Extraordinary Luxury Textiles

Textiles used in embroidery during the Tudor period covered a wide range of weaves and fibres.  Elizabeth, Countess of Hardwick famously re-used a vast number of former garments and furnishings to create the hangings used to decorate her house at Chatsworth and at Hardwick Hall.  The most comprehensive illustration of the variety of textiles she worked with can be found in Santina Levey’s catalogue “The Embroideries at Hardwick Hall”.  The photographs are clear and her explanations are beautifully written but the weaving process is extremely complicated so they are very difficult to understand and recognize.  What is a tissue, what is a cloth of gold, and what is a brocade, brocatelle, lampas or tinsel?  And what about velvet? Solid colour, flat velvets were very often used to provide a rich, deep ground fabric on which to embroider, and patterned velvets were applied to other grounds such as silk damask and wool.  A velvet pile is easily identified, but there can be so many combinations of thread woven into a myriad of plains and patterns: is there a simple way to categorize them? 

Zenobia, detail illustrating a variety of luxury textiles, Hardwick Hall

Earlier this year, I was fortunate to be invited to attend a lecture at the University of Manchester. “Serial Production and individualization in Late Medieval Silk Weaving,” was presented by Dr Michael Peter, an expert in medieval textiles from the Abegg-Stiftung Museum in Bern.  Dr Peter’s lecture clearly identified the role of the consumer in the aesthetic development of luxury textiles and how unique and expensive special commissions were adapted to create economically viable ones.  He described how the fabric was woven and even drew a diagram of a simple velvet with a two step structure but it was still far too complex for me to grasp.  The videos showing the weaving of velvet on 17th century looms are intriguing but just think of how much more complicated it was a century before.  The addition of two different heights of pile, cut and un cut, as many as three types of metal thread and a pattern of little loops makes it absolutely incredible.

Fragments of luxury textiles from the collection of the Whitworth Gallery. Image copyright Challe Hudson.

Happily, there was a practical component to the lecture that would help to visually identify some of the technical aspects Dr Peter had addressed in the lecture.  The following day, the attendees were invited to the Whitworth Gallery to examine fragments of 16th century textiles from the collection.

Fragment of ciselé velvet, Whitworth Gallery T.12324

The image above is of a fragment of velvet from the collection of the Whitworth Gallery (T.12324). On the website it is identified as ciselé velvet with metal thread, woven in Italy and dated 1575 to 1599.  It consists of silk thread and flattened silver wire. The cloth has plain tabby weave areas (voided) and cut pile filling an uncut velvet pile (loops that look like little dots) outline.

Fragment of cloth of gold velvet, Whitworth Gallery T.12261

This example is also in the Whitworth and it has cut velvet pile, loops of fine venice gold thread and the voided areas are woven with pairs of gold wire added to the silk weft.  It is identified as a strip of velvet cloth of gold (T.12261).  This type of velvet is beautifully illustrated in the portrait of Mary painted by Master John c 1544.  Here is a link to the image on the NPG website: https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw04264/Queen-Mary-I?LinkID=mp02995&role=sit&rNo=1  If you scroll in tightly, you can see the little loops on her sleeves and bodice.

This fragment of patterned purple velvet has been embellished with stitches of venice gold. Couched venice twist or cord in gold and silver outlines each motif.  The reverse shows the colour of the couching thread alternates for gold and silver and the single stitches go through the ground making smaller stitches on the back. I was unable to locate the accession number of this fragment on the Whitworth Collection website but it may be T.10678.

I am extremely grateful to Dr Gale Owen Crocker, Dr Michael Peters and the staff at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester for the opportunity to tip a toe into the exciting world of luxury Renaissance textiles.

A visit to Hardwick Hall

In 1998, I purchased Santina Levey’s book Elizabethan Treasures: The Hardwick Hall Textiles.  I read it thoroughly and regularly referred to it for research until the publication of her catalogue, The Embroideries at Hardwick Hall in 2007.  Copies were quickly snapped up by scholars and knowledgeable embroiderers and it became a collector’s item in no time at all. (Amazon currently has a used copy for $552 US.)  I borrowed it on interlibrary loan from various universities on several occasions as it was not available from any of the city libraries.  A wonderful friend let me know that she had a copy and very kindly allowed me to borrow it.  I returned it thinking I had finally noted all the information I required.  That was not to be the case… after several more borrows and returns, I was generously gifted with the book.  I am very grateful and it has become absolutely invaluable to my research, not only for Hardwick, but for almost every other fragment of Tudor embroidery I examine.

So, when it came to actually scheduling a visit to examine some of them for my survey, I thought there would be few surprises… I was so wrong!

