We have no contemporary eye-witness accounts of the first Christmas. Still, quite a few of the nativity scenes in the Western world look very much the same. How did that happen? And how does this relate to a group of almost identical embroidered vestments made in Germany in the second half of the 15th-century? What technological innovation was made to ensure near-identical serial production? A perfect story to explore in the last days running up to Christmas 2020!
As said, conventional knowledge has it that none of the witnesses of the first Christmas left a written and signed account of the events. But through the ages, some people have claimed that they were transported back in time and witnessed the scene. They had a revelation. For Western Art, the revelations of Saint Bridget of Sweden (AD c. 1303-1373) are very important. Saint Bridget describes the scene as follows: Mary is a bare-headed blond-haired woman who together with Joseph kneels in prayer over the infant Jesus who radiates divine light. Saint Bridget became a bit of a celebrity during her life and her revelations were turned into images that went viral in most of Europe. It successfully replaced earlier conventional pictures of the nativity where Mary is reclining on a bed (still popular in Orthodox Christianity). You can see an example on the chasuble from St. Paul im Lavanttal (at the top on the back; the scene with the red background).
The images of the revelation of Saint Bridget were so popular, that they were also reproduced in embroidery for the orphreys found on chasubles. These orphreys are so similar that their designs must have a common source. Printing on paper with the help of woodcuts and metal engraving was invented in the first decades of the 15th-century and quickly became popular to cheaply spread imagery. Research into the composition of the design lines on some of these orphreys has shown that these designs were likely printed onto the embroidery fabric too. If you click on the pictures of the pieces from the MET and the Wartburg, you can explore further pictures on the institution's websites.
And here is a fragment kept at the Bayrische National Museum (Inv. Nr. T297) with the singing angels. Although these embroideries were made in serial production, slight variations do exist. Not only in the colours used, but also in the number or arrangement of the figures. In this case, a more pleasing composition was achieved by adding a third angel. There are quite a few other examples out there, but I don't have pictures of them that I am allowed to publish. If you would like to dive into the topic a little further, please explore the literature.
Fricks, J. von, 2010. Serienproduktion im Medium mittelalterlicher Stickerei - Holzschnitte als Vorlagematerial für eine Gruppe mittelrheinischer Kaselkreuze des 15. Jahrhunderts. In: U.-Ch. Bergemann & A. Stauffer, Reiche Bilder. Aspekte zur Produktion und Funktion von Stickereien im Spätmittelalter, Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner.
Wetter, E., 2012. Mittelalterliche Textilien III. Stickerei bis um 1500 und figürlich gewebte Borten, Riggisberg: Abegg-Stiftung.
As part of my research into medieval goldwork embroidery, I read many collection and exhibition catalogues. Most are written by art historians and only a small proportion by, or with the help of, textile curators/conservators. Most texts are therefore only partly useful to the embroiderer. The gold-standard, in my opinion, are the books published by the Abegg-Stiftung. One of the aspects of medieval embroidery that particularly interests me is the pattern transfer. As far as I know, there has never been a systematic review of the substances found on these textiles that result from the initial pattern transfer onto the fabric. More recently, detailed chemical analysis did take place for some of these medieval embroideries (for instance the vestments from Bamberg, soon to be published). More commonly, you will find vague references in these catalogues to the materials used for pattern transfer. Either ink or paint. But last week, I came across the silverpoint.
The silverpoint consists of a piece of pure silver mounted on a handle. You can buy them from well-sorted art supply shops. Silverpoints were used by medieval scribes and have been used by some artists till the present day. Silverpoints are the predecessors of our modern lead pencil. But contrary to a lead pencil, the silverpoint will not work on normal paper. The paper, or for that matter vellum, needs to be prepared with chalk and/or egg yolk (or similar products). The chalk makes the surface rough so that small particles of silver are shaved off the silverpoint and the egg yolk contains sulfur that oxidises these particles so they turn from faintly visible grey to dark brown or black. The air oxidises the silver particles too, but the egg yolk seems to speed up the process.
