Embroidery was something that every woman brought up in a wealthy household could do. They sewed purses for their husbands, or table linen or cushions for the household. If they were really accomplished, they might make something for the local church. I think all the women in my novels do embroidery at some point.
Nuns also embroidered. Some of them could get so carried away with it that they were told to return to their books and the singing of psalms.
Embroidery was not just a domestic skill, however, it was also a profession. In the domestic setting, embroidery was done by women. Professionally, it was mainly done by women, but some men were also involved. It looks as if all the designing was done by men.
For 200 years, from around 1150 to about 1350, England led Europe in embroidery skills and designs. This was the peak of the opus anglicanum ((English work)) style of embroidery and it was in great demand, both in England and abroad. This changed until, around 1400, the quality had disappeared and Flemish and Italian designers and embroiders were pre-eminent.
There are no records of guilds of embroiders at this time, but they, or something like them, must have existed in order to maintain the quality of the work. Whether or not they did exist, there were still some rules that the professionals had to follow. Like the fletchers and bowyers we met a couple of weeks ago, they were not allowed to work by candlelight.
Leading embroiderers worked directly for kings, nobles, bishops and abbots, embroidering clothing, vestments and decorative pieces. Embroidery was not something that could be rushed, not if you were to produce something of quality. During the reign of Edward I, it took four women three and three-quarter years to make the altar frontal for the main altar in Westminster Abbey.
Large objects, such as copes, chasubles, altar-cloths, mantles, and bed and wall hangings were made in workshops by a team of embroiders. Smaller ones, such as bands, mitres, cushions and purses could be made by an embroideress in her own home.
The best embroideries were done with silk thread, and silver and gold thread, the making of which was a skill in itself. Those who could make it were paid more than embroiders. They spun narrow strips of gold or silver around a silk thread. The thread was extremely expensive, so it was attached to the cloth by couching, allowing all of it to be on display. Couching was a technique in which the gold thread was placed on the fabric in the desired shape and held in place by small stitches in silk thread along its length. This is a technique I’ve tried and it’s not easy.
The other main type of stitch used was the split stitch. It’s exactly what you think it is: the needle splits the thread as it comes from the back to the front of the fabric. I’ve only ever done this by accident.
After the Reformation, many church vestments were destroyed so that the precious metals and jewels could be recovered. Very little medieval embroidery has survived and even the Bayeux Tapestry was almost ripped up on several occasions.
Here is a very short video showing the process used in the Middle Ages to create a piece of embroidery.
Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers by Kay Staniland