The Elizabethan Seal Burse in the British Museum

BM 1997,0301.1


I first saw the Elizabethan Burse in a British Museum magazine in 2001. The brilliance of the gold, the multitude of different metal threads and the dimensionality of the embroidery caught my imagination and inspired me to investigate the work of the professional Tudor embroiderer.  That the Burse had survived in beautiful condition for 400 years, and that it came with a fascinating provenance, added to its appeal. For more information about the burse

© Trustees of the British Museum

I was fortunate to be permitted to examine the Burse in the study room at the BM.  At that time, I happened to have a look at the reverse of the embroidery at the border section. The back of an embroidery can reveal many important details that are not always evident from its front. For example, there is no evidence of metal threads on the back so all the starts and stops appear to be on the top, and the cord was stitched in place before the purls were added. These extra details led me to select it for the first of what will be many experiments. 

Experiment #1 Burse Border Motif

There are many challenging embroidery techniques used on the Burse and several types of thread not easily reproduced. Photographs are not the ideal source to size and select materials but the original Burse was not at hand. Instead, I used what I already had in my supplies to achieve a result that would help identify as many details as possible with respect to the size of the motif, and with consideration for how the modern threads would behave and look when compared to the original.  Past experience has taught me that a single experiment would not be enough: this would be the first in a process, getting a little closer each time.  The ground fabric for the experiment is a 100% silk velvet with a fairly deep pile. 

Experiment 1.a

There is no evidence of an inked or painted design on the velvet ground of the burse.  That doesn’t mean the pattern is not there, just that it is not visible.  However, if paint or ink wasn’t used, then how else might the design have been transferred to the velvet?  For this first attempt, the pattern was traced onto a small fragment of silk gauze.  The gauze was basted to the velvet and the twisted cord was stitched in place. The silk was then easily removed from under the twist. 

I used a strand of Londonderry Linen 50/3, doubled, for the padding. Over the padding for the centre, I used #9 rough purl for the centre and #10 bright check for the inside of the three little petals. All were sewn down with YLI #100 colour 216, waxed and doubled. I used a crimper to pleat the #6 broad plate and, after sewing down the plate, I outlined the petals with twist. Clearly, the texture and size of the modern threads is not the same as those from the 16th century.

What a mess!  However, perfection is not the goal here… so, what did I learn? 

1. The silk gauze is very soft and shifted a bit as I stitched through it, so it would probably have to be basted more securely with smaller stitches, or perhaps stiffened with a light solution of starch (but that may affect how the threads are removed).

2. Stitching on velvet is very difficult.  The pile makes the placement of the needle difficult because you can’t see where it enters the fabric below the pile.  A visual comparison indicates that the velvet on the burse is a shorter pile but is that because of its age, or was velvet less plush in the 16th century?  It would be beneficial to measure the pile of an extant fragment. 

3. The measurement of the border was estimated and it was later determined to be much wider.  The drawing would have to be scaled.

4. The modern twist is not as tight and it is very difficult to stitch in place.  A smaller diameter passing and a tighter twist would be needed.   

5. Although I used the widest available plate, it may not have been wide enough.  The new check purl is very shiny and regular in comparison to the original but the rough purl appears to be quite close to the original.

6. The linen thread would need to be a bit heavier and the padding stitches more carefully placed.

Experiment 1.b

For this attempt, I resized the pattern and pricked, pounced and painted. In the future, I will use a graphics program to produce a pattern closer to the original and if resizing is required, it will be much quicker. There are still many differences in the texture of the purls, the plate definitely needs to be wider and the twist needs to be a bit larger and tighter, but overall a great improvement.  The pile of the velvet peeks through between the plate and the twist, but it is possible that it also did on the original when it was new, and time has encouraged them recede.  The original purls, check and rough, are not uniform at all and were likely twisted by hand.  Perhaps I will experiment with wire to try to produce something by hand.

Experiment 1.c

In answer to the question of securing the twist without sinking the gold, Saint-Aubin mentions stripping the gold and threading the core into a needle. With this end you can make your two little stitches in a place to be covered. This secures the thread, and the cord or passing can then be couched on the surface.  In the case of the three-ply twist below, I stripped all three plies and threaded them into a large needle to sink them to the back. The stripped gold could then be recycled.

At some point in the future all these experiments will be compared to the original, back and front. Any differences will be noted and addressed in further attempts.

There is a second extant Elizabethan Seal Burse in the Victoria and Albert Museum and it is currently on display in the Bags: Inside and Out Exhibition.

This Burse is considered to have been embroidered at an earlier date and its embroidery is actually quite different. The differences illustrate that, as materials continued to evolve, the embroiderers adapted their techniques accordingly. The embroidery on the V&A Burse has not survived in quite as good condition as the BM Burse, but it is in its original pouch form. The border is similar but there are a few differences. Can you identify them?

3 thoughts on “The Elizabethan Seal Burse in the British Museum

Add yours

  1. I found your experiments very interesting.
    I was wondering could the embroider have drawn the pattern on the back of the fabric and worked from the wrong side. Or I have been known to draw a pattern on fabric that won’t take normal methods, by a simple running stitch through the paper pattern and removing the thread later.
    We all “invent” our own way of getting a job done and I’m sure Tudor embroiders were no different.
    Just a thought or two.
    Cheers Judy
    SE Queensland, Australia

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