The silverpoint intrigued me and I wondered if it could indeed be used to transfer a pattern onto fabric. Linen is a little raw, so I hoped that I could just scribble onto it. Nope. No lines visible. No further oxidation on the air after a few hours or even days. And I am not at all keen to go the sulfur (egg yolk) road. Because the sulfur will also tarnish my goldthreads as a large part of their composition is silver too. Does this mean the silverpoint could not be used for pattern transfer? Or does it mean that I need to prep my linen in a different way? Any ideas more than welcome!
I read about the silverpoint in the catalogue on the collection of the Schnütgen Museum in Cologne. It was published nearly 20 years ago by Dr Gudrun Sporbeck, an art historian. Apparently, the body of Christ on a chasuble cross with inventory number P223 is drawn with a silverpoint onto the linen. Did she determine this? Or did she copy from the older literature stated? The older literature in which this particular chasuble cross has been described dates from 1888 till 1938. Was it just something that was assumed? Did somebody do some chemical analyses? Only one way to find out: ask her. So that's what I am going to do. Will keep you posted.
Sporbeck, G., 2001. Die liturgischen Gewänder 11. bis 19. Jahrhundert (=Sammlungen des Museum Schnütgen Band 4), Museum Schnütgen: Köln.
Wow, my course filled up within three minutes last night. That's brilliant for me :). But I do realise that quite a number of people, unfortunately, missed out. Many of you have sent me an email to ask when the course will re-run, if they can be put on the waiting list or if they may attend without a kit. I have emailed all of them individually but I think it would be a good idea to publish the answers here as well.
First: Will there be a re-run of the course? Honestly, I don't know yet. The interest is there and this is not the problem! But sourcing the materials during a pandemic is. Although I started placing orders more than a month ago I cannot ship out the kits today. Normally, Zweigart linen fabric is on next day delivery as it is being produced here in Germany. As it did not arrive more than a month ago, I started calling them. The phone wasn't picked up for days. Finally, they emailed me to say that delivery will not be before the middle of November! Still plenty of time to send out the kits :). Another example: paint produced in Germany. To get 15 tubes, I had to order from five different sources. One source being particularly cheecy as it turned out they did not have the stuff and had to order in from the manufacturer! Brushes the same thing. Some silks too. And, oh yes, the freshwater pearls too. Even with a four months period between ordering the materials and the start of the course, I probably could not have sourced all materials for more than 15 kits.
Second: Will there be a waiting list? No there won't. Because of the above pointed out supply difficulties I simply cannot say if the course can run again in its present form. And I do not want to give out promises I cannot keep.
Thirdly: Will you allow students to attend without a kit? No, I won't. From the questionnaire send out after the Imperial Goldwork Course it became clear that students did not like the fact that there was no kit. Sourcing your own materials during a pandemic (and even without!) is a nightmare. They also stated that the small classes on Zoom were a blessing and very much appreciated. I, as a tutor, never liked larger classes. You have no idea what some people are up too when you turn your back on them for only a very brief moment :). For 'live and in the flesh teaching', I limit the numbers to about 10. When organisers push me to take on more, I am not a happy bunny. As a student, I do not like to sit in big classes either. I am far too polite :). The ones who scream the most and the loudest get their money's worth of teaching. I, as a student, end up figuring it out for myself. No matter how experienced the teacher is, there is a limit to the number of people you can teach successfully.
So what is the way forward? As long as the pandemic rages: take it step by step and don't plan too far ahead. I don't know about you, but I found these past seven months exhausting! Learning so many new things in such a short span of time. Not knowing if I would be able to find a way to earn money when all the teaching was cancelled was scary. The many extra hours and worries took their toll. My body didn't like me punishing it that much and started to rebel. My body is way wiser than I am! I stopped working all hours, set some boundaries and I quit Instagram. Instead, I try to make sure that I get enough exercise, work on my art (I haven't seen St. Nick in over a year!) and support my husband as much as I can as he is presently swamped in work.
What that will mean for you? Excellent news in fact! It means that my head is free again to come up with fresh ideas for future classes. But the classes will not be taught back to back. There will always be enough breathing space for me in between classes. I need that. I am not a machine.
