A Visit to Cleveland 4

Part Four

In this post, we’ll take a brief but illuminating journey from the monochromatic embroidery of late Tudor England to Italy and the exquisite and vibrant embroidery of an earlier time.  Or nué has always eluded my ability as an embroiderer but that just means I more deeply admire the skill and patience that it requires to produce an artwork as remarkable as the embroidered roundel or tondo in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art that is The Coronation of the Virgin (1953.129).   

I didn’t get a good overall image so the one above is from the CMA’s online collection.  The Cleveland Museum of Art’s mission is “to create transformative experiences through art, for the benefit of all the people, forever” and has provided open access to all images of works in their collection. That includes no restrictions on the use of the high-resolution images on the website.  My images are not that great (through glass with a phone) so if you want to see more very detailed images that you can zoom in on, go to https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1953.129#.

The diameter of the embroidery is just less than 58 centimeters or 23 inches across. To provide a visual reference, the image below shows a ruler marked in 64s of an inch. The ruler was placed on the glass so it is not perfectly accurate but each stitch in Mary’s face is about 3/64 of an inch in length.

The embroidery is dated to the mid 15th century.  It is reputed to have been embroidered by Margherita del Caccia, an elusive nun from the Vallombrosian convent near Florence.  Unfortunately, there is no definitive documentation that would support this tradition and several other names have also been linked to the work including Paolo Schiavo, an Italian artist who has been named as the possible designer.  Quoting from an article written by Maria Sframeli, in Arte Christiana, 770, vol. LXXXIII: storia singolare, in cui si intrecciano fervore religioso e interesse artistico, richerche documentarie e forzature interpretative.  According to Google, this translates as a: singular story, in which religious fervor and artistic interest, documentary research and interpretative strains intertwine.  In other words, like so many other historic embroideries, it has a very complicated history.  However, the embroidery has survived intact for us to admire and learn!

The central motif features the figures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in robes that are far more vibrant and luminescent in real life than they appear to be in this image.  Above and behind them, two angels hold aloft a figured velvet canopy of red and gold.  In attendance are Santa Verdiana on the left and San Giovanni Gualberto on the right.  Arranged on the floor around them are six angels playing a variety of musical instruments.  All the individual figures are worked separately and added to the previously worked ground.

I have not had the good fortune to study many examples of or nué and those I have are of a later period and are not in as excellent condition.  There is a little loss of silk on the womens’ head coverings and all the pearls have been removed.  The silk is lustrous and the colour has not faded and the gold retains its original brilliance.  I was captivated by the detail in every aspect of the embroidery.  I was interested to note that, for the most part, the or nué technique is used for patterned textiles and plain textiles are rendered in split stitch, however there are exceptions.

The motifs appearing on the textiles that are worked in more traditional or nué are simply areas left void of silk stitches as on Jesus’ outer cloak, Mary’s gown, and those of the trumpeter, violinist and drummer.  The areas on the larger pattern on the curtain have been couched with gold coloured silk to keep the long lengths of filé in place.  Other garments worked in or nué include San Giovanni’s in traditional horizontal rows of filé for both his cloak and gown, as well as Santa Veridiana’s gown. 

The clarinet player’s gown is worked in rows of heavily couched pairs of vertical filé which shift with the draping and follow the line of the arm bending with the elbow.  The harpist’s gown is worked this way as well but it incorporates void areas to convey the pattern.   For those who have studied or nué, does this then mean it should be termed Italian shading?

The halos are also worked in a curve around the head incorporating small triangular shapes of parchment (to denote rays) under the filé to help define the shape.  Note that the filé between the rays is shaded darker towards the head.  Mary’s halo has small floral shapes instead of rays and two of the angels have little circles instead of triangles, Jesus’ is more ornate.

The split stitch is used to convey a plain textile with the stitches following the flow of the drapery.  There is no gold under the silk so these areas wouldn’t produce the overall twinkle of the or nué.  Rather, filé is used on the surface of the split stitch to add a pattern as on Jesus’ gown and Santa Veridiana’s cloak.  These areas are worked over parchment petal shapes around the centres of the flowers until the petals separate and then are worked back and forth to the tip of the petal. It would be logical to think that there may have been pearls or gems in the now empty centres of the flowers.

There are dozens more inventive ways to work with silk and filé on this spectacular work.  I encourage you to go to the CMA website to search for them on the super detailed images.  For a start, see how many different treatments you can identify on the angels’ wings…

A Visit to Cleveland 3

Part Three

On Tuesday afternoon I was treated to quality time with several embroidered objects from the museum’s textile collection.  I started at the table closest to me: a man’s cap in blackwork, museum number 1942.165.  It is a single piece of fabric, unlined, the four points joined at the crown and the seam running from tip to bottom edge.  The brim is embroidered on the opposite side to the crown and turned up.  The design is a traditional coiling vine with birds, strawberries, daffodils and leaves.  The same design is repeated on each of the four sides.

