Although Covid-numbers are on the rise again, higher numbers of vaccinated people mean that in-person embroidery events on location are possible again. As the other parties in our apartment block are not vaccinated, I am not comfortable with re-opening my studio. So for the moment, I'd thought to let you know about two upcoming events that might be of interest to you!
In about three weeks time, I will be demonstrating goldwork embroidery at the Open Air Museum Glentleiten. During the weekend of 13-14 November, you can watch many historical demonstrations of textile-related crafts taking place in the original historic buildings of the museum. I'll be working on some late-medieval or nue and would love it if you came by to say hi!
Although I decided early on that I would not go all the way authentic when it comes to reconstructing medieval goldwork embroidery, I do have a small workbox without "offending" materials (replaced the plastic cover of my scissors with a simple cover made of felt and wool). It contains my replica 15th-century pewter needlecase (the original was found during archaeological excavations in the Netherlands), Japanese handmade needles, an original 16th-century thimble from Nuremberg, a replica pair of scissors and its modern Japanese equivalent and a bone needle doubling as my mellor. The wooden box itself is made by sewing the different parts together just as would have been the case in the Middle Ages. Perfect for demonstrating medieval goldwork embroidery in an original late-medieval building at the museum!
In June 2022, I finally hope to be able to teach at the Alpine Experience in France! This will be an excellent opportunity for UK-stitchers to join me as the whole VAT-debacle has been cleverly solved for the occasion. I will be teaching a replica of an original late-medieval or nue figure. At the same time, the results of the workshop will form part of my ongoing research into medieval goldwork embroidery. There is still so much we do not know about the simplest of things. Backing my own experience up with the experiences of my students make the evidence so much more valid. Looking forward to meeting some of you in France!
On Friday I got an email from DHL saying that they would finally deliver the next volume in the monograph series on the Imperial Vestments the next day. And they did! Probably due to the worldwide paper crisis, this book has been on pre-order for more than a year. The third, and last volume, is still on pre-order and is said to be released before the end of the year. Since there are three books on the topic, all written in German, it can be a little difficult to determine which ones to order. Read on for my review of the second volume: Die Bamberger Kaisergewänder unter der Lupe - Methoden und Ergebnisse der aktuelle Forschungen (The Imperial Vestments under scrutiny - methods and results of the current research project).
When I pre-ordered all three volumes in the series, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from each of them. Reading through the introduction of this second volume, I now understand that this volume was intended as the catalogue for the recent exhibition in the Diocesan Museum Bamberg. This means that the first part of the book (p. 14-97) is the catalogue entries for the exhibits. In essence, this is a summary of the first volume: Kaisergewänder im Wandel - Goldgestickte Vergangenheitsinszenierung which I reviewed a while back. Whilst this part contains some new pictures not seen in the first volume, these mainly depict written sources.
A tiny part of the book, pages 101-115, describes the art-technological and material science research conducted on the Imperial Vestments. I assume this is a summary of the third and last volume that hopefully gets published before the end of the year. Personally, this is the volume I am looking forward to the most as it promises to hold a lot of technical information important to us as embroiderers. The "summary" on pages 101-115 does whet my appetite but is not meaty enough to satisfy my appetite.
The second half of the book (p. 119-209) contains papers on the papal visit in AD 1020 and the consecration of the St Stephan Church in Bamberg.
Should you buy this book? Only if you like to have a complete set on your shelves. Whilst the first volume contains a lot of information and beautiful detailed pictures of the Imperial Vestments that are useful to us as embroiderers, this second volume is clearly only intended as a summary for the general public. If I had known what was the content of each volume exactely before buying, I would probably not have bought this second volume. This second volume can be ordered from the publisher Schnell & Steiner. You can also pre-order the third volume!
Jung, N. & H. Kempkens (eds), 2021. Die Bamberger Kaisergewänder unter der Lupe. Methoden und Ergebnisse der aktuellen Forschungen, Schnell & Steiner: Regensburg.