So get on my mailing list for my newsletter and keep an eye on this blog for announcements of future courses. They will always have limited spaces and come with a kit. This will ensure that you don't have the stress of sourcing hard to get items and in class, you will not have to shout for attention either :).
Before I am taking you on a field trip to the diocesan museum in Augsburg, I would like to express my gratitude to all who have signalled an interest in my upcoming online goldwork embroidery class. And a special thank-you to those who have asked questions regarding the course. I have updated the course page accordingly. Please check the page if you are interested in joining me on this exciting historical journey. Registration opens this Sunday, November 1st, 19h CET. There will be a button displayed at the top of the course page.
And now the field trip. Last week, I and my husband visited the Diocesan Museum of St Afra in Augsburg. That's possibly the closest church museum with textiles in relation to where we live, but we had never been there. And that's a shame as it is a charming little museum. Besides ecclesiastical art and historical pieces, you can also see parts of Roman Augsburg below your feet. The excavations have been left open for you to admire. The museum itself is a combination of modern architecture and the historical cathedral cloisters. So what is on display?
Quite spectacular are two chasubles dating to the 10th-century. These vestments are associated with bishop Ulrich of Augsburg (AD 890-973). Ulrich lived during turbulent times. He was a friend of Emperor Otto I and successfully defended Augsburg against the marauding Magyars from Hungary. Apparently, he also wrote a treatise on celibacy stating that it was not supported by the bible. All this made Ulrich famous during his lifetime and he became a saint soon after his death. Vestments associated with him became important relics and were held in high esteem. But there was a small problem. Ulrich liked simple clothing. Nothing flashy. His mantle made of local linen was just too plain for the average 12th-century believer. Thus, tiny appliques of silk with goldwork embroidery were added. That's rather cute, don't you think?
The museum houses several quite old embroidered textiles. As they need to be displayed at low lighting levels, photographing them is near impossible. However, as I have shown the spectacular embroideries from Bamberg before, I would like to show the above. This small reliquary pouch made of dark purple or blue silk (samite?) with gold embroidery was made in Southern Germany in the 12th-century. Roughly a hundred years later than the pieces on display in Bamberg. But the embroidery technique of couching down very pure goldthreads and hammering them flat is the same. I think the pouch displays two birds (peacocks?) amongst some foliage and maybe a coat of arms. Unfortunately, there was hardly any information on the piece available.
The last piece I would like to show is a small reliquary casket. I have never seen anything like it. It looks like an orphrey being glued to a small wooden box. The saint depicted is St Agnes. She is stitched in brick stitch with silks. The background displays a diaper couching pattern; one I haven't seen before. The casket was made in the 13th-century, possibly in Cologne. Quite an unusual piece. And a reminder that embroidery was probably much more widely used. It simply did not survive until the modern-day.
Sadly, this will be my last field trip for a while. Corona numbers are going up in Germany as well. Since I am living in an area with a rather low rate of infections, I don't want to introduce the virus. My husband and I have decided to avoid travelling and gatherings as much as we can until the numbers go down again. Hope you are all safe!
P.S. I am being featured in the latest issue of Metier magazine! The article, in Dutch, talks about me and my historically inspired goldwork embroideries.
Until I was asked to write a book review for the current issue of the Journal of Dress History, I had never heard of either the journal or the Association of Dress Historians accounting for its publication. You might have the same 'problem'. Let me, therefore, introduce you to this fantastic free open-source publication that has plenty to offer for textile enthusiasts and lovers of embroidery. And if you like to support this initiative, please consider becoming a member too. At only 10 GBP per year, it is a good way to help support academic research in the field of dress history.
I haven't yet read every single issue of the journal, but I did find some embroidery related articles from combing through the index. The first article you might be interested in was issued in the Spring issue of 2017: 'Professional and Domestic Embroidery on Men's Clothing in the later Eighteenth Century' by Alison Larkin. It focusses on the female makers of these embroideries whether in a professional setting or not. If you were taught to embroider at all, depended on your social status and your gender. Paradoxically, professional embroidery was seen as a female lower-class job whilst middle and upper-class women would learn to embroider in their domestic setting to show off their suitability as a chaste wife and their status. Meanwhile, the men were the owners of the professional workshops or the designers of the embroidery patterns. Alison Larkin concludes with pointing out some technical and material differences between the pieces made in a professional setting and those in a domestic setting.
