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.
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.
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)…
Next… Evesham, Nottingham, Manchester, Hardwick Hall, Hampton Court, Dunham Massey… and maybe even Londonderry…
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/.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
One of the great difficulties of recreating a piece of Tudor embroidery is determining the original colour of the metal thread. As I am not a metallurgist, I can only go by articles I have read and my own observations of extant embroideries. Most of the filé or passing thread remains the original colour because it is wound with a very fine strip of high content gold or silver wire twisted around a core of silk thread. The wire used for the metal purls pose a much more complex problem because they are usually an amalgam of different metals. There are few extant objects that retain their gold colour because the gold content is high. One such object is the Elizabethan Burse at the British Museum: for the most part, the gold remains yellow and the silver is still quite a light shade of grey.
During the 16th century, the majority of metal purls are made with a silver or copper core. The silver is coated with a fine layer of gold. There has been plenty of research into the manufacture of metal threads including articles by Cristina Ballofet Carr, Marta Jaro, Atilla Toth and Cristina Scibe (et al). The copper core can be covered with a layer of silver first and then gilded with gold. Inevitably, the core material will tarnish and cover the outer layer of gold. According to Jaro and Toth (Scientific Identification of European Metal Thread Manufacturing Techniques in the 17th to 18th c), “in the case of gilt thread, the corrosion products of the base metal can cover the surface thus disturbing examination of the surface.” I’ve taken a few micro images of the metal threads on the Broderers’ Crown and at a high magnification, remnants of the gilding are evident on the surface of the base metal (below left).
The experiment this week is a recreation of a partial motif from the guard on the crimson velvet cloak in the Museum of London. You may recall the feathers from a previous post. I have examined the cloak in person, taken many images of the embroidery, and noted some unusual threads such as the twice coiled wire used on the feathers and an unusual combination of file and coiled wire. Not until I made an attempt to draw the motif to scale, did I realize the extent of the combined use of gold and silver threads. Looking so closely at the image (above right), I noticed that some of filé twist was much darker and almost blended into the metal purl. I concluded it was silver twist that had tarnished and because it was used as an outline, perhaps the purls were originally silver as well. A further survey of the individual motifs revealed that although the design was the same for each, the threads used varied from motif to motif. This appears to be a trait for many extant embroideries. Remember the leaves on the Douce Bible?
I began with the line drawing and using the prick and pounce method again, I transferred the design to the surface of the velvet. I don’t know why I assumed the Tudor embroiderer would only have a choice of black or white to draw the lines when there are all those colourful 16th century portraits… this time I used a red paint that would not show if it wasn’t completely covered.
Parts of the design are padded, so that came next. I stripped a ply from a length of Soie d’alger and used it to couch the remaining length as it was, beginning in the point with one and adding another underneath as needed. I probably should have stripped the 6 remaining ply so they lay flatter and smoother filling the area from edge to edge.
I covered the padding with purl in gilt check and silver smooth, wire check and rough. As this is a sample only, I experimented with the selection of purl. Not all the motifs are exactly the same, the long silver point consists only of check purl on this motif but another alternated the check with a round purl, and I decided to try that.
The padding on the main stylized c-shaped motif is couched with rows of coiled wire laced with a single file thread. To my knowledge, it isn’t available commercially, so I created it by hand. The file is obviously gold but the wire could be silver or gold. I used gold but padded the area with white as it appears to be on the original. It is a fine coil and I tried both 9drm tambour and gilt over cotton thread as the core. The difference is not discernable in the image but the degree of colour is intensified with the wider tambour.
A very close inspection of the original also reveals that there are remnants of blue silk stitching over the coiled wire filé. It appears to be an attempt at shading to create a clear indication of the overlapping of the c-shaped motifs. My images are not detailed enough to attempt a reconstruction.
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please post them. A note about the articles with respect to metal thread manufacture… None of the articles that I have found specifically mention 16th century metal threads. Many cover earlier medieval threads and a couple focus on 17th and later. If you have come across any specifically mentioning 16th century, I would love to hear.
