Pre-900AD and 900-1299AD
“Yea ‘till the world be quite dissolved and past,
So long at least, the needles use shall last.”
Copyright remains with the author
Needlework before 900AD
Decorating cloth with embroidery is possible as old a pastime as making clothes - but the English climate doesn’t preserve textiles well.
Scant evidence of embroidery is found in written records - the Romans recorded that Boudicea was captured in AD62 wearing a fur lined mantle of embroidered silks. It is suggested that influences from abroad would have arrived in England from traders well before the Romans. The Phoenicians were extensive travellers and traders and they arrived in England about 1650BC, they surely must have brought examples of silks and embroidery.
The Romans introduced many skills to England along with the influences of Christianity. After the Romans left England in 410AD, the country went through a more unsettled age of invasions and loss of infrastructure - after the 300 or so years of the “dark ages” embroidery began to flourish, with Christianity being the major stimulus of artistic effort and expression.
In order to understand the style, quality and quantity of embroideries produced at any one time it is important to look at the social, political and foreign influences of the time period under study. Most of the examples given here are from the upper classes, kings, queens and their courtiers. Very few examples of the costumes of the lower classes survive. The main illustrations of the “peasants” clothing that we have today are from “book of hours” and no wonderfully carved effigies of “ordinary people” survive.
In times of a settled, peaceful and wealthy country the costumes of the court would be more lavish (the Tudors were probably the most lavish of all), in unsettled times there was more call for battle armour than embroidered courtiers. For this reason at the beginning of each chapter there is a short summary of the political power and major influences of the time.
English Embroidery 900-1299
Part one – The St Cuthbert Discovery
Part one – The St Cuthbert Discovery
Edward the Elder 899
Edmund I 946
Edward the Martyr 975
Ethelred II 978
Edmund II 1016
Edward the Confessor 1042
Harold II 1066
William I 1066
William II 1087
Henry I 1100
Henry II 1154
Richard I 1189
Henry III 1216
Edward I 1272
Most of our information on embroidery at this time is from descriptions in manuscripts and from illustrations rather than actual textile objects – with one notable exception.
It is recorded that in the C7th St Augustine carried a banner embroidered with the image of Christ. The religious icons on the banner were easily recognisable symbols to the mainly illiterate population and were used to preach about Christianity. No textiles such as this seem to have survived.
Early in the C7th Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherbourne wrote a poem mentioning embroidery and tapestry weaving by English women. Until the height of the mediaeval period, embroidery was women’s work. Later it became organised into professional workshops of male needleworkers.
For a long time embroidery was undertaken by those of privileged birth who had access to the materials and threads and the leisure time to work the stitching. Embroidery thrived - becoming a major interest of noble women and of those in religious orders.
The best example of Anglo-Saxon embroidery surviving from this time is a stole and maniple found in St Cuthbert’s tomb in Northumbria – northern England. These vestments are remarkably well preserved and date from about 915AD. The items are worked in gold threads and silks and stitches used are stem, split and surface couching. The design is influenced by manuscript images and it is possible that the fabric ground was marked by a manuscript artist. These vestments can be viewed at Durham Cathedral.
The Bayeux Tapestry (around 1070AD)
Since posting on Wednesday the blog has had 287 hits. That's a great response - so I know it's worthwhile carrying on! This next instalment is about the Bayeaux Tapestry.
The History of English Embroidery
Part two – The Bayeux Tapestry
The History of English Embroidery
Part two – The Bayeux Tapestry
This was an unsettled time when England was still largely a fragmented country and Viking raids were still common in some areas. Even before the Norman conquest in 1066 England and Normandy had been drawing closer; Norman speech, habits, customs and costumes were prevalent at the English court.
The Bayeux tapestry was stitched in the early Middle Ages, about 1070, following the Norman invasion of England in 1066. It’s not a tapestry at all – but an embroidery.
It’s a narrative display about the invasion constructed in sections that were then joined. Eight strips of linen have been stitched to create a length that is approximately 20 inches high and 230 feet long. The last part is damaged, so it may have been longer.
It is a wonderful example of this type of hanging and is our best source of information on clothing, boats, castles and daily life in this era. The trees are fantastically stylised, horses and armour are shown in detail. On the border there are dogs and mythical beasts derived from fables of the time. William the Conqueror sits in state, Harold is shown slain, castles are illustrated, there is humour and yes, there are some rude bits too!
Various texts mention other hangings recording notable events, but only this one has survived. It is worked in wool in eight shades of blue, green, yellow and terracotta red. The workmanship appears to be English (despite it being on display in France) and it may have been commissioned by Williams brother Odo the Bishop of Bayeux, who is prominent in several scenes.
Linen is used as the “ground” (base cloth) and worsted wool is used as the thread. The main stitch used throughout is the “Bayeux Stitch” where threads are laid and then couched into place. The quality of the stitching varies throughout the piece indicating that it was stitched by more than one person.
The “tapestry” was first referred to in 1476 where we know it decorated the nave at Bayeux cathedral once a year. It narrowly escaped destruction twice during the French Revolution.
Further evidence of high status embroidery in England is provided by William the Conqueror’s chronicler who recorded that after the conquest the French took home magnificent English embroidered state robes far finer than any they had seen before.
See the book list to the right >> for a dedicated book.
Very funny animation on YouTube.
More details and pictures
Information from the BBC here
How to work Stem stitch
How to work the Laid Stitch
Next week we will look at the costumes and embroidery during the Plantagenet kings and textile production in Anglo-Saxon England.