The spring issue of 2018 contains the paper: 'Fashion Victims: Dressed Sculptures of the Virgin in Portugal and Spain' by Diana Rafaela Pereira. Apart from the interesting discussion, this paper includes some pretty pictures of beautiful goldwork embroidery on these lavish clothes. The clothing of saintly sculptures can be traced back to medieval times. However, there has always been opposition against the practice as it was seen to be too profane. And the lavishly decorated clothes were not at all in keeping with the supposedly poor reality of the saint's real life.
If you are familiar with the embroidery books of Yvette Stanton, you have probably heard of the Norwegian folk dress called bunad. In the autumn issue of 2018, Solveig Strand writes about this 'Peasant Dress, Embroidered Costume and National Symbol'. I found this a most interesting paper as it explains that bunads were created in the 20th-century to reflect modern taste and the need for a national symbol, rather than historical accuracy. This is similar to the story of the Dirndl worn in the South of Germany. Historically accurate peasant dress looks very different indeed, but you better not discuss the topic with a local ...
P.S. The winners of the thread packs for August and September are: Dewilla Hooper, Kathleen Mason, Andrea Boulton and Anne Holly. All winners have been notified. For your chance to win one of these thread packs, please make sure you are subscribed to my newsletter!
Organising the Imperial Goldwork Course during the lock-down posed a real challenge. I couldn't send out course materials due to international mail not going out. I needed to invest in a high-spec webcam and software at a time when our household income was low due to the pandemic. Teaching live on Zoom for an international crowd in which often three languages were spoken, was new for me too. But I tremendously enjoyed sharing my knowledge and skills. And I learned a lot. Which changed the way I will do similar things in the future.
As my husband lost 40% of his already meagre income at the start of the lock-down, I was very aware of the struggle many people were in. Especially those who do not live in a welfare state like Germany. That's why I came up with a donation payment structure for the course. The idea is that people with disposable income donate when they take the course and those who lost (part) of their income can join for free (as explained in this blog post). As the warmth and the solidarity of the embroidery community is so often praised, it should not have been a problem for me to draw an income from my efforts. But it was and still is.
Of the 108 stitchers who have taken the course to date, 30 made a donation. Donations range from €10 to €265, with an average of €59. Producing each lesson and supporting students via email took me to date about 3,5 days per lesson. If we subtract the cost for the webcam and the software, I am left with €484. If we divide this by the working hours I invested, I worked for €2,16 per hour before taxes.
As most people took the course during or immediately after the live zoom classes, I sent out a survey to those who downloaded the PDF-handouts. After all, I wanted to learn from my mistakes. And I thank all who took the trouble to respond and provide me with valuable feedback.
One of the questions asked why people did or did not pay for the course. And the replies where illuminating. Reasons for not paying in order of their frequency: 1) others don't pay so why should I?, 2) when I cannot attend (all) of the live zoom classes and need to watch (some of) the recordings, I am not really participating in the course so I do not need to pay and 3) only wanted to see how you do it so that I can use your format for my own offerings/report format back to my organisation.
From the above, it becomes clear that the donation payment structure does not work. Thanks to Social Media, I could watch people, who took my course without paying, showing-off their latest buys and sign-ups for embroidery courses. I will thus not use this payment structure again. For all future courses, I will make a proper costing. If you want to take the course, that is what you will need to pay. I am aware that some will probably not be able to afford my future courses. However, if all 108 students, who have taken the course so far, would each have donated €32,64, I would have earned the German legal minimum wage of €10 per hour. That's for a person without qualifications and experience, by the way.
