If you are after a book with lots of pretty pictures of medieval embroidery on vestments, this is not it. Yes, there are some pretty pictures in there, but it is not what the book is all about. Why do I still think it is worth your time? It has a very interesting chapter on the role of women in making vestments and donating them. As the author places their making into the wider context of church reform during the Middle Ages, it explains a lot about the position of women today in the Western world.
From the late 12th-century onwards, increased urbanisation leads to a dominance of the textile trades by men. Especially the 'higher end' of the market is dominated by them. That's why I have written in several blog posts that certain vestments I saw in museums were most likely made by men. The written data for the Late medieval period and beyond from the Netherlands does, for instance, not mention one female embroiderer. But this had not always been the case. The author, Maureen Miller, writes that when we know the name of the maker of earlier vestments, it is always a woman. And here the labour is divided up too: slaves for the 'hard labour' of growing, spinning, weaving, dying etc. and elite women for the fashioning of the vestment. For the more elaborate vestments, male religious would assist with the designing.
Why would women spend time and money on creating (and maintaining) these elaborate vestments? Maureen Miller comes up with several explanations. Firstly, from the ninth century, ecclesiastical legislation prohibited women from entering the church sanctuary or come near the altar. By providing vestments, these women were present at the altar. Secondly, by cultivating such a relationship with clergy, these women could exercise some influence for themselves, but most likely for their families. Maureen Miller thus rightly asks how freely were these gifts really given?
In addition, these relationships between elite women and clergy were always viewed with suspicion. On the one side, elaborate stories about the piety of the women who worked these vestments were drawn up (reciting scripture or singing psalms whilst working). On the other hand, there were plenty of stories in which the 'lewdness of the female maker' transferred through the vestments onto the wearer. These poor clergy felt mightily uneasy when it came to women making and maintaining their intimate clothing.
At the same time, there is a wider reform going on in the church. In order to claim status and visualise hierarchy, an ornate style of vestments started to emerge in the 9th century in Anglo-Saxon England and Francia (modern-day Normandy and parts of Belgium). By the 11th-century it had spread throughout Europe. The makers of this new ornate style were women. They (unwittingly?) provided part of the means with which the Gregorian reforms could be implemented (most notably clerical celibacy). These were particularly bad for the position of European women as they emphasised extreme notions of purity. These ideas live on in particular in the Catholic church till today.
And those poor holy men? They were relieved when they could order their splendid vestments from men in urban centres. They no longer needed to foster close relationships with women to obtain and maintain their vestments. For the visualisation of their status, they no longer depended on women. Women lost a way to exercise their influence. But they lost so much more. Till today, in many Christian traditions, women are not seen as pure enough to serve at the altar. Argue in the other direction and time might have come to strip these holy men of their fancy clothes in order to restore some much-needed balance between the sexes!
Miller, M.C. (2014): Clothing the clercy. Virtue and power in Medieval Europe, c. 800-1200. Cornell University Press.
Before we come to the biscornu, there are just a few other things I need to share with you. First: there is now a dedicated page for my online embroidery class 'the Imperial Goldwork Course'. Here you will find all the PDF-handouts for download as well as all the YouTube videos of the live-zoom-meetings. You can start the course any time you want. If you would like to join the live-zoom-meeting on Saturday evening, you will have to send me an email so I can send you a zoom invitation.
There's a limited number of wooden broche/brodse/Bretsche available from my webshop. As my local master-woodturner is approaching retirement, I will not have more made once these sell out. You can find more information on the historical use of this goldwork embroidery tool in this blog post and this blog post. I have also made a little FlossTube with the Acupictrix video where you can see me use this tool when doing pattern couching.
And now: the biscornu! I was delighted when Gina sent me pictures of her biscornu showing some of the long-armed cross-stitch patterns from my latest eBook. Gina filled her biscornu with dried lavender. This is an excellent way of using these beautiful medieval patterns and stitch!
For those of you who would love to learn more about the long-armed cross-stitch, you can find the English version of my eBook here. And I have recently teamed up with Claire de Pourtales of Le Temps de Broder to come up with a French version of the eBook. Since Claire and I split the proceeds equally, you can either purchase your French copy from my website or from hers :).
During the zoom-meeting on Saturday evening for my online goldwork class 'Imperial Goldwork Course' we stumbled upon the sizing systems for metal threads. Some students from the US had trouble finding the correct sizes of purls mentioned in the PDF-handouts as they claimed that the sizing system in the US is different from that used in Europe. They mentioned that on the websites of Garibaldi's Needleworks and Berlin Embroidery the sizing would run in such a way that the higher the number the thicker the metal thread. This was opposite to my sizing system mentioned in the PDF-handouts. This was new to me. Immediately after class, I started to investigate. However, on the aforementioned websites, I found exactly the same measuring system as I was using. After a while, I realised what had happened. A quick email to the said students confirmed my suspicion. It was a stark reminder that, for somebody starting with goldwork embroidery, it can be a jungle out there! Let me clear the confusion.
