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A Stitch Out of Time

Medieval Embroidery for the Modern Era

Section 2: Recreating the Style

Planning your project.

The most important step in any arts project is the planning stage. Investing time and money in a project when you dont have a good idea of what the finished product will look like is a recipe for frustration. You must decide what you wish to make, what it will be used for, what size it should be, and what the colors and pattern are to be. Then you can decide what you need in the way of materials. For example, it may matter to you if the pattern is centered on the piece. If you are making a bag or pouch, you might want to arrange the size of the bag so that the pattern will match across the seams, or the orientation of the decoration might be important to the look of the finished piece. I will discuss several such points as we go along.


The materials used in the original embroideries are very similar from piece to piece. Every example I have seen or read about is worked on evenweave, tabby-woven (plain) linen. A variety of thread counts were used, ranging from 20 to 72 threads per inch in the examples studied (see Table 3 in Appendix A).
The needlework itself is done mostly in colored silks. The embroidery silk resembles modern cotton embroidery floss in thickness. In addition to silk, several of the items have white patterns worked in plied linen thread (see patterns A, D, F, and J). The number of plys (or individual strands) making up the threads is unknown. But a close look suggests that there are between 3 and 5 plys. There is no obvious reason why linen was used in some cases and not others. Perhaps the more durable linen helped cut down the wear on the silk embroidery; or maybe it was a cheaper alternative to using white silk. In any case, the linen on linen embroidery known as Opus Teutonicum was widespread in this period, and the material was readily available.
The final material sometimes used in these pieces is a bit of a mystery. Although it is identified by the museum labels as "gilt strip"; what exactly is meant by this is unknown. I have examined the material under magnification, and have repeatedly studied my detailed close-up photos. From these observations I can give the following description: The "gilt strip" is a flat material whose width is similar to the silk floss in the embroidery. It appears to be a gilded material as opposed to metal wire.
Exactly how this "gilt strip" is attached to the ground fabric is unknown. Close examination of the reliquary bag fragment graphed in Pattern H shows no evidence of couching, but it seems unlikely that a gilded material would be durable enough to survive repeated pulling through the ground fabric.
All the above materials are available to the modern embroiderer, but the cost can be prohibitive, and in some areas the materials may be hard to find. For those of you who are not determined to work with period materials, there are very acceptable substitutes.
Linen evenweave fabric is not too expensive or hard to come by, especially for small projects. However, this embroidery style covers the ground fabric completely, so substitution does not effect the look and feel of the bag. Cotton evenweave is often easier to find, a bit easier to work with, and is available in a wide range of thread counts.
Linen embroidery thread is hard to find, and silk floss is both more expensive and not readily available in the range of colors cotton floss is. Cotton embroidery floss such as DMC or Anchor looks almost as good as silk or linen, and is easier and less costly to come by, although the feel and the look of the finished project will not be as rich as if silk were used. Table 2 in Appendix A gives a list of the DMC equivalents for the colors used in these pieces.
Finding a suitable substitute for the "gilt strip" is a more difficult matter. If the material is to be couched to the ground fabric, then any number of gold substitute threads can be used. If you wish to stitch the material through the fabric, I recommend a compromise that I have found acceptable: Use a properly colored DMC floss as a substitute, DMC colors 3045 and 833 work well.

