Head, Hair and Harp

The experimental stitching is almost complete but choosing the colours of the edge feathers has still not been accomplished.  Since they are one of the last elements to be stitched, I’ve gone ahead and started the actual angel.  I’m hoping the colours will kind of choose themselves when all the other colours are in place. 

I’ve embroidered a few faces in the past, in a number of different techniques, and rarely can I get them to look a little like the person I’m trying to represent.  Luckily, this angel had no real model so as long as it looks relatively “angelic” it will be an achievement.  Inspecting a variety of embroidered faces of the late 15th and early 16th century, from angels to evangelists, helps to understand how they were achieved.  In this period, the stitching is usually a series of long stitches that encroach into previous stitches.  If we had to classify it today it would be called “long and short” but the image that term conjures for a 21st century person very precise and perfect (see https://rsnstitchbank.org/stitch/long-and-short-stitch).  The Tudor embroiderer’s long and short faces were lovely but not so perfect from our perspective today.  The appearance of the “long and short” stitch could be quite different from face to face.  Here are just a few examples from extant 15th and 16th c English embroideries I have had the opportunity to examine:

As you can see, innumerable expressions and stitching styles, and all are very appealing in their own way.  And they can’t be classified as anything except embroidered faces. The thing is to recognize this, you have to spend quite some time looking very carefully at each element in every item!  Just think of the different embroiderers who worked these faces and how each embroiderer’s work may have changed (or not changed) with the number of faces they embroidered. As an experiment and for practice, I completed the entire face but now I have to repeat it and I wonder if I’ll attempt to change anything as I’m stitching…

The hair was challenging as well.  For my angel, I used the hair on the Fishmongers’ angel for a model.  Working the shape of the curls first in very tiny split stitch and then filling the areas with more tiny split stitch worked in the direction of the curls in a lighter shade.  I haven’t completed it but I have the concept and hopefully I will take a little more care with the direction of the split stitch filling on the actual piece.

I tried a couple of different things for the harp, beginning with single rows of couched gold passing but changed my mind to try satin stitch in a dark gold silk.  Eventually I decided to try to introduce silver and this was the result.  White silk satin stitch with a greyer tone for depth and a little vine design worked in couched silver passing and green silk. 

There are many different ways to stitch a scroll and after looking at a number, I decided that it would be white with rows fine silk couched to secure the long surface satin stitches.  The most appropriate Latin motto would be the 16th century Broderers’ Company motto:  Omnia desuper or Omnia de Super.  It has been spelled both ways on different extant documents.  Omnia de Super would fit very nicely!

As you can see from the over all image, I have also tried the tiled floor in a number of colours and layers.  I’m not in love with any of them and haven’t made a decision for the final as yet.  It’s a little out of focus because I wanted you to see that I do have some company as I stitch!

A special note for those readers who have been fortunate enough to take a class on Medieval Embroidery with Jessica Grimm… If you look carefully at the image at the top of the page or below, you can see that the linen under the couched file (passing) has been painted with what is likely madder!

4 thoughts on “Head, Hair and Harp

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  1. Cynthia, in your decisions of colour choices you haven’t limited yourself to a medieval palate? Maybe ‘limited’ isn’t the correct word! Regarding the face, obviously this has been a challenging depiction for centuries of embroiderers. With your first stitches did you lay out the direction you planned to stitch using the same colour as used for the overall face colour and then go back with another colour to create the eyebrows and other facial elements or are those two slightly different shades to begin with (I myself can’t quite distinguish this in the pictures I’m seeing)? What is your ground fabric? Also, I REALLY LIKE the choice of silver for the harp.

    1. Hi Christine, I haven’t limited my colour choice to a specific palate, as I’m not quite sure how to do that without knowing more about how the silk was dyed, ie. where and who dyed them and that is beyond the scope of my project. For now, I am simply using colours that I have observed being used in extant embroideries from the early Tudor period (often checking the back if possible). The face is two colours as the base (using Pipers for now, blush and flesh but they are quite pink) and adding the detail in the same colour as the hair for eyebrows and lashes-ish and the darker of the two base colours (blush) for the mouth and nose. White and sky blue for the eyes with a tiny spot of black. The ground is fine linen but I haven’t counted the threads yet… I will though eventually. I like the silver too, a bit of a respite from all the gold that will be used and they did use both.

      1. Cynthia, thank you for the explanation of colours in the facial elements! Have you come across any Black or African angels or Saints in Tudor Era embroideries? Also, we know that both silver and gold threads were available to the artisans, yet without an actual database of works to my hands, in my mind I’m only visualizing goldworks during this period. This is beyond the bounds of your project, but offhand, are there a few silver works that you’re immediately familiar with?

      2. Hi Christine, to my knowledge, silver was not used exclusively on any one embroidery (gold was) but it was often used in addition to gold for elements that required an area of white or silver. The Merchant Taylors’ Pall has plenty… for example the silver dish holding John the Baptist’s head, the banner held by the agnus dei, the lamb itself and on the donor’s arms. The scroll the angel holds in addition to the head is also couched silver rather than the white silk I used. And now that you mention it, I could try to couch a silver scroll on my angel as well… I’ll have to think about that for a bit and maybe do a little experimentation! Thank you for providing that inspiration! No, I have not come across any black angels but I will take note if I do!

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