being of all those in his establishment. In the drawing accompanying the model of the London house above, the householder looks to be a haberdasher and not an embroiderer, there would be a small kitchen behind the workroom where the meals were prepared.  Above this on the second floor and third floors were the main living and sleeping areas for the master and his family.  In a well off establishment, the household servants would sleep in the attic area.


Upon the completion of the term of years, a petition was made to the London Guildhall and a substantial fee of 14 shillings was paid.  The qualified embroiderer was granted “freedom” of the City of London by the mayor and his name was recorded in the city registry. Over the next few years he would gain further experience in the employ of his master as a journeyman.  During this time, he would fufil his final task in becoming a Master Embroiderer by making a piece of work to be judged satisfactory by the Wardens and Court of the Company.  His next step would be to apply to the guild for a licence and become a Master in his own workshop.

Next week The Working Embroiderer and his Environment

house model
Museum of London’s model of a house c 1500



Taking on an apprentice could be as risky as it was beneficial, despite the rules and regulations in place to protect both the apprentice and the master.  By 1550, Roger Bansted had taken on many apprentices over the years and was well versed in the procedure.  However, when William Thomas provided a promise for the good behaviour of his brother Morgan, little did Roger know how much he would regret his action.  Morgan proved to be more than Roger bargained for in an apprentice: he embezzled, cheated, stole goods and wasted his master’s money.  In short, the very type of things outlined in the indenture that he had promised not to do.  Roger brought a bill of complaint against William in court to secure recompense for his pains and loses.

Often the master left provisions for his apprentices in his will.  One such embroiderer stipulated that his six apprentices were to continue to serve with his wife, and each of them were to have a gift or “nobility” of six shillings and four pence upon completion of their term “upon condition that these aforesaid apprentices do well and truly serve… my wife.”   He further stipulated that “if they or any of them be obstacles and run away and will not serve … the full of their years or do die than I will that their nobility be given amongst them that do well and truly serve out their years”.


Apprentices performed a variety of tasks throughout their years of indenture, gaining in responsibility and complexity of skill until they had completed the number of years stipulated in their indenture.  According to the aptitudes an apprentice demonstrated, they would run errands, set frames, prepare threads, learn technique and perhaps even gradually acquire the business skills required to run a workshop of their own one day.

A talented apprentice was a valuable asset and it was illegal for anyone to “entice any apprentice away from his master”. This is well-illustrated by the story of Lewis Soughell who was apprenticed to embroiderer Darby Driscoe.  When his father died, as the older son and heir, Robert Soughell provided for his younger brother Lewis by sending him to learn a trade and thereby becoming able to earn a good living.  Lewis was a very quick learner and rapidly became a skilled embroiderer.  Although he was still serving his apprenticeship to Driscoe, his evident ability was noticed by tailor Henry Wood.  Wood approached Robert and suggested that Lewis would profit more if he worked directly for him in his tailoring establishment instead of completing his apprenticeship with Driscoe and convinced him to transfer his brother to his service.  When it became clear to Driscoe that he might lose his star apprentice, he put forward a bill of complaint against both Soughell and Wood.  The record doesn’t make clear what the outcome was, but it does seem that the apprentice had little say in it.


An apprenticeship indenture for a London embroiderer in this time frame is a rare document.  The one pictured here indicates the master is Alexander Found and the apprentice is John Bowne, the son of a farmer from Mattock in Derbyshire.  Alexander Found appears as an official in the records of St Benet’s Church, the embroiderers’ guild church.  The indenture is dated 1604, one year after the death of Elizabeth I.

apprentice indenture

The wording of the apprenticeship indenture was fairly generic and a similar document could be used for many of the skilled trades.  More specific apprenticeship rules were laid out in the official ordinances of each guild and changed with the passing of each new set of by laws.  For example some of the specific rules approved for the ordinances of the Broderers’ Company in 1582 pertaining to apprentices included:

If upon the expiration of apprenticeship, the apprentice is incompetent, he is to take work by the day or week until he has become competent

All apprentices to serve one year with such a master as the court appoint for one year after the expiration of their apprenticeship

Every apprentice to give a spoon to the Company before he be made free

Many London guilds required their apprentices to provide a silver spoon in lieu of a fee at the end of their indenture.  Silver or “plate” was considered a solid investment and it added to the wealth of the company.




During the 16th century, skilled craftsmen in London belonged to professional organizations known as companies or guilds which were run according to rules laid out at various times by the wardens of the guild, the ordinances of the City of London, and by Acts of Parliament.   The guild to which the embroiderer belonged was known as the Fellowship of the Arte and Mistery of the Broderer.  A professional embroiderer apprenticed for at least seven years and might also work as a journeyman for perhaps five more under the guidance of a master before he could be admitted to the “Freedom” of the City of London and identify himself as a Citizen and Broderer.

To become apprenticed or “bound” to a master in any London guild, the apprentice or his family would pay a fee to the wardens of the guild at the beginning and sometimes also at the end of their terms. An apprentice usually began his years of indenture around the age of sixteen with a bond made between his family and the master with whom he would live for a period of years specified in the document.  An apprenticeship indenture was a legal document and, regardless of the company it was made with, was registered within the City of London Guildhall.

An indenture outlined the behavioural responsibilities to which the apprentice would conform:  “He shall not inordinately waste nor lend.  He shall not … contract matrimony.  He shall not play at dice, cards, nor at any other unlawful games.  The taverns nor alehouses he shall not frequent… He shall not depart nor long absent himself without leave, but in all things as a good and faithful apprentice and shall well truly and honestly bear and behave himself unto and towards his said master and all his during the said term.”  In return, the master would “well and sufficiently teach and entrust him with reasonable chastisement and shall and will find and allow unto him meat and drink, linen, woolen, bed, hose and shoes … during the said term”.