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!
At the beginning of January, I and my husband were lucky enough to be able to visit the embroidery exhibition in Paris. Today I'll show you some stunning pieces from the Opus Anglicanum section. The term for this type of embroidery from the 12th-14th centuries translates as 'work from England' and usually consists of very fine silken split stitches and underside couching. It was greatly valued throughout Europe especially, but not solely, for religious purposes. Therefore, you will find these stunning pieces of embroidery in museums all over Europe. But beware: not all Opus Anglicanum embroidery was actually made in England or by English hands. Medieval Europe was already so well connected that both ideas and people travelled a lot.
The graves of bishops are a great place to search for medieval embroidery. Bishops were usually laid to rest in their finery in a grave with better preservational conditions than Joe Average. Antiquarians from the 19th century knew that too and when these graves were opened for whatever reason, they brought their scissors along. This is illustrated for instance on a pair of liturgical sandals from a grave from the Cathedral of Saint-Front in Perigueux: three different museums own pieces of the same pair of sandals.
Today, many museum visitors turn their noses up when they see these brownish fragments of textile. They are mostly not 'pretty' in the usual sense. But I was very pleased to see that Musee de Cluny devoted a whole display case to these extraordinary finds. For obvious reasons, the levels of lighting were lower than in the rest of the exhibition so my pictures are sometimes a little dark. Nevertheless, look at these stunning patterns of birds and scrolling in very fine underside couching!
Another stunning piece of embroidery on display was the above panel with the martyrdoms of the saints. There is a second panel too with female saints. Both are kept in different museums in Belgium but originate from the same church in Namur, Belgium. It was in use as an altar frontal but might have originally been a vestment. The embroidery on this piece is absolutely immaculate and very fine. I particularly love the different goldwork couching patterns in the background and the immense detail on the horse. Although only the above panel was on display in Paris, both panels were displayed at the Opus Anglicanum exhibition in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London a few years ago.
One of the biggest pieces of embroidery on display were the fragments of a horse trapper (a protective garment for a horse in battle or tournament). It was unfortunately impossible to capture all (over 20, many quite small) fragments in one picture. The detail of the goldwork embroidery is amazing. The lion's mane and hairy claws are so full of movement through laying the goldthreads in different directions. In amongst the bodies of the lions are many small human figures in courtly dress. They clearly show how to embroider on such a difficult fabric as velvet: cover it with a thin piece of silk. When the embroidery is finished, cut the excess silk away.
Although this piece of embroidery comes under Opus Anglicanum it does not show any underside couching and only small areas of split stitch (the silken parts of the claws). Instead, the goldwork is all 'normal' couching and the small figures and the foliage are stitched in running stitch (hence you can see the silk that was used to keep the hairs of the velvet at bay when stitching). It is said that in using these two embroidery methods the actual embroidery would take much less time then when split stitch and underside couching were used. I agree when it comes to the split stitch versus the running stitch. The latter is much quicker as it covers more ground with fewer stitches. However, I am not so sure that normal couching is that much quicker than underside couching. I now practice both and the only marked difference for me is that underside couching is harder on your body due to the slight extra force you need to apply with every stitch.
By the way, these fragments have an interesting 'upcycling' story to them. The horse trapper was probably originally made for King Edward III. He was a guest at the Reichstag (Imperial Diet) at Koblenz, Germany, in AD 1338. The horse trapper probably remained in Germany as a royal gift. It was turned into a set of vestments for the Altenberg Abbey. These were dismantled in 1939 to once more show the original horse trapper.
There were many more beautiful pieces on display in this part of the exhibition. For those of you who were not able to visit in person, I can highly recommend the exhibition catalogue. It is packed full with good quality pictures and many close-ups. More on my textile adventures in Paris in further blog posts!
Browne, C., G. Davies & M.A. Michael (eds.), 2016. English medieval embroidery Opus Anglicanum. Yale University Press. ISBN: 978-0-300-22200-5.
Descatoire, C., 2019. L'art en broderie au moyen age. Musee de Cluny. ISBN: 978-2-7118-7428-6 .