The coiling vine is worked in standard Elizabethan plaited braid using a filé or venice silver (gilt?) thread a little larger than a modern 9drm tambour but smaller than a #2 passing. The coverage of the metal over the white silk core is not uniform, some areas are closely spun leaving no silk visible and some leave large bands of white between the coils creating an almost stripey, checker effect now that the metal has darkened.  The smaller tendrils are worked in stem stitch in black silk.

The black silk used to outline the motifs is very fine and the stem stitch is not as neat as would be expected by today’s standards.  The shape of the strawberries is rather unusual, some are quite plump and luscious looking and some are inverted heart shapes but all have a little dimple in the bottom with a with a bump.  Perhaps they aren’t strawberries at all.  Much of the black silk used for the fillings has perished but enough remains to see that each strawberry on the pattern is worked differently in a series of strategically placed straight stitches that can’t be described as speckling.  Some berries are quite detailed and some just have a series of three stitches that indicate seeds.  One half of each leaf is worked in a series of tiny branching patterns that resemble the path a little bug might have taken as it ate its way over the surface of the leaf, and the other half is a simple series of small stitches that follow the veins.  There is a single bird on each quarter and they are fairly static with a woven wheel in filé for the eye.

The filé used for the looped edging is a larger diameter than the plait stitch and it has aged to a lighter colour – a different quality of metal, perhaps a higher content of pure metal? It is woven and stitched in place with a running stitch.  In the closeup, the weave structure is visible, just in case someone would like to try their hand at it.

There was a second man’s cap (1950.352) which is embroidered quite differently in looped stitches.  The pattern is a coiling stem incorporating motifs worked in Ceylon filling, standard Elizabethan plaited braid, Elizabethan corded detached buttonhole, ladder stitch, woven wheels, chain stitch, lace and spangles, both round split and drop. All the seams have been covered with plaited braid.

I’m not sure of the size of the silver filé thread but the stitching is very compact.  Once again the spacing of the metal wrap is variable.  I’ve never tried any of these filling stitches in passing but I think it would require plenty of practice to get it right without stripping all the metal off the silk core.  The large petals of the rose are the corded detached buttonhole (at least I think that’s what it looks like using Jacqui Carey’s “Elizabethan Stitches” for reference) and the centres are very tidy woven wheels.  The larger leaves are worked in the same stitch, as are the strawberries… I think!

The Ceylon filling is used for the longer, narrower petals of what appears to be a borage and the longer petals on the ?pansy. But the most appealing (at least to me) is the pea pod.  It looks like an Elizabethan ladder stitch but the rungs of the ladder have been grouped in alternating groups of two (chevron) along the length but it’s not clear whether it has been worked integral to the ladder stitch or as a second pass.  In any case it is very effective.

On the reverse, the long stitches on the back of the Ceylon filling are noticeable.  The shape of the leaf is visible as the thread passes through the ground on the edges of the leaf (see page 88 in JC’s ES). 

Finally, the brim is embellished with a fine edging in bobbin lace with picots and drop spangles. I am not an authority on Elizabethan looped and braided stitches, so if I have misidentified any of the stitches (flowers or fruits), please let me know!

A visit to the CMA

Part Two

The Hardwick Hall portrait of Elizabeth I is somewhere in the exhibition, possibly the same room as the embroidered portrait which would be why I can’t remember… I had seen it on my first trip to Hardwick last year but it was hung quite high and not easily photographed.  I took advantage of its lower position in the exhibition and took some closeups of the embroidery.  The ER is still a little out of focus but the design is reminiscent of the cipher on the BM burse providing a starting point for discovering of how it may have been embroidered. However, the painted ER is graceful and the embroidery would have likely been less compact and more delicate.  In her very elegant hand is a pair of gloves and the cuff has a fairly bold design in black work with black lace picots.  The rose and crown on the cushion are very clear and similar to the roses, buds and leaves on the Douce Bible.  Can you see it in your imagination?  I can and its sumptuous!  The trim on the curtain can be imagined in goldwork too.  Past reconstructions of the embroidery in this portrait has always focused on Elizabeth’s skirt but the opulent setting is also worth looking into!

More armour and more ideas for embroidery, strap work and lots of delicate sprigs of flowers and ciphers.  Notice the decoration on the inner petals of the rose and on the fleur-de-lys, even those small areas are filled with delicate filigree designs. These scrolling vines are vaguely like the ones on the sleeve I just finished, but there are lots more leaves.  Perhaps I’m not finished quite yet…

The red satin chasuble was once something else.  I can imagine it as a red skirt or forepart but more likely a bed hanging, counterpane or curtain.  I may have been dreaming (I often dream of Tudor embroidery…) but I think there was a reference somewhere to description of Elizabeth’s bed written by a European visitor to England. What he may have been doing in her bedchamber is a mystery but he may have described the bed as red and embroidered but I think I am being fanciful.  I will have to try and find that reference…

In any case, although the chasuble itself appears to be in fairly good condition, the black velvet appliqués are quite worn and conservation netting has been applied over some areas.  The catalogue entries are rarely written with the actual embroidery in mind so here is my take on the stitching.  On close examination, there appear to be two different types of black fabric used for the appliqués: a velvet and a ribbed silk.  The texture of the worn velvet is very different from the ribbed silk.  The ribbed silk that is used for the inserts appears to be coarser than the one used for the appliqués (these may be repairs) but trying to examine through glass at a distance or from photographs taken through glass of embroidery that has been netted is not ideal.

