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A Stitch Out of Time

Medieval Embroidery for the Modern Era


Section 1: The Historical Context

Due to the lack of easily accessible documentation concerning this type of German brick-stitch, it is difficult to say too much about its origins with any real certainty. For example: I cannot be completely sure what time period the style was in use, or what geographical area that it is native to. The only truly solid information comes from examination of the individual items themselves.
The eleven pieces I have personally studied so far date from the early 14th to mid 15th centuries. The earliest example I have heard of (I have not examined it) dates from the last decade of the 13th century[5], that item is a wall hanging done in what looks to be the same style. I have found no examples of this style of German embroidery dating later than the middle of the 15th Century. However, the design style, if not the stitching technique itself, is echoed in Nicolas Bassees New Modelbuch von Allerhandt Art und Stickens of 1568. Several of the patterns there are very close to the geometric patterns used in the type of embroidery discussed here[6]. Another possible survival of the style can be found in the needlework of 19th century Armenia. Two decorative sleeve panels in the Victoria and Albert Museum were embroidered in what looks to be the same stitch and a similar geometric style [7]. The emphasis in the Armenian embroidery seems to be on linear strips as opposed to repeating panels, and there is not the strong up and down orientation of the German pieces. however, the two styles otherwise appear very similar.
Table 1: Known sources
MAP.GIF 1. Enger, Germany
2. Hildesheim, Germany
3. Halberstadt, Germany
4. Merseburg, Germany
5. Helmstedt, Germany
6. Gottingen, Germany
From what I can glean from my research to date, the use of this form of brick stitch embroidery seems limited to Germany, the Westphalia and Lower Saxony regions in particular. Figure 2 is a map of the locations of the specific towns that are associated with this type of needlework. As you can see, they tend to cluster in a well-defined area. Brick stitch embroidery was used in the needlework of other countries[8], for example, Switzerland and the Netherlands. However, the multicolored patterns that typify this style seem limited to Germany.
Several references link this embroidery style to Opus Teutonicum (German Work). These embroideries have much in common with our current subject, and the embroideries described below can be thought of as a variant style of O.T.
The similarity of the two types of needlework can be seen in the fact that both use similar stitches and similar geometric patterns, and that they come from approximately the same area and time period. The stitchery that is generally known as Opus Teutonicum, was most often worked in white linen on a linen fabric, with large areas of the background of the design usually left uncovered. The colorful subject of this article, on the other hand, was worked almost exclusively in brightly colored silks and the fabric was usually covered completely.
One author[9] has described this style of embroidery as a primitive, simpler technique, worked by artists of lesser skills. While it is true that the techniques involved are not nearly as demanding as those of, for example, Opus Anglicanum, the richness of the materials set it apart from peasant embroidery. The heavy use of expensive imported silks in this type of needlework point to it being work done, in my opinion, for either the well-to-do upper class, or the church. Moreover, the designs of the larger pieces, the vestments and the hangings, show considerable artistic sophistication; and even the smaller, simpler pieces are visually striking.
The simplicity of execution has important advantages from the viewpoint of the Medieval artisan. Much of the embroidery of the period was made to order, and this kind of work can be done relatively quickly and it can be learned in a short time. The more advanced types of needlework such as Opus Anglicanum might take years to master, and a large project might take months or years to finish. These advantages combine to allow a large number of people to work on a large piece simultaneously, allowing it to be finished it in a relatively short time. It is likely that the larger embroideries, such as the hangings, were done this way, rather than being the work of a single craftsman. Who were the artists then? Most of the surviving pieces whose origins are known come from the convents and cathedrals. However so does much of the rest of the embroidery that survives from the Medieval period. The Church had the organization and inclination to preserve works of art through the turmoil of history. That the embroideries come from churches and cathedrals does not prove that they were worked by the residents. These works may just as well been the work of secular workshops. Much of the decorative needlework of this period was accomplished by workshops of professional artisans But there is evidence that a proportion of this type of embroidery was accomplished by nuns[10]. Several convents in central Germany are known to have produced embroidered works done by nuns under the supervision of their abbess; the convents of Weinhausen and Lune are two examples. A wide variety of items were decorated using this type of embroidery. Given the source of some of the pieces, it is no surprise that a number of the uses were religious in nature. This form of embroidery decorated altar frontals, church hangings, reliquaries (see pattern H) and vestments, such as copes, albs, and stoles (see pattern F). In addition, it was also used to decorate items of possible secular use such as bags (see patterns A, C, and J) and cushions (see pattern I). The items vary greatly in size, the largest piece that I have been able to examine closely is the Hildesheim Cope; a floor length half circle cloak completely covered with silk embroidery (see The Larger Pieces below). The smallest is a 3 inch by 3 inch drawstring bag (see Pattern A).
Given the wide range of uses, I think that it is likely that this embroidery was used for great variety of both religious and secular uses.

Footnotes

[5] Marie Schuette and Sigrid Muller-Christensen, The Art of Embroidery. trans. by Donald King. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1964), Page 110, Plate 177. Page 308, para 177.
[6] Nicolas Bassee, German Renaissance Patterns For Embroidery: A Facsimile Copy of Nicolas Bassee's New Modelbuch of 1568. (Austin: Curious Works Press, 1994). See plates 2, 33, 35, 36, 39, 97, and 98.
[7] Mary Gostelow, Embroidery of All Russia. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977), Pgs 14-15.
[8] Jennifer Harris, Ed. Textiles, 5000 years: an international history and illustrated survey. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993). p. 202.
[9] Mary E. Jones, A History of Western Embroidery. (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1969). p. 108.
[10] Bonie Young, "Needlework by Nuns: A Medieval Religious Embroidery." The Metropolitian Museum of Art Bulletin, February, 1970. Page 263.