In the first eight lessons of the Imperial Goldwork Course, we learn about the different forms of cutwork used in 19th-century goldwork embroidery. For cutwork you normally use: smooth purl, rough purl, wire check and bright check. These purls have a sizing system that runs from #4 (the wire with the largest diameter) to #10 (the wire with the smallest diameter). For the course we use the larger #6 and the smaller #8 as they are the two most commonly used sizes. An opposite sizing system is used for pearl purl. It runs from Very Fine (the wire with the smallest diameter) to #3 or #4 (the wire with the largest diameter) depending on the manufacturer. Said students had previously worked kits with pearl purl in them and logically assumed that the higher the number the fatter the metal thread.
One word of warning here: whilst the sizing system in the English-speaking world is the same for metal threads, the sizing system in the German-speaking world is different. Although I am based in Germany, my webshop uses the English sizing system as it is the most common system used by goldwork embroiderers. Oh, and the French system differs too :).
Another student mentioned that it would be a wonderful idea if I would measure the diameter of the purls the students need to use and then tell them that number instead of the sizing system commonly used. Although I mentioned that my gut feeling was that this would be rather cumbersome for a number of reasons (measuring accuracy would be difficult to maintain and all students would need high-speck calipers too), the said student was not convinced. What does every good teacher do? Investigate! Here we go.
As I have been an archaeozoologist for 15 years and measured 100-thousands of animal bones with scientific digital calipers, I still had several pairs laying around the house. The pair I used are made by Milomex Services in the UK. The measuring range is 0-150 mm with a resolution of 0.01 mm. Measuring accuracy is: 0-100 mm +/- 0.02 mm and 100-150 mm +/- 0.03 mm. This means that if you measure something that's between 0 and 100 mm the inaccuracy is +/- 0.02 mm and for something between 100-150 mm it is +/- 0.03 mm. As the smaller purls have tiny diametres, this measuring accuracy is potentially important.
Apart from the measuring inaccuracy innate to the calipers, there is the problem of the metal threads being rather soft compared to the tips of the caliper. It is therefore rather easy to squash your metal threads ever so slightly and getting a wrong (lower) diametre. To prevent the very pointy tips of the caliper to slide between the coils of the purls, I placed the purls between the broader parts of the caliper's tips (see picture above). To further try to minimise the measuring error caused by the relative softness of the metal threads, I took multiple readings of each wire sample and noted the average.
What were my findings? As my gut feeling told me and the measurements confirmed: samples from different manufacturers can differ. Even different samples from the same manufacturer can differ.
What are the sizes of the most common metal threads used according to my measurements?
- gilt or silver-plated bright check #6: 1.1 mm
- gilt or silver-plated rough purl #6: 0.9-1.1 mm
- gilt or silver-plated smooth purl #6: 0.9 mm
- gilt or silver wire check #6: 1.2-1.3 mm
- gilt or silver-plated bright check #8: 0.9-1.0 mm
- gilt or silver-plated rough purl #8: 0.7 mm
- gilt or silver-plated smooth purl #8: 0.7-0.8 mm
The results are discrete enough that it is possible to distinguish between #6 and #8 purls when you accurately measure their diametre. Can these measurements assist you when you want to buy goldwork supplies? Not so much. For instance, on the website of Berlin Embroidery you will find that the measurements are approximately:
- gilt or silver-plated bright check #6: 1.5 mm
- gilt or silver-plated rough purl #6: 1.5 mm
- gilt or silver-plated smooth purl #6: 1.5 mm
- gilt or silver wire check #6: 1.5 mm
- gilt or silver-plated bright check #8: 1.0 mm
- gilt or silver-plated rough purl #8: 1.0 mm
- gilt or silver-plated smooth purl #8: 1.0 mm
As Tanja Berlin and I use the same goldthread suppliers, her measurements should have been exactly the same as mine. Instead, they differ (she probably used a ruler to measure the purls). As a beginning goldwork embroiderer, what would you have bought from for instance Berlin Embroidery when I would have told you that we are going to use a gilt smooth purl with a diameter of 0.9 mm? You would probably have ordered a #8 from Tanja Berlin's website and then have ended up with a wire that could have had a diameter 0.2 mm smaller than I am using. This does not sound like much, but it makes a huge difference. By just ordering the #6 as stated in my PDF-handout you would have ended up with the correct thread. That's why we use the numbering system instead of accurately measuring the diameter of the threads. Besides, not all goldthread suppliers state the diameter nor do most teachers or books.
And as every good scientist should do, you can find the raw data in the document below.
For most of you, it will come as no surprise: I am a book lover! And many of you regularly mention books on embroidery to me which would be worthy additions to my library. The lost art of the Anglo-Saxon world by Alexandra Lester-Makin is one of these latest additions. It isn't a project book, but a properly published PhD-thesis. Don't let that scare you. As Alexandra is both an archaeologist and a Royal School of Needlework apprentice this makes for an interesting read. Research into other art forms, such as painting and sculpture, never goes out of fashion. Researching embroidery and its makers seems to go through cycles. At the moment we clearly experience a renewed interest in this often under-appreciated art form.