The larger coiling stems are a 4-ply twist, 2 of gold and two of a dark silver (that looks very blue), and on either side a couched twist of gilt and all are Z twists.  The outline on the appliques is a pair of filé threads in silver couched with grey-blue silk thread.  Gold file is used for detailing the leaves and flowers and it is couched with yellow silk.  There are honeysuckles, Tudor roses, columbine, pinks, pomegranates, marigolds and lots of unidentifiable but lovely, stylized flowers.  The detail stitching includes lots of well placed (directional) straight stitches, fishbone (?), French knots, lattice work and bricked filling.

There were several prints and books on display: The Allegory of the Tudor Dynasty; the Coverdale Bible with Holbein’s illustration on the title page; a copy of the Great Bible from the Morgan Library; The Acts of the Apostles and the Apocalypse translated by Erasmus.  But anyone familiar with the Tudor Navigation Series will know that my favorite would have to be The Astronomy of the Caesars… it has potential to become #4 in that series sometime in the distant future.   A small book of French poetry with calligraphy and illustrations by Esther Inglis was displayed but unfortunately it was not an embroidered cover and there are quite a few associated with her works. 

The final two portraits were the Portrait of an Unknown Woman in a masque costume (possibly Mary Sidney Herbert) and the Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth.  Just a few closeups of the shoes and the jeweled serpent… note the armillary sphere resting on the head of the serpent. If you would like to read more about the symbolism and the embroidery on the Rainbow Portrait, it is the subject of Natalie BB’s (BACstitch) MA research dissertation. “Speaking Stitches, Laughing Flowers: an Emblematic Reinterpretation of the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait of Elizabeth I” is available to download at https://nataliebramwellbooth.com/.

As I write, I’m thinking that perhaps it would be possible to curate an exhibition of Tudor and Jacobean embroidered objects supplemented with portraits, drawings and prints depicting embroidery… I’d be interested in attending that exhibition for sure!  But while we’re waiting for that, how about this…  opening this fall will be the 400th anniversary exhibition of the Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers and I heard a whisper that the BAC will be on display.  It will run from 29 September to 12 November at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London.

A Visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art

Part One

The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England is in Cleveland on the second leg of its cross-country journey.  I’d never been to Cleveland before and the CMA (Cleveland Museum of Art) has a stellar reputation so I thought I’d make a special trip.  In addition to the exhibition, there was an added incentive.  I had met Robin Hanson the CMS’s textile conservator at a Broderers’ Crown presentation for MEDATS back in 2018 and we have a particular connection through our mutual interest in Seal Burses.  The 16th century Elizabethan burse at the BM was responsible for my passion Tudor embroidery, and amongst their excellent collection of world textiles, the CMA has a fabulous later version of a burse made for King George III (more about that in a later post).  Knowing my enthusiasm for embroidered textiles, Robin invited me to extend my visit and spend some quality time studying some of those fabulous extant embroideries in the Art Study Room.

The drive on Monday to Cleveland was pretty easy taking only about eight hours, but I must acknowledge I wasn’t the driver, and I was very relaxed in the back seat knitting or sketching.  We stayed in a hotel only a five-minute walk from the CMA and on Tuesday morning we made our way there to take in the Tudors.  Although not all the objects from the Met were available to travel to Cleveland, I have been told by people who have seen both exhibitions that the CMA’s is far more accessible to the visitor. It was quite busy but a close and leisurely inspection of all the exhibits was possible.  I won’t take you through every object but there are quite a few highlights.  The first objects to be seen were the two Cromwell angels beautiful in their own right but my eyes went right past them to rest on the back of the Stonyhurst cope which was displayed in a large glass case situated between the first and second rooms.  The cloth of the cope is very impressive with its woven motifs featuring roses, crowns and portcullises but the hood and orphreys are generally thought to be later additions made specially to replace the original embroideries that had been lost probably during the religious turmoil of the mid 16th century… still, well worth a close look. A large section of red velvet cloth of gold was close by looking very luxurious… if only it was possible to touch… or even see it move and catch the light…

The next room was my favorite, surprising in light of the fact that it contained no textiles.  Portraits of royalty were hung around the room, the centrepiece being the large imposing figure of Holbein’s Henry VIII recalling the earlier blog post about borders and knotwork.  There was a large circular seat on which you could sit at any position and enjoy the view of any portrait you chose.  The wall to the right featured Elizabeth early in her reign and on the left Mary as queen.  These last two portraits also depict textiles that required some detailed photography…   Mary’s chair we’ve seen before but the blue of the borage is much clearer in person and the embroidery on her collar and sleeves is gold, not black making it a puzzle whether it is an accurate representation of the embroidery or a stylized version.  Comparison with the rendering of embroidery on other portraits by Antonius Mor may provide a clue.  