The second category of applied motifs are those that were used for furnishings and hangings. The Inventory of Henry VIII describes the use of this type of applied design as 9090 “ one Cusshion embrawdered with a cut of carnacion vellat” and 9884 “two fruntes for an aulter of crimson satten allover embraudered with a cutte of cloth of gold”. These were mainly shapes cut from fabrics sewn onto a onto a contrasting ground creating a pattern. Santina Levey defines this technique as follows: “The term ‘cutwork’ denoted applied motifs cut from fabric, and it was an important aspect of embroidery” and notes “The terms ‘applied work’ or ‘appliqué’ were not used.” IHVIII Textiles and Dress Pg 148.
The shapes could be applied and outlined without further embellishment however additional embroidery stitches could be effectively added to provide detail such as the motifs on the pall commissioned by Henry VII in the Ashmolean (AN2009.52). The rose (below left) is red satin embellished with details in red silk threads with a large padded centre. The crown and portcullis (below right) are cut from cloth of gold with fine embroidery and padded areas in the crown to create a three dimensional appearance. https://collections.ashmolean.org/object/724881
Another example of cutwork employing additional stitching is a large textile fragment (below) in the Victoria and Albert (T.90-1926). It incorporates two elegant designs running vertically, a scrolled vine in the centre, flanked on both sides by a repeating floral motif set sideways. The shapes of leaves and berries are cut out of black velvet and sewn onto the red wool ground fabric. These are embellished with surface embroidery and outlined with yellow silk cord. It was once part of a bed cover, hangings and wall coverings in Berkeley Castle. https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O363492/hanging/
Another example is a small fragment of green wool (T.265-1959) embroidered in a floral pattern with flowers and leaves cut from satin and velvet. Additional embroidery has been added to detail petals, leaves and stems and provide an outline to cover raw edges. It is suggested that this fragment could possibly have come from a saddle cloth, however, it could conceivably be from a larger furnishing. https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O361558/fragment-unknown/
Additional embroidery wasn’t necessary when the shapes were cut from luxury textiles. The heraldic embroideries at Hardwick Hall mentioned in last week’s post made great use of cutwork with many luxury textiles providing the shapes. A set of four valances in the V&A collection (T.4513-16-1858) have a ground of deep red (murrey) velvet embroidered with an arabesque design in gold cord highlighted with shapes cut from cloth of gold tissue. There are many detailed images of both sides of this object on the V&A website. https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O115513/valance-unknown/. Because the cloth of gold is very fine, the cuts are lined with linen before applying to the velvet. There is also a backing of linen that provides an extra layer to accommodate a small amount of padding to be inserted between the lining and the velvet. This technique will be the subject of a future experiment. (Not sure whether this is Italian or English – V&A notes that T.4513-1958 was made is London and the other three in Italy.)
Many terms have been used to describe a piece of fabric sewn onto a larger ground fabric. Currently, we commonly refer to it as an appliqué, having co-opted the term from French. Applying motifs, plain or embroidered, was a very common embellishment technique in England during the 16th century and several words or phrases were used in written accounts to describe various aspects of the technique through the century.
Ecclesiastical motifs were often embroidered in detail on fine linen, trimmed closely and sewn securely onto a larger ground. This was common practice from early in the 14th century. In the fifteenth century, in the context of an embroidery contract for a set of vestments, the word ‘slip’ was not used to identify the motifs that were placed onto a religious textile. A velvet ground was to be “sett and powdered with armes images and angels” and “garnished about with fine gold of venice and spangles of silver and gilt”. This was to be done in accordance with the established standards for the production of such goods within the embroidery profession.
The image on the left shows a conventional 16th century angel embroidered (V&A 240-1908) in silk threads using a variety of techniques. The linen ground is visible where the silk threads are worn particularly in the face, collar and scroll. The embroidered motif has been sewn in place on the rich silk velvet ground and the edges have been hidden by an outline of couched silk. Venice gold (aka passing or filé) and spangles are embroidered directly on the velvet. The angel on the right is rather unusual; instead of holding the typical scroll aloft, it is playing a lute. Angels were accompanied by an array of other motifs including saints, fleur-de-lys, stylized flowers and other religious emblems.
