Medieval Embroiderers


Butterbowden Cope By The original uploader was VAwebteam at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by NotFromUtrecht using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0,

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


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Medieval Clothing, The Medieval Church

33 responses to “Medieval Embroiderers

  1. I love embroidery, April, and have done many pieces. For what seems a simple task, doing it well takes skill. If you are wise you only approach the task when you are calm and have good light. Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes, calm and a good light (and a decent pair of eyes!)
    That was a fascinating video!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Losing the Plot

    I love embroidery, and regularly fall down worm hole on Pinterest, some of the examples there are stunning, and it’s good to see that old skills are not lost.

    Having tried spinning, how anyone spun gold thread is beyond me, I can understand why it was so prized. It’s also fragile and prone to breaking so couching, difficult as it is, protects the thread from wear & tear. All several grades above my scale though.

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    • I don’t think anyone’s quite sure these days how it was done. Ruth Goodman and her daughter had a go in Secrets of the Castle, but what they eventually managed to make was quite coarse and difficult to use. They more or less wound thin strips of gold leaf around some thread.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Losing the Plot

        I’m not at all surprised. Spinning in itself is so technical. Wool is not so bad, because it’s thick and course anyway, but to get an even fine silk thread would take such skill. But adding gold? That is just a ridiculous level of expertise.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The video is amazing, my Mum was very good at embroidery but I don’t have anything she did sadly. Interesting post thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post for the times April. Might be a good time to consider embroidery. A few artists I know use embroidery in their work. And I recently read a line from Joan Didion comparing something to ‘petit point on Kleenex’, a powerful metaphor for…something.

    I wonder why the English quality fell?Was it linked to some historical events?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In the SCA, the Medieval reenactment society I’m in, embroidery is extremely popular among the women and also some men. I took a class on 5 Medieval stitches, one of which was the couch stitch, which I didn’t find all that difficult. My favorite stitch is herringbone and its many varients. Thanks for the post, April!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I love to embroider and is one of the few skills I picked up fairly easy/effortlessly – that said, didn’t ever transfer those skills to cross stitch or free hand tapestry/ribbon work, but, well, if ever I get to ‘retire’ can’t wait to learn how to take a blank piece of cloth and just stitch/fill without transferring on the ‘outline’ first, for the ‘work’ – LOL – Thanks for sharing this info! Wonder how much the bad wave of Black Death in …what was it? 1348? had to do the dying out of ‘being the lead’ on embroidery? Seems like that wave hit England hard, and folks were scrambling just to keep fed/get work done in face of reduced workforce –

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  8. I love embroidery! Super cool to learn about the medieval practices. I received an embroidery kit as a child and taught myself every stitch in the book for the fun of it that summer. My favorite were the couch stitch and satin stitch because they both prioritize showing off the thread in a grandiose way. (I can see why they would have wanted to preserve gold that way!) The split stitch is incredibly elegant, though, I must say!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Such a relaxing video. I’ve never tried embroidery, but would like to. I have a few crotchet projects on the go at the moment, but maybe in the future I’ll have a go. I didn’t know that very few medieval embroideries have survived, how sad.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Medieval Embroiderers ~ April Munday | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

  11. I really enjoyed reading this. It’s interesting you mention the Flemish as I have a vague recollection of Edward IV (I think) bringing Flemish weavers over to England to share their skills for weaving and working with wool. I tend to forget what an valuable historical source fabric and its fashions can be.

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    • Thank you. Flemish weavers were in England well before Edward IV and were a target of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. He might have been instrumental in bringing them back, I’m afraid I don’t know much about the fifteenth century. Wool is a fascinating subject in itself. At the same time as England was producing the best embroidered in Europe, it was also producing the best wool.


      • During the fifteenth century the European wool trade overtook the English if I’m remembering correctly. It’s been a few years since I studied it and I’ve not had much cause to research it in recently years. My own blog focuses more on creative writing and poems so since my degree I haven’t written anything academic. Though maybe I should get back into it.
        There were also issues throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with English currency being devalued. (Coin clipping). The wars of the roses depleted the treasury and Edward IV sought to rebalance the English books so to speak by encouraging the export of goods. If have to go back to my books to give a more detailed description than that however. Do you have a post on the 1381 revolt?

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  12. Very interesting. —- Suzanne

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: Opus Anglicanum by Tanya Bentham – A Review | A Writer's Perspective

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