Elizabeth’s chair is intriguing as well. Although it appears to be only figured gold fabric (probably gold velvet cloth of gold as on the lower section which looks like the pattern on the large cloth mentioned earlier), the coat of arms on the middle section may provide a visual (albeit monochrome) for the written descriptions of cushions embroidered with wreaths encircling arms found in the inventories.  The strapwork, motto and garter of the upper section is a monochrome version of the cloth of estate depicted on other portraits. 

Opposite Henry was a suit of his armour with its black and gold scrollwork and vines.  Arms and armour were beautifully decorated and displayed high-quality craftsmanship – lots of inspiration for embroidery designs as seen on the tip and hilt of Henry’s dagger.  I’m wondering if you could match the design on this painting to one of Holbein’s sketches in the BM?

The next room contained three objects of note: a New Year’s gift roll, a fragment of blackwork embroidery and, the pièce de resistance, the exquisite embroidered portrait of Elizabeth (probably).  The gift roll was displayed so it could be read and I managed to locate a gift of embroidery on the final entry in the list of gifts from the Ladies:  By the Lady Carey a paire of sleves and a partelet embroidered alover with gold and silver…  The blackwork fragment was an early form with black vines instead of gold braid, fillings of Ceylon stitch in filé (Venice gold) and counted patterns in black silk.   Everyone is familiar with Jane Seymour’s cuffs but the treat here was that Holbein’s initial drawing and the finished portrait were displayed side by side.  I couldn’t resist taking a detail of her beautiful eyes…

The final special object in the room – Elizabeth I in a Garden – is another reason I just couldn’t pass on the chance to visit Cleveland.  The portrait is only about six inches square and I’ve been captivated by it since I saw it in the T’wixt Art and Nature Catalogue.  I managed to take over a hundred pictures of it through the glass at a distance of about ten inches but I still haven’t captured it well enough to clearly see the individual minute stitches.  Here are some of the best images… Do those little dark shapes under the trees beyond the knot garden look like animals? Elizabeth’s face and hands are cut from vellum, her hat and dress are festooned with dozens of tiny, tiny, tiny seed pearls and black glass beads which are sewn into place. She has a gorgeous feather fan in her right hand and I can see what looks like the fingers of a glove in her left hand but I haven’t figured out what she is holding in the crook of her arm…

This is where I’ll end for now but we’re not even through the morning of the first day…

Sleeve and Cushion Update

Item one payer of Sleves of white satten enbrawdred over with pirled gold acorns and honysocles teyed with tenne payer of aglettes of golde

Strawberries were added because they were mentioned in the description of a different pair of sleeves: Item oon paier of sleaves of crimson satten all over embraudered with damaske gold and silver with Acornes and Strawberies.  The technique of threading a long section of purl and couching it through the coils was used to make the outline of the berry shape.  The width and consistency of the 16th century wire is very different and appears to be a little less delicate than the modern check.  It was very difficult to place the couching stitch without misaligning the coils but a quick tweak with the tweezers smoothed out the kinks.  The early Tudor purls are not nearly as tidy as today’s, coils often overlap and appear to have been compressed to fit into the space.  A good example of the couched and compacted purl can be seen in the small panels in the British Museum.  I can’t get a close match with the hand made Tudor purl without the exact size and consistency of wire that was used so I have had to use purls that are as close as possible.  I used size 11 check and smooth purl from Maurer on the sleeve.

The original plan was to space the motifs on the border equally and leave a larger unstitched area towards the end of the sleeve at the elbow where it would be covered by the over sleeve.  However, it happened that I had seen the drawing of a standing cup and cover that Holbein had designed for Jane Seymour.  He had included an H I cipher – H for Henry and I for Jane.  Ciphers for Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn had been embroidered often so I left a space on the border where the HI could be seen.

Pearls were also not included in this particular inventory entry but they were a very common addition to embroidery.  A broken pearl eyeglass keeper had been saved to be restrung, but they were just the right size so they were appropriated and the result is very much in keeping with Tudor tastes.

Item one Cusshion of white Satten enbrawdered with a cut of carnacion vellat fringed and tassaled with silke the backesyde of white Satten of bridges conteyning in bredthe di yarde and in lengthe three quarter

The cushion is also finished but the correct size feather insert has to be made or purchased, likewise the fringe and tassels.  Depending on how the light hits it, the velvet shades beautifully from dark to light, and the gold-coloured silk outlining shades from bright yellow to beige making it very luxuriant.  It would look fabulous on the Abbot’s oak chair from Evesham Abbey, it would also make it a little more comfortable!

The Ceylon Stitch and much, much more…

The past two weeks have been more random than usual… Doing a little of this and a little of that, another thing and then some of something else, has left me feeling I’ve accomplished very little, so it’s time to do a little review…

Remember last blog post I couldn’t identify the chain like stitch that was used for the trailing stems on the jacket and I put off trying to stitch it to find out? Well, I have a lovely correspondent in Scotland who has come to my rescue. Chris Berry, embroiderer, tutor, textile artist and historian knew which stitch is was right away and has taken the time to stitch a sample of a linear Double Ceylon stitch.