The book is divided up in six chapters and comes with an elaborate catalogue. After a chapter on the introduction of Anglo-Saxon embroidery comes a chapter on the data and its difficulties. As you probably already knew, there isn't much embroidery left from the Early Medieval period (c. AD 410-1066 for the British isles). For the more than 600 years under scrutiny, there are only 41 embroideries to work with. Of these, only three are more or less complete: the Cuthbert embroideries from Durham, the Maaseik embroideries in Belgium and the Bayeux tapestry. All other embroideries are fragments. In some cases, only the holes have survived and not the embroidery thread. In other cases, there is no original material left as we deal with an imprint on a metal object (mineralisation) or complete carbonisation due to fire. Oh, and then there are the fragments that are unavailable for inspection as they are either too fragile, mounted in such a way that they are inaccessible or they have simply vanished... Precisely dating them is often a problem too.
As a fellow archaeologist who worked with animal bones instead of embroideries, I was rather sceptical when I realised the data set the research is based on is so small and wrought with so many difficulties. Would I have written my PhD-thesis on 41 samples of animal bone of which were three more or less complete skeletons, the rest fragments: either burnt, inaccessible or lost? Often only broadly dated. And then come up with a coherent story on husbandry, hunting, fishing, trade and bone working over a period of more than 600 years in all of Germany? Nope. Instead, I had thousands of bones, in very good condition, many well-dated and almost all available for my inspection. Still, I wasn't able to do more than draw tentative conclusions and hypothesise on animal keeping and the use of animal products in medieval Emden.
Does this mean that I think Alexandra did a bad job? No, not at all! But comparing her archaeological data set to mine hopefully shows you how little it is we really know. And that Alexandra had to come up with a theoretical archaeological framework to be able to extract as much information from each data set entry as she could. That she did rather brilliantly!
In chapter 3, Alexandra shows us in great detail how she extracts as much information from an embroidery fragment as she possibly can by writing its object biography. In this object biography, she includes detailed technical analysis, careful study of related attributes and context, and related documentary evidence. And that for the whole life-span of the fragment up until the present day. Being both an archaeologist and a professional embroiderer, Alexandra is very well equipped to undertake this kind of research.
With this theoretical research framework in place, she then analyses all the embroideries at her disposal. The results form the basis of chapter 4 (Embroidery in Anglo-Saxon society) and chapter 5 (Early medieval embroidery production in the British Isles). And I am quite impressed with the ideas she comes up with. For instance, although there are not many written sources on the training of professional embroiderers in the early medieval period, careful analysis of stitch length and execution leads her to conclude that the embroiderers must have had extensive training to be able to achieve the level of perfection they did. Or giving us archaeologist something to think about when we excavate a dwelling site. Could a certain building have housed an embroiderer? Is there enough natural light coming in? Can it be kept clean? Not necessarily lines of thought an archaeologist or an art historian would have come up with.
Other conclusions she draws regarding the use of certain types of stitches going in and out of fashion, I find harder to justify with the patchy nature of the data set. Although they seem to correlate with the pagan versus the Christian nature of society, we should not forget that this might be pure coincidence and might well change when further embroidery fragments are unearthed. That said: I like the idea of looped stitch being viewed as the mythological serpent that both protected the pagan wearer and the seam from coming apart.
Personally, I have learned a lot from reading this book. Too often I am reluctant to publish my own embroidery research as I feel that my database is too patchy. Alexandra's research approach has given me an opening on how to extract more information from my database. And she has given me the guts to put my findings out there despite the patchy nature of the database. After all: if you don't put your hypotheses out there for contesting, you are not helping to advance the research of historical embroidery. Alexandra did and does.
Browne, C., G. Davies & M.A. Michael (eds.) (2016) English medieval embroidery: Opus Anglicanum. London: Victoria & Albert Museum.
Grimm, J.M. (2010) Animal keeping and the use of animal products in medieval Emden (Lower Saxony, Germany), self-published.
Lester-Makin, A. (2019) The lost art of the Anglo-Saxon world: the sacred and secular power of embroidery. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Schuette, M. & S. Müller-Christensen (1963) Das Stickereiwerk. Tübingen: Wasmuth.
P.S. If you want to join my online Imperial Goldwork Course lesson 3 on this Saturday evening 19h CET, please send me an email for a Zoom invitation. You can download the accompanying PDF handout here.
Saturday night saw the start of my new online goldwork embroidery course. For the kick-off event, I was joined by 13 stitchers from the US, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. It was so nice to see both new faces and students from previous courses. The digital technology worked really well and everybody was able to interact with both me and the other students. For those of you who missed the live-event, below you will find the recording which is now up on YouTube. The next lesson will be this Saturday evening at 19h CET. If you would like to participate, click the appropriate button below. The accompanying PDF handout is now available from my webshop. You can start this course any time you like. See my previous blog post for further details. Hope to see many of you for another great Saturday night in with fun international company!