Michael, M. (ed.), 2016. The age of Opus Anglicanum (= Studies in English medieval embroidery 1), Harvey Miller Publishers. ISBN: 978-1-909400-41-2.
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 ❤!
For the epigraphy conference held in Munich next week, I am working on several samples of lettering in goldwork embroidery. More information on the conference can be found in part I of this series. Today we will look at the goldwork lettering on the Vic cope made in England between AD 1350-75. The cope was probably made for, but certainly worn by, Bishop Ramon de Bellera of Vic in Spain. It is all worked in underside couching, typical of Opus Anglicanum. When looking for online information on this particular cope, I found the excellent website of the Museu Episcopal de Vic. The website is in English and there is an abundance of information on their textile collection. Amongst which is a lovely video on the Vic cope (see below). This was my first foray into underside couching and I am going to share my explorations with you below.
Unfortunately, my stash did not contain a piece of silk velvet, so I opted for red silk with a twill weave. The original underside couching on the Vic cope is done on three layers of fabric: linen, velvet and plain silk. After the embroidery was finished, the plain silk was carefully cut away. My reconstruction omits the layer of velvet. Although the article (see below for a link to the download) on the recent conservation of the cope mentions a lot of details on the materials used, it does not disclose the width of the gold threads used. However, the pictures in the literature suggest a very fine thread. I decided to go with Stech vergoldet 50/60 CS, which is finer than smooth passing #3. It has a width of 0.12 mm.
I started by transferring the lettering of the word 'Epiphania' by using the prick and pounce method. This is the original method for pattern transfer and it would probably have been used by the makers of the Vic cope in the 14th century. I deliberately left my Siena water paint a little thick so that I could scrape off mistakes easily.
From the pictures, I could tell that the gold threads were actually couched down in pairs. The couching pattern used for the lettering is the traditional basket weave. I would start with a long stretch down the length of the letter and use the twill pattern of the silk to get my spacing correct between the couching stitches. I found this not too easy as you'll need a rather large needle for the linen couching thread. For the first four letters ('epip') I used Fil de lin glace, au Chinois, #40 colour #363 (yellow), which I bought at Maison Sajou when I was in Paris. It is rather thick and not very strong. Even when I changed from a needle #7 to a chenille needle #22, it broke frequently. No matter how carefully I tried to guide the thread through the fabrics. What else could I use?
First up was Londonderry linen thread #5070 cornflower 50/3. It is only slightly thinner than the Maison Sajou thread used before. On stitching the 'H', the thread broke three times. This is far less than when I used the Maison Sajou thread.
One other thing that eludes me at the moment: what does one do with the tails of the goldthreads? After consulting with a re-enactment lady on Instagram, she said she plunges them and ties them back with the linen couching thread. Sounds reasonable, don't you think? Except for the fact that the stitches on the back are rock solid and I can't weave any thread tails through them at all. Maybe I should use a finer linen thread?
Next up was Goldschild 50/3. Although the numbers suggest the thread is comparable in thickness to the Londonderry, it is actually less thick. It did break easily, especially on the small bar-like parts of the 'A'. These parts are really tricky to do as you can't keep the basket weave pattern going. You'll end up with a kind of underside couching satin stitch. The quick turns for both the gold threads and the linen couching threads take their toll.
I had one more brand of linen threads I could test: Bockens Knyppelgarn. I started with the rather thin Nel 90/2 and this was no good as it broke every other stitch. But when I tried the thicker Nel 35/2, it was much better. A similar amount of breaks to the Londonderry thread. But again, I am unable to tie back the goldthreads with the linen couching thread on the back. Since I know that medieval stitchers were not averse to using knots, I did the same. Works a treat.
So what did I learn from this experiment? Quite a lot actually! Firstly, turning your threads at the design line is done with an underside couching stitch. There is no additional 'normal' couching stitch on top to achieve this. Secondly, underside couching is a bit like constantly plunging. No matter how drum taut your slate frame is, it will lose a bit of tension. Thirdly: my silk did not take the stitching very well. Fibres of the weft were pulled out. Fourth: the stitching is rather harsh on your body. My fingers are all swollen and my back aches (muscle ache). How the flip did they do it back then? They worked through three layers of fabric. That puts even more strain on your body and on the linen threads. I must have some of the parameters wrong. Suggestions are greatly appreciated!