Here is Chris’s sample and the one from the jacket – perfect!

Classes that provide a historical context are not often offered at national seminars and places go fast when they are.  In her role as an embroidery tutor, Chris specializes in stitches used during the 16th and 17th century and I was very fortunate to secure a place in her class “Historical Notes: Stitches on Samplers” at a seminar in Ottawa a few years ago.  I’d never taken a notebook class before and I loved it. Chris provided notes on the history of the stitch, examples of how it was used and instructions on how to stitch them. I really enjoyed trying all the stitches in little samples and then arranging them in the spiral bound notebook provided. After the class was over, I continued to look up portraits and patterns and stitches adding them to the pages and pretty soon I had an excellent reference. When Chris mentioned the Ceylon Stitch and I saw the sample she stitched, it reminded me of my little book.

A couple of weeks later, I took a weekend course at the School of Historical Dress in London. Unsurprisingly, it was also a historical class, this time covering a completely different selection of stitches also used during the Tudor era. This time the sample was stitched on a large slate frame but when it was finished, I cut them out and added them with example of use to my growing reference. Here are a few more pages.

Still on the subject of Tudor embroideries but from a completely different angle, the number of extant embroideries entered into my little database is growing but not as quickly as I’d like. For now, I’m concentrating on the embroideries that I have been fortunate to study in person.  Book covers comprise the majority of entries as of today and this is probably because books were (and are) a treasured possession.  As I write though, it occurs to me that any Tudor embroidery that has survived into the 21st century was very likely a treasured possession – be it a book or a hearse cloth or an article of clothing.  The thing is, the books were likely kept primarily because of the content and not the embroidery.  This placed them in libraries and not museums and therefore they have been catalogued according to what’s inside and the fact that they were embroidered was not necessarily of note.  There are a wide variety of techniques and styles and as I enter them, I assign them a nickname because it’s easier for me to remember than the number.  This one is “Drop Spangles and Wheels”.  It is only 7 cm wide and 13cm high, an exquisite little prayer book containing the Psalms of Confession.  An unusual geometric design combining silk, flattened wire purl and punched spangles worked on a ground of linen canvas. 

Again, on the subject of Tudor embroidery (what else?) but from a completely different perspective, the wills of those who identified themselves as “broderer and citizen” are also being entered into a separate database.  The wills are not as numerous as the extant embroideries, but they tell us about the professionals, people who worked hard to produce the huge quantity of embroidered textiles that have not survived. They tell the story of the middling sort, the ordinary individual and about the things that were more broadly important in their lives – family, friendships, community – and they give us an idea of how they wanted to be remembered by them.  They range from a hastily dictated but a possibly life altering ten lines, to pages and pages of bequests and detailed instructions with respect to the testators’ legacies.  The longer wills can tell a detailed story of a life that may not be recorded in any other way.  On the other hand, a short will may not reveal anything more than a name and place of residence obscuring the reality of a long, exciting and productive life that may be revealed in events recorded in separate documentation…

Last week came another bout of very inclement weather and another power outage forcing me out of my basement and away from the computer.  I brought one of my frames upstairs and decided to make a concentrated effort to finish the cushion… Still not there yet but I estimate it will take only one more dedicated day of work to finish.  Then it’s on to the sleeve to get that done before I leave for Cleveland.  It will be a rather long drive, but at the end there will be the reward of a few days of total immersion in the exhibition The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England.  After that, I have been notified that a study session at the Burrell is finally a possibility so I will be making plans for an excursion to Glasgow during the summer research trip to the UK.  Such an exciting time!

A little about Embroidered Jackets

If you are a keen history of embroidery researcher, especially of the 16th century English sort, you may have noticed that the information available on institutional websites to date is not very explicit when it comes to finding the objects that should be included in this study.  To make it a little easier for researchers like me in the future, one of the projects that is on my list of things to accomplish this year is to enter all the extant objects a professional embroiderer may have embroidered into a searchable database. The original idea was to actually physically examine each object so that more data specific to each extant object with regard to the technique and materials used is readily available.  I have been fortunate to see a whole lot of embroideries in my recent travels and collect a huge amount relevant information about each of them. 

The time has come to start entering that data into the computer.  What I am realizing is that so many of the embroideries I have been able to gain access to don’t really fit into either the time frame or the technique category.  I think I knew that to begin with, but I hoped that the information gleaned from the search would somehow help with the challenge of identifying exactly what constitutes the work of a professional embroiderer.  Most of the objects were selected based on a very brief written description or a very low-resolution image.  The major challenge has been that a large number of the embroideries that are pertinent to the study reside in collections that are inaccessible.  The Burrell and the V&A are two notable public institutions and then there are the impossible to find out about private collections… I have not been able to access any that reside in private collections and I know there are some significant embroideries there that are crucial to include.  

All that being said, there were definitely some very exciting AHA moments on my travels and as I enter the data, review all the images that we took and the exceptional things I noted about each item as they were examined, what I’m realizing is that the exercise has been absolutely essential because the rather nebulous idea I had about what constituted the work of a professional Tudor embroiderer is becoming a bit clearer and, happily, a little broader.

