Embroidery has been used for thousands of years to decorate soft objects. This skill has been applied to create beauty, add value, indicate ownership, denote affiliation, show rank, and create emotional responses in the viewer. Embroidery has been done with everything from porcupine quills to plastic filaments but most medieval embroidery was done with various threads.
While I am still very much a beginner, in the last 12 months I have become fascinated by the types of embroidery used throughout the medieval and renaissance time periods. Unable to setting for a single time period, I have instead used various projects to become acquainted with stitches common to different time periods and places. As you will see below these projects have a broad range of historical accuracy but always with the intent to become more knowledgeable and move towards creating items that could have been found in our past. The projects I will show are as follows:
- A wool satchel loosely based on pilgrim bags from the 12th century
- Elizabethan silk sweet bag (2 examples)
In an effort to help others clearly see the stitches used, and to help me remember how to do a stitch I haven’t used for a while, I created the below stitch sampler.
Many materials were used during these projects for both construction and embellishment. Below are some examples of the items used.
Linen and Wool Cloth
RIGHT: Colored Silk Floss
A staple of every event, this satchel is not actually a period item. However in creating one I found that the simple design is based on similar items from as far back as the 6th century CE. I based mine very loosely on 12th century pilgrim bags and similar shoulder bags. As you can see from the image below, some of these bags are depicted with embellishment, either embroidery, fabric color blocking or applique.
One extant 10th century reliquary pouch from York has been embroidered with a cross. Based on the illumination and the extant item it seems fairly clear that some bags were decorated with embroidery. However I have not looked deeply into how often this was done.
When making this bag I wanted to use materials that were available in the 12th century as well as items that would be hard wearing so that the owner wouldn’t have to worry about protecting the bag intended to protect their belongings from the weather. With this in mind the bag was entirely constructed of wool and linen with the embroidery being done in fine wool yarn.
The pattern I used was of a large fairly realistic bee with heraldic roses. This is not a period depiction. Period designs would either have been a geometric pattern with perhaps one main element or a pictorial scene usually from the bible. This item was a gift and I wanted it to have the main element of the receiver’s heraldry in it. Having a bee is not out of character, there are lots of depictions of bees in period artwork but not as realistic as the one I chose.
– a 16th century pattern book for embroidery
To transfer the pattern to the fabric I used a light box and drew the pattern on using black ink. Clearly this was not a period method but it was related to period methods. Below is an image from an Italian pattern book from 1527. It depicts several methods of transferring a pattern to cloth. The most well known is the bottom left image called prick and pounce. This technique has you poke small holes along the pattern then place it on the fabric and rub a bag of charcoal or possibly chalk across it. This leaves a faint outline of the image that can be then drawn over to make it more clear. but my light box technique looks similar to the picture at the top left. She could be simply drawing the pattern on freehand but that doesn’t explain the candle under the fabric. This looks like back lighting with is needed if you have the pattern attached under the fabric and are tracing it on. I think this is what she is doing and that’s essentially what I did.
All of the stitches used are period stitches, although it would have been rare to see so many different stitches used in one piece.
The main body of the bee was done in chain stitch in variegated yellow and black. I chose this stitch because I wanted something that would fill the area and chain stitch tends to ‘fluff up’ once complete. It’s also an easy stitch to use in tight turns.
The wings and honeycomb were done in back stitch. As you can see from the final image the wings were completed in two passes of back stitch to give them more weight and help really draw them out from the background.
The roses were done mainly in tent stitch. This was really exciting because I hadn’t tried tent stitch before. As you can see from the below image I gave myself both horizontal guides and angled vertical guides to make sure that my stitches remained even and the angle consistent.
The Finished Embroidery
What I learned
- Wool embroidery is both very challenging and very rewarding for a beginner. The fiber is naturally kinky so it does not behave as uniformly as standard embroidery floss. This can make it tangle very easily. It also has a much shorter fiber so has a tendency to break if you use lengths longer than about 2 feet. And unfortunately wool shows wax on it very clearly so waxing the thread wasn’t a good option. In the end I became much more patient and learned to accept the limitations of the material. The great thing about wool is that the fibers are very forgiving of small mistakes and cover small gaps or unevenness in your stitching, due to the fibers being less straight and sleek than normal floss.
- Always cut your fabric larger than you need for the project or you will have a very hard time attaching it to your frame. I wish I could say I learned that lesson well. But as my current project is partially taped to my frame…I can’t. Oh well, maybe next time I’ll remember.
- ALWAYS do your prep work. You wouldn’t think this is something I would need to learn but in the words of John Mulaney, “I don’t have to measure. I know how big words should be.” I rather despise prep work but making sure I had my pattern and colors planned out and all my materials in the same place made a world of difference in frustration.
What I would change
- As you will see in almost all of the rest of my projects I get inspired by pretty objects and tend to start projects based on the assumption that it is definitely period and I can research it later. This probably won’t be too terrible as I actually do more research and build up a base knowledge of what was common in which periods and places. But right now it has definitely lead me to making some historical errors. Because this piece was meant as a gift and also a learning piece, I’m not terribly upset that it’s not perfectly period. But it did make me more curious about how much embroidered bags were used in various times throughout history. One thing I would change is that I would like to research more before beginning a project so that I have a firmer idea of when I am sticking with the sources and when I am making historical guess work.
