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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Materials and Techniques of English Embroidery of the Late Tudor and Stuart Eras

In a 1961 article on English embroidery of the Tudor and Stuart periods, Gertrude Townsend, then curator of textiles at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, made a plea “to those studying embroideries of this period, now to be found widely scattered in collections in Europe and America, [for the exchange of] photographs, taken under precisely the same magnification. Valuable comparisons of techniques could be made without the necessity of bringing the embroideries together in one place.” Advances in digital technology have revolutionized both photography and communication, making it possible to capture images of embroidery techniques under magnification with great precision and to share these images globally with ease.

Working with fine silk floss in combination with metal elements was an established practice among professional embroiderers by the sixteenth century. Whether for reasons of economy or for ease of application, embroiderers before the sixteenth century restricted the use of metal threads to visible surfaces of the work. By the second half of the century, expanding trade and developments in technology had led to an increased availability of gold, silver, and silk. Embroidered works of this period are distinguished by their great expressiveness, which resulted in part from an inventive use of luxury goods. These embroideries demonstrate a high level of skill in combining metal elements with silk floss and a sophisticated use of metal strips and wires of different thicknesses, widths, and shapes to create a broad range of effects. The varied reflective surfaces of the metals create rich and changeable tonal effects on the foundation fabrics and the polychrome silk embroidery threads. Materials and techniques were manipulated with control to create works that mimic natural forms.

Foundation Fabrics
Embroideries were worked primarily on two types of foundation fabrics: off-white silk in satin weave and undyed linen in plain weave, referred to as canvas. The embroidery technique determined the choice of foundation fabric. Tent stitch, cross stitch, and Gobelin stitch were worked on canvas. The canvas used in the objects illustrated here is a balanced plain weave with a warp and weft count of 15 to 16 threads per centimeter. The fine warp and weft threads create a fabric well suited for silk embroidery thread.

The satin fabric was used with a broad range of stitches. The silk satin foundation fabric used in the examples discussed here is composed of warp-faced 8-end satin. The high count (160 per centimeter) of the slightly S-twisted silk warp creates a smooth surface, while the much lower count (36 per centimeter) of the thicker Z-twisted silk weft provides a firm structure that remains on grain while it is worked and evenly supports the weight of the finished embroidery.

The smooth surface of the satin is a luminous ground, enhancing the reflective qualities of the metal surfaces and the luster of the silk embroidery floss and pearls.

Silk Thread
Embroiderers of this time bought their silk as loosely spun floss, in both natural color and dyed.

In the examples discussed here, the silk is most often used as a two-ply thread, with both S-spin and S-ply. Silk was used in a variety of embroidery stitches on both canvas and satin. Silk floss was also prepared into a fine cord by winding silk filaments tightly around a silk core.

Metal Elements
Metal thread, referred to in this essay as filé, was made up of metal strip wrapped around a silk thread core. Metal strip was made from fine wire ranging in these examples between .1 and .2 millimeters. The wire was used both round and flattened. The color and twist of the silk core, the size of the strip, and the angle and direction in which the metal strip was applied determined the appearance of the thread.

In general, yellow silk was used with gold and white silk with silver to emphasize the color of the metal. The color of the core was sometimes reversed to create a contrast, or more than one color was used, creating complex tonal effects (29.23.15).

Metal was also employed without a silk component. Fine wire was used for small coils known as purl. Metal purl was fabricated by winding a wire tightly around a rod or a wire. Wire was prepared in different ways to create various effects. Often the wire to be wound was first wrapped with silk floss, called silk purl. The silk floss could be of one color or combined to form stripes. Sometimes a metal strip was added over the silk wrap, wound around the silk at an angle to show the color of the silk thread (29.23.15). This covered wire was shaped in the same way as the metal purl. The fine wire used for purl was easily cut and could be applied to the foundation fabric with a variety of methods allowing the embroiderer to create different effects.

Wire of different gauges was used either round or flattened and in different colors and weights. The contours of the coil were determined by the shape and size of the rod. Once the coil was shaped, the rod was removed and the coil was ready for use. Metal coils were attached to the work with silk thread that was either pulled through its center or had couching stitches laid across it. In this essay, fine wire coils are referred to as metal purl or silk purl and heavier gauge wires are referred to as metal coils.

Embroidered work was often embellished with round or tear-shaped spangles, which were particularly favored on apparel and accessories where the movement of the wearer would enhance their reflective qualities. Spangles were fabricated in several ways, two of which can be identified in the examples that follow. The tear-shaped spangles were stamped from sheets of metal plate. A row of holes was punched out in the metal plate to create the hole, and then a tear-shaped stamp was punched over each hole. These spangles were frequently incorporated into the metal laces that were often sewn along hemmed edges. The asymmetrical shape and off-center hole of the spangles allows them maximum movement, free from the lace (28.220.3,.4).

Round spangles could also be stamped from metal sheets, but the examples here were made with wire, a method that seems to have been much in use in this period. A single coil was cut from wire purl and flattened, with the ends of the wire overlapping (28.220.3,.4). The round spangles could be held in place with small stitches in silk thread or with a short length of purl (28.220.3,.4). Embellishments of all descriptions were sewn to the foundation fabric. By varying the color and placement of the silk thread, the embroiderer could achieve a variety of effects.

Evolution of Techniques
With the evolution of needle lace late in the sixteenth century, the use of detached needle lace in costume and accessories became increasingly popular. During the seventeenth century, flower petals and leaves were among the many details created in needle lace and attached to the embroidered motifs, often in combination with metal elements. Detached needle lace was most often worked in variations of the buttonhole stitch. The stitch was often worked with a fine wire incorporated into the border, which allowed the detached details to be shaped above the surface of the embroidery. Initially, detached needle lace was used as a detail for an embroidered motif. The effects of these details were enhanced with padding, usually wool batting, or by layering embroidery threads, a technique long employed by professional embroiderers. Increasingly ambitious effects were achieved with a variety of materials, including silk and linen thread, wool batting, paper, wooden molds, pasteboard, and wire. These filling materials were used with the embroidery on the foundation fabric and also with detached needle motifs.

The materials and techniques found in raised work were not new, but they were used with inventiveness and skill to create works with unprecedented dimensional qualities. Dimensional effects became increasingly inventive, culminating in the middle of the seventeenth century with raised work, which often incorporated separately worked three-dimensional motifs into the embroidered composition (64.101.1335).