Although they have been likened to pineapples, these may have been identified as water flowers during the 16th century. In the Inventory of Henry VIII, there is a reference to “one Coope of crimson vellat enbrodered with water Flowers.” For further information detailing the different classifications and possible design origins of these flower motifs see Rhodes, Frank & Peter. Late Medieval English Embroidered Conventional Flowers in Vol 51, Textile History, 2020.
I had planned to explore cutwork this week but got distracted… I’ll try again next week.
There are many extant embroidered heraldic shields from the 16th century. Several are in the possession of the National Trust, the largest collection being at Hardwick Hall and attributed to Bess of Hardwick, made to furnish her many residences. Her four marriages, her children and their consequent marriages provided an almost endless supply. See page 32 in Santina Levey’s The Embroideries at Harwick Hall.
The imagery in a coat of arms could be executed using a variety of stitches, materials and techniques depending on the skill level of the embroiderer and the end use of the object. There are many examples in museums such as this cushion cover in the V&A. T.262-1968 (below left). An early example of a royal coat of arms is embroidered on a pall in the collection of the Ashmolean commissioned by Henry VII circa 1504 (below centre). The supporters, shield and crown have been padded, embroidered and appliquéd onto a red velvet ground. In a previous blog post, the coats of arms on the Elizabethan Burses in the British Museum BM 1997, 0301.1 (below right) and the V&A were discussed with reference to the use of goldwork.
Arms were important for the Livery Companies as well, appearing on ceremonial and processional objects such as hangings, banners and funeral palls. The Coopers’ Company had a new hearse cloth made in 1563 which took seven months to complete. A painter was employed specifically to draw the arms for the embroiderers to stitch. Unfortunately, it is no longer extant. Other companies do have 16th century palls in their collections including the Saddlers’ and the Merchant Taylors’. The charges on their arms include objects that are integral to their work and they are of a similar size and technique. The Saddlers’ Pall arms has three identical saddles (below left) and the Merchant Taylors’ (below centre) depict imported fabrics in the form of two mantles (long cloaks) and a pavilion (tent). The Broderers’ have in their possession four banners thought to have been embroidered in the last quarter of the 1500’s (below right). In the image, you can see the dimensionality of the embroidered lion and broche.
To gain a deeper understanding of what was involved in creating a new heraldic shield, it was decided to attempt a small embroidered version suitable for a book cover. The coloured and annotated image of the arms granted to John Parr late in the 16th century, provided an authentic design for this endeavour. Embroidered arms on previously photographed book bindings, particularly those of Katherine Parr on British Library catalogue number c27e19 (at the bottom of the page), were referenced for appropriate materials and techniques.
A black line drawing was made of the shield and the outlines were traced onto a ground cloth of linen. Each section would be embroidered separately, transferring the individual charges as required. The background of each section was prepared according to colour. Silk satin squares in red (murrey) and blue (azure) were applied to the linen (below left) and rows of laid passing in gold and silver filled in the areas of yellow and white as indicated by the notes on the original drawing. In the case of the lower right section, blue and red satin, and silver passing were all used to create the necessary ground onto which the charges were then embroidered.
The upside down fetterlocks (above centre) presented a bit of a challenge. Small motifs on the extant arms were often embroidered using purl and, as established in previous posts, the purl available now does not produce a comparable effect. The modern wire is much finer and not meant to be applied in lengths that require shaping with overstitching or couching which, even when extra care is taken, causes visible kinks in the purl to appear. A modern smooth purl was used for the fleur-de-lis under the horn but they more closely resemble ears of wheat (above right).
Transferring the designs for the boar, griffon and pheasant required stitching the outline shapes freehand in running stitch using the line drawing as a guide. The areas were then filled in with the appropriate coloured silk thread.