What I am proud of
- I’m proud that I completed this as I have a rather bad habit of either getting frustrated or inspired by something else and leaving a trail of half finished projects behind me.
- I’m also proud that I rolled with the punches on this one. I made some mistakes and took some chances and instead of giving up I either worked with what I had or accepted the learning opportunity and moved forward. This has been difficult for me in the past because I want to be able to create the beautiful items I see but just don’t have the skill yet.
Elizabethan Sweet Bags
Although it’s name may conjure up images of white paper bags filled with tasty treats, the sweet bag was not used for food at all. This small bag was often used as a small sewing kit, a cosmetics bag, a toiletries or hair accessories container, given as gifts, or gift wrap for a more expensive present. They were also used to hang from the belt and carry herbs to freshen the air around you.
The pattern I chose was an original that was based on several examples of flower embroidery patterns used in the 16th century.
Luckily many sweet bags still exist so there are plenty of examples to pull information from regarding materials, tools and stitches used.
Sweet bags were primarily made of linen but velvet and silk were also used for the ground cloth. I decided to make my sweet bag from silk with a linen lining. Partially this was an experiment as I hadn’t worked with silk before. Partially it was because I was not intending to cover all of the ground cloth with embroidery. Throughout English embroidery history the ground cloth was frequently left to show through if it was expensive, such as silk or velvet.
The drawstring was finger loop braided and made from linen thread. The embroidery floss was all colored silk.
Finger loop braiding
Finger loop braiding is a style of creating string by braiding or knotting long loops of smaller fibers together. One end of the loops is attached to a sturdy object and the others are looped over the weaver’s fingers. They are then passed back and forth between the hands to create the woven pattern. If you remember woven friendship bracelets, this might be considered the great great grandmother of that past time.
I have only just begun to learn about finger loop braiding, which can create round or flat weaves of varying complexity and sizes. I used a simple 5 loop round braid pattern. This was also noted in a 17th century source as a ‘purse string’ pattern so it is reasonable to assume that the pattern was used in the Elizabethan times for a similar items. I then whipped the ends to fasten them off in such a way that avoids a large knot on the ends. However, I do intend to add a decorative silk pull tab to the ends later.
For this original bag I made I used a combination of stem stitch, chain stitch satin stitch and my first attempt at buttonhole stitch.
Stem stitch was used, appropriately, on the stem, leaves and outline of the flower. I have used this stitch often and it’s always one of my favorites for its ability to twist and bend around sharp turns while maintaining a clean line.
I’m still very new to this stitch and used it for the ring border. I used this stitch because it tends to bulk up quite a lot and I wanted the ring to gain width quickly as it was not the main focus of the embroidery motif.
While I haven’t got proof, I would bet that this is probably the oldest covering stitch. It’s very simple and as long as your stitches remain even, can look beautiful and sleek. I used this stitch to fill the flower thorns, center, and to fill the stem as the area very narrow and I was worried that other stitches would get muddied and unclear in the most narrow areas.
Ah, my old nemesis. This stitch is wonderful for buttonholes and eyelets. I love using it for this. It was also very commonly used as the base stitch for Elizabethan embroidery. Specifically the detached buttonhole. Unfortunately this stitch remains my kryptonite as I am still very unsatisfied with the outcome. The color fill is fine, there are no patches of groundcloth showing through, but the stitching itself appears messy and not as neat as I would like.
What I learned
This was an interesting project because of the different stitches I got to use. Seeing them beside each other gave me a real sense of how each works and what the effect of using them for color fill would be. I now have a much better understanding of why you frequently see historic embroidery with only a couple of stitches used throughout.
This was my first time working with silk floss and I think I will have a really hard time going back to cotton or wool. Silk is just so easy to work with.
What I would change
In future projects I definitely want to try adding pearls and sequins to the embroidery to ‘glam’ it up a bit. The amount of gold, silver, pearls and sequins used in 16th century embroidery is much higher than I thought it ever would be.
What I am proud of
This was an experiment in using entirely period materials, stitches, embroidery and techniques. I’m very proud that this item turned out as historically accurate as it is. It’s not perfect but I think it is a really great first showing. I tend to be quite timid with trying new techniques so the fact that this used so many unfamiliar techniques was quite challenging for me.
Clarke, D. (1998). Exploring Elizabethan embroidery. Place of publication not identified: Georgeson Pub.
Carey, J., & Carey, P. (2012). Elizabethan stitches – a guide to historic english needlework. Carey Company.
Benns, E., & Barrett, G. (2019). Tak v bowes departed: A 15th century braiding manual examined. Great Britain: Soper Lane.
Browne, C. W., Davies, G., Michael, M. A., & Zöschg, M. (2016). English medieval embroidery: Opus anglicanum. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Sparrow, A. (2012, March 25). Sweet Bag Data. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from https://amiesparrow.wordpress.com/16th-century-england/sweet-bags/sweet-bag-data/
Paganino, Alessandro. Burato: Libro De Recami. Valerio, 1527.