An Elizabethan Rabbit Hole

Another intriguing 16th century book cover is the one traditionally said to have been worked by Elizabeth I at the age of about 12 years.  It is in the collection of the Bodleian Library and a wonderful, expandable digital image of the cover and one of the manuscript pages can be found at

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

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.  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!

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