Before I'll begin my summerly blog break until the 5th of September, I have some exciting news to share with you: The Medieval Embroidery Study Group is now open to all Patrons of the Master tier! With the exception of August, we will meet each month for a lecture and subsequent Q&A. We will meet via Zoom and the meetings are recorded and made available as part of your Master subscription. Each lecture will be about a piece of medieval embroidery I have seen in a museum. You will already be broadly familiar with the piece as it will have been featured in a blog post shortly before. This enables you to come up with questions for the Q&A. Even when you cannot attend live, you are very welcome to submit your question. Upcoming Zoom meetings will be announced on Patreon and in my newsletter. All current Patrons already have access to the recording of the Königsfelden Antependia of last Sunday. Zoom meetings will be on Saturday or Sunday evenings 19h CE(S)T.
The next meeting of the Medieval Embroidery Study Group will be on Saturday evening the 23rd of September at 19h CEST. We will explore the Grandson antependium held at the Historischen Museum Bern. The parts of the antependium date to the last quarter of the 13th century and the first quarter of the 14th century. It combines surface couching with underside couching. A very interesting piece indeed!
Have a lovely summer and see you on the blog, and hopefully, in the Medieval Embroidery Study Group lectures in September!
Before I tell you all about some exciting experiments with pounce powder and membrane gold, let's talk about a new class in 2024. You might have heard that the Alpine Experience is now called Creative Experiences. They still offer amazing needlework retreats. In addition, they'll take you to different parts of Europe. Les Corroz in the French Alps is beautiful, but so are Tuscany and Scotland :). My next class will take part in Les Carroz. You will have a choice of three smaller medieval goldwork projects to choose from. They are designed so that you can really get a few medieval goldwork embroidery techniques under your belt. You can find pictures of the projects and a full description here. And now on to the experiments!
Today, I set up a new slate frame with a piece of 46 ct linen. If you want to see how a slate frame is being set up, you can watch my free instruction videos in either English or German. I needed a 'fresh' frame as I wanted to do some more experimenting with some new pounce powder I had found a couple of weeks ago. As I am teaching a class in a couple of weeks, I really need to keep experimenting. I still have some pounce from Sarah Homfray, but that's running low. And, sometimes, her black charcoal pounce smudges quite a bit. That's why I now prefer her grey pounce. By the way, my workshop still has some free spaces. Just saying :).
Originally, I had tested the new pounce powder on a piece of linen. The light-blue chalky powder worked really well and I liked it a lot. Today, I tried the red version and the yellow version on a piece of silk. With less success. Both smudged when I brushed them off. They left a red or a yellow hue on the naturally coloured silk. The question is: is this due to the pounce or due to the silk? Not sure yet. I will need to do a lot more testing!
Now, I didn't need a whole slate frame for just the pounce experiments. Nope. I am going to do something much more exciting. See the above box? It represents Christmas, my Birthday and my Wedding Anniversary rolled into one. It contains samples of something that has not seen the light of day for a couple of centuries. It contains freshly made membrane gold. Correction: membrane silver. Gold was a little too expensive to mess around with :). Fellow archaeologist Dr Katrin Kania organised a study day to try to recreate these once ubiquitous metal threads. They are made by glueing thin sheets of metal onto animal gut (i.e. membrane). These are then cut into very thin strips and then wound around a silk or linen core. And we have a metal thread. Contrary, passing thread and Stech are made with a thicker strip of metal that does not need backing with a membrane. Due to its higher metal content, passing thread was more expensive than membrane threads were. But the membrane threads darkened quickly due to the very low gold content. But what does it feel like to stitch with them? Nobody has done that in the past couple of centuries. Soon I will! How cool is that?
One of the reasons for writing my weekly blog is to introduce you to medieval embroidered pieces that are in collections outside the UK and the US. Due to the language barrier, these pieces are often hardly known in the English-speaking world. This has led to such strange ideas as "stumpwork was invented in 17th century England" and "Opus anglicanum was only practised in England". Sorry to disappoint you, but both assumptions are wrong. One such collection is in the Bernisches Historisches Museum in Switzerland. A couple of weeks ago, we looked at an Antependium made in Vienna for Königsfelden Abbey. Today, I'll introduce you to another embroidered antependium from the same Abbey. It is very different from the first.
The above antependium or altar cloth measures about 3.18 m x 0.90 m. The background fabric is probably not original. The embroidered figures are about 60 cm in height. In the middle, we see the crucifixion with Mary and St John on either side. These figures were likely embroidered in the Upper Rhine area. The other figures (St Peter, St Catherine and St Agnes on the left and St Andrew, John the Baptist and St Paul on the right) were probably embroidered in Königsfelden Abbey. How do we know?