As noted, there were many steps involved in every section on the new embroidery. Some of them, applying the silk fabric and the laying of the passing, were fairly effortless. Others were physically challenging, such as embroidering through the laid ground of passing, requiring a good deal of patience. The finished embroidery has only six sections while the Katherine Parr arms have eleven squeezed into the same area making it an even more daunting task and further expanding my admiration and respect for the Tudor embroiderer.
While here is a huge amount of information available concerning what was worn, what was permitted by law to be worn and by whom, how extravagant it was and what it meant about the person and the level of society they inhabited, there is not a lot of information about how, by whom and with what the embroidery that conveyed a lot of that messaging was produced. Learning a little more about the practical side of Tudor embroidery on clothing is the objective of the next few experiments.
The cartoon clearly depicts the designs used to create the embroidery on his gown and tunic, sleeves and bodice. In the wardrobe accounts, the decoration on a gown with a border such as this might have been referred to as ‘embraudered with a brode garde of venice golde’.
How can the technical details of the embroidery be determined in order to attempt a reconstruction of the garment the cartoon represents? The border on the tunic is a complicated knotwork design and it is difficult to follow in the drawing so a line drawing is helpful. The result is a single knot design that overlaps to appear as a continuous border (below).
There are several versions of this portrait that depict a knotwork border pattern that is quite different than the original cartoon. In particular, the portrait of Henry VIII in the Walker Art Gallery (above right). Holbein likely painted it after the original mural was complete, depicting a different, much wider border pattern. This same pattern appears on most of the full length portraits based on the original. The same border also appears on the skirt of Henry’s doublet depicted on the later painting of Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons.
It is not a continuous pattern either. The blue and bright green loops link through the knot but the knot would have to be worked in an additional three sections. Is it possible that Holbein drew the initial cartoon using an existing garment from Henry’s wardrobe as a model and made it more elaborate for the painted image? Or was it the other way around and the cartoon was simply an approximation and an actual gown used for the painting?
How would the embroidery have been worked? And what materials might have been used? Although there are not any extant garments from Henry’s wardrobe, there are two examples of embroidered curvilinear designs on book covers from Henry’s library. Both are couched three ply cord made with twisted filé or “venyse gold”.
A close inspection of both book covers makes clear that there are as few stops and starts in the couched thread as possible. The longer the length of thread that can be continuously couched without having to be ended, the more efficient the stitching. Stopping to end a corded filé thread and begin a new one adds considerably to the time required to complete a project. Different sizes of twisted cord were used as well.
The pattern was transferred to the velvet by the prick, pounce and paint method It was repeated a second time overlapping the end loops. Then a #2 passing twist was sewn in place on the motifs. The 16th century embroiderers must have found a better way to transfer the pattern because, no matter how light a line is painted or how carefully you try to cover it, it leaves a visible residue. The residue is not very noticeable with the naked eye but the camera picks up every little mark. The larger loops of the second motif were stitched with the same twist and a lighter silver twist was used for the knot.
The gold thread picks up the light very effectively and the repeated motifs really make quite a rich addition to the velvet. There is documentary evidence that pearls were a popular addition to embroidery at this time, so it seemed like a good time to add to the experiment.
The Miroir or Glasse of the Synneful Soul, a poem by Marguerite d’Angouleme, was translated and written onto vellum by Princess Elizabeth as a gift for Katherine Parr. More information about the poem and Elizabeth’s translation can be found on Tudor historian and author Claire Ridgeway’s blog https://www.elizabethfiles.com/the-mirror-of-the-sinful-soul/3763/.
The book is 18 centimeters high and 13 centimeters wide. The embroidered cover is a continuous piece of blue silk thread worked in an undetermined technique, front, spine and back. The knotwork design with Katherine Parr’s cipher in the centre is worked identically on both covers. Embroidery historian Jacqui Carey has included it as a case study it in her book Elizabethan Stitches: A Guide to Historic English Needlework. She has carefully provided a step by step process to recreate the stitches used to work the design. These stitches became ubiquitous in later 16th and 17th century fashionable embroidery despite the fact they can be quite complicated and extremely difficult to master – at least for me!
