The making of medieval embroidery

Medieval embroidery was a painstaking and precise art form, performed by skilled professional embroiderers – both men and women – who worked for hours by candle light.

In this film contemporary embroiderer Rosie Taylor-Davies recreates a detail from a 700 year old fragment of English embroidery. Working entirely by hand, she demonstrates the intricate process and skill of medieval embroiderers, who created some of England’s most beautiful and elaborate textile art. The small figure recreated in the film would have taken a medieval embroider roughly 35 hours to complete.

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The first stage in the process is the traditional method of 'pouncing': the design is drawn out on paper, pricked along its lines, and pinned to the ground fabric before the pounce (a fine powder such as charcoal), is applied, transferring the design to the textile in the form of dotted lines. The design is then embroidered using two techniques which were characteristic of English medieval embroidery: split stitch (shown here with white and coloured silk thread), in which the needle pierces the thread of the preceding stitch, creating a fine line used to achieve delicate modelling of detail; and underside couching – a technique where the decorative thread (usually silver or gold) is secured to the ground fabric by pulling it in tiny loops through to the back of the fabric with a couching thread, which is not visible on the surface.