Before the pandemic, but certainly now during the pandemic, some colleagues and stitchers have started to 'shop' for ideas from my blog, Instagram and YouTube channel. Thank you to those of you who have warned me. I had seen it with my own eyes too. As you probably have noticed, I am posting very sparingly on Instagram and I am not sure if I will make more FlossTube videos. I am also struggling with how much detail to post on my blog. It is a real dilemma. On the one hand, I need to be engaging so that I keep myself in the picture and sell my products and services. But on the other hand, it is soul-destroying to see others turn your ideas into blockbusters.
My academic background and language skills should give me an edge over many of my colleagues. But this only works if the potential costumers are able to distinguish the difference in quality. But fake news and alternative facts show that increasingly people are unable to do so. Quality news outlets suffer and so do quality embroidery tutors.
Last year I visited the Dommuseum in Fulda and was struck by a particular goldwork orphrey. It sported a beautiful rendition of Saint John in or nue with a rather unusual background. Not one of these typical golden backgrounds with architectural features and a cloth of gold in diaper couching. Nope. His background consisted of blue silk satin stitches with some basic architectural features and less gold. What was going on here? There wasn't much information displayed in general in this museum and the information on Saint John was even more basic. But this wasn't the end of the story. Those who have watched my latest FlossTube with the Acupictrix video on YouTube, already know that I found Saint John's identical twin in a book on the Frankfurter Domschatz. But that's not all. Here comes the rest of the story.
The chasuble that sports the identical twin of Saint John in the Frankfurter Domschatz is part of a set consisting of one chasuble and two dalmatics. The cope, which would have made the set complete, is missing. Although the set is now housed in Frankfurt, it probably originated in the church Klein St. Martin in Cologne. Below the orphrey with Saint John are the names 'Merten' and 'Drutgen' stitched. The beneficiaries of this set of vestments. Merchant and member of the city council, Merten Moench and his wife Drutgin von der Groeven. Merten was born in 's-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, but his wife was from Cologne. She died in AD 1451 and he died in AD 1466. This is slightly too early for the set of vestments; they were made around AD 1475. What happened? Merten had a niece, Alheit van Buckhoven, she was the executrix of his testament. Her coat of arms is also displayed on one of the vestments. From the written sources, we know that Alheit spent a perpetual mass for the souls of her uncle Merten and his wife, her own soul and the souls of her parents at the altar of Mary Magdalene in the church Klein St. Martin from AD 1476 onwards. This fits the date of the vestments perfectly and it seems that she paid for this mass including all the thrills and frills.
The chasuble is made of red velvet shot with goldthreads. It is one of these famous red velvets made in Florenz, Italy sporting pomegranates. The orphreys on the front show: Paul, Peter and Mary Magdalene. The ones on the back show: God, Mary with child, John the Baptist and our Saint John. All of them sport high-quality or nue figures set in a golden architectural background with blue silk stitches with a similar tiled floor stitched in yellow, red and green silks. Whilst the figures look very Dutch, the backgrounds don't. The blue vaguely reminds of the 'Kölner Borte'. These were mass-produced woven orphreys that sometimes showed additional stitching for the details.
The two dalmatics are made of the same red velvet. But this time the orphreys are 'right'. High quality or nue figures sitting in a proper golden background so typical of the Dutch style.
What is going on here? We know from the historical records that the vestments were extensively restored in 1842/43 by the painter and 'parament worker' Edward von Steinle in Cologne, with the help of another painter and conservator, Johann Anton Ramboux. It took Edward, with the help of his two daughters, about a year to clean the vestments up and make them presentable again. They were paid 100 Taler for their work. That's about €4860 in today's money according to Google. I really hope they had additional income ... Anyway, although the vestments were extensively restored, the difference in backgrounds between the chasuble and the dalmatics is a medieval one and not the result of these restorations.
How does the single orphrey from Dommuseum Fulda fit into this story? As this orphrey has the same figure and background as the ones on the chasuble from Frankfurt, he is very likely part of the original set of vestments from the church Klein St. Martin. Beneath the original orphrey, another coat of arms is displayed. On the chasuble, the names of the beneficiaries are stitched beneath the orphrey of Saint John.