A couple of weeks ago, I was alerted to a television appearance of the Imperial Vestments by a blog reader from Germany. In it, one of the researchers is recreating a piece of goldwork embroidery and exclaims that she cannot reach the same quality as the medieval embroiderers once could. The German blog reader wondered in her email what the outcome would have been had a professional embroiderer worked the same sample? As I don't have a television, I hadn't seen the show. However, you can watch it online here, the item starts at 19:48 (you probably need a VPN and set the server to Germany when you are located outside of Germany). It is well worth it, as it has close-ups of the goldwork embroidery on the Imperial Vestments which detail you cannot see when visiting the real pieces. My thought after watching the video? Houston we have a problem!
The lady demonstrating the goldwork embroidery started her educational career as an embroidery apprentice. She concluded her learning after two years with a journeyman examination and switched to becoming a textile conservator. This is a transcript of what is being said during the stitching:
"Sybille Ruß faces the medieval competition. In a self-test, she wants to find out how tightly she can pack the threads. The result: the embroidery performance back then was downright incredible. So I made a test with the thinnest gold thread and came to 28-30 threads per cm and our top density on the blue Cunigunde mantle is 70 threads. So that goes from 35 to 70 so I wouldn't even have made second place."
At the same time, we see her stitch on a pretty slack slate frame. In several close-ups we see her stitch her couching stitches in the wrong direction, i.e. not going down with the needle slightly under the previous row of goldthread. This results in pulling the rows of goldthread apart instead of packing them tightly. It is also evident that the sample we see her work on does have far less than those 28-30 threads per cm.
As I really wasn't sure if she knew her experiment did not work because of these basic mistakes I wrote her an email. I promptly received a reply in which she explained that it wasn't a real experiment and that the filming had led to her working the way she did. She was well aware that you need a taut frame and that you couch goldthread in the opposite direction. After all, she had been stitching all day for two years during her professional education. And I am the Easter bunny!
To me, this video fragment is the umpteenth proof that embroidery is not being taken seriously. Too often, being a female with nimble fingers is enough qualification to speak about embroidery with authority. During my studies as an archaeologist, I did several courses on archaeological conservation and even did an internship at the County Conservation Centre in Salisbury, UK. However, I decided to pursue a career in archaeozoology, not in archaeological conservation. Would I go onto national television and proudly lecture on archaeological conservation? No way.
Whilst the research project on the Imperial Vestments shows that they are being taken seriously at a scholarly level, the video (and the makeup of the research team) shows that the practical side perhaps does not get the attention it deserves. Why is there no professional goldwork embroiderer on the team?
Embroidery and professionalism do not seem to go together. And the uncomfortable truth is that embroiderers themselves are partly to blame for it. When I was still demonstrating embroidery I got so many non-mindful comments of female stitchers passing by that I decided to stop. The core of most remarks? I wasn't something special. They could do that too. That's not exactly lifting each other up. Men, on the contrary, were often in awe of my skill and professionalism. And some even dared to correct their female companions ...
And then there are those embroiderers that proudly exclaim that they are self-taught. In most instances, this seems to mean that they did not go to the Royal School of Needlework :). Learning through books, workshops, blogs, YouTube, etc., for some still seems to mean that they are self-taught. No. You learned self-paced. In all these years, I have never come across someone who was truly self-taught. Not only is it not very nice for the teachers behind the books, blogs and videos that they are not being acknowledged, learning embroidery is also being devalued. Apparently, anyone can figure it out with no help at all! Not good. Please be mindful when you describe your learning journey. Whilst we all figure things out on our own, none of us is truly self-taught. And we teachers know exactly what kind of student you are when you introduce yourself as self-taught. Self-taughts are not the humblest of people and paradox need a lot of attention in class.
Next week, I will show you what happened when I tried to pack as many threads next to each other. Was I able to pack more than 30 threads per centimetre? See you next week!
Before I'll provide you with some incredible eye candy, let us return to last week's blog post. Some of you wrote to tell that they were sorry to see another embroidery shop close. A few were even dismayed as it now meant that it was even harder for them to source materials. Please know that it wasn't an easy choice for me to start selling off my stock. Precisely because high-end embroidery materials are harder and harder to find, I had always hoped that I could make a success of my webshop/brick-and-mortar shop. Alas, it never happened. Before the pandemic, I had about five visitors a year. I never managed to become a needlework destination where you could both buy gorgeous threads and feast your eyes on pretty spectacular embroideries. Being located in a National Park with many places to visit, one would think that my shop and atelier had everything going for it. But it didn't. And even now, with a 50% discount on most goods things aren't exactly flying off the shelves. This has proven to me, that although a bit painful, closing my shop is the right thing to do. Onto greener pastures!