One of the items I really want to see is in the V&A (above) so it seems, deadlines being what they are, I won’t likely be able to get my hands on it (so to speak) in time for it to be included in this study.  On the website it is described as early 17th century and the ground fabric of silk which makes it special and very significant.  But what makes it even more so is the embroidery which is dated 1590-1600.  “It is richly embroidered in silver and silver-gilt thread, purl, strip and spangles.”  The technique is quite different than the one used on extant jackets such as the one popularly known as the Plimoth Jacket and the famous Margaret Layton Jacket that is paired with her portrait. These jackets are often described as being embroidered in coloured silks on a linen ground and I didn’t really include them on my list of potential items to search for.  Fortunately, sometimes a curator who knows their collection intimately can suggest an item that may otherwise have been overlooked and that is just what happened…

The jacket in question fits into the “embroidered in coloured silks on a linen ground” category but it isn’t the detached buttonhole technique I would have expected to see.  The stitches made in silk thread are very uncomplicated – simply satin, stem and couching.  The file or passing is worked in what looked like a basic version (if there is such a thing) of the Elizabethan Braid so I looked it up in Jacqui Carey’s Elizabethan Stitches.  The closest I could come was on page 106 and a reference to a Modern Vandyke stitch in Fig. 118.  I had a vague recollection of the name so I looked it up in my trusty 1967 version of Anchor’s 100 Embroidery Stitches and without actually stitching it with smaller legs to make sure, I think that is exactly what it is, all the others look far too complicated.  However, I stand to be corrected if anyone wants to try to stitch it.

The best thing about this object is the fact that the underside of the embroidery is accessible.  I know very little about fashion, but even I could tell that it had been remade from a much larger item.  What is also apparent is that the original garment was pieced before it was embroidered.  The little berries which are stitched in a wide variety of colour are an intriguing combination of layers of satin stitch with further long stitches couched with smaller stitches going through to make a three dimensional and very textured and tidy berry.  I’m not sure what all this means just now, but I’m sure they are clues that will help to determine when it was stitched and what it may have looked like originally – time and further study will tell.  It was an extremely exciting opportunity to study an embroidered jacket inside and out!

Along with all the extant embroideries and the embroiderers’ wills, there is also a database for images of embroidered items (portraits etc.) so I’m still bouncing from one database to another interspersed with actual embroidery on the sleeve and cushion, and writing blog posts when I get bored with the data entry. Tomorrow will be a relaxing day consisting of one embroidery or Tudor related Zoom after another for about 7 hours – I think I’ll knit while watching!

Back to the Sleeve

I think I left off last week with the idea that I would try to recreate the sleeves on Master John’s portrait of Catherine Parr but I didn’t have any good photos of the brushwork.  Well, Challe came to my rescue once again and provided images that she had taken a while ago before the National Portrait Gallery closed for renovation.  It appears to be embroidered with cords on venice gold, purl and pearl on a ground of crimson velvet.  The aglets are intriguing: gold with little black beads of onyx maybe.  And the linen puffs from the undersleeve are beautifully embroidered in a geometric pattern in red silk.  I won’t be attempting them but I fully intend to interpret the brushwork on the dress and foresleeve based on research from extant embroideries and other sources but for now I’ve decided that I will continue with the original plan of gold acorns strawberries and honeysuckles on white satin.  If there is anyone out there who would like to attempt the inner sleeve, please let me know and we can collaborate…I’ll plot out the geometric and even provide the linen and silk!

© Challe Hudson

Back to the satin sleeve… A square of fine white linen was framed up and the square of white silk satin was secured with herringbone.  The outline of the sleeve pattern was basted on the silk, and I’m very lucky that I happened to leave enough space to accommodate the seam allowance that I had neglected to add to the pattern!

I had the sketch of the design worked out a couple weeks ago based on the design etched into Henry VIII’s c1515 armour.  The pomegranates were changed to honeysuckles and the roses to acorns and strawberries.  It was sketched at half size so it had to be made into a full-size line drawing.  Not a computer graphics whiz, it took me far too long to transfer the outline of the sleeve pattern so it would print out the correct size.  That done, the sketch had to be transferred and drawn to fit inside the pattern of the sleeve.  When it was done it was printed out on two overlapping sheets.  I haven’t been able to see any inked lines on the extant articles from this period but that isn’t to say they weren’t there in the first place and have disappeared and I’m not absolutely convinced the Tudor embroiderer would have transferred with prick, pounce and paint on white satin but I can’t think of an alternative.  I couldn’t trace because the satin was already mounted on the linen.  I don’t trust myself with black ink and any hesitation would allow the ink to soak into the satin weave and make quite a mess!  As I write, the thought comes that they may have used a thickening agent to avoid that though.  I’ll do some experimentation on that subject at a later date.  For now, I used a very small amount of charcoal in my talc so it would show up on the satin and painted with ochre watercolour and a very fine brush. 

