I am not a big fan of sequins, glitter, or really too much embellishment on clothing. However, I am a sucker for beautiful embroidery, especially detailed, hand-made embroidery.
Embroidery generally refers to any fabric foundation, such as linen or canvas, that has been decorated in some fashion with needle and thread. The beauty of embroidery is that the artist is not constrained by a specific form, for example. geometric compositions on a loom. Therefore, great expression in form and texture were possible.
An unintended consequence of the dissolution of the monasteries when Henry VIII severed relations with the Catholic Church, artisans were not reliant on ecclesiastical commissions. An upswing in domestic, secular art forms occurred, including embroidery.
By the time of Elizabeth I’s reign, stable, peaceful prosperity meant that more could afford expensive textiles and, likewise, more people had time to create them.
These designs show more than meets the eye. If clothing and decorations are symbols, embroidery reflected the concerns and thoughts of the day: family, the monarchy, nature, rrelationships.
Moreover, what I love about embroidery of this time period is that it was made by a large swath of diverse people. Certainly, rich women with lots of time on their hands produced beautiful work (Mary, Queen of Scots was an accomplished embroiderer), but so did men and children, amateur and professional, rich and poor. There was a men’s guild of embroiderers (it should be noted women were forbidden from entering). Young women were praised for fine needlework skills, seen as a sign of diligence and piety.
Of course, embroidery has remained popular to the present day. Often done by machine, examples of hand embroidery can be used by haute couture designers of today and often at great expense. When used in conjunction with beading and appliqués, the results are often stunning.
What materials were commonly used?
The design and the threads that were going to comprise the design typically determined the foundation to be used. Certain stitches were typical of certain foundation fabrics. Linen canvas with its grid-like structure, for example, was best suited for working the basic cross stitch. Satin would be too difficult to get even, identical stitches.
Silk floss was the standard of the time and could be bought in a range of colors. 2-ply threads were most typical and silk flosses could also be wound into cording.
Gold, silver, and metal threads were quite popular. These metal threads were made by winding narrow strips around existing silk floss. Different angles and directions of winding, as well as the composition of the initial silk core and thickness of the metal strip, were all important factors to consider in choosing threads. Each had different appearances when worked into the fabric.
Metal threads could also exist without the silk core. Fine metal wires were wrapped tightly around a rod, forming a coil, called a purl. The rod was then removed and the coil was secured to the fabric either through the coil itself or via couching stitches.
The embroidered bird above from a pair of gloves shows a range of technique and material. Silk threads are used in long satin stitches to imitate the smooth quality of a bird’s feathers. The outline of the bird is accomplished in metal purl thread (metal wrapped around a silk core), while the beak and eye are created using a metal coil without a silk core.
Another common material used in embroidery were metal spangles. The precursor to sequins, spangles were discs cut from metal sheets. Spangles would be made, as in the example above, from cutting out of the metal coil and couched into place. Spangles could be worked into a variety of designs and materials, including lace as seen above. They added embellishment easily seen in the light, but not restricting movement.
How was embroidery learned?
The most common way to learn embroidery was through a more experienced family member or through an apprenticeship. In the 1590s, pattern books were published in England. Bear in mind that embroidery designs were meant to be elaborate and encompass a wide variety of technique. While most could learn the stitches, designing the complicated patterns that were so popular at the time would be overwhelming, even for professionals.
Designs were copied from the pattern book to the fabric through a method called ‘pouncing.’ (I’ve used this method before myself, and is a common way to transfer markings in couture houses, but I had no idea what it was called!) The design sheet is attached to the fabric with pins. Pinpricks are made along the design lines, then charcoal or chalk is dusted over the top to imprint the lines on the fabric.
Clearly, these books were printed in the days before copyright laws. Designs were copied from book to book and from country to country, often with little or no effort to change the original design.
What designs were common at the time?
There are two dominating themes in Tudor embroidery: plants and animals and Biblical scenes.
This selection from a larger cushion cover tells the story of Abraham’s life. Inspiration for the embroidery was taken from engravings for an illustrated Bible. This example is made primarily through variations of the tent stitch and couching.
Much like stained glass windows were used to educate the masses with rudimentary understanding of the Bible, panels like the above example could be used in the home for the same function. It is true that early Protestantism discouraged Biblical depictions as a form of idolatry, this was overlooked when considering their educational value.
Interestingly, many of the embroidery samples of the time featured female protagonists, challenging accepted gender behaviors with duty to God. Women were expected to be dutiful wives, but also bound to serve their god, sometimes in opposition to their husband’s wishes.
Coupled with a renewed interest in gardening and the wider availability of printed material, embroidery often took the natural world as inspiration. Large florals and animals in movement were often included in the borders of the larger religious-themes embroideries and became increasingly the main subjects themselves. In the panel in black velvet at the top of the page, meandering vines and leafy floral motifs accompany the Biblical imagery.
Nature was seen as an example of God’s abundance and should be highlighted in artistic endeavors. In the women’s jacket below, rotating vines and vivid flowers create a luxurious pattern. The use of embroidery like couching and metal fibers allows for textural interest.