The search for silk camlet and a visit to Meg Andrews

The ground fabric of the Bacton Altar Cloth (BAC) has been identified as a silk camlet: a fairly simple weave with the weft being much thicker than the warp, giving it a texture similar to grosgrain.  However, nothing in the 16th c is either simple or straightforward and so it is not surprising that “camlet” is written many different ways in 16th c documentation.  A quick look at the index of The Inventory of King Henry VIII notes: “CAMLET (chablet, chamblet, chamblette), a warp-faced tabby cloth showing a pronounced weft rib, in mohair, wool or silk.” There is also a separate entry for SILK CAMLET.

Image © Historic Royal Palaces and
St. Faith’s Parish Council by permission

In the case of the BAC the fibre is silk but what makes the ground of the BAC very special is the supplementary weft of flattened silver wire or fine plate.   The detail image shown here has been published in Eleri Lynn’s Tudor Textiles. The warp threads are not a consistent width but they are very fine in comparison to the warp, which simply weaves over and under the weft.  It gets a little more complicated when the silver strip is added: it is caught on the face of every second weft thread with every second over, leaving the silver a little more visible.  There is no separate entry in the Inventory’s index for silver camlet.

Image © Challe Hudson

The search for extant fragments of silver camlet has found several textiles that are woven with wire, or filé.  An example shown above from Hardwick Hall has a pair of super hair-fine wires woven into the silk in a satin weave.  The wires tend to fall into the crease between the warp threads, rather than remaining on top as the silver strip on the camlet does.  This might be an example of plain cloth of gold as illustrated in The Embroideries at Hardwick Hall F6, page 46.

An example of a textile woven with fine filé is this fragment from the Whitworth Gallery (above left).  It is the void area of a patterned velvet and these pairs appear to be sitting on top of every second weft.  Note that the metal thread is turned before the selvedge. Above right, the patterned green velvet (also Whitworth Gallery) from the previous post has a fine flattened silver wire in the void areas in the background.  Unfortunately, the image is not very clear but the dark horizontal dashes are the broken lines of silver.

Image © Challe Hudson

The quest for flattened silver wire turned up Meg Andrews’ website: The 16th century red satin valance shown above is embroidered with crimson velvet and yellow cloth appliqués in a “grotesque” design that incorporates vines, vases, birds and fish. The yellow cloth is woven with a silver strip that has fragmented and all but disappeared.  The entire valance is about 9 feet long and 11 inches high.

Images in the grotesque style were popular in the 16th century Europe, as illustrated below by the border in the collection of the National Gallery of Art. German artist Seobald Beham’s engraving of a border of two stylized dolphins is far more elaborate than the appliqué in the valance but the similarity is notable. 

Another red valance in this style is in the collection of the V&A below. (37.1903)  The ground in this valance is velvet and the appliqués are identified as silver tissue but it is unclear whether the silver is round or flat.  The appliqués are outlined with metal thread that may be a filé twist and are further embellished with embroidery stitches in coloured silk thread.

The Burrell Collection also has a valance in a similar style.  The set of embroideries known collectively as the Kimberley Throne includes a canopy and a hanging for the front of the seat.  It was made for the visit of Elizabeth I to Sir Roger Wodehouse of Kimberley Hall on 22 August 1578. The applied cloth of gold, and cloth of silver in the strapwork design, is painted with a coloured wash to add depth and is outlined in couched gilt and silver-gilt threads.  The Kimberley design incorporates a bird, a lion’s head and two bunches of fruit including apples, cherries, grapes and pears.  There is an arabesque floral design with eglantine roses and leaves on the border, and down the sides and along the bottom.  (Scottish Museums 14.217.e and 14.217.b).  For more information on the Kimberley Throne go to;id=595884;type=101

The first two valances shown above (Meg Andrews and the V&A) have been identified as Italian work.  Although there is no place of origin mentioned in the Glasgow museums collection entry, I would venture to guess that it is considered to be English in origin.  I would love to be able to make a detailed study of the valances in the V&A and the Burrell to make a comparison of threads, materials and workmanship, but for now I have to settle on having had a close look at the one in Meg’s collection.  Here is a link to it on her website:

The design consists of two alternating panels repeated along the length of the valance.  One is of a narrow vase between mirrored dolphins with tendrils and stylized leaves.  The other is a tall cup from which two birds are drinking.  The cup is flanked by bird-like creatures tied by the neck to grape vines.  The two designs overlap but do not interlock.  There is a narrow border along the top and bottom which is a repeating alternating s-shape decorated with circles and flowers.  The three designs are worked in crimson velvet and yellow cloth.  The velvet has worn on many of the appliqués; there does not appear to be a discernable pattern that might explain the reason for the wear.

It was the yellow fabric that attracted my attention in the search for a second example of a camlet the same as on the BAC.  The weave is similar to the camlet on the BAC with a fine warp and a heavier weft.  It is also a simple over and under or tabby weave but the difference in the diameter of the warp and weft threads produces the grosgrain effect.  The threads may have once been the same colour and it is possible that the yellow warp has faded: in the areas where the warp has worn, the weft is visible as a brighter yellow bundle of threads. 

Image © Challe Hudson

The darker areas indicate the addition of a metal strip.  In this close up of the scales on a dolphin’s body/tail, the fine strips of silver are added to the top of every weft rather than every second one, as on the BAC.  It has also slipped to the side of the warp rather than remaining on top.  Also, the warp doesn’t skip an over as on the BAC.  The condition of the silver varies throughout the valance and often appears to have disintegrated or melted into the silk. It also isn’t clear whether the silver was integrated to convey a pattern or design.  

Image © Challe Hudson

The valance is fully lined with linen so the back of the embroidery was hidden.  Meg very kindly allowed me to carefully remove the stitches at one corner to reveal the stitching on the underside.   The valance is stained on this corner, so the threads were stuck in place and couldn’t be pulled.  Meg produced a pair of embroidery scissors and I cut just enough stitches to see the inside of the corner. The little opening revealed an interesting tabby woven base fabric which requires further investigation and it was obvious that some of the motifs have been restitched.   You can see in the picture below that the top border had been restitched with white thread but it wasn’t clear if the brown thread or the base fabric were original to the embroidery.  Not being a conservator and not wishing to do any further damage, I was reluctant to remove any more of the lining and the rest of the investigation was done from the front of the embroidery. 

The appliqués were first basted to the ground with a few stitches in quite coarse thread.  Then the twist was couched in place around the perimeter with the same thread and the details added after.  The same thread was used to couch the red velvet, the yellow fabric and the details.  The colour of the thread varies throughout and it still isn’t 100% clear whether the base fabric was original to the valance but the thread used is similar to the thread visible on the exposed corner, so it is certainly a possibility.

The search for a second extant example of the silver camlet used on the BAC continues but the opportunity to study the valance was invaluable.  I am extremely grateful to Meg for her kindness in allowing me to examine it so closely.  It is an outstanding survivor and would be a wonderful addition to any collection of 16th century embroidery.

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