That done, what threads should be used?  Smooth purl and check purl were used on several extant items that can be dated to the first half of the 16th century.  Even though the metal threads are not exactly the same, the method of applying them over padding is. Sometimes the purl wasn’t cut into small pieces and the length was couched through the coils to make curves but this is very difficult to do with modern threads so a twist of venice gold was used for couching the outlines.  I am using some purl from Maurer this time because they are available in slightly smaller sizes and this design is very delicate.  Practice is important so a border design was transferred to an area outside the perimeter of the sleeve so the choice of thread and technique could be attempted without the risk of marring the surface of the satin if things went wrong. 

First the twist was couched onto the outline in a single pass.  Then select areas were padded with linen thread.  The top petal of the honeysuckle was worked across the padding with smooth purl, the centre in the opposite direction with check purl, the side petals with smooth purl and the two oddly shaped petals were dotted with chips of check purl.   And that is as far as I got on the sleeve…

The cushion progresses slowly and the first section is complete with knots.  Not quite the look I expected but it is growing on me.  It will be set up on the frame so I can just sit down and stitch when I have a moment. The sleeve is also set up but it’s a little more difficult to pick up and you can’t just leave off anywhere, so a dedicated time period will have to be scheduled-ish.

The other part of this Tudor Embroiderers project involves analysing the data I’ve collected over the years.  Written documentation with regard to individuals such as wills and other sources has to entered into a database.  Not as enjoyable as the embroidery but equally, if not more, important!  All the information from the wills that I have transcribed over the years has to be extracted to end up on a spread sheet and that’s one of the other tasks I am trying to accomplish.  Then there are all the extant embroideries I have had the good fortune to examine in person… they have to get into a database too.  Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be trying to work on the two embroideries and the two databases but I’ll probably find another potential Tudor embroidery project to get distracted by… Queen Mary’s chair is intriguing…

A little bit of everything…

I’m still struggling to find or create a design for the sleeve, so I’ve been working on and off on the cushion.  I ran into a bit of a problem at the beginning because the silk thread I had planned to use to attach the velvet shapes gets caught up going through the layer of glue.  I tried several types of silk thread that I had on hand and settled on Surfine, a fine twisted silk from AVAS. It goes through the glue beautifully without any stutters.  This is very important because this modern silk velvet is not very closely woven so the little tufts tend to loosen and fall out quite easily.  It also crushes quite easily and leaves a mark if you have to take out a stitch.  I’d love to get my hands on some real 16th century velvet just to get a feel for working with the quality of textile that the Tudor embroiderers were working with – I’m pretty sure it would be denser with a shorter pile but it would likely present a whole set of different challenges. 

In any case, after securing the shapes for the first motif, I had to decide what colour to outline them in and whether or not to twist the silk.  I’ve used twisted silk for appliques in the past and anyone who took the Introduction to Tudor Embroidery Course a couple summers ago, knows it can be a pain.  First of all you have to twist upteen yards of silk thread and then you have to sew it down keeping the twist consistent and it takes a lot of practice to make lovely sharp points every time.  I was very happy to use the example of the HA panel which is just couched bundles of thread.  Sharp points are still a nuisance but it works up much quicker.  As for colour, I tried black, crimson to match and a gold colour, and, with some help from a couple of friends who are far more clever about colour than I (thank you Ruth and Natalie!), I settled for the gold.  Eight separated strands couched with one of Surfine in the same colour. 

Figuring out where to start and which path to take was the next step.  Extant examples of couching often follow a very specific path with as few starts and stops as possible (see the post on Tudor Borders).  I tried to see if it was possible on this design but there are too many shapes that have three passes of thread.  Once again, the HA panel doesn’t follow a specific path and often two or more bundles of thread are couched together in odd places, seemingly to get to the next section without having to end a bundle only to begin again an inch away.  I have started the first section by only couching one bundle throughout.  When the outline doesn’t follow a logical path, I start a new bundle and end it when it joins the first.  As you can see, this means a lot of starting of new bundles which are a pain to end off because it have to clear my frame and turn it over to secure the ends.  So in the spirit of experimentation, I will finish this section as I started but the next section will have doubled bundles and fewer stops and starts – at least that is the theory…

Having almost finished a section, it was time to decide on the size and colour of the little knots.  With Mike’s help this time, we decided to start with the red and but they would have to be much smaller than the ones made with the eight strands of the outline.  The exact placement and density will be determined as I stitch and when I move on to the next section, I may change the areas that are filled in or, just because I can, I may change the colour to gold, or I may not.  I do have to be careful though, once in, the knots can’t be removed because the silk satin is very delicate and the stitches leave marks that don’t disappear!

