English Embroidery

I have just watched a programe by Dan Jones on a largely ignored art form – that of embroidery, which for several hundred years, England was producing the finest.

We all know about the Bayeux Tapestry, which is now believed to have been produced by women in Kent, but there were many more, and the work was in high demand by the rich in Europe. Embroidered work was easy to roll up and transport, so when the Reformation happened, many of the finest peices here were sent to safety in Europe, wehre many of them still are.

The work can be identified by details such as the presence of lions – the symbol of English Royalty, or by the inclusion of local characters such as St Thomas A’Becket, of Canterbury. The faces were incredibly lifelike, using split stitches, a sort of back stitch that pierced the existing stitch to form solid lines, which followed the lines of the face, as opposed to a series of straight lines which filled in the spaces. They also used a form of couch stitch – a line of gold or silver thread would be hdld into place bfrom underneath, and pulled through the fabric to make the work flexible and with a 3D effect. These tapestries used a lot of gold and silver thread – which was silk or linen with the precious metals coating them for flexibility, they also included seed pearls and gems.

Many of the surviving examples are bishop’s copes which were incredibly expensive, but in England a monastery could have had up to 30 of them, so they were incredibly numerous, whereever there was money for them.  In London, the Broiderer’s Guild controlled standards and was based next to the Silver and Goldsmiths in the old city. Many copes told the story of Christ around the cape, one had the outer line of his birth, then an inner arc of the crucifiction.  Examples can be found in monasteries across Europe, but the finest surviving example is the Butler Border cope of 1340 which is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, though it was cut into many pieces, so has been partly restored. It was red velvet, with incredibly accurate depictions of parakeets, and leopards heads made out in seed pearls. Edward the Confessor is shown, and ogee arches weave the story togetehr in a very skilful way.  But tis was both the apogee and the last gasp of this style as the Black Death laid waste to both the embroiderers and the patronage, and the public were becoming increasingly antagonistic to clergy parading such wealth.

After the Black Death, the Dutch were the first to recover the trade, and wre producing poorer quality work, which the English were forced to compete with, so the fine details were no longer in demand.

The Merchant Taylors of London have a funeral pall showing John the Baptist, from whose fraternity they had evolved. The detail is more than competent, but the expression and details are a shadow of earlier pieces.

In the programme, presenter goes to an ecclesiastical outfitter and is dressed in the robes of a bishop, and in some ways this is the most interesting part of the programme. He talks of how he feels different as the various layers are added and by the final details are added, he claims he feels like a different person. The clotheri says, this is the intention. Bishops, indeed all clergy, are supposed to be carrying out very special actions, so they need to feel like they have been transformed in order to do so.  Which makes sense, and also helps to justify the immense detail put into such clothing. We all feel different when we put on different outfits, and the more special they are, the more special they make us feel.

4 thoughts on “English Embroidery

  1. Missed this one – must look for it. I’ve been to a couple of exhibitions of modern embroidery and found it fascinating. I’ve done just enough myself to know how difficult it is!


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