The production of printed books in England was in its infancy at this time and they were often imported from the continent. Books were quite valuable and literacy was not common in the general population. As luxury items, they were often given as gifts or they were cherished possessions deserving of special treatment such as embroidered covers. Bindings were often personalized, displaying the cipher or arms of the recipient or owner. I’ve chosen two to provide an insight into different techniques and materials the embroiderer could use to create a unique and individual treasure.
The first is a very diminutive book – only 11 cm tall and 7 cm wide. It is a copy of the New Testament in Greek published in Geneva in 1576. Not surprisingly this little treasure was owned by Queen Elizabeth I. It has been rebound with a leather cover but the original embroidered binding was conserved and attached to the front and back boards. (The tooled edge of the new leather binding is visible on the header image.)
The embroidery on the front and back is identical and the ground fabric is white silk satin woven with double wires of silver or silver gilt running vertically. Both sides are embroidered alike with a central motif of the badge of the Order of the Garter. The garter is framed in a cartouche of large, couched wire check thread with a vine of double and single roses, buds and leaves. All the metal threads appear silver, however they may be silver gilt: in the very detailed photographs, the metal has a gold cast but that could be a result of the lighting available in the reading room.
Much of the red, green and blue colour that can bee seen is provided by a colour wash of paint or dye directly applied to the fabric. A very close examination reveals what looks to be a design line drawn onto the ground as a guide for the colour placement and embroidery. However, this may also simply be a residue left behind by the metal threads that have disappeared. The six little lions in the red quarters are exquisitely stitched with gold filé and the tiny fleur-de-lis are composed with small chips of silver purl. The centres of the roses are also purl and the outline is lizerine. The letters of the motto, HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE, are worked in the same lizerine, and the outline of the actual garter is a larger diameter lizerine. Outside the lizerine on the garter is a split stitch in what was probably a yellow silk but now appears to brown. There is green silk highlighting the leaves, and the roses are similarly picked out in a pinkish brown silk. A single seed pearl decorates the crown on the front cover now, but there are still five remaining on the crown on the back, along with a single seed pearl on the buckle of the garter.
Queen Elizabeth I was well respected for her fluency in several languages including Greek. Perhaps this little gem was given to her as New Year’s gift from an admirer, a courtier seeking favour or a token of esteem from a European ambassador.
Next week: An earlier Tudor binding…