P.S. If you like my Imperial Goldwork Course I kindly ask that you make a donation to my 'this-is-how-I-am-paying-for-my-weekly-groceries'-fund if you are financially able to do so. This is an excellent way to show your appreciation for all my hard work and it keeps this course affordable to all.
Thank you very much!
Today I am going to share some great news with you all! Rather fitting for Pentecost Monday, don't you think? I've decided to give online teaching a second try. And since I have acquired so many new readers in the past few weeks, I'd better explain my embroidery teaching credentials :). Prior to moving to Germany in 2014, I lead the, now unfortunately no longer existing, Royal School of Needlework satellite in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Over the years, I have been privileged to teach for the National Silk Museum in Hangzhou (China), the Crewelwork Company (UK), the Alpine Experience (France) and ArtTextil Dachau (Germany). In addition, I have taught archaeozoology classes at my Alma Mater: the University of Groningen (Netherlands). Due to the current pandemic and the strict hygiene rules that come with it, I will be unable to teach embroidery in my Bavarian studio until at least the end of the year. Moving my embroidery teaching online seems only logical.
Since historical goldwork embroidery is my thing, I've decided to make that the topic of my new online embroidery course. Regularly diving into older literature for my embroidery research has unearthed a charming German book on goldwork embroidery: 'Die Kunst der Goldstickerei' by Amalie von Saint-George. Miss Amelie was a tutor at the Imperial School of Needlework in Vienna and published a book on goldwork embroidery techniques used in the late 19th-century in Central Europe. These differ quite a bit from how I was taught at the RSN in London.
How will this course work? I will be live-demonstrating during the Zoom meeting and this is followed by a Q & A with the course attendants. These meetings will be recorded and uploaded to my YouTube channel so that those in a 'less-than-perfect' time-zone can still benefit. If you want to attend the Zoom meeting, you will need to send me an email. In order to keep the hackers out, I will only let you into the meeting when I recognize your name from the email. I will announce upcoming Zoom meetings here on my blog, in my newsletter and on my Instagram feed. You should also download the accompanying PDF hand-out from my webshop. The hand-out details the materials needed and explains the lesson.
What will the course fee be? Do you know the principle of Caffe Sospeso? Whereby you pay for more than one cup of coffee in order for a less fortunate person to be able to enjoy a free coffee? I've decided to adopt a similar principle. Like many of you, I and my husband have lost part of our regular income due to the economic downturn. I therefore kindly ask that if you want to attend the course or part of the course, and you are financially able, you make a PayPal donation. The link will be in each PDF hand-out. In doing so, you not only support me by providing my income, but you also enable others who are in economic hardship to attend the course. Thank you!
When do we start? This coming Saturday 6-6-20 at 19:00h CET. Click the button below for the invitation link. Click the other button to download the free PDF hand-out so you'll know what we will be doing Saturday night.
Hope to see you this Saturday for the start of the Imperial Goldwork Course! And please leave your comments below as I am really excited for it to start and would love to know what you think!
P.S. this month's winners of the thread packs are: Patti Carlton for the existing subscribers and Judi Acre for the new subscribers. Congratulations! If you want to have a monthly chance of winning a thread pack in the colour of your choice, please subscribe to my newsletter. Both winners have been notified by email.
Last week's blog sparked a very interesting discussion on the use of the broche in goldwork embroidery. And since two more historical books on goldwork embroidery have arrived since, I thought I'll share the additional information in another blog post. But before we dive into the world of the broche again, I'd like to share another update on the DOVO-scissors with you. These scissors are now steadily arriving at embroiderer's homes in: the US, Canada, the UK, Belgium, the Philippines, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Switzerland and the Netherlands. My sales rep, Anne, is over the moon and has asked me if I could try to add some new types of scissors to my webshop. She suggested finely tipped and slightly curved embroidery scissors for left-handers and a lightweight pair of scissors for cutting fabric. Thank you so very much to all who have ordered these wonderful scissors in the past few weeks! You have helped secure the jobs of many highly-skilled craftsman and craftswomen. Let's hope DOVO will be able to restructure the business, save all jobs and continue to produce the best embroidery scissors in the world. If you like to help: you can order your pair here.
And now, let's explore the broche/brodse/Bretsche again!
Monica Dutting from the Netherlands reminded me that goldwork embroidery is very popular in the Arab world as well. When we started to look at pictures and videos of the stitching of the Kiswa (the goldwork embroidered covering of the Kaaba in Mecca) we saw that the embroiderers use a wooden broche as well. You can see their broche in action in the above video together with some pretty spectacular goldwork embroidery. Unless you are fluent in Arabic, you probably want to forward the video to 19:25.