At the beginning of the month, my husband and I made a day trip to Salzburg in Austria. We visited the various church museums and saw many spectacular pieces of ecclesiastical art. And although hardly any embroidery was on display, the Museum St. Peter had an amazing chasuble cross on display. As you are not allowed to take pictures of it, I was lucky to find a couple of detailed pictures on a website for tenders.
As you can see from the above picture, this is not your average piece of stumpwork or raised embroidery! The figure of Christ is nearly fully three-dimensional. He really is a textile sculpture. And although those of you familiar with 17th-century stumpwork from England will see some similar techniques and threads, the main figure of Christ was made in a technique not seen in these 17th-century pieces. He was made in a mould. Built-up with linen scraps soaked in glue and stuffed with pieces crafted from wood and leather.
Although "minor" padding can be seen in medieval goldwork embroidery from quite early on, these very three-dimensional pieces were made in the South of Germany, Austria and Hungary during a short period of time. As a group, they are so far not really systematically studied and the academic literature is older and patchy. This seems to be due to the fact that they are an 'in-between': not seen as sculpture, but not quite normal embroidery either. And some people have an aversion to these pieces as they look a bit like the priest has a dolls house on his back ... (just like with those elaborately decorated skeletons of saints, these textile pieces end up in the attic and are forgotten about!).
Wouldn't it be cool to gather a group of interdisciplinary academic researchers and start a research project? Have each piece go through a scanner to see which materials are hiding beneath the outer layers of silk and embroidery? Just like those Egyptian mummies projects! So far, there does not seem to be much interest from those who research the later 17th-century stumpwork embroidery from England. This is likely due to the language barrier. Equally, those 17th-century pieces are not mentioned in the literature on these 15th- and 16th-century pieces. Are both traditions independent of each other or can we find a continuous line of development? By publishing this short introduction on my blog, I hope to alert people to the existence of these amazing textile sculptures!
NOTE: there will not be a blog post next week as my parents are coming to visit.
When I returned from my lovely family visit to the Netherlands, I had one of these pesky little Deutsche Post notes informing me that I had to pick up a parcel in the next village and pay customs duties. As usual, you have no idea which parcel it is until you have paid the outstanding bill and they hand it over to you. To my delight, it was Tanya Bentham's book Opus Anglicanum: a practical guide! I pre-ordered the book as soon as Tanya announced the possibility on her blog. The blog comes highly recommended as the humour with which Tanya both writes and stitches is unsurpassed. I particularly liked her rendition of a medieval watermill with a CCTV camera above the entrance. So let's dive into the book!
The book is in essence a paper version of all Tanya's embroidery courses. It is filled to the brim with information and tips from a master embroiderer who has practised her art for many years. Best of all: it is written with the same kind of no-nonsense straight-talking dry humour as her blog is. Things like: "It is slow, too, so, if you need a quick fix, go to do some cross stitch; if you want to get your teeth into something, try opus" in the introduction are not for everyone. However, this is honest advice. You will simply not ever get the same level of mastery as Tanya when you are not equally prepared to sit on your butt and STITCH A LOT. Oh, and don't ever try opus with stranded cotton. Ms Bentham doesn't like it :).
The book starts with a chapter on materials, tools and frames. Whilst Tanya stresses that you don't need a lot of fancy stuff to practice opus, it is necessary to use a good (slate) frame that will hold your fabric drum taut (her method of testing with a full bottle of wine is just another version of seeing what happens when a cat sits on it).
The next chapter delves into the mighty split stitch. Tanya not only details stitch length but also shows what happens if you still think it is okay to use stranded cotton :). There's also ample information on different types and brands of silk, as well as picking colours. Medieval embroidery is all about the play of light, so what thread you use and how you place your stitches is very important.
