Adding an area of Burden Stitch to my orphrey a couple of weeks ago resulted in some questions and remarks regarding this lovely stitch. First up was the name. A stitch in use during the Middle Ages should probably not be named after a woman who lived in the 19th century. Good point. However, renaming (well-known) stitches is a bit tricky. How do you safeguard that people still know what you are talking about? I could start calling Burden Stitch something like 'Brick Stitch over a foundation thread/padding'. That's technically what Burden Stitch is. Next question: Was Brick Stitch called Brick Stitch during the Middle Ages? I don't know. As far as I am aware, and please correct me if I am wrong, the only technique for which the name can be traced to French accounts of the High Middle Ages is or nue. We could sure do with a Re rustica or Re metallica for embroidery. No such luck. And then there was the mermaid ...
This mermaid. She is lovely and a bit problematic. Typically mermaid I would say :). Due to a free reference to the website of a textile conservation company in an article by Natalie Dupuis for Piecework magazine, this mermaid is quite well-known in the embroidery world. It was later mentioned on Cynthia Jackson's blog too. After all, it is one of the few free online resources with good pictures of the embroidery. Neither Natalie nor Cynthia mentioned the Burden Stitch in their articles as they focussed on a completely different aspect of the Fishmonger's Pall. Burden Stitch is only mentioned on the website of the conservation company. And I think it is a mistake. The skin of the mermaid (and Saint Peter) is not stitched in Burden Stitch.
Identifying embroidery stitches from photographs can be really tricky. When I was alerted to the 'Burden Stitch' on the Fishmonger's Pall by one of my Patrons, I eventually got confused too. When I looked at the pictures, I saw Brick Stitch, not Burden Stitch. As mentioned above, they are similar. Burden Stitch has an added foundation or padding thread. Most needle painting or long-and-short we see in medieval embroidery is actually Brick Stitch or something close to the orderly needle painting as seen in Chinese embroidery. Free-form needle painting as taught by the Royal School of Needlework or Trish Burr, simply does not exist. The medieval embroiderer was a master craftsman and not an artist. Free expression in embroidery was not invented yet.
In order to better understand what was going on on the Fishmonger's Pall, I decided to stitch up some samples. I used 46ct even-weave embroidery linen with Chinese flat silk. In order to cover the fabric nicely, I do go over each stitch twice. This gives a flatter result than when you use a double thread in the needle. For my foundation threads, I used: Barkonie linen thread 50/2, a double thread of the Chinese flat silk, a single thread of the Chinese flat silk and gilt Stech 80/90 (passing thread).
Burden Stitch produces a textured surface. To me, skin should be smooth. As you can see from my samples, even the single thread of silk produces a textured surface. Furthermore, it is really hard not to catch any fibres of the foundation threads (not so with the Stech). No matter if you use a sharp or a blunt needle. But my biggest argument why the stitch seen on the Fishmonger's Pall is not a Burden Stitch is the fact that you always see the foundation thread in Burden Stitch. And we do not see one in the pristine areas of the skin of the mermaid. This rules out Burden Stitch for me. The V&A catalogue for the Opus anglicanum exhibition does also not mention Burden Stitch. I, therefore, think that the conservation company misnamed the stitch.
What do you think? Have I missed something? Very well possible! Please chime in below. I will also organise a Zoom meeting on Saturday the 3rd of June for my Journeyman Patrons to further discuss the mermaid and my experiments. Let's see what we can learn!
Browne, C., G. Davies & M.A. Michael (eds), 2016. English medieval embroidery Opus Anglicanum. London: Victoria & Albert Museum.
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