I had prepared a long list of embroideries I would like to see but circumstances dictated that the initial appointment could only be two hours, so I selected only what I thought would be key pieces. 

When the day arrived, we spent the morning in the study room examining and photographing some smaller, less well known fragments.  We took note of materials, silks, metal threads, painting and design transfer, designs and piecing techniques.  Here is a small selection of the photos we took before lunch.

The best was yet to come… After lunch we began a wander through the Hall itself.  I had read all the catalogue entries and I knew all the details of the different textiles and stitches and I had studied the photographs.  Somehow, I was still taken aback, floored actually, by the reality of all those elements coming together.  I won’t take you through room by room but you will get an idea of how important this visit was – just to place all the items in the catalogue in the context of the building.  I’m looking forward to a longer visit in the autumn.

Visits to special places require assistance from a number of very generous people.  For Hardwick Hall, I’d like to express my sincere thanks to Emma, Liz, Ninya, Elena, Tara and a number of very helpful volunteers on the staff at Hardwick Hall.  And an extraordinarily huge thankyou to Challe for her organizational skills, her photography skills, her company and her enthusiasm even after hours and hours of sorting through photographs and discussing minute details of the stitching in every one!

A few observations about the Buckland Pall Cloth

There are picturesque little villages dotted all through the Cotswolds.  Each one has a beautiful late medieval church and many of them have embroidered treasures.  St. Michael’s Buckland is in one of the most beautiful settings but I’m always so focused on the embroidery I forget to take pictures of the outside of the church! 

Preserved under glass and behind a curtain to prevent further light damage, is this remarkable patchwork of late 15th century English ecclesiastical embroidery.  The Buckland Pall is a combination of fragments from several individual vestments.  It consists of a large blue velvet panel bordered top and bottom with narrower strips of velvet in two shades of red and one of gold.   Although I didn’t get very many good photos, I thought you still may be interested to know about it just in case you were in the vicinity and wanted to see the unusual selection of motifs in person.

The large blue rectangle consists of a large panel with two smaller pieces combined to fill a triangular shape in the lower right corner.  The large piece of blue velvet is itself fashioned from three lengths sewn together vertically along the selvedges which was common practice to create a ground large enough to become a cope, a semi-circular cloak worn by an officer of the church.  Embroidered motifs are “powdered” across the surface.

The motifs are all alike, a stylized flower, one of may variations of flowers that commonly appear on vestments of this period.  They are made individually on a linen ground and applied to the surface of the cope. The embroidery on these motifs is well executed differing only slightly from flower to flower.  Embroidery techniques include padded pattern couched file, shaded silk adding colour and outlined with couched filé twist.  Additional decoration is stitched directly on the blue velvet ground with what could be identified as sprigs of couched filé coming from four segments at the top of the flower and further garnished with gold spangles.   The angles at which they are placed support the theory that the original use was a cope.  They would have fanned out from the centre point of the straight edge so that when worn, the flowers would be in a vertical position around the wearer, falling from the shoulders to the floor.

The upper band of red velvet is embroidered with an assortment of applied motifs including stylized flowers in a more elaborate design, saints, an angel, two architectural fragments and a series of letters.  The flowers have two pairs of leaves and the top portion has three segments, each one edged with a fleur-de-lys.  The main part of the flower is worked in couched file and it is more circular resembling a split pomegranate with raised seeds above and below the opening which is stitched with green silk. 

The lower panel features three figures, and several flowers.  The left side is a fragment of figured gold velvet and the right side is red velvet.  The two flowers on the lower panel are similar to the ones on the top panel but they are a little more damaged. The variety in the design of these flowers has been investigated in an article by Frank and Peter Rhodes published in Textile History in 2020 however the individual approach taken by the embroiderers to execute each design was not explored.  Individually, these “conventional” flowers can be quite unique.  The variety of flowers raises several questions: who selected the type of flower; was it from a selection of sample designs, or did the embroiderer(s) specialize in a single flower design; was the choice of threads stitches and colour left to the embroiderer or was it dictated by the commissioner or the designer; was the designer the embroiderer? No answers, but these are things to think about as we explore further.

In between the flowers are three figures, Mary, John and a crucifix but it is difficult to know where they were originally placed.  The figure of Mary has likely been re applied as there is a very distinct stitch line on the ground velvet outside of her halo that was clearly from a larger figure.  It is possible that others are not in their original locations, but I didn’t take nearly enough photographs to do an in-depth study, and it would be very worthwhile to go back and take detailed notes and images.  It may be that none of the motifs in the upper and lower panels are in their original positions and even whether they are on the original ground.

