Tudor Borders

While here is a huge amount of information available concerning what was worn, what was permitted by law to be worn and by whom, how extravagant it was and what it meant about the person and the level of society they inhabited, there is not a lot of information about how, by whom and with what the embroidery that conveyed a lot of that messaging was produced.  Learning a little more about the practical side of Tudor embroidery on clothing is the objective of the next few experiments.

The portraiture of the period is the best place to start as there are not many extant garments to examine.  The cartoon drawn by Holbein for the mural of the Tudor family provides an excellent contemporary image of Henry VIII.  Information about the drawing and the history of the painting can be found at https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw03080/King-Henry-VIII-King-Henry-VII?

King Henry VIII; King Henry VII
by Hans Holbein the Younger
ink and watercolour, circa 1536-1537
NPG 4027
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The cartoon clearly depicts the designs used to create the embroidery on his gown and tunic, sleeves and bodice.  In the wardrobe accounts, the decoration on a gown with a border such as this might have been referred to as ‘embraudered with a brode garde of venice golde’.


How can the technical details of the embroidery be determined in order to attempt a reconstruction of the garment the cartoon represents?  The border on the tunic is a complicated knotwork design and it is difficult to follow in the drawing so a line drawing is helpful.  The result is a single knot design that overlaps to appear as a continuous border (below). 

There are several versions of this portrait that depict a knotwork border pattern that is quite different than the original cartoon. In particular, the portrait of Henry VIII in the Walker Art Gallery (above right). Holbein likely painted it after the original mural was complete, depicting a different, much wider border pattern.  This same pattern appears on most of the full length portraits based on the original. The same border also appears on the skirt of Henry’s doublet depicted on the later painting of Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons.

It is not a continuous pattern either.  The blue and bright green loops link through the knot but the knot would have to be worked in an additional three sections.  Is it possible that Holbein drew the initial cartoon using an existing garment from Henry’s wardrobe as a model and made it more elaborate for the painted image? Or was it the other way around and the cartoon was simply an approximation and an actual gown used for the painting?

British Library C21F14 (top), C23E11

How would the embroidery have been worked?  And what materials might have been used?  Although there are not any extant garments from Henry’s wardrobe, there are two examples of embroidered curvilinear designs on book covers from Henry’s library.  Both are couched three ply cord made with twisted filé or “venyse gold”.

A close inspection of both book covers makes clear that there are as few stops and starts in the couched thread as possible.  The longer the length of thread that can be continuously couched without having to be ended, the more efficient the stitching. Stopping to end a corded filé thread and begin a new one adds considerably to the time required to complete a project.  Different sizes of twisted cord were used as well.

The pattern was transferred to the velvet by the prick, pounce and paint method It was repeated a second time overlapping the end loops.  Then a #2 passing twist was sewn in place on the motifs.  The 16th century embroiderers must have found a better way to transfer the pattern because, no matter how light a line is painted or how carefully you try to cover it, it leaves a visible residue.  The residue is not very noticeable with the naked eye but the camera picks up every little mark. The larger loops of the second motif were stitched with the same twist and a lighter silver twist was used for the knot.

The gold thread picks up the light very effectively and the repeated motifs really make quite a rich addition to the velvet.  There is documentary evidence that pearls were a popular addition to embroidery at this time, so it seemed like a good time to add to the experiment.

Next week: A “cutwork” border

2 thoughts on “Tudor Borders

Add yours

  1. I loved this research. Several questions: what are the dimensions of your sample piece with pearls? How long was the continuous thread you used to complete the first half of the pattern? I loved your drawings explaining the designs. Now I want to embroider a cuff or two of a wool jacket😂
    Thank you, DArcy Walker

  2. DArcy, Thank you for commenting! The single motif used about 40 inches of twist but that depends on how much you twist it as it is sewn down so I’d add a few inches just in case. The sample with both motifs is, from end loop to end loop, 6 1/2 inches by 3 inches. Based on the size of Henry’s hand, I estimated that the border on the portrait was about 5 inches and the one on the cartoon was quite a bit narrower. Have fun!

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