One of the great difficulties of recreating a piece of Tudor embroidery is determining the original colour of the metal thread. As I am not a metallurgist, I can only go by articles I have read and my own observations of extant embroideries. Most of the filé or passing thread remains the original colour because it is wound with a very fine strip of high content gold or silver wire twisted around a core of silk thread. The wire used for the metal purls pose a much more complex problem because they are usually an amalgam of different metals. There are few extant objects that retain their gold colour because the gold content is high. One such object is the Elizabethan Burse at the British Museum: for the most part, the gold remains yellow and the silver is still quite a light shade of grey.
During the 16th century, the majority of metal purls are made with a silver or copper core. The silver is coated with a fine layer of gold. There has been plenty of research into the manufacture of metal threads including articles by Cristina Ballofet Carr, Marta Jaro, Atilla Toth and Cristina Scibe (et al). The copper core can be covered with a layer of silver first and then gilded with gold. Inevitably, the core material will tarnish and cover the outer layer of gold. According to Jaro and Toth (Scientific Identification of European Metal Thread Manufacturing Techniques in the 17th to 18th c), “in the case of gilt thread, the corrosion products of the base metal can cover the surface thus disturbing examination of the surface.” I’ve taken a few micro images of the metal threads on the Broderers’ Crown and at a high magnification, remnants of the gilding are evident on the surface of the base metal (below left).
The experiment this week is a recreation of a partial motif from the guard on the crimson velvet cloak in the Museum of London. You may recall the feathers from a previous post. I have examined the cloak in person, taken many images of the embroidery, and noted some unusual threads such as the twice coiled wire used on the feathers and an unusual combination of file and coiled wire. Not until I made an attempt to draw the motif to scale, did I realize the extent of the combined use of gold and silver threads. Looking so closely at the image (above right), I noticed that some of filé twist was much darker and almost blended into the metal purl. I concluded it was silver twist that had tarnished and because it was used as an outline, perhaps the purls were originally silver as well. A further survey of the individual motifs revealed that although the design was the same for each, the threads used varied from motif to motif. This appears to be a trait for many extant embroideries. Remember the leaves on the Douce Bible?
I began with the line drawing and using the prick and pounce method again, I transferred the design to the surface of the velvet. I don’t know why I assumed the Tudor embroiderer would only have a choice of black or white to draw the lines when there are all those colourful 16th century portraits… this time I used a red paint that would not show if it wasn’t completely covered.
Parts of the design are padded, so that came next. I stripped a ply from a length of Soie d’alger and used it to couch the remaining length as it was, beginning in the point with one and adding another underneath as needed. I probably should have stripped the 6 remaining ply so they lay flatter and smoother filling the area from edge to edge.
I covered the padding with purl in gilt check and silver smooth, wire check and rough. As this is a sample only, I experimented with the selection of purl. Not all the motifs are exactly the same, the long silver point consists only of check purl on this motif but another alternated the check with a round purl, and I decided to try that.
The padding on the main stylized c-shaped motif is couched with rows of coiled wire laced with a single file thread. To my knowledge, it isn’t available commercially, so I created it by hand. The file is obviously gold but the wire could be silver or gold. I used gold but padded the area with white as it appears to be on the original. It is a fine coil and I tried both 9drm tambour and gilt over cotton thread as the core. The difference is not discernable in the image but the degree of colour is intensified with the wider tambour.
A very close inspection of the original also reveals that there are remnants of blue silk stitching over the coiled wire filé. It appears to be an attempt at shading to create a clear indication of the overlapping of the c-shaped motifs. My images are not detailed enough to attempt a reconstruction.
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please post them. A note about the articles with respect to metal thread manufacture… None of the articles that I have found specifically mention 16th century metal threads. Many cover earlier medieval threads and a couple focus on 17th and later. If you have come across any specifically mentioning 16th century, I would love to hear.
Thank you, Cynthia! This is helping me in my recreation of 16th-century embroidery. I have also noted what I thought was a silver check but it has a strong gold tone if you look closely. I am hoping to see it in person to really determine the thread. Your work is stunning.
Thank you! I’m happy to share and if you have a specific question, please ask! I am curious as to what you are recreating…