The image above is from the V&A. https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O115757/waistcoat-part-unknown/. It is part of a waistcoat that was embroidered c1615. Note the similarity of the gold thread to the thread manufactured today. In the 16th century this type of thread was referred to as Venice gold and we now call it filé or passing. An important point to make here, and one that Jacqui Carey noted in her study, is that the thread used to work the stitches on Elizabeth’s cover is very different from the ones that were used in the early 17th century. It is a puzzle that has occurred before in the mystery of the knots worked on the small panels in the British Museum. BM 1895, 0810.
The image above left is a detail of the knotwork on the small BM panels and on the right, a detail from Elizabeth’s book.
The width of the knotwork on the BM panel is about .8 cm and the stitch on the Elizabeth is about .4 cm. The composite silk and metal thread however appears to have the same characteristics on both: the diameter of the coil is larger than the thickness of the silk leaving the wire with less stability than had it been wound around the core as tightly as the thread in the later V&A example. The BM panel knotwork is couched to the surface of the satin ground likely because it wouldn’t pass through the closely woven silk fibres without damaging them or the thread. Elizabeth’s knotwork is stitched through the blue silk ground but the majority of the thread remains on the surface. This may be made possible by the thick blue thread and more open technique stitched on linen to create the ground. Both techniques would still be very difficult to achieve with threads of this kind.
Time to experiment… I haven’t figured out how to replicate the loose wire thread but I did try to achieve a close approximation of the technique used on the ground of Elizabeth’s book. I estimated the scale from the photo taken with the measuring tape. The image you see (above right) is the result of lots of trial and error to achieve just a close approximation of the scale. I used coton perlé #8 on a 14 count evenweave modern ground. This worked well for the 3.5 stitches over four threads across but not for the 9 rows down, so a little adjustment to the number threads per row of stitch was needed to get the correct row count. In the images above the twist in Elizabeth’s thread makes the stitches difficult to distinguish because the twist gives the illusion of a diagonal. The blue stitching is damaged in a few small areas and the linen ground cloth is visible. The underside of the ground is not really visible except inside the spine but it is covered in glue and difficult to photograph, so not very helpful. Therefore, it is only possible to try to recreate the stitch from what shows on the front. I tried to follow the sequence by colouring in each stitch (above left). The coton perlé lost the little twist it had and became fuzzy so it is also difficult to see the stitches. There are many ways to achieve what looks a bit like a knitted reverse stocking stitch… Above left is what resulted, but I am still not convinced that it is correct.
The stitches used by Elizabeth were identified by Jacqui Carey as Elizabethan ladder with a filling of backstitch (p 96) and Elizabethan plaited braid stitch (Cherry variation p 72) and I’m so thankful that I had a copy of her diligently researched book so I could try them out. Note that the thread used to create Elizabeth’s ladder stitch is made with round wire almost like a modern rough purl with a core of narrow thread as mentioned above, and the modern passing has a flattened outer wrapping, tightly wound around the core. Elizabeth’s ladder stitch with the backstitch filling is on the left below and in modern passing on the right.
The thread used to work the Elizabethan plaited braid Cherry variation on Elizabeth’s book is made with a flattened wire loosely wrapped around the thread core. The photo of the damaged area shows the core visible in several places.
All three of Elizabeth’s extant embroidered book covers are worked similarly and represent outstanding examples of a person working in a domestic environment rather than a guild trained professional. In a future experiment, I will try to recreate the highly twisted silk thread. For now, I have learned that the braided stitches can be worked through an embroidered ground with relative ease (once you have mastered the sequence of ins, outs and throughs, but until I find a way to reproduce the loosely coiled metal threads, I will not able to recreate the experience of the Tudor embroiderer – domestic or professional!