If you look closely, you see that their broche is a rather simple piece of rectangular wood on which the gold- and silver threads are wrapped. At one end, the Arab broche has a groove. The metal thread is secured to this groove with a piece of white string or yarn and then wrapped onto the shaft. By the way, the metal threads used on the Kiswa are apparently produced in Germany. Now that's probably Austria, in Vienna, to be more precise :).
Annelies Englram from Germany commented on last week's blog post that she had been advised by an elderly master embroiderer from Germany that you do need to wrap the broche with perle in order to protect the goldthread. By now, I am pretty sure that this advice can be tracked down to Ms Dillmont's needlework encyclopedia. No other historical source (not associated with Ms Dillmont) I have been able to track down uses any kind of 'protection' with the broche. The simple piece of wood used in the video on the Kiswa is a stark reminder of this as well. Instead, I believe, as Ms Dillmont wrote her book to promote the use of DMC needlework products, that the use of the perle must be seen in that light. After all, DMC never sold 'real' goldthreads. In order to be able to include a chapter on goldwork embroidery in her book, she needed to make sure that she promoted DMC products as much as she could. And the advice Annelies was given shows that it worked.
In one respect, however, the advice Ms Dillmont gives, resembles that seen in the Kiswa video above: "The body and the lower part of the prongs are first covered with a double thread of DMC pearl cotton (Coton perle), yellow or grey, ending with a loop, to which the gold or silver thread to be wound on to the spindle is attached. The thread is usually wound double on to the spindle" (Dillmont 1945, 186-187). The embroiderers of the Kiswa also use a loop of thread to secure their metal threads in the groove of their broche. With the type of broche depicted in Ms Dillmont's needlework encyclopedia, this is, however, unnecessary as the metal thread itself can be looped and placed in the groove/prongs.
One of the new historical books that arrived last week was 'The Art of the Embroiderer' by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin, originally published in 1770. And originally published in French, but luckily translated in English. De Saint-Aubin was embroiderer at the court of the French kings and he wrote down everything he knew about embroidery. And this is what he wrote about the broche: "A boxwood tool about six inches long with a triangular base to keep it from rolling around as it is used. One winds the gold or chenille for couching on the hollowed-out section of the spindle. One passes the end of the thread through the cut in its head while working so that one touches only the spindle and never the gold for fear of tarnishing it. One draws out the thread from the top end or the cut, as one uses it. After it is unwound several turns, it is then replaced in the cut which holds and keeps it firm while being used" (Saint-Aubin 1770/1983, 65).
Now, this is an interesting one: putting the thread end(s) through the groove at the top for more control. In the above YouTube video, I experiment with using the broche this way. It does work, but it comes at the disadvantage of touching the gold more, than when you don't use the broche this way. And after seeing the male embroiderers working with their broche in the Kiswa factory in Mecca, I don't think this has been the common way in which the medieval broche was used.
This is what De Saint-Aubin's broche looks like. And thanks to Jane Drummond from the UK for sending a clearer picture of the coat of arms of the Broderers Guild of London, this is the exact type of broche depicted in that coat of arms.
And last but not least, I managed to find another charming historical source: 'Die Kunst der Goldstickerei' by Amelie von Saint-George published in 1902. She was a tutor at the Kaiserlich-Königliche Fachschule für Kunststickerei in Vienna. Very well possible that this is the same embroidery school Ms Dillmont had been instructed at. Here we read: "... so spult man das Gold - gewöhnlich einen doppelt genommenen Faden - auf die Bretsche, das zum Sprengen nötige Werkzeug. Zur Schonung des Goldes wird sie vorher mit starken Seidenfäden dicht umwickelt" (Saint-George 1902, 13). This translates as: wrap the gold - usually taken double - onto the broche, which is a mandatory tool for couching. To protect the gold, wrap the broche with thick silk yarn first. Above you see a picture from this book with two broche in action. Interestingly, here we have the wrapping again and the threads spool from the groove. What could be behind this?
Remember, this book was published nearly a decade after Ms Dillmont's needlework encyclopedia. Ms Dillmont and Ms von Saint-George probably knew each other personally as they likely went to the same school. Ms Dillmont wraps with perle as this is a cheap and readily available DMC thread. Ms von Saint-George recommends silk as she writes in her introduction at length about the fact that goldembroidery is for the happy few (she tutored at the Imperial School of Needlework!). Silk is a far more expensive thread than perle. Ms von Saint-George clearly knew Ms Dillmont's needlework encyclopedia. She knew the wrapping advice. So when she wrote her book, she had drawings made that look rather similar to those in the needlework encyclopedia, but a little bit more realistic, I feel. I might be wrong, but as no other historical or contemporary source recommends the wrapping of the broche, this seems a logical deduction to me. Personally, I would not wrap my broche. Anyone working with passing threads will know that they have a tendency to snag on any type of yarn. Imagine wrapping your perfectly smooth broche with yarn and then wrap your snag-happy passing thread onto it ...