Determining the lifecycle of a vestment can potentially reveal trends in religion and material culture.   For now, I just marvel at the variety of motifs that appear on surviving embroideries.   I have seen many embroidered crucifixes and they all have similarities but each is unique and, although the Christ figure on the Buckland Pall is very damaged, it is one of the most appealing.  The archangel Michael wrestling with the devil may be a unique survivor, as well as the two architectural motifs on the top panel.  When I look at these ancient and well loved embroideries, I find myself thinking about how splendid they looked at the moment they were finished and wondering how the embroiderers felt in the completion of their work and if they had any idea that we would be looking at them with respect and admiration over 500 years later.

Small Drawstring Bags

Small embroidered bags or purses were popular accessories in the 16th century.  What comes to mind first are probably the small square bags most associated with Elizabeth I and the New Year’s gift rolls.  There are several extant examples of this type of drawstring bags and Jacqui Carey has included one in her carefully researched book Elizabethan Stitches, Case Study 24.  A similar purse is in the collection of Newstead Abbey.  An interesting fact about the Newstead Abbey bag is the difference in the stitching on the two sides.  The design is identical and one side is fully and carefully stitched with many raised elements using a compact file stitch in the background to completely cover the linen canvas.  The back is a little less carefully stitched and there are fewer raise elements.  The background stitch is much less dense.  It almost gives the impression that the embroiderer needed to finish the back a little quicker, possibly getting tired of the repetition, or perhaps needing it finished a little more quickly so it could be of use.

NCM 1965-97

Once again, Wingfield Digby’s Elizabethan Embroidery is a source of further detail.  Pages 69 to 70 provides a thorough accounting of the documentary evidence in the later 16th century.  Often referred to as a “swete bagge” they could be embroidered in different techniques and many are “ymbrodered all over with Venis gold, silver & sylke of sundry cullers” similar to the Newstead Abbey purse For those of you who are really keen and want to try your had at reading a 16th century manuscript, there is a digitized copy of the gift roll from 1576 (Add. MS 4827) on the British Library website http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?Source=BrowseScribes&letter=A&ref=Add_MS_4827

There are several small sweet bags in the Metropolitan Museum Collection.  Some are dated 16th century and others 17th but there is no indication of what makes them one or the other.  Perhaps the date is based on the design, the technique, the materials or a combination of factors. They are all worked in a counted stitch technique on a linen canvas ground but the 16th century one has an extraordinary amount of raised work and the design is extremely ornate.  https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/81553?ft=sweet+bag&offset=0&rpp=40&pos=2  Unusual too, is the absence of plaited or braid stitches for the scrolled framework, instead a flattened coil of round gold wire is couched on the surface.

The Met Collection 1986.300.1

Purses were also popular in the earlier half of the century and there are several listed in Henry VIII’s inventory.  The two small panels with Henry’s cypher and a Tudor rose featured in previous posts may have once been a purse.  The focus of this post is one of the several small bags in the collection of Snowshill Manor.  It has a very different shape to the typical sweet bag and the embroidery is not at all similar.  It has been dated to between 1500 and 1600 but it doesn’t assign a place of origin.  Perhaps a close look at the details will provide a clue.

National Trust Collection 1349590

The metal threads are extremely tarnished but there are areas that appear to have been originally gold in colour but the content of the metal is unknown.  All the stitching threads appear to be white or natural colour linen. Green velvet is applied over the linen as a base for the main design area.  The design within features five multiple petaled flowers in three sizes with stems originating at the centre bottom of the curve. The padding for the petals is white and stitched through the ground and each is covered with lengths of wire purl.  The wire in the purl is very inconsistent, some flat and some round often in the same length.  The centres of the flowers are red glass beads that are transparent.  Some of the outlines of the petals and the stems are coiled plate without a core, possibly an early form of lizerine.  A line of twisted plate accentuates the larger stems.  On the surrounding border there are small flowers on scrolling stems with small leaves, some of which are filled with green glass beads.  The background of the border as been filled with zig-zagged plate.  The raised band outlining the border looks to be a tight group of linen threads covered with zig-zagged plate.  Above and below the raised zig-zag is a line of twisted plate.  Red silk is appliqued over the linen ground at the top and the double row of holes for the braided drawstring have not been reinforced in any way. 

The materials used for the Snowshill purse are often associated with professional work. The twisted plate hints that it may have originated outside England or at least been influenced by techniques from the continent.  Extant religious embroideries from France in the 16th and 17th century use a considerable amount of plate very creatively.

The Snowshill Bodice

The Snowshill Wade Costume Collection is in the care of the National Trust and can be found at https://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/results?Collections=7587dfeefffffe074c053972b5c61c41.

There are not many items as early as the 16th century in the collection but there were two objects that I thought might add new information to my growing database of Tudor embroidery.  One was a fragment of floral silk embroidery and the other was a small embroidered draw string purse. 