Looking closely at the figures on the chasuble, we see that they either look to the left or to the right. Furthermore, the orphreys are significantly wider than those on the dalmatics. This is a typical convention. Orphreys on a chasuble, but also on a cope, are wider than those on a dalmatic. The orphreys on a cope sit opposite each other at the front when the cope is being worn. The orphrey figures face each other: one faces to the right and the other faces to the left. This means that both the orphreys on the chasuble and the single orphrey from the Dommuseum Fulda were originally made for a cope. God would have sat opposite of Mary with child, Peter and Paul, Mary Magdalene and Saint John and John the Baptist is missing his partner in crime.
Now, this can mean several things:
1) Merten and his family were merchants with connections to the (Southern) Netherlands. They knew this type of goldwork embroidery well and valued it. Getting it from the Netherlands instead of opting for locally produced 'Kölner Borte' shows that these vestments were quite valuable and perfect to show off.
2) They were able to lay their hands on a number of loose orphreys and figures from the Netherlands and velvet from Italy.
3) These orphreys, figures and precious velvet were turned into vestments in Cologne by local craftsmen. These saw the 'complete' Dutch orphreys and worked orphrey backgrounds in a similar style, but with local influences to go with the loose Dutch figures. Names and coats of arms were added to make clear who bestowed these riches onto the church.
4) Orphreys intended to go onto a cope were instead applied to a chasuble. Or were they moved from a cope to the chasuble between AD 1476 and AD 1842/43? Does Saint John from the Dommuseum Fulda come from the original missing cope or copes? Or were so many figures bought at the same time and turned into 'Cologne-style' orphreys by the same workshop and then spread within Germany? Is the orphrey of Saint John in the Dommuseum Fulda the only remnant of a whole different set of vestments made in Cologne? One way of finding out is by identifying the coat of arms on the loose Saint John orphrey. I intend to write to both museums to ask if they know more. So exciting! I will keep you posted.
Stolleis, K., 1992. Der Frankfurter Domschatz Band I Die Paramente. Kramer, Frankfurt.
During my break from blog writing and after the success of the first online goldwork course, I have come up with a new online course: Medieval goldwork techniques - a journey through 500-years of embroidered history. In this new ten-week online course we will explore different forms of couching: underside couching, pattern couching, couching over padding and the queen of couching techniques: or nue. We will explore each technique in its (art) historical setting. In each sample worked we will use as authentic materials as feasible. The beautiful goldwork techniques of the Middle Ages deserve precious gilt threads and real silk!
Over the past five years, I have travelled extensively to visit museum exhibitions, research facilities and libraries in Germany, the Netherlands, France, Austria, England, Italy and Lithuania. Many of these trips were covered on this blog. The resulting research now forms the basis of the course. By attending the course you will gain in-depth knowledge of how medieval goldwork embroideries were made. What technical inventions revolutionised the process and the workshop setup. What inspired the stylistic language? You will learn about the close relationships between embroiderers, goldsmiths, painters and sculptors. Who were these embroiderers? Did they see themselves as artists? How were they organised? Who did they work for?
The core of the course form the embroidery samples you will work. They are all inspired by actual medieval embroideries. You will handle luxury fabrics like samite and silk twill, as well as high-quality gilt threads and different kinds of beautiful silk yarn. After taking this course, you will know the benefits of using madder, sienna and iron gall ink. This course is directed at embroiderers of all levels. With the possible exception of or nue, none of the techniques are (technically) difficult. The techniques covered will form the basis for future (online) historical goldwork embroidery course I am developing.
The medieval goldwork course will start February 2021 (registration will start 1st November). This enables me to assemble a full kit and get it shipped in time to all participants. Class size will be limited to 15 to enable me to give proper attention to each of the students. Each lesson will comprise of a PDF-download with all the historical and technical information on the particular technique explored, a video abstract of that information, a video of me working the sample and giving tips, a zoom-meeting where you can meet fellow students and discuss the lesson and a classroom on NING where you can find all the course material and keep in touch with your fellow students. And as always, I am only an email away!
Updates on the course and registration will be disseminated through this blog, my newsletter and on Instagram. Looking forward to sharing my enthusiasm for medieval goldwork embroidery with you in this new course!
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.
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!
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