During the middle ages embroidery was a popular way of decorating luxury textiles. The rich and powerful medieval Church owned huge amounts of embroidered textiles, often donated by the wealthy. Documents show that embroidery was commissioned for clothing for royalty and the nobility, but very little of this survives. Furnishings were probably decorated with applied embroidered motifs.
From the middle of the 1200s to the middle of the 1300s, England was the centre of very fine embroidery, known as Opus Anglicanum, or English work which was exported all over Europe. Opus Anglicanum embroidery usually covers the whole of the cloth on which it is worked, leaving only small areas of the background visible.
Changes to techniques
From the end of the 1300s, the techniques used by embroiderers began to change because of competition from European embroidery workshops, and changing requirements. In the 1400s, Italian weavers were producing luxury silk and velvet patterned fabrics and importing them to England in large amounts. A fine example with metallic threads and motifs of camels is used in the Erpingham Chasuble.
Embroiderers adapted their work by developing simpler techniques which could be produced more quickly and applied to the fine Italian cloths. This included applied work - small motifs embroidered on linen then cut out and stitched onto a finer cloth background, or larger bands of embroidery used as orphrey bands sewn onto the background cloth.
Unlike today, designers of embroidery are often not known. Professional embroiders certainly worked with artists for specifically commissioned pieces, and there was a repertoire of designs which they used. Embroiderers may have also adapted or modified the designs. Patterns, styles and motifs tend to reflect the fashions of the time and the same styles appear in different art forms.
At this period, embroiderers in professional urban workshops produced most of the highest quality embroidery. Workshops were mostly in London and were usually run by men and employed both men and women. The embroiderer's work was regulated by informal Guilds, to ensure the highest standard of work.
Simple wooden frames for embroidery appear in illustrations in a range of sizes. They are square or rectangular, rather than round like modern ones. Frames could be any size, to suit the size piece being worked and the number of embroiderers working on it. There are no known embroidery frames surviving.
During the 1400s, silk was being produced on a large scale in Italy. The production of silk had been developed in China many centuries earlier, and had to spread to Europe via Spain. Embroiders favoured filament silk, wound direct from the silkworm’s cocoon. Filament silk has a fine lustre and good strength. Spun silk, which is far more common today, is made of short lengths of filament silk spun together. The resulting thread is fluffier and has a less shiny, lustrous finish.
The most common dyes in use in England were:
- Woad, a plant, very similar to indigo. This gives a good range of blues.
- Madder, a root producing reds, oranges and pinks. It was imported to England in huge quantities.
- Weld, a native plant whose leaves give a yellow dye. Silk would be dyed with both weld and then indigo to produce greens.
- Kermes, a beetle, similar to the South American dye, cochineal. A more expensive dye, probably used for the finest silks. This gives a bright rich pinky red and a number of other shades.
Linen cloth, from the flax plant, was produced in England and much of Northern Europe before cotton was introduced from the Americas in the 1500s. It was used for household and personal linen as well as a base fabric for embroidery. It was woven in a range of qualities. Some embroideries seem to have used unbleached linen background.
Embroidery needles were probably brass and of very good quality, and probably as fine as modern needles. They were expensive and precious, and preserved with care. They could be sharpened and straightened – as they tend to bend in use.
Further reading and research
There are relatively few books about medieval embroidery, and even fewer which concentrate on embroidery of the 1400s rather than the earlier Opus Anglicanum. Many books about the history of embroidery start with Opus Anglicanum and skip 1500s.
King, D. Opus Anglicanum, Medieval English Embroidery, Arts Council 1963
Beck, T. The Embroiderer's Story, Needlework from the Renaissance to the Present Day. David & Charles, 1995
Like many others, it starts with Elizabethan work, but interesting none the less and has useful information about equipment.
Christie, Mrs A.G.I. English Medieval Embroidery, Oxford University Press, 1938
Covers embroidery up to 1400.
Gardner, S (ed) Embroidery Stitches, Country Bumpkin Publications, 1997
A very useful Australian reference book for stitch technique, although doesn’t attempt to cover the history.
Rhodes, M The Batsford Book of Canvas Work. Batsford Books, 1983
Very good book - includes history and modern work, stitches, lots of black and white pictures.
Staniland, K. Medieval Craftsmen; Embroiderers. British Museum Press 1991
A small but comprehensive book giving the history of makers and production as well as the embroidery techniques and motifs. It covers appliqué, thread counted embroidery, quilting and couching. Staniland discusses patrons and artists, guilds and techniques across Europe and has illustrations of embroidery from collections all over the world.
Synge, L. Antique Needlework. Blandford Books, 1982
A short but well illustrated chapter which concentrates on Opus Anglicanum, but also includes good historical information about other forms, particularly on secular embroider for the Royal household.
Tongerere: Basiliek van O.L.-Vrouw geboorte
1. Textiel van de vroege middeleeuwen tot het concilie van Trente.
Peeter Leuven, 1988
This book, in Dutch, contains a number of illustrations of embroidered purses, many of them pre-15th century, but is a good reference for medieval embroidery in general.
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'Gothic: Art for England 1400-1547', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 9 October 2003 - 18 January 2004.