National Trust 1348931

The first object is a small, shaped piece of embroidered linen that appears to have been part of a bodice.  It has been dated to between 1570 and 1599. It is mounted on a padded board covered with cotton fabric but happily to my surprise it was only secured to it along the top edge.  It provided a wealth of inconsistencies and was a joy to examine, front and back.  I completed a full written report but have edited it considerably for the blog and added some images.

The design is an ogee framework with added curvilinear tendrils and a grouping of roundels decorate the joins.  Assorted floral motifs are placed within the curves and leaves are set at intervals along the framework.  Separate, smaller ovals are set in the larger open spaces and they are filled with a full flower including stem and leaves.

The outline of the design is inked in black and is visible in many areas with the line being very uniform.  It is not clear whether it is has been printed, traced or drawn by hand but there is a visible break in the line, which may represent an error in drawing, and the pair of lines which outline the main framework are not drawn at a consistent width.

The framework is embroidered with four pairs of filé couched in rows with yellow silk thread, as are the circular groupings of roundels.  The core of the filé is visible and it is a bright yellow.  There are two distinctly different threads used to couch the filé: one is a fine gold coloured silk with no discernible twist and the other is a thicker yellow s-twist thread. 

Embroidered flowers include easily recognized carnations, cornflowers and eglantine.  Others may be tentatively identified as pea flower, marigold, honeysuckle and borage the latter two being partial flowers only.  These are worked in coloured silks with a very soft twist that may simply be a result the needle movement during stitching.  The blossoms consist of rows of straight stitches, usually directed toward the centre, changing colours as necessary and encroaching minimally into the adjacent colour.  

The full leaves are embroidered in long straight stitches along the stem, one side in dark blue green and the other in a much lighter shade of yellowish green.  The long stitches are secured over with a fine thread of dark red silk couched at regular intervals with small stitches in the same thread.  This creates the appearance of small veins in the leaf.  The tips of some leaves are turned and these are worked in a similar manner to the blooms with the encroaching stitches in two shades of green.  Tendrils of green silk extend from the main frame work interspersed with small circular bud shapes in pink and yellow on fine green silk stems.  These fines stems and tendrils appear to be worked in a crudely executed combination of split and stem stitch.

Turning the embroidery to show the back reveals that the colours of the silk on the front are soiled and have faded.  The marigolds are that appear yellow and dull pink are a brighter yellow and tawny.  The carnation varies from white in the centre, to dark red with a bright pink between, the cornflowers are a very deep blue and the leaves that appear to be quite yellowish on the front are much greener on the reverse.

Most of the raw edges around the fabric shape have been folded to the back and basted with a heavy linen thread.  An inked line at the bottom and side edges of the piece are visible on the turnings and there are solid inked lines along the seams or darts indicating that the outline of the bodice pattern was drawn and the embroidery was completed only to the lines. 

Finally, there are remnants of pink silk ribbon sewn into the seam allowance in two places on the longer right hand side.  The placement of these two ribbons and the drawing of the pattern outline may help identify the type of bodice, if indeed it is part of a bodice, and perhaps provide an estimated date of origin.  A review of Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 3 may help in this regard.

My first impression is that this is not professionally embroidered but it is an excellent piece for further study in order to have a solid base from which to make comparisons.  There are so many elements that can be further explored, and should be, if a more precise date is to be determined or any other conclusions drawn.

The Petworth Panel Adventure

Many of the 16th century embroideries that I examined during my spring excursion were ones that had been included in earlier publications on the history of embroidery.  One of these was an exquisitely stitched panel of polychrome silk and metal thread.  It was pictured in black and white in George Wingfield Digby’s Elizabethan Embroidery

Published in 1963, Elizabethan Embroidery is still a very viable source of information on the wider subject of Tudor embroidery.  It hasn’t as much detailed description or as many colour photos as you would expect in a 21 century publication but it gives a good accounting of the wide range of embroidery that was produced over the almost 50 years of Elizabeth’s reign.  Many of the embroideries were in private collections and have since found their way into museums and other public institutions.  Some have appeared in exhibitions and been subject to further research, such as the seal burse formerly belonging to one Lady Anne Palmer (featured on the dust jacket) and now in the V&A and recently featured in the Bags: Inside Out exhibition.  Others may still be in private collections and unfortunately have not been accessible for study.  I’m still working to find them…

The Petworth Panel is now in the National Trust Collection and is on display at Petworth House in West Sussex (NT486522). When I first saw it in person several years ago, it took my breath away and I knew I would have to return for a better look.   In early April, I scheduled a day to travel to Petworth from my temporary home in Chessington.  It’s only about 35 miles as the crow flies but it was a little more complicated if taking public transport – beginning at 9:15am with the long uphill hike to the train station.  At 1pm I arrived at Petworth House ready for a cup of tea and one of those famous National Trust cakes.  Unfortunately, there was no time because I wanted to make sure I could take my photos and head back in time to make it home before dark! 