Please feel free to leave a comment below. I'll keep looking for more advice on using a broche. And maybe I can start a collection of different broche from all over the world past and present:).
P.S. Did you like this blog article? Did you learn something new? When yes, then please consider making a small donation. Visiting museums and doing research inevitably costs money. Supporting me and my research is much appreciated ❤!
Dillmont, Th. de (1945). Encyclopedia of Needlework, revised edition. Mulhouse: Th. de Dillmont.
Saint-Aubin, C. G. de (1770/1983). The art of the embroiderer. Translated and annotated by Nikki Scheuer. Los Angeles: Country Museum of Art.
Saint-George, A. von (1902). Die Kunst der Goldstickerei nebst einer Anleitung zur Verwendung der Goldstickerei in Verbindung mit Applikation. Wien: Wiener Mode.
Before we dive into the meaning of the strange words above this blog post, I would like to thank you again for supporting the scissor makers at DOVO by ordering so many embroidery scissors! Never before have I sent out so many pairs of scissors to embroiderers in the US, Canada, the UK, Belgium, Australia, Ireland and the Netherlands. I have been in frequent contact with my sales rep at DOVO to put in orders for yet more scissors. She is absolutely delighted with the support we, as an embroidery community, have been able to drum up. People like Jane of the Chilly Hollow Needlepoint blog have shared my plea for support. Thank you so very much! And for those of you who would like to support the people at DOVO too so that they can restructure the business, save jobs and continue to produce the best embroidery scissors in the world: you can order your pair here. More scissors are on their way, including a special edition for left-handers!
And now, let's explore the broche/brodse/Bretsche ...
A couple of years ago, the above wooden tool arrived in the mail. It was sent by Nuria Picos, fellow RSN-student who had gone on studying with the famous goldembroidery masters in her native Spain. Luckily, Nuria had taken the trouble to include a step-by-step instruction on how to use this particular tool as I had never seen it before. At the RSN, we didn't use fancy spools like this to wrap our goldthreads on. At best, you were given a piece of rolled-up felt wrapped in tissue paper. It works. But this works so much better! At the time, this wooden tool was simply called a spool for goldthreads. It protects your precious threads from oxidation by touching them too much with your hands. The spool also prevents them from tangling. It wasn't until I started to read older instruction books on goldwork embroidery, that I came across the proper name of this type of spool: broche (French/English), brodse (Dutch) and Bretsche (German). You can tell from the spelling that they all have a common origin.
The brodse is an old tool. In the 1970s, a complete wooden brodse was found during an excavation in Dordrecht, the Netherlands. The piece measures 18,2 x 1,6 cm and dates to the third quarter of the 14th-century. It is held under inventory number F 6395 at the Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. And it shows the same characteristics as my modern-day Spanish brodse: two prongs at one end, a long shaft and some embellishment that prevents the spool from rolling off your frame. Although I am an archaeologist who has dug medieval deposits, I would not have known what the above object was used for prior to becoming a goldembroiderer. Let alone if I would have found an incomplete one. I suspect many of my colleagues have the same problem. I've contacted wood-expert Silke Lange to see if she knows of any other examples. So far, her search has not turned up any more brodse. However, I'll keep you posted if she comes up with any.
How do we know that the wooden object found in Dordrecht was really used in embroidery? Well, we do have a picture. The above drawing shows Sara Marrel sitting at a table on which rests her embroidery frame (weighed down!) and on which lies a brodse. The drawing was made in 1658 (about 300 years younger than the brodse from Dordrecht) by Johann Andreas Graff (husband of Maria Sibylla Merian, famous scientific illustrator) in Frankfurt am Main (Germany). I just wished the drawing was a bit more detailed when it comes to how the goldthread is wrapped around the brodse!
We know that the above-shown objects were named brodse in Dutch from the embroiderers guild regulations from Utrecht written down in 1610: 'Gelijck oock niemandt sich sal mogen vervorderen op de Raempte off mette Brodse, eenich werck te maken, ten sij hij off zij het Gildt voldaen hebben, op poene van telcken maendt te verbeuren een daelder' (De Bodt 1987, 4). It means that nobody is allowed to make any piece on an embroidery frame or with a brodse when they don't pay the embroiderers guild. The Worshipful Company of Broderers still displays two crossed brodse in their coat of arms.
