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Medieval Embroidery for the Modern Era

Section 4: Designing your own patterns

While the patterns in the preceding section provide the embroiderer with good examples of the kind of work that was being done in Germany in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, do not feel bound to only these patterns. Medieval embroiderers showed vast imagination and creativity in the design of their work. The modern embroiderer should feel equally free to design their own patterns. This section will therefore discuss the general design elements used in the examples above to provide the modern embroiderer with a guide to help in the creation of new designs in the style of Medieval Germany.
All the examples I have seen of this type of embroidery fall into three broad categories of style. These I will refer to as Type I, Type II and Type III.
Type I is composed of repeating geometric designs. Typically there are only one or two different geometric figures repeating across the design. There are no 'zoomorphic'(animal, plant, or human) components to the pattern. In addition, the entire ground fabric is covered completely by the needlework. Examples of Type I designs can be found in Patterns A, C, D, G, and J.
Type II differs from Type I in that in addition to simple geometric designs, stylized zoomorphic figures are used. Often there will be one plant or animal figure and one geometric figure alternating. Other times you can see two different animal figures repeating. It is important to remember that in Type II the zoomorphic figures are stylized to fit the pattern of the stitchery, and the stitchery is not adjusted to fit the figure. Examples of Type II designs can be found in Patterns B, E, F, H, and I. The pattern is usually repeating, though there are exceptions.
Type III differs from the above in that the background of the design may be left bare. A single design is not used to fill the fabric. Instead a number of geometric designs are used to fill in the outlines of the figures depicted. An excellent example of Type III is the Hildesheim Cope. The scenes were drawn onto the ground fabric first, the figures were outlined in stem stitch and the areas were filled with fields of brick stitch in a wide variety of geometric patterns.

Design Elements.

In my examination of these examples of embroidery, I have noticed that there are elements of design that are shared by many of the pieces. Firstly, in common with much other Medieval art, many of the patterns above show the area of the embroidery to be broken up into panels or lattices. For example, Pattern B is divided into lozenge shaped panels, while Pattern I is divided into eight sided panels. Not all examples of this art style show this type of division, but it is widely used. Figure 9 shows some of the common divisions, please keep in mind that the type of stitchery will limit the available ways that you can divide the field. Counted thread embroidery does not lend itself easily to curves and circles, for example. Squares, lozenges, and other simple straight lined divisions are the limits of the possibilities. The dividing line between two areas can be shown by a change in color, as in Pattern B. Or they can be separated by a band of embroidery, as in Pattern A or Pattern J. There are also cases where there is no division in the field, and the design is made up of two alternating geometric figures on a single colored field. For example, red and white figures repeating on a green field.
image: Divisions
Figure 9: The divisions
image: Motif example
Figure 10: Motif examples
The next major element in the design of these patterns is repetition. In almost all of the examples you will find one or two motifs repeated over and over in the same colors to fill the embroidered area. The pattern of repetition depends on the number of motifs and is largely up to the designer.
There are a large number of geometric motifs used with this embroidery. While just about anything goes, there are a few guidelines you should be aware of. Firstly, each geometric figure should be symmetrical in some way; bilaterally or rotationally for example. Figure 10 gives some period examples. The figures should be of a reasonable size. Too large a motif and you end up with not much of a design. Use the geometric motifs in Section 3 as a guide.
It is harder to give guidelines for the zoomorphic motifs. They should be simple, appropriate to the time period, and designed to fit the flow of the stitching as opposed to fitting the stitching to the motif. Studying the patterns in Section 3 will give you some idea of what these motifs should look like. You should pay special attention to the figures in Pattern B.
Please also keep in mind that artists of the Middle Ages looked at symmetry differently than we do in the modern era. If you create a design with plants or animals for the motifs, they should all be oriented the same way. For example the lions in Pattern B all face to the left, where the modern designer might be tempted to face them alternately left and right to 'balance' the design.
In terms of the colors used, there will typically be only two or at most three colors used in a given figure, whether it is geometric or zoomorphic in nature. Keep the number of different colors down. From what I have observed, the most colors used on a given piece in period is five.

Whether you are creating a simple pattern to cover a small pouch, or laying out the design for a large wall hanging, the principle is the same. The embroidery patterns should be colorful without being loud, the design should be simple but striking, and the count of the fabric should be considered so that the finished design will not be too 'coarse.'


The Westphalian embroideries of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries provide the needleworker interested in Medieval embroidery with a style that is both easy to create and beautiful to look at. This type of stitch allows the embroiderer to finish large projects in a relatively short space of time, and can be learned without investing the months of practice and study that more demanding forms such as Opus Anglicanum and Blackwork require. The small number of colors used, and the fact that this style easily leads itself to small projects, means that it is extremely portable. this form of evenweave embroidery is then an ideal style for both the occasional hobbyist and the serious needleworker.