Since I had been to Petworth a couple of years earlier and knew the location of the framed panel would made it difficult to photograph – high up and kind of in a short hallway – I made an appointment and hoped it would be possible to have it placed on a table for easier access.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible but I was provided with a small platform step that would elevate me to the correct height, although standing on a step in a hallway with visitors passing closely or hovering to watch behind made me quite nervous.  There was also a good deal of glare from the lights in the room but I persevered and managed to get some good images.

Digby describes this panel as a “superb cushion” having “a beautifully conceived scroll pattern exactly rendered in every detail, centred on a small medallion…” with “…an excellently designed border.”  He believed it to be “a first rate example of a professional workshop in a cosmopolitan style, and datable to the third quarter of the 16th century.”

His assessment differs from that which we find on the National Trust Collections website: “An embroidered panel believed to be the work of Lady Jane Grey (executed 1554). The panel is embroidered on white silk on a linen support with coloured metal threads and wool work tendrils in a graceful and closely patterned scrolling design of birds, fruit, flowers, tudor roses and heraldic emblems within a wide border.”

The design is indeed very delicate and the stitching has been exquisitely executed with extremely skilled hands.  The panel measures 60 centimeters high and 76.5 across.  The scrollwork or vine is a looped chain made separately in hand using venice gold or file and then sewn down to the ground fabric, which looks like linen to me but could be a simple tabby weave silk? A strip of plate has been sewn between the chain and the ground similar to some of the scrollwork on the Broderers’ Crown (above centre).  It is heavily decorated with grapes (also worked in a technique used on the BC), strawberries, pansies, borage, woodbine (honeysuckle), daisies, wall flowers and another small bloom that I can’t identify.  They are all worked in coloured silk and several different forms of metal thread in silver, gold and very possibly ones that have been painted.  The viewing circumstances made it very difficult to see anything clearly enough to draw conclusions.

The Tudor roses are beautifully executed with carefully spaced strips of metal (?) plate couched in a brick pattern over laid red silk adding colour.  All the tips of the petals are filled with purl in silver or gold and stretched silver lizerine fills the inside of the smaller petals.  The file twist outlining the flower is couched with red silk bringing colour to the outer edge of the petals.

Sprinkled throughout the design, appearing to hang from the vine, are sixteen very tiny heraldic shields depicting an assortment of motifs which are less than an inch square and embroidered in exquisite detail. These appear to be the source of the connection to Lady Jane Grey.  Lady Jane had married Guildford Dudley, his father being John Dudley, Viscount Lisle, Duke of Northumberland, made Earl of Warwick in 1547 and executed in 1553.  The significance of most of the shields is unknown to me, however, having visited the tombs of Guildford’s surviving brothers, Robert and Ambrose, in St. Mary’s Church in Warwick the following week, several of the motifs are very familiar, as shown on the shield from Ambrose’s tomb (below right).  The gartered bear and ragged staff in the centre of the embroidered panel is the badge or crest of the Earls of Warwick (below left).

I haven’t yet mentioned the extensive use of coiled wire, stretched and sewn over laid silk to fill numerous leaves, and even the bear in the centre motif (above left).  Or the cockatrice sitting on the flower motif in each corner (below left).  In the close up you can see what may be painted metal thread… then again, could it have tarnished that way, or perhaps it is a very clever and creative use of silk that reflects on the shiny surface of the metal (below right).

I spent 90 minutes photographing the panel and caught the bus back to the train station at Pulborough at 3, missing the hourly train by 4 minutes and arriving back home by 7pm.

It is very romantic to think of Lady Jane Grey sitting in the Tower of London toiling over her embroidery frame to pass the time during her incarceration.  However, I do agree with Wingfield Digby with regard to the professionalism of the stitching.  I think a later date, perhaps 1570 to 1580, seems to fit a little better with other extant embroideries using similar threads and techniques, but nothing is certain.

I searched my library for other published mentions of the Petworth Panel but found none.  If you happen to know of any, I’d be grateful if you would please email me with the particulars.  Also, if you have any insights you’d like to share, comments, different thoughts or ideas, please post them and perhaps we can begin a valuable discussion…

A brief hello

It is true that you can get almost anywhere in England by public transit.  However, you have to be prepared for constant delays, cancellations and engineering works; but it is much safer and easier than trying to negotiate bumper to bumper traffic in a car on the wrong side of the road. It is also extremely exhausting! It’s been difficult to keep each day’s research activities updated every evening, but the long weekend has brought some time to put together a short update.