The split stitch chapter is followed by three project chapters. Each project is shown in clear step-by-step photographs with precise instructions. The projects are tailored in such a way that they increase in difficulty and each teaches you new skills.
Opus is not only about the mighty split stitch. Underside couching provides the necessary bling. A whole chapter is devoted to explaining this stitch in depth. And then it is your turn again. Project chapters with (adapted) designs from the Syon cope, the Bologna cope and the Pienza cope give you ample opportunity for wielding your needle. My favourite is "Rumpelstiltskin" with a background of underside couched facing pairs of falcons. Yummy!
The last chapters in the book deal with applying your finished embroideries as slips onto something else and assembling an almoner's purse. The last pages are filled with designs drawings and a list of suppliers.
As said before, the book is packed with tips and troubleshooting. This shows that Tanya is really at the top of her game. A master is not somebody who does not make mistakes, but who knows how to fix them when they inevitably happen. Everything Tanya knows about opus is in here. No information is kept from you. If you want to sink your teeth into opus, follow Tanya's instructions and practice a lot. Along the way, you will pick up the confidence and skill to work your own masterpieces!
Anything I didn't like about the book? Yes. The binding and the cover aren't very sturdy. This makes a book cheaper to produce (GBP 19,95 is a steal for a 208-page book with over 600 pictures!), but it is a trade-off when it comes to longevity. Furthermore, I would have liked to see a suppliers list with entries for mainland Europe, North America and Australia/New Zealand. After all, this book was not written for UK stitchers only. With protectionism on the rise, knowing where to source materials in your own region becomes increasingly important as shipping costs and customs duties are getting insane.
Where to find the book? Please order from Tanya directly! Writing a book does not make you rich. On the contrary. When you order from the writer directly, she/he will get the maximum financial return.
Bentham, T., 2021. Opus Anglicanum: a practical guide. Marlborough, Crowood. ISBN 978 1 78500 896 2.
P.S. It is time for my annual blogging break! I'll be back on Monday the 6th of September. Whilst you will not receive any newsletters during that time either, my webshop stays fully operational!
A couple of months ago, I made the first embroidered beetle for my mum. Now that I am fully vaccinated (and they too), I could finally visit them after 21 months. That did however mean, that I needed to embroider the second beetle as well :). But after so many years, I did not have all the original ingredients to make an exact copy of the original beetle. So the new version is a little more bronze instead of orange. And since my mum is not a huge fan of bright orange, she likes the bronze version even more!
This was the first recreated beetle: Wilhelmina. Incidentally, the completion date on the label is my parents' wedding day.
The orange original on the left and the bronze version of Adriana beetle on the right.
And here is a glamorous picture of Adriana.
And this is how my father hung Wilhelmina and Adriana on the wall at the Grimm's residency :).
A couple of weeks ago, I and my husband visited the lovely Diocesan Museum of Eichstätt. Apart from the normal sacral art on display, were a few important medieval vestments. The most interesting of them all is the so-called chasuble of St Willibald dating to the 12th-century. Goldwork embroidery was either made in Byzantium or in Cyprus according to the meagre information displayed in the museum and the literature.
Originally, the shape of the chasuble would have been bell-shaped. The yellow silk twill dates to the 12th-century as well and was either made in Italy or in Byzantium. Although the chasuble is attributed to St. Willibald, he never wore it. St. Willibald was the founder of the diocese of Eichstätt und lived c. AD 700-787. Being the son of a Wessex chieftain and with a host of saintly relatives, he seems to have been predestined for the job!
Depicted on the back of the chasuble are Jesus and Mary with 10 Apostles. Each figure is depicted under a Romanesque arch. The persons are identifiable through their stitched Greek names above the arches.
The embroidery is worked on a strip of red silk twill. The goldthreads are couched down in pairs in a characteristic slanting couching pattern. Today, we are used to a couching pattern forming a brick pattern. However, a pattern forming a simple slant was very popular in the medieval period. As a rule of thumb: medieval embroideries where a single goldthread has been couched down are older than those where two (or more) goldthreads are couched down with each couching stitch.