As said before, you do encounter the brodse in older literature. But not in all. It is notably absent from M. Louis de Farcy's 'La broderie du XIe siecle jusqu'a nos jours' written in 1890 in France. But that other famous embroidery institution from France, Ms Therese de Dillmont (who actually was Austrian ...), does mention the Bretsche in her famous 'Encyclopedia of Needlework' from the DMC library, first published in 1886. The original German text from the 'neue, vermehrte und verbesserte Auflage' from 1925 reads: 'Die Spindel auch Bretsche genannt, ist aus hartem Holz gearbeitet und ungefähr 23 Zentimeter lang. Sie dient zum Aufwinden des Metallfadens. Der Holzstab, sowie die Gabel sind mit doppellaufendem DMC Perlgarn (Coton perle) in hellgelber Farbe zu umwinden. Der Goldfaden ist dann an die Schlinge zu Knüpfen und um den unter der Gabel befindlichen runden Stab zu winden. Der Stickfaden ist ein- oder mehrfach, meistens zweifach auf die Spindel zu winden' (Dillmont 1925, 189). In the English translation it reads like this: 'The spindle is an instrument made of hard wood, about 9 inches long, on which the metal threads are wound and with which they are guided while the work is in progress, so that they need not be touched by the hands. The body and the lower part of the prongs are first covered with a double thread of DMC pearl cotton (Coton perle), yellow or grey, ending with a loop, to which the gold or silver thread to be wound on to the spindle is attached. The thread is usually wound double on to the spindle' (Dillmont 1945, 186-187).
Those of you who can read both languages will have noticed that there are marked differences in what they say. No wonder. This book has been revised many times. The most noticeable differences are that the German text has the original name for the wooden spool 'Bretsche' whereas the English text only mentions spindle. But the English text mentions why the spool is used (so as not to touch the metal thread) and this is not mentioned in the German text. But this is not what puzzles me most. Has any of you understood the part on the actual wrapping of the spool? Not even the drawing published in both editions of the book is much help to me. It does not make sense. Why would you wrap the spool first with the perle? Passing thread would happily snag on it :). I think Ms Dillmont has never used a Bretsche or seen it being used. The tool had probably become rare by the time she did her apprenticeship in 1873 in Vienna. This would also explain why De Farcy does not mention the tool in his book although he does cite Ms Dillmont frequently on other embroidery matters.
Luckily, we have other sources! The above drawing comes from a Dutch embroidery instruction manual written in 1910. Here the thread is wound around the shaft of the 'houten rol waaromheen de goud- of zilverdraad gewonden wordt' (Van Emstede-Winkler 1910, 84). This translates as: wooden reel on which the gold- or silver thread is wrapped. The drawing completely ignores the prongs. Again, one gets the impression the tool was no longer standard practice in goldwork embroidery when Mrs van Emstede wrote her manual.
And last but not least, I found the above picture in a German source from 1913. Here it reads: 'Unentbehrlich für jede Art der Goldstickerei ist ... die Sprenggabel oder Bretsche ... (Donner & Schnebel 1913, 406). And further: 'Der ganz feine Metallfaden wird 2, seltener 4 fach, über die Bretsche glatt gewickelt' (Donner & Schnebel 1913, 419). This translates as 'essential for any type of goldembroidery ... is the broche ...' and 'the very fine metal thread is wrapped double, less often four times, flat onto the broche'. And luckily for us, they also provide a picture of the tool in action:
Now this makes complete sense! The embroiderer works on an embroidery frame with the left hand under the frame (with the needle) and the right hand on top of the frame holding the Bretsche (and a stiletto). Can you see how a single metal thread runs through the pronged bit before it is wrapped onto the shaft of the Bretsche? That's how Nuria instructed me to load up my Spanish goldwork spool. I've made a FlossTube video so you can see me do it in 3D. The writers of this excellent manual used or had seen the Bretsche being used. No hear-say, but actual experience.
At the moment, my local master craftsman the woodturner is making a new batch of broche/brodse/Bretsche. They will be ready in about two weeks and will cost around €55. Make sure you subscribe to my newsletter and you will get notified when they are available from my webshop. Cross your fingers and toes that at least some planes are flying by then so I can actually ship this wonderful tool outside the EU as well!
P.S. Did you like this blog article? Did you learn something new? When yes, then please consider making a small donation. Visiting museums and doing research inevitably costs money. Supporting me and my research is much appreciated ❤!
Bodt, S. de (1987). ... op de Raempte off mette Brodse ... Nederlands borduurwerk uit de zeventiende eeuw. Haarlem: Brecht.
Dillmont, Th. de (1925). Encyklopaedie der weiblichen Handarbeiten. Mulhouse: Th. de Dillmont.
Dillmont, Th. de (1945). Encyclopedia of Needlework, revised edition. Mulhouse: Th. de Dillmont.
Donner, M. & C. Schnebel (1913). Ich kann handarbeiten. Illustriertes Hausbuch für die Techniken der weiblichen Handarbeit. Berlin: Ullstein.
Emstede-Winkler, I. van (1910). De technieken van kunstnaaldwerk. Amsterdam: Van Looy.
I am going to start with a huge thank-you to those who have bought a pair (or even pairs!) of DOVO embroidery scissors. Scissors have been sent out to Ireland, the US, the UK and Canada. Thank you so much! Last week I talked to the people at DOVO and they are very touched by all the support they are getting from the embroidery community. We sure rock! For those of you who have missed what this is all about: DOVO, the makers of the best embroidery scissors in the world, informed their distributors last week that they had to file for insolvency. Not because of the Corona-crisis, but because of 'changing markets'. The people at DOVO are working hard to keep this small traditional company going. If you would like to give them a hand, please order your pair of scissors here.