Part three - Following Bayeux
English Embroidery 900-1299AD
Sorry I'm a day late - a family wedding away from home took up all weekend and then blogger refused to save! So frustrating! Here is the third part of the history. Next week we will look at the golden age of English Goldwork.
Henry II (1154AD), the first of the Plantagenet kings, ruled a kingdom that incorporated land from England down to the Mediterranean and across to the Pyrenees. Influences on costumes, customs and embroidery would have been heavily influenced by European trends.
The Clare Chasuble 1272-1294AD
Techniques used- Silk, satin weave, embroidered with silver-gilt, silver and coloured silk thread, thought to be woven in China and embroidered in England.
There is limited evidence of the costumes from this early period and very little evidence for embroidery as very few items have survived. Most information comes from drawings in manuscripts and sculptures. See the “links” section below for examples.
Information on female clothing is also gathered from descriptions in poetry and prose and from the wills of wealthy women. Cloaks were common outer garments and were pulled over the head to form a hood. Some cloaks were more of a constructed garment - a type of sleeveless tunic, with or without a hood. A moderately fitted undergarment was worn underneath. It was ankle length with straight sleeves, sometimes bound with a sash.
The wealthy and religious classes could have worn imported silks - often embroidered in gold. There are reports of jewelled robes and cloaks interwoven with gold and William the Conquerors wife Matilda was said to have worn a cloak “of gold”. Embroidery seems to appear on cuffs and occasionally on headdresses, rarely there is a suggestion of ornamentation on the skirts or gowns. It is hard to see sometimes from pictures we have of this age, as drawings were often done only in outline and many drawings were uncoloured.
Men are more often depicted in manuscripts, sculptures and surviving embroidered panels and so it is easier to describe their costumes. But again the drawings are often stylised and details of the costumes are often omitted.
Again cloaks were a major feature and were square or rectangle – but not tailored. The long gown for men was introduced about 957, although the short tunic is seen as an alternative. The tunic is the garment most often seen in Anglo-Saxon art and is often depicted as knee length or shorter. Often it appears that a belt or girdle was fastened around the waist. Under the tunic (often made of wool) a linen shirt would have been worn and a pair of leggings.
Part of a buskin (soft knee length boot). 1220-1250AD. Woven silk twill, embroidered with silver-gilt thread and silks.
Around 1200AD Men’s clothing consisted of a tunic characterised by a wide decorated band at the neck and a large gusset at the arm hole that extended almost to the waist. Women’s clothing was similar with long hanging cuffs. A cloak was worn by both sexes developing from a semi-circular to a circular form.
Ecclesiastical vestments were richly decorated with embroidery but there seems to have been little embroidery on civil costume in the thirteenth century. Secular costumes are usually decorated on the borders of garments. A common design involved scrollwork and foliated spirals.
Some fragments of embroidered costumes do survive. From Alfriston in Sussex there is a belt embroidered in a geometric design, there is a scrap of checked cloth with a leaf scroll in stem and satin stitch from Hampshire and a linen twill fabric with an interlace design in red, yellow and blue from Bedfordshire.
A note on textile production in Anglo-Saxon England
Evidence comes from pieces of found textiles and from the equipment used in the manufacture of textiles. Textile fragments are usually very small, but many exist – usually from burial sites, amongst them the Sutton Hoo burial (see links below). Excavations of cities such as York, Winchester and London have also revealed fragments of cloth. During excavations of settlements and female burials, loom weights and iron spindles have been found.
Spinning was women’s work and for all but the high-ranking women must have been a common occupation. (The word spinster meaning “spinner” has today become a general title). Spinning was carried out by hand as the spinning wheel was yet to be invented. The spinners would spin either Z or S spun threads and the weavers knew how to use these different threads to create different effects. Sometimes more than one thread would be spun together to make multiple ply’s.
Braids were made and used as belts, cuffs and ornamental edging on garments. Several colour combinations have been found and the colours were often bright. Braids were sometimes embellished with additional needlework, including goldwork.
Weaving was also mainly women’s work during this period. Ornamental braids were often incorporated as edgings for blankets and cloaks. Looms were often propped against walls and the weaver would stand, not sit. There is evidence that weaving would have been carried out with two people working together as the heddle bars are too wide for one person to manoeuvre. The warp-weighted loom was not capable of producing bales of cloth as the length of the finished piece was dependant on the height of the loom. It is thought that within the village, there would have been buildings solely for weaving.
Tabby, or plain weave was the most commonly woven. Patterned twills were known but are much rarer and were probably luxury fabrics. Various colours of sheep’s wool would have been combined into patterns (such as stripes and checks) and much of the woollen clothing found is undyed.
The majority of textile fragments are of sheep’s wool with finds of vegetable fibre much rarer. This may, however, be an accident of preservation. Linen was woven in a plain weave. Silk, imported from Persia was reserved for the very wealthy and for church use. By the tenth and eleventh centuries there are reports of merchants bringing silks and luxury textiles into England. Silk thread was also imported for embroidery and it is possible that larger amounts were imported for weaving.
Once woven the cloth was “finished” and finishing industries were major businesses in the later Middle Ages. Wool was fulled (scoured, bleached and beaten), teased and sheared to give a felt like fabric. Linen would have been smoothed and bleached.
Cloth was dyed (although historians assume that peasants would have worn undyed garments). Many colours are recorded in documents including blue, yellow and red and many different shades would have been possible