The padding material in the embroidery is parchment. During an extensive restoration in 1889, some of the parchment was removed from the back of the figures. Besides a cut-up breviary, they also found the remains of a letter between Queen Agnes of Hungary and Emperor Ludwig of Bavaria. Clever historical research by Jacob Stammler, later bishop of Basel, revealed that this letter was written between 20 October AD 1334 and 20 October AD 1335. The fact that a trivial letter to Queen Agnes was used to pad parts of the embroidery indicates that the embroidery was executed where she resided: Königsfelden Abbey. The style of the figures points to c. AD 1350 as the date for the embroidery.
Personally, I quite like to read 19th century papers on medieval embroidery. I love the tone (scholarship with a splash of Ivanhoe) and the beautiful technical drawings. Quite often, the embroidery was better preserved over a 100 years ago and the drawings clearly show that. However, there is a caveat: research marches on. The aforementioned bishop Jacob Stammler was quite convinced that Queen Agnes herself professionally embroidered and was quite capable to produce an altar cloth such as the one shown in an earlier blog post. After all, her biographer said that she was proficient with the needle! Nowadays, we know that these (former) queens were far too busy to embroider professionally. With all the diplomacy they conducted for their families and the overseeing of the royal household, they were probably as busy as any female CEO is today. Good luck embroidering professionally at the same time ...
So, who did embroider the additional figures on this second antependium used at Königsfelden Abbey? As Queen Agnes resided at (near?) the abbey for many years and was very active in international diplomacy with many visitors and envoys coming to see her, she basically set up court there. It is thus likely that she had a royal workshop as well. The embroidery on this second antependium is of far too high quality to have been worked by part-time embroidering nuns. This is the work of professionals. The fact that the saints chosen to accompany the central crucifixion scene have a relationship with Queen Agnes and her family (St Andrew for her late husband and St Catherine for several female relations) shows that she was, however, actively involved in choosing the design.
Two weeks ago, I travelled by train from Oberau to Geneva Airport to be picked up by Nadine for a week of teaching embroidery at the Alpine Experience. Door to door, it takes me about nine hours to arrive at Le Carroz in a more environmentally responsible way. Not bad at all. Why it still costs about twice as much as taking a plane will always be beyond my logic. Anyway, this year, nine students worked the background of an orphrey. The design combines two orphreys found on this late-medieval chasuble in the collection of Museum Catharijneconvent in the Netherlands.
In my embroidery courses, I always try to work with procedures, materials and tools that were also commonly used in the medieval period. In this way, I am able to study how these things might have worked back then. After all, regrettably, I cannot time-travel to ask Jacob van Malborch how he pulled it off at his late-medieval embroidery workshop in Utrecht. This means that students usually will need to make their own prickings and paint on the design with paint or ink. You will also always use a professional slate frame. Not only are they medieval, but they also ensure the best results when creating goldwork embroidery. Being able to dress a slate frame and transfer the design in a traditional way is a valuable skill to master when you want to progress as an embroiderer.
A whole week of embroidery sounds like you can really make a head start with your new project. At the Alpine Experience, you have about 30 hours of tuition in between meals and a day-long excursion :). However, as most students are not used to embroidering all day, this actually isn't a lot of time. After all, you are learning new skills. This means that, with a large project such as my orphrey, you will embroider the majority on your own at home. To ensure that you are well equipped to master this, I touch upon all techniques used in the project during the 30 hours of tuition. In addition, students have access to instruction videos and downloadable PDFs. And I am only an email away when they get stuck!
As you need a lot of energy to keep going for a whole week, Mark makes sure that there is plenty of delicious food to keep you fuelled. The desserts are absolutely fabulous and my personal favourites. No surprises there for those who also know my father. I am genetically handicapped :).
As mentioned before, we take a break from stitching on excursion day. The area around Les Carroz is very beautiful and you can easily go for a walk in nature after class. On excursion day, however, you might visit a charming medieval small town, an area of outstanding natural beauty or a typical French market. I joined the excursion to Annecy this year. Mainly because they have something very rare there: an embroidery shop! I have plenty of natural beauty at home. However, I have no idea where my nearest true embroidery shop is located now that the London Bead Company has sadly closed. I love going through the boxes with cross-stitch designs by Le Bonheur des Dames. This year, I came away with a beautiful sampler of summerly designs.
If you are thinking of joining me (again) for a lovely embroidery retreat under the expert guidance of Mark and Nadine, then mark your calendar. I will return to Les Carroz from the 15th until the 22nd of April next year. More information will appear soon on the new website of Creative Experiences, the new name for the Alpine Experience. Hope to see you next year!
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