Brow, C, G. Davies & M.A. Michael (eds.), 2016. English medieval embroidery. Yale University Press. ISBN: 978-0-300-22200-5.
Calonder, N. & A. Wos-Jucker, 2008. Conservation of the Cope of Bishop Ramon de Bellera, Quaderns del Museu Episcopal de Vic 2, pp. 83-99.
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 ❤!
During my second trip to Northern Italy, I visited the Benedictine Abbey of Marienberg in Mals. Their museum is also part of the exhibition 'Samt und Seide 1000-1914: Eine Reise durch das historische Tirol' curated by the European Textile Academy (you can read about my first trip here). This museum houses one of the crown jewels of medieval embroidery in Europe: the Uta chasuble stitched around 1160 AD. To give you an idea of its importance, the oldest pieces in the famous 'Opus Anglicanum' exhibition in the Victoria & Albert museum were a seal bag from 1100-40 AD and several embroidered fragments from 1150-1200 AD. The oldest embroidered complete chasuble in the exhibition was the Clare Chasuble from 1272-94 AD! Similarly, the oldest embroidered chasubles in the exhibition 'Middeleeuwse borduurkunst uit de Nederlanden' in the Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, the Netherlands dated to the late 15th century. High time I introduced you to the Uta-Chasuble!
The above pictures show you the Uta-Chasuble from the front and the back. In the right picture you also see the matching stola. The embroidery shows a tree of life spread all over the chasuble. Inside the top part of the forked cross you see Jesus inside the mandorla flanked by two angels and several stars and crowns. Jesus is seated on a throne, holding a book in his left hand and raises his right hand in a blessing. This is the so-called Christ Pantocrator. On the back of the chasuble, we see the Holy Lamb flanked by the symbols of the evangelists. The evangelists are portrayed as winged figures on which only the heads differ.
Here you see a detail of the back of the chasuble, just inside the forked cross, showing two of the winged evangelists. You can see every single split stitch and the faint lines of the original drawing. There is also some underside couching with metal thread left on the winged evangelists. These parts of the embroidery are so well preserved because a forked cross of patterned purple silk from Persia was appliqued onto the embroidery.
Here you see one of the angels flanking Jesus inside the mandorla. Underside couching is present on Jesus' clothing. The colour palette for the silk embroidery on the fine linen background is quite restricted: red, yellow, blue and brown. The whole chasuble is filled with tiny split stitches, high-lights in underside couching of metal threads and an outline stitch (probably back stitch).
Accompanying the chasuble is a matching stola showing saints. In the picture on the left you see St. Panafreta, one of the 11.000 virgins following St. Ursula to her martyrdom in Cologne. On the right you see St. Datheus. He was archbishop of Milan and opened the first home for abandoned children in 787 AD.
Oral history claims that the chasuble was stitched by Uta von Tarasp and her ladies. Uta and her husband Ulrich were the beneficiaries of Marienberg Abbey. But who draw the pattern? Was it the same person who painted the frescoes in the Abbey Crypt? And where were the precious embroidery threads coming from? A large quantity of consistently spun and dyed silk thread as well as metal threads. Apparently the silk threads came from Sicily. Did Uta and her ladies work the chasuble on large embroidery frames in a room in Tarasp castle? How was the work divided amongst the women? How fine were their needles? Did they have artificial lighting or could they only work in daylight? Would there be music played or a book read aloud when they were working?
Apart from the Uta-Chasuble, there are many more pieces in this museum well worth a visit! The monks run a modern guest house in the same restored building as the museum is housed in. I will certainly return to study this extraordinary piece of European embroidery history some more. But first, I will hopefully visit an equally important piece housed in Austria this week. Stay tuned for that story!
Me and my husband had a wonderful time visiting London and Salisbury. I bought some lovely silks at the Silk Society and browsed the speciality threads and beads at the London Bead Company. However, we both enjoyed our trip to the Victoria & Albert Museum with the Opus Anglicanum exhibition the most. As not all my readers are in the luxury position to hop over to England to visit this outstanding medieval embroidery exhibition, let's review the excellent exhibition catalogue!