The cushion is the type of project that can be worked on for a while and walked away from without worrying about where to leave off so I’ve been wandering back and forth from frame to frame to drafting table.  I finished the angel by adding the gold passing on the tiles and a few stitches in fine black thread to the side of the face.  The white expanse of the ermine collar/cape has always seemed unfinished so I added some couched gold. Then I turned it over, glued the back, trimmed it from the linen and sewed it onto a piece of velvet.  For the colour of the velvet, I once again relied on assistance from Natalie and Ruth.  We looked at many velvet swatches in lovely jewel tones but the scarlet brought out the red in the embroidery and set off the gold very nicely.  The circle was outlined with couched black silk in a thick bundle of threads and the scroll was outlined with about half the number of threads in the circle bundle.  Then a pair of passing threads were couched with red silk thread just to add a little highlight.  It still isn’t finished because it has to be made into something that might have been used in the early 16th century.  I think it will become a small banner such as one mentioned in the inventory of one of the livery guilds with a lovely silk fringe, similar to a pulpit hanging you might see in a church today. 

Also this week, Challe and I continued our journey through the effigies and we finally found a foresleeve tied with aglets.  I also had a second look at Katherine Parr’s portrait and it has loads of embroidery with gold and pearls but with what may be roses instead of acorns and strawberries or honeysuckles.  I figured someone must have attempted to reconstruct this amazing dress and indeed there are many images on the web but I haven’t found any dedicated experiments to reconstruct the embroidery so maybe that will be added to the list of possible projects.  I just have to find a detailed image of the brushwork, research the likely techniques, draw up the pattern, experiment with threads and pearls and, voila, done in no time – like the angel, still underway and the cushion, still in progress…   

Change of Plan

I wasn’t totally pleased with the sketches for the sleeve design and I got distracted while looking for more inspiration.  The images from Pellegrino’s La Fleur de la Science de Pourtraicture et patrons de broderie reminded me that a cushion was also on the list of potential projects for this period.  The pattern book was published in 1530 in Florence and dedicated to Francois I (notice the beautiful design on the embroidery near his shoulders) however, it is very possible that it was in use in London by the middle of the decade.  Many of the designs are similar to the Holbein drawings in the BM.  They are lovely flowing scrolls of stylized foliage in what is often described as “arabesque”. 

There are hundreds of cushions listed in Henry’s inventory but once again for the most part they aren’t described further than the type of fabric and that they are embroidered. The Henry/Anne honeysuckle/acorn valance in the Burrell Collection is worked in an arabesque design on white silk satin with shapes of cut black velvet sewn on.   I went back to the list and found an entry that could be developed to a finished project: “Item one Cusshion of white Satten enbrawdered with a cut of carnacion vellat fringed and tassaled with silke.” I just happened to have white silk satin and some lovely crimson silk velvet on hand and all I needed was a design. 

I surveyed some of the same type of cushions in the inventory and determined that 30 inches by 20 inches would be an appropriate size.  The sizes of the cushions in the inventory are all written in 16th century measurements like “one cushion… in length iij quarters di of a yarde and one ynche and in bredthe di yarde and one nayle”.  By today’s standard of measurement, that would be approximately 31½ inches by 20¼ inches, but the cushions average about 18” by 27”.  The image below is of a panel of cutwork in the V&A: there is no size given but you can imagine it as a valance on a Tudor bed with hangings and cushions to match.

I had been working on the sleeve design for a while so I took a break and did a little stitching instead of going back to the drawing board.  Having been fortunate to have studied the valance at Meg Andrew’s in the fall, I knew there would be a linen support for the silk.  I had purchased some coarser linen for just such a purpose at the re-enactor’s market in Warwick, and I decided to frame it up and attach the silk so it was prepared to receive the design when it was ready.

I chose a few potential designs from the Pellegrino and to draw the pattern this time I went to work on the computer.  Once again, it is never as easy as I think it will be: first I had to determine the approximate size of the appliques on the extant embroidery so the finished cushion would have the same overall appearance as the extant examples.  I resized the image of the HA panel so it would print the actual size and it turned out that the shapes were smaller than I’d imagined.   I would have to make sure the shapes on the pattern I chose were similar in size and coverage.   I tried a number of examples from the pattern book and finally settled on one that looked about right. I worked up a full design but wasn’t satisfied with the end result so I began work on another.

I cut and paste and rearranged and finally realized this pattern was not going to fit the shape of the silk I had already framed up either and if I wanted to use it I would have to adapt the design.  There were three repeats and to centre them on the silk a meant removing some of the lines and shapes on the sides to fit within rectangle and still look like a complete design.   Just when I thought it was done, I realized that some of the shapes were too small and fiddley to be cut from the velvet so they had to be combined into a single larger shape.

Next step, transfer the pattern to the silk.  The pattern repeats had to be printed out to size so each sheet of paper had a complete section.  Only one half of the pattern had to pricked because it could be flipped to complete the other side. I used pencil so it wouldn’t show much and probably wear off if I went off line.  That done all the little shapes had to be cut out.  I traced the pattern shapes onto a sheet of vellum and noted the number and orientation needed. 

I had used the same type of velvet for the Broderers’ Crown so I knew the pile would be a nuisance.  The back of the fabric was painted with diluted PVA glue to ensure I wouldn’t get lost in fluff and the edges would not fray.  I’m not sure what they would have used in Tudor times but gum Arabic or rabbit glue has been suggested in various publications.  Each pattern was traced onto the back of the velvet and cut out.  And this is where I am now… can you spot the errors and omissions?

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