In this detail of Mary, you can see that her face and hands are stitched with small silken stitches. The literature states that these are stem and chain stitches. However, it looks more like irregular split stitch to me for the hands and typical "contour-following" split stitch as seen in Opus Anglicanum, for the face. Especially the latter can look like very fine chain stitches.
The literature also states that Mary and Jesus were originally the only figures where the halo, architecture and clothing were further decorated with pearls. However, if you look carefully at the picture of the Apostle, you spot pearls there too. Just imagine what these embroideries once looked like with all the pearls still intact! As the pearls were padded with the beige string (linen or cotton) you see almost everywhere in these embroideries, the pearls would have sat proud of the surface catching the light better.
The front of the chasuble was incredibly difficult to photograph due to a piece of modern art being right behind it. But you get an impression from the picture above. It is the same type of goldwork embroidery as seen on the back. Interestingly, many more pearls have survived on the front.
Unfortunately, it is unknown how this splendid piece of Byzantine embroidery ended up in the Cathedral treasury of Eichstätt. However, Eichstätt was an important Diocese in the Middle Ages and still has a Catholic University and Seminary.
Müller-Christensen, S., 1955. Sakrale Gewänder des Mittelalters. Hirmer, München.
Over the past three weeks, I have compared two orphrey figures of St John (Another John and his identical twin, comparing face and hands & comparing the clothing). In this final blog post, I will compare the or nue and the additional goldwork embellishment. For me, "slow looking" at historical pieces of embroidery is a great form of CPD (Continuing Professional Development). It comes close to the old way of learning where an apprentice would copy the works of the master. Especially when it comes to or nue, copying a piece from the late 15th- or early 16th-century has proven to be essential in mastering this exquisite embroidery technique. In the process, I probably solved the mystery of the two St Johns.
At first glance, the or nue of the red cloaks looks pretty similar. However, when you look at the red cloak in the above pictures: which one gives the better illusion of being three-dimensional? For me, it is ABM t2165 and this is not due to being in a better condition. The folds are more realistic. This is achieved by using one extra shade of red for the shading and the ever so slight curving in the lines of stitches that form the folds. Contrary, the folds of OKM t90a are very straight and the shading is crude. Just like with the silk shading of the green undergarment, the stitcher of ABM t2165 knew what he was trying to convey. The stitcher of OKM t90a just filled the different parts of the design and hoped for the best. The stitcher clearly did "not see" it. As the clothing as a whole (green undergarment and red cloak) was rendered in the same way within the same piece, it is clear that the same stitcher was responsible for the silk shading and the or nue.
When we look at the cup St John is holding, we see marked differences. And this is interesting in itself! Where the way the clothing was embroidered was apparently very standard (green for undergarment and red for cloak), the stitcher could go wild with the little details. Note: you can clearly see that the cup is "part" of the or nue of the red cloak.
The cup of ABM t2165 is expertly worked with a lovely rim worked of a curved pair of goldthreads (two rows on the front and only one row on the inside of the cup) and topped by a single row of twist. The cup has a clear outline achieved with shading on the right and couched red silk on the left to hide the turns of the goldthreads. The "seam" between the stem and the cup is decorated with foliage formed by a pair of couched goldthreads and couched brown silk. The foot of the cup is ornately faceted with couched pairs of goldthread and a rim of twist. The whole cup is clearly recognisable as a Gothic cup of the time. Contrary, the cup of OKM t90a is crude with poor shading and fewer details. The twist is either made with an extra strand of yellow silk or these are the very visible couching stitches.
The clothing of St John is further embellished with goldthreads stitched over the silk shading and the or nue. In both cases, normal goldthread and twist were used. But, as seen with everything else (bar the face!) the stitching on ABM t2165 is more refined.
Looking at all the evidence, I don't think the two versions of St John were stitched by the same embroiderer. Not even several years apart. The stitcher of ABM t2165, although not an expert with faces, is clearly the better artist with an expert understanding of how to suggest the third dimension. I get the feeling that ABM t2165 is the work of a single artist, whereas OKM t90a is the work of two stitchers. One mediocre stitcher for the figure and an absolute ace for the face. Could they be produced in the same workshop? Yes. After all, in a large workshop such as that of Jacob van Malborch in Utrecht (AD 1500-1525), many different stitchers were working on the commissions. But something isn't quite right ...
