Extraordinary Luxury Textiles

Textiles used in embroidery during the Tudor period covered a wide range of weaves and fibres.  Elizabeth, Countess of Hardwick famously re-used a vast number of former garments and furnishings to create the hangings used to decorate her house at Chatsworth and at Hardwick Hall.  The most comprehensive illustration of the variety of textiles she worked with can be found in Santina Levey’s catalogue “The Embroideries at Hardwick Hall”.  The photographs are clear and her explanations are beautifully written but the weaving process is extremely complicated so they are very difficult to understand and recognize.  What is a tissue, what is a cloth of gold, and what is a brocade, brocatelle, lampas or tinsel?  And what about velvet? Solid colour, flat velvets were very often used to provide a rich, deep ground fabric on which to embroider, and patterned velvets were applied to other grounds such as silk damask and wool.  A velvet pile is easily identified, but there can be so many combinations of thread woven into a myriad of plains and patterns: is there a simple way to categorize them? 

Zenobia, detail illustrating a variety of luxury textiles, Hardwick Hall

Earlier this year, I was fortunate to be invited to attend a lecture at the University of Manchester. “Serial Production and individualization in Late Medieval Silk Weaving,” was presented by Dr Michael Peter, an expert in medieval textiles from the Abegg-Stiftung Museum in Bern.  Dr Peter’s lecture clearly identified the role of the consumer in the aesthetic development of luxury textiles and how unique and expensive special commissions were adapted to create economically viable ones.  He described how the fabric was woven and even drew a diagram of a simple velvet with a two step structure but it was still far too complex for me to grasp.  The videos showing the weaving of velvet on 17th century looms are intriguing but just think of how much more complicated it was a century before.  The addition of two different heights of pile, cut and un cut, as many as three types of metal thread and a pattern of little loops makes it absolutely incredible.

Fragments of luxury textiles from the collection of the Whitworth Gallery. Image copyright Challe Hudson.

Happily, there was a practical component to the lecture that would help to visually identify some of the technical aspects Dr Peter had addressed in the lecture.  The following day, the attendees were invited to the Whitworth Gallery to examine fragments of 16th century textiles from the collection.

Fragment of ciselé velvet, Whitworth Gallery T.12324

The image above is of a fragment of velvet from the collection of the Whitworth Gallery (T.12324). On the website it is identified as ciselé velvet with metal thread, woven in Italy and dated 1575 to 1599.  It consists of silk thread and flattened silver wire. The cloth has plain tabby weave areas (voided) and cut pile filling an uncut velvet pile (loops that look like little dots) outline.

Fragment of cloth of gold velvet, Whitworth Gallery T.12261

This example is also in the Whitworth and it has cut velvet pile, loops of fine venice gold thread and the voided areas are woven with pairs of gold wire added to the silk weft.  It is identified as a strip of velvet cloth of gold (T.12261).  This type of velvet is beautifully illustrated in the portrait of Mary painted by Master John c 1544.  Here is a link to the image on the NPG website: https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw04264/Queen-Mary-I?LinkID=mp02995&role=sit&rNo=1  If you scroll in tightly, you can see the little loops on her sleeves and bodice.

This fragment of patterned purple velvet has been embellished with stitches of venice gold. Couched venice twist or cord in gold and silver outlines each motif.  The reverse shows the colour of the couching thread alternates for gold and silver and the single stitches go through the ground making smaller stitches on the back. I was unable to locate the accession number of this fragment on the Whitworth Collection website but it may be T.10678.

I am extremely grateful to Dr Gale Owen Crocker, Dr Michael Peters and the staff at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester for the opportunity to tip a toe into the exciting world of luxury Renaissance textiles.

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