From 12-14 February, the Bavarian Academy of Sciences will host the 15th international conference on medieval and early modern epigraphy. They have asked me to demonstrate the various ways in which lettering can be represented in goldwork embroidery during this long period. I've decided to concentrate my efforts on five different historical pieces: 1) the Sternenmantel of Henry II Holy Roman Emperor, dating to AD 1010-20, 2) the Bamberger Antependium from AD 1300, 3) the Vice cope from AD 1350-75, 4) the funeral pall of Maria of Mangup AD 1477 and 5) a podea (icon cover) donated by Serban Cantacuzino in AD 1671. I have seen all these pieces in the past couple of years and taken my own pictures. However, determining how the lettering was stitched, proved to be difficult. In order to keep a log of my findings and to teach you a thing or two about goldwork embroidery, I am going to write four blog posts on this project.
First up is preparation. Apart from the Bamberger Antependium, all these goldwork letters were stitched on very luxurious silk fabric. So I dressed my slate frame with Zweigart Bergen linen and kept the tension a bit slack. Then I applied pieces of my silk fabrics using herringbone stitch. It is important to orientate the fabric pieces on the grain of the linen fabric. Once the pieces are applied, the frame is stretched to drum taut. In the two short videos above, you'll see slack on the left and drum taut on the right.
I'd like my lettering to be as close to the originals as possible. The first thing to do is to determine how large the lettering in question is. Lighting in the textile department of the Bayrische Nationalmuseum is rather poor and I had to take all of my pictures under an angle. Not suitable. Luckily, I found a perfect picture in a book. It had the whole height of the Antependium on there and since I knew that height in centimetres, basic math led me to an approximation of their size. The word Baltasar measures about 25 cm from B to S. Since the goldwork was stitched directly onto the linen, I used a pencil and a lightbox for the transfer. The original transfer was probably done free-hand: look at the irregular spacing between the individual letters and the irregular shape of the three As.
Next up I tried to determine the size of the gold threads used. Without actually measuring them, this is a rather wild guess. Since the piece is quite old, the gold thread used is probably very fine. But from my memory, it was not as fine as what I recently saw in Bamberg. So I originally went for a gilt passing thread #3 (but had to later change to the even finer gilt Stech 50/60 CS as my edges became too round compared to the original). From the literature, I knew that couching in goldwork embroidery went from single thread to pairs of thread being couched down in one go, somewhere in the 12th century. Since the Bamberger Antependium was stitched around AD 1300, it could well be that this newer and faster method of couching down pairs of thread was employed. And I think the picture above proves this. From the literature, I knew that yellow silk was used for the couching stitches. I went with DeVere Yarns Chamoix #682.
One of the things I can't tell from my pictures nor is it mentioned in the literature: what happened to the tail of the goldthread? Was it plunged? Did they simply secure them on the surface and clip them close? The latter method is used in the orphreys from the 15th and 16th centuries, so I went with that.
The couching pattern used is not our now very common bricking pattern. Instead, it is a slanted line or slash. And since the ground fabric is linen, the couching process becomes a counted thread embroidery technique. I opted for five fabric threads between each couching stitch.
As stated above, I did stitch the first letter twice as I couldn't copy the sharp turns of the original with the ticker thread. The way the letter is shaped also meant that I had to start and stop my goldthreads several times as just bending them would not have accommodated the shape of the letter. Once I was happy with how my R turned out, I needed to stitch a black silken outline around it. As all of the silk embroidery in this piece is done in stem stitch (yup, everything! Rows and rows of alternating stem stitch to fill every design element that's not filled with couched goldthreads), I used stem stitch for the outline too. I used four plies of black Chinese flat silk.
Durian-Ress, S., 1986. Meisterwerke mittelalterliche Textilkunst aus dem Bayrischen Nationalmuseum. Schnell & Steiner. ISBN 3-7954-0636-6.
Grimm, J.M., 2021. A hands-on approach - Epigraphy in medieval textile art, in: Kohwagner-Nikolai, T., Päffgen, B., Steininger, C. (Eds.), Über Stoff und Stein. Knotenpunkte von Textilkunst und Epigraphik. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, pp. 141–147.
Müller-Christensen, S. & M. Schuette, 1963. Das Stickereiwerk. Wasmuth. No ISBN.
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