OKM t90a was certainly stitched by or in the workshop of Jacob van Malborch as we have the work contract from AD 1504. The reason why ABM t2165 is ascribed to Jacob van Malborch is due to the ink inscription on the orphrey beneath the loose figure: I.F.I.S. According to Saskia de Bodt, these letters stand for: I(acobus) F(ecit) I(pse) S(anctam) or Jacob made this saint. Now, ABM t2165 contains four saints in total. Two still attached to the orphreys and two loose ones of which one is our St John. The two attached figures are quite different in style from the two loose figures ...
St Peter and Mary Magdalene have very pretty faces, but crude silk shading for the undergarments. And simple reduced shading of the or nue with very straight lines for the folds. Sounds familiar! These figures are comparable with OKM t90a. Those that were definitely made by or in the workshop of Jacob van Malborch. The two loose figures of ABM t2165 are not. And a tiny remark in the online catalogue entry proves my point: "Het borduurfragment is groter dan de uitsparingen in de linnen ondergrond. Mogelijk was er eerder een andere Petrus op aangebracht." (The embroidery fragment is larger than the voided areas on the linen background. Maybe originally a different St Peter was once attached.). If St Peter is not original, why should St John be? When vestments wore down, repairing them by patching them with parts of other worn down vestments and/or by adding new parts was common practice (even in rather recent times to make them saleable on the antiquities market). It is very well possible that ABM t2165 is the results of such recycling!
Leeflang, M. & K. van Schooten (eds), 2015. Middeleeuwse borduurkunst uit de Nederlanden. Utrecht: Museum Catharijneconvent.
Last week, we looked at the very fine silk embroidery used to render the face and hands of St John. Today, we will have a look at how his clothing was stitched. We will start with the silk embroidery and look at the or nue and further embellishment with metal threads next week.
The green undergarment and the lining of his red mantle are stitched in silk. This is the same form of vertical silk shading, or tapestry shading, as seen in the face. Last week, we saw that the face of OKM t90a was more finely stitched than that of ABM t2165. We now see a contrast between this finely stitched face and the embroidery of the undergarment and the lining; both are stitched less fine. Contrary, in ABM t2165 there is no such difference; both face and garments are stitched the same way.
We know that the fact that the figures and the background were separately made in these orphreys, lead to labour division and thus sped up the embroidery process. In larger workshops, the different jobs were likely awarded according to skill. The stitcher who could realistically render columns and vaults and who was an ace in counting worked the architectural backgrounds. His colleague, who was world-class in shading, worked the figures in tapestry shading and or nue. And I have proposed in the past that there was a third person. A highly skilled one, probably near-sighted, who worked the very fine faces. This seems to have been the workflow for OKM t90a. Contrary, when the workshop was a one-man affair (with an apprentice or journeyman) labour division was less or even absent. I think this is what we see in ABM t2165.
Here you see the upper part of St John's green undergarment. One thing strikes: the silk on OKM t90a is in much better condition than on ABM t2165! How did that happen? Is it simple "wear and tear"? Then the silk of the or nue should have similarly deteriorated. Interestingly, the or nue of OKM t90a is in worse condition than that of ABM t2165. Maybe the silk used was of different quality? Or the linen ground fabric? It looks like the linen of ABM t2165 is a tat more finely woven than that of OKM t90a. Maybe this led to higher abrasion when stitching. Or was the stitcher to blame? As an embroidery teacher, I was often amazed how threads could wear rapidly when used by certain students and not at all whit other students. It is likely that the condition of your skin plays a major role. Was the stitcher of ABM t2165 forced to work with rough winter hands?
When we look at the actual stitches, it becomes clear that the maker of ABM t2165 worked very methodical. The stitches go over five horizontal fabric threads and you can clearly see rows forming. Not so with OKM t90a. This is all a bit more irregular. When you look at the dark red patch under the green sleeve (next to his belt) you see three tiny stitches. The other dark red stitches in the vicinity are much larger.