Embroidery Technique

In this style of embroidery the stitches are worked such that the ground fabric is covered completely. The stitches themselves are similar to those used in bargello and florentine styles, in that the embroidery thread is worked parallel to the weave of the ground fabric instead of crossing it as in cross-stitch or tent stitch (see Figure 3).
image: Stitch example
Figure 3: The stitch
image: Stitch example
Figure 4: Possible stitching techniques
image: Stitch example
Figure 5: The bunching
Typically each stitch will cross either 2, 4, or 6 threads depending on how long it needs to be. The majority of stitches tend to be of length 4. Each stitch is offset up or down from the one before it by either one thread (referred to as satin stitch by the museum) or two threads (referred to as brick stitch) depending on the type of design being embroidered (see Figure 3). One further difference is that in brick stitch each stitch is doubled, that is the floss passes twice through the fabric (see the notes at the beginning of Section 3). So far, I have not been able to examine the back side of any of the pieces I have studied. So the exact way the stitches are worked is a matter of guesswork. Logically, there are three possible ways the stitch might have been done, these are illustrated in Figure 4.
In Figure 4a, the floss is looped back and forth across the front of the fabric, with very little of it remaining on the back. This method has the advantage of saving embroidery floss, as less is needed to cover a given area. This technique , however, may not cover as well as the others. In Figure 4b, the floss is run back and forth across both the front and back of the fabric. This method allows for smoother, easier stitching, at the cost of using more thread. Finally, Figure 4c illustrates the last possibility. Here the embroidery floss is worked as in the previous method. However, in this case the back is covered with longer stitches than the front. This uses even more material, and provides a thicker, heavier finished piece.
A close examination of several of the original pieces does provide one clue. In areas where the embroidery is worn away, it can be seen that the ground fabric is bunched up in a distinctive fashion, illustrated in Figure 5. This bunching occurs when the fabric is worked as in Figure 4b, and is less evident with the other methods. Therefore I have adopted that method as the one I use.
In planning your project, you must consider several of the elements together, as they effect one another. Details such as the size of the finished piece, the pattern to be embroidered, the thread count of the fabric and the number of strands of embroidery floss to be used, all interact. The higher the thread count the finer the embroidery, and the larger a pattern you can fit in a given size area. The finer the embroidery is, the fewer strands of embroidery floss you need to provide proper coverage. For example, Pattern A was originally worked at 28 threads per inch, and in recreating it I used the full six strands of DMC to properly cover the ground fabric. Pattern J, however, while similar in most respects, was worked at 36 threads per inch and only required 4 strands of floss to cover.
When working on your own projects you will probably have to experiment to find the proper combination. The stitches should butt together tightly without distorting the fabric, and the fabric should be completely hidden. If you have doubts about the coverage, try covering an unused corner with a few stitches, a 4-stitch by 4-stitch patch should be enough to tell.
Because this stitch tends to pull and twist the material slightly as it is worked, some means of holding the fabric should be used. Experienced embroiderers will have their own preferences, but for the benefit of the beginners I will discuss the two major methods here. The embroidery hoop is the easiest way to hold the fabric. It takes up less space and is easier to hold than a frame. It has the disadvantage of sometimes damaging the ground fabric. Linen tends to be more fragile than cotton and a hole in your fabric can create difficulties. Also, if your project is larger than the hoop you are using, it can crush parts of your completed stitchery. If you are using silk floss and linen fabric for your work, you might be safer using an embroidery frame instead.
An embroidery frame usually consists of two wooden dowels with two side bars connecting them. The fabric is rolled onto the dowels and pulled taut. As this embroidery style only stresses the fabric in one direction it does not matter that the fabric is only pulled one way. This method tends to be more difficult to deal with, and is harder to use with small embroidery projects.
Experimentation with several different types of needles has shown me that a blunt, medium length needle with a large eye is best for this kind of needlework. In this type of counted work it is never necessary to split a thread or the embroidery floss. In fact doing so can ruin the look of the stitching. A blunt needle helps to prevent this from occurring. The eye of the needle should be large enough that you can thread the correct number of strands through without having to resort to a needle threader. For most projects I find that a #26 tapestry needle is ideal.

Starting a thread

Once you have all your materials at hand, your project planned, your fabric stretched, it is time to start stitching. In most cases, I like to begin in the center of the area to be filled. This allows me to center the design if I wish without having to do too much figuring. If you are working on a double-sided project, such as a pouch, you will want to start in the center of what will be the front side.
Having separated out the correct number of floss strands (usually the standard six for this type of work, unless you are using a very fine count fabric), you thread your needle, leaving two to three inches of tail hanging from the needle. This will be sufficient to keep it from pulling out of the needle while you are stitching. When you first start a length of embroidery floss, you must anchor the loose end. This can be done neatly as follows: begin by pulling the needle and floss through the fabric from the back to the front, leaving about two inches of loose end hanging from the back. Begin stitching the design, making sure to catch the loose end under the backs of the several stitches as shown in Figure 6, and then trim the excess.
image: Stitch example
Figure 6: Starting a thread
When you come near the end of your length of floss, or if you wish to end the current set of stitches, stop with the needle and floss on the back of the fabric and gently and carefully thread the needle under the backs of the last four or five stitches, watching that you dont push the needle through to the front of the embroidery. Pull the floss snug (not too tight) and cut it off near where it emerges from the stitching. Each new length of floss can be anchored to a previous line of stitching in the same fashion.
When working a design in this style, I have found that the work goes faster and easier if I work a good sized area in one color, and then go back and fill in the other colors in turn. Work the designs diagonally, trying to do long lines of unbroken stitching back and forth. As you progress with the embroidery, you will find that you no longer will need to refer to the pattern, as in most cases the repeating design can be read off the already completed areas of the needlework.
If the finished embroidery is to be sewn together or onto something there are some things to keep in mind. Machine stitching is a bad idea, the results can be uneven, and not visually appealing. Hand sewing is not difficult or time consuming, and it is more accurate, easier on the embroidery itself, and THE period technique. I have found that a simple back stitch works well. If you are folding the fabric and sewing up the sides (for example as you would in making a pouch), assemble the bag inside out and stitch from the top to the fold. This way the edges of the embroidery will end up even. Do not worry about matching the pattern across the edges unless there is a good reason. None of the bags I have studied so far have matched edges. If you do wish the pattern of the needlework to carry across the seam, (for example to hide the seam), you will need to plan for that before you start embroidering at all. You will have to arrange the edges of the embroidery so that the left side will butt to the right (or top to bottom) with no break in the design. Sewing the seam will then have to be done slowly and carefully so that the pattern stays matched all along the seam. As the fabric being stitched compresses somewhat in the direction of the stitching, one edge may be slightly shorter than the other, making some slight stretching and fitting necessary.