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A Stitch Out of Time

Medieval Embroidery for the Modern Era


Appendix B: Embellishments

The museum pieces I have examined are often just fragments, a small scrap which is all that remains of a much larger embroidery, but a few examples have survived almost completely intact. In the case of the three bags I have studied (patterns A, C, and J), more survives than just the embroidery. These items give good examples of the kinds of embellishment that might be used on pieces of this period.

Tassels

The first bag I studied (see Pattern A), is pictured in Figure 1 at the beginning of this article. As you can see, it has three decorative tassels hanging from it. This is a common feature on bags of this period[15]. A closer examination of the bag shows that the tassels are not hung from the bag as is sometimes the case, but rather they are an integral part of the bag, with the threads making up the tassel passing through the fabric of the bag itself.
Whichever way they are attached, simple tassels are not hard to make, and dress up a pouch considerably.

Disclaimer: I make no guarantees as to the authenticity of this method of tassel making. I worked it out on my own one afternoon, and it seems the easiest method.
To make a separate tassel, one that will have to be attached later, you need a skein of embroidery floss of the correct color. I haven't tried this with silk yet, but DMC cotton works well. Decide what length you want the finished tassel to be and cut a square of cardboard the same length (see Figure 11a). Placing the end of the floss at one end of the card (which will then become the bottom of the tassel), wrap the floss around and around, keeping it snug, but not tight, and trying to keep the turns tightly bunched in the middle of the card (see Figure 11b). The number of turns you take around the card depends on the size and thickness of the tassel desired. When you have enough material looped on the card, cut off the remaining floss taking care to leave the end flush with the end of the card you started on.
image: tassels
Figure 11: Making a Tassel
(Click on thumnail to see entire image - 14k)

 

Next, take a three to four inch length of floss from the leftover material. Thread it onto a needle and run the thread under all the turns of floss on the card pulling it to the `top' of the tassel. Tie it tightly around the turns of floss (see Figure 11b). Using scissors or a razor blade, carefully cut through the loops opposite the knot and remove the card (see Figure 11c).
Having accomplished this, pull the strands of the tassel down together tightly, and wrap a length of floss of the color of your choice around and around the top end of the tassel (see Fig 11d). Wrap it neatly, and tightly, about a quarter to a half of an inch wide. This done, use a needle to pull the loose end of the wrap under the turns to secure it. The wrapping on a tassel need not be the same color or material as the tassel itself. On the bag in question the tassels appear to be wrapped with a gold or gilt covering.
Finally, trim the end of the tassel neatly with a pair of scissors.

Note: if you wish to make very small tassels, you can use the above method with a card TWICE the length of the finished tassel, tie and wrap BOTH ends and cut in the middle, making two tassels in one go.

The finished tassel can be attached to the project by using the free ends of the top knot to tie it in place, threading the floss through the fabric with needles.
The second type of tassel, the one shown in Figure 1, is constructed in much the same way. This is a bit more difficult. The floss must be carefully threaded through the point on the fabric it is to be attached to each time it is wrapped around the card. No top knot is required, just cut through the bottom loops and remove the card, then wrap it as above. This method gives a stiffer tassel, one that doesn't hang so much as stand out.

Cords

The other two bags examined do not possess tassels, but they do have cords attached. From their placement they must have served to hang or carry the bag. The ends of the cords are attached to the bags at the upper corners on either side of the opening. They are very similar in appearance, and were probably both constructed in the same fashion. It is possible that the cords were made using the then popular method of `finger-loop' braiding[16], or by the more familiar technique of plaiting. In either case the finished product looks much the same, a thin cord of circular cross section. Both cords are made of silk thread and each is of only one color throughout. It is difficult to know for sure exactly how many elements make up these braids, but any number from four (the minimum number to make a circular braid) on up were used in period. From a close examination of the braids, I estimate that between ten and sixteen strands were used to make the cords on the bags in question.

