A History of Goldwork Embroidery

The origins of goldwork embroidery are set deep in history and came from many sources as silk travelled over the continents of Asia travelling through Beirut with the silk merchants, its use became widespread after the birth of Christ references to a cloth of gold are to be found in the bible, and was mentioned in the book of Exodus. It could be found on vestments and clothes in countries like in ancient Egypt (in the tombs of the pharaohs) Italy, Babylon, Greece, India, and Persia. It can be seen in the wonderful garments from Japan and China the emperors gowns were richly embroidered in gold, its part of their ancient history somewhat entwined in the making of the secret world that was silk making.

Throughout history gold has been a symbol of affluence and status.Goldwork embroidery is one of the oldest English embroidery techniques with records dating from before the 10th century. Before that, little was documented and was mainly pictorial reference in the 7th century, the actual embroidery has very ancient roots, two thousand years ago it was known of in the Middle East moving over the continents and established itself firmly in Europe. Traditionally goldwork embroidery was worn on ecclesiastical vestments and church trappings i.e. alter frontals, pulpit falls etc. Also in Royal circles and rich aristocratic families, for them it was an ostentatious display of wealth and power.

Mostly worked through churches and specially trained groups it was classed as a great art because of its fine art concept and historical properties. Kept very much for the higher classes and those rich enough to employ these artistic embroiderers.
The goldwork threads used to be pure gold and were flattened and wound around strands of animal and human hair, but because the gold was so brittle they were later wrapped around materials such as silk, animal gut, paper, or parchment. In the early days this was all done by hand, which made the cost phenomenal. The most renowned examples of English embroidery are the beautifully preserved St Cuthberts Stole and maniple which was made at the behest of Queen Aelfflaed about 901AD, it is covered completely in gold laid work and couched thread, it is displayed in Durham Cathedral.

Then came the 200 year war 1095 to1291 and the riches that were lost because of the length of the war, at the beginning money was no object the crusaders adorned themselves and their sumptuous tents in all sorts of riches among them goldwork, made of pure golden threads. And as the war dragged on and on the knights became poorer and poorer their beautiful works of art were cut up and used to pay the soldiers off as wages, so much loss.

The largest proportion of English goldwork embroidery still survives because the pieces that were taken to the continent for safe keeping in the time of the reformation. Being much sort after by the Vatican (which has at least 100 pieces in their collection), and most of the larger Cathedrals and many are still to be seen in Museums and private collections across Europe. The style of the period was called Opus Anglicanum with underside couching the most sort after, this is a very complicated technique. Having tried and sampled the technique myself there’s no wonder it died out in popularity, because it takes a lot of practise to become proficient in this style of embroidery. It costs a lot of money to work, and as the demand for this beautiful glorious goldwork embroidery became the “in thing”, the working of it changed, so that the production could be increased to become more accessible to more people. The wonderful era of opus Anglicanum embroidery lasted from the mid 13th to the mid 14th century.

One of the things that attracted me to goldwork embroidery is the contrast between the highly polished surfaces and the sumptuousness of the fabrics on which they were worked. I have been a lover of goldwork embroidery for as long as I can remember, I was very lucky living in the North West of England to have gone on a trip to London to the V&A Museum. The reason for my visit was to look at the fabulously worked and designed Syon Cope, a piece of work so finely stitched in split stitch, it was described as acu pictura, Latin for “painting with stitch”. I was also fascinated by Beckets casket.

When the St Cuthbert Stole and maniple were made, a thread called floss silk was being widely used; this gave a great sheen to the embroidery and the metal thread to be couched. The silk core came from the Orient, and in Russia they were using pearls and jewels in their embroidery, adding to the opulence of the craft. Linen was used to line the back of the stitching, sewing through both layers for several reasons to add weight to the fine silk and to keep the heavy threads from showing through to the front, also for strength and helping garments to hang properly.

Velvet was also widely used at this time, bringing real richness to the embroideries of the 13thcentury; the only problem was the pile on the velvet, but as with everything else a solution was found.

English ecclesiastical embroidery changed dramatically after the demand in the mid 14th century grew at home and abroad. The demand was met by the richness in the luxurious woven silks and rich velvets, with the reappearance of the surface stitched couching, long and short stitch came into the fore at this time, using thicker floss-silk so as to make the filling of orders much quicker. Another way to cut down on the dense embroidery was to work in bands called orphreys, they were used along the edges of the copes with smaller designs worked either side.

By the 15th century, “Raised work” became very popular, mostly using the wire purls over string, and padding to create diaper patterns across the rows of laid threads, the diversity of the designs and patterns were beautiful to behold, the placement of the stitching would change the reflections on the surface as the light played upon the materials. The imagination and skills of the embroiderers who created these works of art, were much admired and desired by the people wealthy enough to commission them.

Then came Henry the VIII’s reign, which brought an end to this glorious period in English Goldwork Embroidery. With his split from the Catholic Church, the destruction of all things connected with Goldwork Embroidery was the order of the day.

As with everything Catholic, they were destroyed or melted down for their gold content value. The loss of all these valuable garments the quality of which will never be reproduced again was inestimable. A few items from this period can still be seen, the precious vestments that did survive, did so because of the peoples cunning and love for these religious relics and all they stood for. As families carried on with their religious masses in secrecy, they hid the vestments so that they survived. Many vestments were taken to the continent where many of them are still displayed as national treasures.

Portraits of Henry VIII show his clothes laden with all kinds of jewels and riches, which were mentioned in the accounts of the time, stating the use of “Venice gold and Damask gold”, both describe flat gold, wrapped around a silk core and couched over onto the rich fabrics, again goldwork embroidery is included in the adornment of the rich. In a lot of Henry VIII portraits he wore some of his richest clothes; they seem to be goldwork, making a statement about his wealth for the entire world to see.

During her reign Elizabeth I wore magnificently embroidered clothes embellished with all manner of jewels, pearls, Venice gold, twist plate and wire purls were mentioned in the inventories of the day, setting a new wave of rich embroidery. When she tired of a particular dress, the embroiderers at court would cut off the fabulously worked pieces and re-apply them as slips to a new dress. Or they would use several detachable parts such as, sleeves and stomachers, using the precious pieces again and again. Her pictorial dresses told symbolic stories of countries, morals and status, representing the power she held all over the world.

It was said; when Elizabeth I died she left “Documented” over 1,000 dresses in her Great Wardrobe. Again a vast amount of these were cut up, to fit Anne of Denmark, wife of James I.

About this time in history the invention of fine wire drawing machines, the thickness of hair, had been invented. Most of the wires were silver wrapped in a gold coating, wound around a core of yellow silk this became known as Japanese thread. It was a period of invention and texture from the different wires that were being finally drawn and spun into hollow wires. These were attached to the cloth, as were beads, in various lengths and also over threads to create wonderful three-dimensional effects.

In Our opinion we have lost the skills of yesterday. Never to be returned is the dedication and craft that is goldwork. We do our best to encourage the use of Goldwork Embroidery with the little knowledge that is left to us, to produce beautiful works of art with the modern twist. People like Hand and Lock with Carn Griffith’s help, their workshops still produce masterpieces, their military work so finely executed. Benton & Johnson, Bill Barns and his family heritage of knowledge. The Royal School and the excellence of their teaching. Last but not least, is of course all that we have to offer you from GOLDEN HINDE.

We do hope that you will enjoy joining in this historical technique in its much simplified form and appreciate the skill that is Goldwork Embroidery.