Handmade in Britain - Fabric of Britain: The Wonder of Embroidery

The Butler-Bowden Cope (detail), c.1330. Museum no. T.36-1955 © V&A Images

The Butler-Bowden Cope (detail), c.1330. Museum no. T.36-1955 © V&A Images

Broadcast on BBC Four

2 October 2013

The final programme in the series uncovers the compelling story of one of the most extraordinary art forms of the Middle Ages: Opus Anglicanum – ‘English Work’ – embroidery, showing how it became an English success story in the medieval market for luxury goods.

Presenter, historian Dan Jones, starts his journey in the heart of medieval Christendom, Rome, and follows the trail left by English embroidery to Bologna and Ascoli Piceno in Italy and London and Canterbury in the United Kingdom. Although owned by popes and princes alike, the programme focuses on the stunning embroideries produced for the Catholic Church, as these have survived in greater numbers. And yet, as the film shows, most Opus Anglicanum embroidery has been lost since the Middle Ages: some to the ravages of time, with a great deal of religious embroidery deliberately destroyed during the Reformations of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Starting from the evidence of surviving objects, the programme unpacks the revolutionary techniques that made English embroidery the best in Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries. Two kinds of stitches – split stitch and underside couching – gave Opus Anglicanum its unique look and quality. Its high cost can be explained by the use of silver and gold threads and embellishment with precious stones, as well as the painstaking, labour-intensive nature of its production. Small teams of workers took years to create the most elaborate examples, while the Broderers Guild ensured that the embroidery was made to the highest standards, with apprentices taking seven years to properly learn their craft.

The programme finishes by exploring the decline of Opus Anglicanum at the end of the 14th century. Primarily based in London, the embroidery industry suffered heavy losses during the Black Death, which arrived in England in 1348. By the time the industry had begun to recover it was already too late: Dutch embroiderers had seized the initiative to produce work that employed an innovative new technique known as ‘Or Nue’ (‘shaded gold’). In embroidery, England was no longer the market leader, becoming, instead, a follower.

Presented by Dan Jones, contributors include Lisa Monnas and the Royal School of Needlework, as well as V&A curators.

For more information visit the BBC Four website 


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