Another thing I'd like to draw your attention to: a couple of weeks ago, I did another podcast with Gary of FiberTalk. We talked about all kinds of medieval embroidery and how they were made. It has become a lively discussion with lots of interesting facts. The podcast was aired the Sunday before last and you can find it on the FiberTalk website.
As I can't show things on an audio podcast, I also produced a short FlossTube video. In the above video, I talk a bit more about how these late 15th/early 16th-century goldwork orphreys were made. It might surprise you, but this was mass-production. Don't forget to give me the thumbs up and please subscribe to my channel so you don't miss the notifications when a new video is uploaded. And I am already working on some interesting ones for this week! If you have a minute, please leave me a comment on this blog post with what you would like to see/learn in future FlossTube videos. Would you like me to demonstrate some actual medieval goldwork embroidery? Would you like me to talk about historical pieces? Or something else entirely? Over to you!
And last but not least, my husband repaired the older set of drawers in my studio. This meant that I had to empty all the little drawers first. Rather a good exercise! I found several goodies that have now found their way into my webshop. And I also found another packet of fabric dye and decided to dye some Zweigart 40 ct Newcastle and 46 ct Bergen a lovely lavender. Hurry, as this is a limited supply!
That's all for this week. I am working hard on the samples and research for my new eBook on goldwork embroidery. I have a feeling it is going to be a good one :).
Today is Remembrance Day in my native Netherlands. Tomorrow will be Liberation Day (and my mum's birthday!), but today is a day of grief and compassion. And this year, my family will remember a very special little girl. Her name was Christa Bamberg. She was not a soldier, nor Jewish, nor Roma, nor an enemy of the state. She was a little German girl killed by the Nazis. You might find her story confusing and disturbing; it isn't often told. And I am very grateful to textile artist Caren Garfen for including Christa's story in her powerful Star Witness project.
I've been following Caren Garfen on Instagram for a while and have always been greatly moved by her art. Some of you might know her project with all the little beds. It is called 'Room for improvement` and draws attention to the fact that there are not enough beds in the UK to help all young people who suffer from eating disorders. Although this is a growing horrible condition in the Western world with all its pressures. Several months ago, Caren started to post updates on her latest installation on Instagram. Hand-sewn yellow cloth badges in the form of the infamous Judenstern. Each star features a story. From the past, but maybe even more chilling: from the present. Anti-semitism isn't dead.
In her post on the 25th of February, Caren shared stars on the stories of the 1,5 million Jewish children that were murdered by the Nazis. For me, it called to mind Christa's story and I asked Caren if she would be willing to include it in her Star Witness project. Even though Christa was not Jewish. I and my family are very grateful that Caren said yes.
Christa Bamberg was born on the 8th of January 1938 in Erfurt, Germany. She contracted meningitis at the age of three and as a result, became mentally disabled. The Nazis had very strong opinions on who was 'fit' for life. Mentally disabled people were not. At some point after June 1941, Chista was taken by force from her family and sent to Uchtspringe mental asylum. From 1940 onwards, this asylum was used for research on the genetics of mental disability. It had a special ward for children. Tötungsärtzte (=killing doctors) Hermann Wesse, his wife Hildegard Wesse and Gerhard Wenzel actively killed many children or ordered the nurses to do so. Either by mixing their food with phenobarbital, a common drug used in the treatment of epilepsy in children, but fatal when given an overdose. Or children were given an overdose of morphine by lethal injection. Hermann Wesse spent 20 years in jail and repented, his wife Hildegard only about two years. She continued to work as a doctor and did not think she had done anything wrong by killing mentally disabled children and women. Gerhard Wenzel was not in jail, did never repent and continued to work as a doctor. Christa was killed on the 18th of January 1945, ten days after her seventh birthday. Was it Hermann? Hildegard? Gerhard? or an unnamed nurse?
How is Christa related to me? Christa is my father's niece and my grand-father was her uncle. That might sound far, far away and long ago. However, I know Christa's brother quite well as Klaus-Dieter and his wife Doris have regular contact with my parents. After all, Klaus-Dieter is my father's cousin. Klaus-Dieter was born on the 2nd of December 1944 and never knew his sister. We have not told him about Christa being included in Caren's Star Witness project as we fear that he will be unable to cope.
Originally, I was going to include a few other family stories with Christa's story. Before Corona, I and my parents would have spent last week on holiday in Rappelsdorf, the village in Thuringia where my grandfather was born. Enroute to Rappelsdorf, I and my husband were going to visit the war grave of my grandfather's youngest brother Erwin. He was a radio operator with the Wehrmacht. As a result of being shot, he died on the 30th of July 1945 aged only 21. And he was Christa's uncle too.
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