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A Stitch Out of Time

Medieval Embroidery for the Modern Era


The embroidery of the Medieval period was composed of a wide variety of beautiful styles. Some are well known, while some are largely ignored by the modern needle worker. My own interest in the subject of re-creating medieval stitchery led me to the museums of Great Britain. The Victoria and Albert Museum[1] in London houses one of the finest collections of Medieval and Renaissance textiles in the world. In my travels I have had the privilege of spending many informative hours in the rooms of the Dress and Textiles Collection, happily browsing through centuries of needlework history.
While researching early period decorative bands, I stumbled across two frames[2] containing examples of a style of embroidery that I had never seen before (see Figure 1). This early type of counted thread work, dating from the early 14th to the mid 15th centuries, combines striking patterns with simple execution. It is a type of embroidery that is at once simple enough that even a beginner can learn it quickly, and beautiful enough to interest the most advanced needle worker.
Figure 1: Scanned photo of the tasseled bag
A careful search of the available books on the history of embroidery showed that this style of stitchery has been sadly neglected. The most I could find was a few photographs and the odd sentence. In the interest of reviving this beautiful form, I have over the last few years carefully studied[3] all the examples on public display at the V&A, along with several of the better items in the museums reference collection[4] This pattern book is a summation of my research to date.
I have limited the scope of this article to the individual pieces that I have examined personally. This helps to ensure that the patterns are accurate, and that the colors given are good matches. I have also excluded patterns of the larger examples, such as the Hildesheim Cope, as graphing them would take up too much room.
This book is organized into four sections: Section 1 is a discussion of the history of the style. Section 2 is a detailed step-by-step description of how to work this type of embroidery. Section 3 contains graphed patterns and notes on ten of the pieces I have studied. Finally, Section 4 discusses how you can create your own designs.


[1] Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London SW7 2RL United Kingdom. Phone: 071 938-8500. Opening Times: 1000 - 1750 Tuesday - Sunday, 1200 - 1750 Monday. Note: Most of the items mentioned in this article are on public display in the V&A's textile rooms (rooms 100, 101); the specific frames are I-8 and I-9. The following items are not on open display: The Hildesheim Cope (17-1873), The Embroidered Cushion (pattern I), and the Drawstring Bag (pattern J). These items are housed in the reference collection and can be viewed only by prior arrangement. Contact the Curator of the Textiles and Dress Collection well in advance for an appointment.
[2] The textiles rooms at the V&A contain a large number of cabinets, each of which contains 144 frames. These are 2 1/2 by 3 foot glass frames containing textile exhibits. These can be taken out and examined in great detail on the tables and easels provided.
[3] As part of my examination of these pieces, I compared the colors used to a DMC sample card. This allows me to describe the colors using a widely available standard.
[4] The Victoria and Albert Museum has only part of it's vast holdings on public display. The rest are held in the Reference Collection and are available for study by appointment (see note 1).