The exhibition catalogue 'English Medieval Embroidery Opus Anglicanum' weighs in at a staggering four pounds, has 310 pages with many (and I really mean MANY) high quality pictures. In my opinion, the pictures are the real gem of this catalogue. Not only are they so detailed that you can see the individual stitches, they are also much better in conveying the detail and the vividness of the embroideries than the originals in the exhibition. Because, as always, ancient textiles need protection form light and thus the levels of lighting in the exhibition are nowhere near to those used when they photographed these objects. In addition, many more objects are illustrated in the 7 chapter's texts than were present in the exhibition! Especially those residing in other parts of the world. So who knows, maybe you are living near to one of these gems and you could easily go for a visit!
The first chapter details the technical part of the Opus Anglicanum embroidery and when it was in use. It describes the silk split stitching of the figures and the underside couching of the gold threads for the background. I was most surprised to read that medieval gold thread makers were able to make a kind of gilt Japanese Thread only 0.25-0.30 mm thick!
The second chapter describes the use of the different embroidered vestments in the Roman Catholic church. It pinpoints Opus Anglicanum embroideries held in museums and churches ranging from Hildesheim in Germany, Vienna in Austria to Chicago in the US. This diaspora has helped the survival of these medieval embroideries after the Reformation.
The lives of London embroiderers and the details of their trade are described in the third chapter. Interestingly, in the older records from the 13th and 14th century, women make up the majority of the work force. Then men start to push them from the documentary record. Maybe this had something to do with the craft becoming better organised and the establishment of a guild? A surviving bill shows that women embroiderers were paid far less than men...
Chapter four shows that English embroideries were very popular with the papal curia in continental Europe. Examples can be found in the Cathedral treasuries and museums of Italy and Spain. However, by the 14th century, Opus Anglicanum starts to become less fashionable and embroideries from Italy take over.
The fifth chapter places the art form of embroidery in a wider artistic context. Many parallels between paintings and embroideries are illuminated. Whereas chapter six looks at the changing embroideries on vestments dating from the second half of the 14th century up to the Reformation. The trade becomes more fragmented with prospective buyers assembling the parts of vestments from different sources. Embroidery is increasingly appliqued onto a background.
I best enjoyed the seventh chapter which placed the English embroideries into a wider mainland European context. This greatly enhances my knowledge of embroidery on medieval vestments; particularly from more central European countries like the Czech Republic. The remaining part of the book is devoted to a thorough catalogue of all the pieces in the exhibition. Beautiful detailed pictures provide a rich banquet of eye candy! The best of the best? The Toledo cope from AD 1320-30 covered all over with saints, scenes of the life of the Virgin and wonderfully detailed birds. This is my absolute favourite; don't you agree?
The catalogue is widely available through online sources like the V&A shop and Amazon and comes at a price of 35 GBP or about $ 75. And then there is another brand new book on the topic, also available from the V&A: The age of Opus Anglicanum. It contains nine scientific papers on the subject, mainly written by the people who also contributed essays aimed at the general public to the exhibition catalogue. I haven't read it yet, but if you are also, like me, interested in a more thorough covering of the subject, this might be worth its 89 GBP or $ 143. However, the quality of the pictures is much better in the catalogue. More interesting however, is its promise written on the inside sleeve: 'This volume, the first to appear in a series on English Medieval Embroidery...'. Yeah, bring them on good people of the V&A!
So, for a number of you, my dear readers, it is now time to prompt Santa to make sure you find a copy of the exhibition catalogue under your Christmas tree :).
On a more personal note: sadly, upon our return from England, my husband was told that the company he works for closes its archaeological department. Not the sort of Christmas' present we wished for, I can assure you. As I now help him in finding a new job, it will undoubtedly impair on the time I can spend on my own embroidery endeavours, but I will try to keep my weekly blog posts upright!
Want to keep up with my embroidery adventures? Sign up for my weekly Newsletter to get notified of new blogs, courses and workshops!
Liked my blog? Please consider making a donation so that I can keep up the good work and my blog ad-free!