The V&A, Petworth House, Norwich Castle, Warwick Castle.  These are all places that have fabulous examples of Tudor embroidery but there is no opportunity to study them in detail because they are on public display under glass or the affiliated Study Centre is currently closed.  Each one has something remarkable about them.  Here are a few images I managed to take with my phone…

The best day so far has been the day I was able to study Archbishop Parker’s embroidered book.   It is embroidered on green silk velvet with coloured silk thread, file and plate.  It is skillfully embroidered in a number of techniques.  The outer border of the embroidery is a fence of couched plate enclosing four deer and several botanical motifs.  The central motif is a large bush that grows from a small green mound.  The flowers on the right side of the bush roses seen from the front, the back and side with additional buds. On the left side is a strawberry and two white flowers.  There is a deer in each corner, one standing, one running, one grazing and one in repose.  Smaller flower sprigs are embroidered between the deer: pansies, daisies and possibly gillyflowers.  This design may represent a park like setting which could be a pun or rebus of the Archbishop’s surname Parker.

British Library C.24.e.8 detail front

Embroidered bindings typically have the same design worked on the front and back covers, however the design on the back of Archbishop Parker’s is not.  It is similar in that there are deer and botanical motifs, but the plants are different species and much smaller, there is an additional deer, two snakes and what may be butterflies. 

British Library C.24.e.8 detail back

I have taken many pictures of all the places I have been but they are simply lovely reminders of where I’ve been so far. Here is an eclectic mix of images for you to peruse (no embroidery)…

Natural History Museum, London
Norwich Cathedral
Plantation Gardens Norwich
Stranger’s Hall Norwich
Norwich Castle Museum
St Mary the Virgin, Petworth
Pulborough Station
St Michael’s Churchyard, Baddesley Clinton
The House at Baddesley Clinton
Lord Leicester’s at night, Warwick
Warwick Castle

Next… Evesham, Nottingham, Manchester, Hardwick Hall, Hampton Court, Dunham Massey… and maybe even Londonderry…

Sea Monsters

Staying with the Bacton Altar Frontal for a third week, along with the botanical motifs were hundreds of smaller secondary motifs.  These were worked in very different techniques than the primary seed stitch, with a denser stitch coverage.  Butterflies, caterpillars and other assorted insects are scattered randomly throughout the background between the flowers in a scale that one would expect.  Many birds at a much smaller scale are also casually distributed. 

There are two distinct series of figures that are arranged in a linear progression across the cloth.  One appears to be a hunting scene that includes several forest animals and one blue clad figure carrying a hunting horn.  More information about this series can be found at https://bacstitch.org/an-aristocratic-sport/.

British Museum 1906,0509.1.2

The second series takes place on the water with men in boats carrying spears and some very fearsome water monsters.  The sequence of images flow across the bottom of the fabric like a story board.  The story seems to tell of a fishing trip gone horribly wrong.  It could have been inspired by the bible story of Jonah and the whale,  but this was the era of Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake, and of dangerous ocean voyages to far away lands. Sir John White, governor of Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony of Roanoke in the New World, was a cartographer and accomplished watercolour artist.  Above is his map of the coast of Virginia featuring several dreaded sea monsters(dolphins, sharks and whales?) similar to those on the cloth. 

Rijks Museum RP-P_1896-A-19054

The illustration above depicts several more fantastical water beasts in a print of an engraving by Nicolaes de Bruyn in the collection of the Rijks Museum.  The curved lines and cross hatching that the engraver adds to an image create depth and form could have provided the embroiderer with guidance for the placement and direction of stitching for the water and the bodies.

Two examples of fish as illustrated on engraved maps (by Theodore de Bry?) based on (now lost) original drawings by Jacques Le Moyne. On the left is from https://fcit.usf.edu/florida/photos/native/lemoyne/lemoyne1/lemoy132.htm and on the right is https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/clark1ic/x-003282492/39015091197403

The pictures of the reverse of the BAC provided by HRP included this monster so it was chosen to attempt a reconstruction: the colours were more accurate and the back indicates which stitches were placed first.  The majority of stitches used to create the head of the monster are similar to the seed stitch of the botanical motifs, however, on the sea monsters the stitches vary in length and direction.  The concentration of colour on the back indicates that the embroiderer made little attempt to conserve the usage of thread on the back.  The length, placement and colour of stitch was, first and foremost, driven by what was required to achieve the composition on the front. 

