Silk and Gold Tudor Feathers

Sometimes you just have to seize the opportunity when it arises… This beautiful red velvet cloak was not the reason I went to the Museum of London that day but I knew it would be important to future study.  I took as many close ups of the embroidery as I thought I might need but when it comes right down to it you can never take enough!  And at the time, I really had no intention of trying to reproduce the threads or techniques.  Hindsight…

Luckily, I have enough to begin with one of the motifs that you can’t see on this image from the website.  The three feathers alternate with a stylized leaf flourish situated between pairs of crescent shaped motifs on the deep embroidered border around the circumference of the cloak.

At the time, I was only interested in the techniques used to create the embroidery and I didn’t take any specific measurements, but I did get some information from the conservation report.  The border is about 4.3 inches wide so I made a drawing to fit that scale.   It isn’t perfect – but that won’t affect the experiment.

I began with the central feather.  The embroidery itself looks fairly straight forward but once again there are always challenges in finding the correct threads and methods of application.  It isn’t clear how the linen padding was applied because there is no access to the underside of the embroidery.  For the first half, four separated plies of linen string were couched to the velvet with fine linen thread.  Establishing the correct size of purl for the barbs was challenging without having taken specific measurements but I did take a nice close up of the left side of the motif.  For now, it’s a matter of taking photos of the experimental purls and comparing them with the photo of the original. 

The wire of the purl on the cloak is a larger diameter than the commercially made purl available now.  I started on the left side of the central feather with a #7 rough purl because the rough is made with a round wire (smooth purl is made with a flattened wire), but it was too small, so out it came.  #5 is the largest I have on hand and it seemed to work quite well, however, in comparison to the original, the modern purl is very tightly wound while the Tudor purl is less compact, with space between the coils. 

I carefully stretched the #5 to finish the other side of rest of the feather, but first the padding had to be stitched in.  Changed the linen thread for padding to a doubled strand of 35/3 and put in 4 long stitches in.  It was couched with long diagonal stitches using a finer linen thread in the opposite angle to the direction the purl will go in.  Finished stitching in the purl and found that the stretched #5 purl was very fragile and got quite damaged so the diameter of the wire will have to be larger to make the coils firmer.

The centre vein is called a rachis.  The thread used on the original is a coiled purl with a threaded core.  It took a few tries to get the correct size of purl stretched just enough and coiled again to the correct diameter to thread with the core. The images are not quite detailed enough to tell exactly what type of thread is used so I started with a linen thread on the turn over.  It was couched between the coils with a finer linen thread but that didn’t look quite right.  For the main part of the rachis, I used 4 strands of a coloured silk couched with one strand of the same. 

Moving on to the curved feather on the left, the gaps between the barbs are filled with coloured silk and the padding is visible but it really doesn’t help to identify how it is applied.  The curve made it difficult to put in long stitches but I persisted.  It wasn’t very pretty but it was firm so I left it in and moved on.  For the barbs, I purled a 0.20mm wire around a 22 gauge wire.  A 0.20mm wire is more or less the same size as a 36 gauge wire and a 22 gauge wire is about the same as 0.6mm.  So confusing for a dyslexic… I read backwards much better than forwards… and never ask me for directions! 

I filled between each barb with 8 strands of floss silk in a light green.  Working with 8 strands in the needle is not ideal and I will work on finding something else.  The rachis went in very nicely.

Finished up the feather on the right using a brighter green just to see how it would work.  I extended the rachides to quills with a core of passing because I thought I saw a little bit of metal that looked like wrapping, but the passing I used really wasn’t heavy enough.  The centre line of the tie is a piece of heavy check that I removed from something else.   It’s not quite the same as on the cloak and I’ve never been able to find any check made with wire as heavy and square.  It was used quite often on Tudor goldwork so I’ll have to keep looking!

As I worked on this motif and struggled to find the correct wires and purls, I was thinking about how the Tudor embroiderers might have worked with the metal threads.  Did they purchase them embroidery ready as we do now?  Or did they purchase wires and coil them as required?  Did they experiment with them to create new threads as they worked out a design? I have no answers yet but the picture may become clearer as I continue to experiment.  There are certainly many more techniques, wires, threads and fabrics to investigate!

Next week: A Tudor Rose Leaf

6 thoughts on “Silk and Gold Tudor Feathers

Add yours

  1. Great experiments, thank you for detailing how you went about each feather. They are very pretty; imagine how that cloak would have glittered in candle light!

  2. I can’t even begin to comprehend sewing with springs? Uh, that’s what it looks like to me. Your recreation is awesome, though.

  3. Thank you so much for your wonderful description of your work. I am finding it fascinating.
    I have only just discovered your site after listening to your interview with Garry Parr in Fibre talk. I have been interested in textile/embroidery history for years but have never found very much on the net. Maybe I just wasn’t looking in the right place. I will be spending time going through your site and savering everything.
    Thanks so much.
    Cheers Judy
    SE Queensland, Australia

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