Four strand plaiting

Rather than learn to finger-loop braid, or to plait together a large number of fine threads, I will limit this discussion to the four strand circular plait. This is simple enough to learn quickly and produces a good looking final result. If you wish, instructions for more complex braids can be found in modern craft books.
The material, and the size and length of the strands, will determine the finished look and size of the braid. As you are using four strands, the finished cord will be approximately four times as wide as the individual strands. In making a cord for one project, I settled on cotton embroidery floss as a material. I was then able to use a color close to that of the cord on the original, and by adjusting the number of plys in each strand, I was able to make a cord of the desired diameter. Silk floss would work even better, as it is a more authentic material and the final look and feel of the cord would be greatly enhanced.
Once the materials are at hand you need to cut the individual strands to a length a good bit longer than you plan the finished cord. As the material is plaited you will find that it shortens up quite a bit. Also, you will need a certain amount of material to hold onto as you work, I would allow for at least a foot of waste left over when you are finished. If you are not using expensive materials I would suggest cutting the material to twice the desired finished length.
When the strands are all cut, place them neatly together and tie one end of the resulting bundle in a tight overhand knot. Secure this knot at a convenient working height. As I do most of my work sitting in tailor seat on the couch, I use a safety pin to secure the knot to the arm of the couch.
As we are only considering a four element braid here, You then must separate the strands into four equal bundles. Working slowly and carefully until you get the feel of it, and making sure to keep the plait tight and even; start to plait the four elements as shown in Figure 12. Take care that as you work the loose ends of the four bundles do not become tangled.
When you have the length of braid you desire (remember to leave some extra), finish the braid with another over hand knot.
image: plaiting
Figure 12: Plaiting a Cord

Attaching the cord

With the cord finished and neatly trimmed, you can now attach it to your bag. This should be done before you sew in the lining. The end of the cord is placed a quarter to a half of an inch below the top of the bag, at one end of the opening. It is then sewn to the fabric of the bag using strong thread, taking care that the stitching does not snag or penetrate the embroidery. When both ends are secure, the bag can be lined.

Drawstrings

Only one of the bags I have examined has an intact drawstring. But the small holes along the top of the bag shown in Figure 1 suggest that it was closed in the same fashion. I have also seen several examples of this kind of closure on bags from this period[17]. The bag in question (see Pattern J) is the most intact of the three bags in the Victoria and Albert Museum's collection. As it was in the reference collection, and not in a glass frame or case, I was able to examine it in fine detail with the assistance of one of the museum staff.

The drawing in Figure 13 shows the details of the closure. As you can see, there are two separate drawstrings, one issuing from each end of the bag. The strings do not pass through the bag in a fabric tube, as is seen in some modern bags. Instead the drawstrings are threaded in and out of the fabric near the mouth of the bag, the two strings sharing the same holes. In the illustration, these holes are enlarged for the sake of clarity, but on the original are actually not punched or stitched open. They are simply the points in the fabric where the drawstring has been threaded through. This method of attaching the drawstrings causes the fabric of the bag to fold accordion-fashion as the strings are pulled. The tight fit of the strings with the fabric ensures the bag will stay closed on its own. On the bag in question, each drawstring is composed of a number of separate strands that are not braided together. As the strands exit the bag at each end, they are gathered and secured by a tight wrap of similar material. From this point the strands are plaited together in a circular braid. After a few inches of this the strands are separated into two groups and plaited as two separate braids. These braids each split a little further along bringing the total ends to four. The loose threads of each braid are then worked back into the braid to make a neat end.
image: The Drawstring
Figure 13: The Drawstring

Footnotes

[15] Kay Staniland, Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers. (London: British Museum Press, 1991) p. 43. Geoff Egan and Frances Pritchard, Medieval Finds From Excavations in London Vol. 3: Dress Accessories c.1150- c.1450. (London: HMSO, 1991). pp. 342-350.
[16] For a discussion of finger-loop braiding, plaiting, and medieval cording in general, see Crowfoot, E., Pritchard, F. and Staniland K. Medieval Finds From Excavations in London: Volume 4, Textiles and Clothing c.1150-c.1450. pp 131-141.
[17] Kay Staniland, Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers. (London: British Museum Press, 1991) p. 43. Geoff Egan and Frances Pritchard, Medieval Finds From Excavations in London Vol. 3: Dress Accessories c.1150- c.1450. (London: HMSO, 1991). pp. 342-350.