I began by matching the colours on the printed image to Pipers Floss Silks.  Then I printed the design onto a silk faille which was a little closer to the original fabric than the poly cotton I had used for the flowers.  I used four plies of a single colour of the Pipers silks in the needle (no blending on the monsters).  The stitches were placed visually by alternating between the printed images of the back and the front, depending on which showed the area more clearly.  The file was added last with couched edges to the dorsal fin, the inside of the mouth and the eye.  Small seed stitches were scattered through the body with highlights provided by crossed stitches.

The shape of the fish is a little difficult to see, it seems to be caught in the middle of a dive.  The head and the pectoral fin are above the water in the foreground to the left.  The dorsal fin and tail also appear above the water, a little behind and to the right.  A wave of water hides the middle of the body and continues in front of the body and under the tail. The split stitch used to create the water was worked piercing the thread from the underside for the blue thread and in reverse (piercing from the top) for the white.  The file was worked last as a couched line on the surface or, as in the body of the beast, random small stitches and some crossed stitches through the ground.  Stitching the copy was made a little more difficult because the threads remaining on the back didn’t necessarily have corresponding stitches on the front. 

It was very time consuming, but I attempted to follow the original placement of the stitches as closely as I could.  Sometimes it was impossible because the silk was completely missing on the front and what remained on the back was basically a jumble of stitches which is what you would expect when what matters is on the front.  Working in a small hoop was awkward and added time as well, not being able to use both hands to stitch and help guide the threads. 

It is impossible to say whether the narrative scenes were stitched by a professional or amateur embroiderer, but once again, this exercise has underscored the creativity and skill of the 16th (or 17th) century embroiderer. 

Botanical Motifs (and two blue flies)

After identifying as many plants as I could, I decided to try to reproduce one of the motifs.  I had been provided with a glance of the reverse of the cloth, through a break in the seam, so I knew the colours had faded and, when new, were more vibrant.  I chose the pansy for my first attempt simply because there was an opportunity to explore the use of blended threads, file and a couple of exquisite, very tiny flies.

The ground fabric would be impossible to find.  It is a white, weft faced silk fabric woven with a supplementary flattened silver wire on every second weft.  It has been identified as a silver chamlet, chamblet, or perhaps even a silver tinsel or tissue.  The rib (weft) count is very fine, approximately 21 per centimeter.  In the image on the right, you can see that the silver strip has been broken and much is missing.  (Note also the randomness of the seed stitches.)  I had on hand a white poly cotton ribbed fabric with a count of 16 per cm. I knew I’d never find one with a silver strip and I was eager to get started.  I drew the pattern on a graphics program and printed it onto the fabric – not historically correct, but it provided a finer, less wobbly line than by tracing or painting and it was the stitching experience I was curious about. 

Using a printout of the photograph, I chose colours as closely as possible to what I thought the faded ones would have been when new.  From my photos, it was difficult to tell exactly how thick the thread was and whether it was twisted or flat but I had quite a selection of Devere 6 silks so I used them.  I kept a record of the colours and number of strands and in which combinations.  The pansies are very colourful and I used only a total of five colours for the petals and only combined colours once.  Keeping the seed stitches randomly placed was extremely challenging on the ribbed ground, I kept reverting to straight lines.  The stems were a single colour of green with a blue outline and the leaves were various combinations of three different shades of green. Passing was used for the woven wheel in the centre of the flowers and chain stitch highlights on the tips of the petals.  The little flies were added with satin and straight stitches, and to give the finished piece a bit of the sparkle that the original must have had at one time, I couched short pieces of silver 3’s plate randomly around the sprig. 

I have since received images of the back of the BAC from Historic Royal Palaces and find that my choice of colour resulted in a much darker overall appearance than the originals.  Matching to a printed image instead of the original makes a difference too.  Studying the threads in the detail images of the reverse indicates that the silk was very slightly twisted and there was quite a range in the number of ply used. 

I found that sewing so many little random stitches was intense. It was a relief to take a break and choose the next colour combination.  It was quite challenging to keep the separate plies together without leaving little loops especially on the stem or outline stitch.  The image of the back also reveals that the Tudor embroiderer was as concerned about neatness as I was…

When it was finished, I was quite pleased with the result and decided to stitch a few more…

Next week: Sea Monsters

The Mistry, Arte and Science of the Bacton Altar Cloth

Background                                                 

My first encounter with the Bacton Altar Cloth came in 2013 while searching JSTOR for any article including the word “embroidery”. Not as many as you’d think and far less when you add “Tudor”, “Elizabethan” or “sixteenth-century”. 