Interestingly, the shading of the sleeve of the green garment is much better on ABM t2165. You really get the impression of a heavy fabric falling in soft rounded folds. Whilst the embroidery on OKM t90a is crude as if the stitcher did not understand how fabric drapes. In both cases, the suggested folds are the result of shading in the satin stitching followed by additional couching on top.
In my eyes, the expert rendition of the hair (and probably face) in OKM t90a combined with the sloppy stitching of the folds of the green garment doesn't make sense when we assume that this was done by the same stitcher. Especially not as this isn't a simple case of speeding up the process. The number of stitches on both sleeves seems to be similar. Contrary, the similarities in the stitching of the hair and the green garment on ABM t2165 make it likely that these were stitched by the same person. Who was very apt at stitching garments, but maybe not so good at faces. Maybe the stitcher's eye-sight was no longer good enough to stitch the very fine details needed for the face?
And here you see the bottom part of the green undergarment and the red lining. Interestingly, you can see that both stitchers used the very regular stitching for the dark red part of the lining. The green stitches, on the other hand, look rather crammed towards the left-side on OKM t90a. The stitcher of ABM t2165 kept a much more regular stitch going.
The more I compare these two pieces, the more questions I have! Please do let me know what you think in the comments below.
Last week, we looked at two identical orphrey figures of St John held at Museum Catharijneconvent in the Netherlands. From my analysis, it became clear that they were not made with the same pricking. However, they did have the same "origin source" which I called a model book. What these model books looked like, we don't know as they have not survived. Today we will look in-depth at the actual embroidery. How are the different parts of the figures worked? Could this have been done by people in the same workshop or even by the same person? Let's look at the evidence.
Above, you see a close-up of the faces of the embroideries. It becomes clear that the design drawing differs for both. What is really sad is that the fine silk shading of the faces has completely deteriorated. By working a copy of the orphrey of St Lawrence, I came to understand that the quality of the silk shading in the faces determines the quality of the embroidery. You often read in the literature that the or nue is the most difficult embroidery technique used in these pieces and thus defines the quality. This is not true. After all, or nue is a counted thread technique and as long as you are not colour-blind and you have ample dexterity, you will be able to copy medieval or nue to the highest level. Not so with the very fine silk shading of the faces. Unless you started learning this technique at a very young age (many Chinese for instance start at age three!), you will not be able to reach the highest level in medieval silk shading.
Here is a close-up of the face of St Lawrence. The actual face is about 2,5 cm in height. I call the embroidery technique silk-shading, but this is not quite accurate. This is not the silk-shading as taught at the Royal School of Needlework. You can clearly see rows of stitches. And these rows correspond to the shape of the face and give it the illusion of 3D. Splitting threads is not a necessity. It probably happened, but it wasn't aimed for. This variety of silk shading is closer to certain types of Chinese silk embroidery. Again, just like the or nue, it is for the most part a counted thread technique. Additional details are stitched on top of this foundation of silk-shading stitches. Note the multiple colours in the eyes: blue-grey iris, darker pupil, white of the eye and pink of the corner of the eye!
Back to the heads of St John. The reason that the faces often not survive is due to the fact that the lighter shades of silk were achieved by bleaching the silk. This weakens the fibre. Luckily, the ginger hair of St John did survive. And here we see marked differences in embroidery quality. The stitch direction in ABM t2165 is plain vertical. Contrary, the stitching in OKM t90a gives the illusion of curls. The silk thread has been split into a very fine fraction and multiple colours have been used to achieve this realistic imitation of hair. It is therefore likely that the face of OKM t90a was once more finely stitched too. I even get the impression that the design drawing hints at this too.
Furthermore, the halo of OKM t90a is more elaborate too. Whilst for ABM t2165 the halo is plain with no shading, there is elaborate shading in the halo of OKM t90a. But there are similarities too. Both halos are framed with a fine couched down twist.
Although nearly all the stitches have gone, let's have a look at the hands. They are usually stitched in the same technique as the face (but not always: sometimes the silk-shading pierces the underlying or nue, as is the case with St Lawrence). What you can see in the above close-ups is that the stitches of the silk-shading orientate themselves on the grain of the linen fabric. This underlines that this form of silk-shading is indeed different from our modern form of silk-shading.
Next time, we will compare the stitching on other areas.
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