Heraldic Embroidery

I had planned to explore cutwork this week but got distracted… I’ll try again next week.

There are many extant embroidered heraldic shields from the 16th century.  Several are in the possession of the National Trust, the largest collection being at Hardwick Hall and attributed to Bess of Hardwick, made to furnish her many residences.  Her four marriages, her children and their consequent marriages provided an almost endless supply.  See page 32 in Santina Levey’s The Embroideries at Harwick Hall. 

The imagery in a coat of arms could be executed using a variety of stitches, materials and techniques depending on the skill level of the embroiderer and the end use of the object.  There are many examples in museums such as this cushion cover in the V&A. T.262-1968 (below left).  An early example of a royal coat of arms is embroidered on a pall in the collection of the Ashmolean commissioned by Henry VII circa 1504 (below centre).  The supporters, shield and crown have been padded, embroidered and appliquéd onto a red velvet ground.  In a previous blog post, the coats of arms on the Elizabethan Burses in the British Museum BM 1997, 0301.1 (below right) and the V&A were discussed with reference to the use of goldwork.

Arms were important for the Livery Companies as well, appearing on ceremonial and processional objects such as hangings, banners and funeral palls.  The Coopers’ Company had a new hearse cloth made in 1563 which took seven months to complete.  A painter was employed specifically to draw the arms for the embroiderers to stitch.  Unfortunately, it is no longer extant.  Other companies do have 16th century palls in their collections including the Saddlers’ and the Merchant Taylors’.  The charges on their arms include objects that are integral to their work and they are of a similar size and technique.   The Saddlers’ Pall arms has three identical saddles (below left) and the Merchant Taylors’ (below centre) depict imported fabrics in the form of two mantles (long cloaks) and a pavilion (tent). The Broderers’ have in their possession four banners thought to have been embroidered in the last quarter of the 1500’s (below right). In the image, you can see the dimensionality of the embroidered lion and broche.

To gain a deeper understanding of what was involved in creating a new heraldic shield, it was decided to attempt a small embroidered version suitable for a book cover.  The coloured and annotated image of the arms granted to John Parr late in the 16th century, provided an authentic design for this endeavour. Embroidered arms on previously photographed book bindings, particularly those of Katherine Parr on British Library catalogue number c27e19 (at the bottom of the page), were referenced for appropriate materials and techniques.

A black line drawing was made of the shield and the outlines were traced onto a ground cloth of linen.  Each section would be embroidered separately, transferring the individual charges as required.  The background of each section was prepared according to colour. Silk satin squares in red (murrey) and blue (azure) were applied to the linen (below left) and rows of laid passing in gold and silver filled in the areas of yellow and white as indicated by the notes on the original drawing.  In the case of the lower right section, blue and red satin, and silver passing were all used to create the necessary ground onto which the charges were then embroidered.

The upside down fetterlocks (above centre) presented a bit of a challenge.  Small motifs on the extant arms were often embroidered using purl and, as established in previous posts, the purl available now does not produce a comparable effect.  The modern wire is much finer and not meant to be applied in lengths that require shaping with overstitching or couching which, even when extra care is taken, causes visible kinks in the purl to appear.   A modern smooth purl was used for the fleur-de-lis under the horn but they more closely resemble ears of wheat (above right).

Transferring the designs for the boar, griffon and pheasant required stitching the outline shapes freehand in running stitch using the line drawing as a guide.  The areas were then filled in with the appropriate coloured silk thread.

As noted, there were many steps involved in every section on the new embroidery. Some of them, applying the silk fabric and the laying of the passing, were fairly effortless. Others were physically challenging, such as embroidering through the laid ground of passing, requiring a good deal of patience. The finished embroidery has only six sections while the Katherine Parr arms have eleven squeezed into the same area making it an even more daunting task and further expanding my admiration and respect for the Tudor embroiderer.

2 thoughts on “Heraldic Embroidery

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  1. Love your boar, griffon and pheasant! And learning so much following your experiments in re-making historical embroideries. Thanks for keeping us in the loop and letting us look over your shoulder as you stitch.

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