In December of 1918, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs published Queen Elizabeth’s Kirtle, an article by Lionel Cust.  The subject was a piece of embroidery in the possession of St. Faith’s Church in Bacton.  At the time, he wrote “it is quite reasonable to suggest that the embroidery given by Mistress Parry to Bacton Church is a piece of an actual kirtle worn by Queen Elizabeth.”  In it, he described the cloth as having “sprays of flowers, some very realistic and not at all conventional, and scattered about are animals, monsters, insects, snakes and other figures” and he likened it to the skirt worn by Elizabeth I in the Hardwick Hall portrait but expressed the opinion that “it can hardly be as early in date.”  I was intrigued, printed out the article and wrote on the front page “is this extant?” and “if so, where is it now?”  and left it at that.

The next bit of the story has been very well documented and I was delighted to read about Eleri Lynn’s efforts to have it conserved and further investigated.  The fact that it may have been a fashionable article of clothing worn by Queen Elizabeth I brought it to the attention of the world, but I have a rather narrower focus – the embroidery itself.

First Encounter

In October 2018, I was very graciously granted access to the cloth to take images for study.  I was not prepared for what I saw.  To one who has spent quite some time at an embroidery frame, I instantly recognized the amount of effort that had gone into creating it, and it was staggering. 

Although the cloth was smaller than I had anticipated, the embroidery filling almost every square inch was unlike any I’d seen before.   It was still in the T-shape of the altar cloth with the linen backing in place and prior to any conservation efforts.  Everywhere I looked, there was something new, not only to see, but to investigate.  As an embroiderer, I was immediately drawn to the intricacy of stitch that was used in the large botanical motifs.  The sheer volume was overwhelming and on closer inspection the skill required to create the realistic depiction of the individual motifs was awe-inspiring.  The embroiderer, or embroiderers, had used a blended needle technique to enhance the colouring and effect shading.  To add depth, the density of the stitching changed, packing even more tiny two-tone stitches into the designated area.  This main stitch appeared at first glance to be a simple seed stitch but there is actually nothing simple about any of the embroidery on the cloth as evidenced by the detailed image at the top of the post of one of the larger blooms – a lily, I think.

When I left Hampton Court that day, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I had seen. I had taken over 300 pictures of every inch of the cloth.  I had noted the additional series of smaller more solidly embroidered motifs and taken detailed images of them.  I had recognized textured stitches for some of the elements, like the use of woven wheels to depict the individual grapes.  I even had a small glimpse of the underside where it was evident that the silk and gold threads on the front no longer held their original vitality.  But even then, I underestimated the full extent of the embroidery and to this day, I continue to see details that I have overlooked.

Next steps

The study of the images of the BAC (Bacton Altar Cloth) filled my days for weeks afterward.  I wanted to dive right in and recreate the technique but the logical place to begin was to number the botanical motifs and try to identify the different botanical species represented.  I initially came up with 39 different fruit and flower motifs.  (I have since discovered there were more and, with the help of the superior knowledge of the BACstitch study group, and input from members on several MEDATS study days during the lockdown, corrected my not very scientifically based deductions.  For more on the initial presentation see https://bacstitch.org/first-medats-presentation/)

I looked at several potential sources in my initial attempt to identify the various species but the one that very closely matched many of the embroidered motifs was Jacques Le Moyne’s La Clef des Champs. It is a small pattern book published in 1586, dedicated to Lady Mary Sidney Countess of Pembroke.  An excerpt of the introduction is translated as follows:

I have chosen among the animals a certain number of the most remarkable birds and beasts which are accompanied by as many of the most beautiful flowers and fruits which I Judged most fitting, all taken from life, and which might serve those who love and wish to learn good and seemly things: among whom are the young, both nobles and artisans, these to prepare themselves for the arts of painting and engraving, those to be goldsmiths or sculptors, and others for embroidery, tapestry and also for all kinds of needlework.” Miles Harvey, Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European artist in America, 2008, Random House.  The differentiation here between embroidery and needlework supports the assertion that they are two different skills albeit both done with a needle and thread.  Images from the book can be found on the British Museum website 1952,0522.1.  My images are of the copy in the British Library, Shelfmark C.70.aa.14.

Several of the woodcuts bear remarkable similarity to the embroidery. For example, the Larkes foote as illustrated above left.  Many other species can be found in a series of watercolours drawn by Le Moyne a decade earlier in 1575 above right.  There are more original Le Moyne watercolours dated 1585 in the British Museum 1962,0714 initially in an album also dedicated to Lady Mary Sidney (sister of poet Philip Sidney and wife of Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and a scholar in her own right).  These may be the originals from which the woodcuts were derived.

The 1575 sketchbook can be explored through the Victoria and Albert Museum’s digital exhibition at https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/the-botanical-album-of-jacques-le-moyne-de-morgues/#?c=&m=&s=&cv=14&xywh=84%2C1345%2C5673%2C3908

Next week – Recreating the Pansy

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