Tag Archives: Medieval Embroidery

Opus Anglicanum by Tanya Bentham – A Review

Pages: 208
Published: 2021

Since my early teens I’ve been fascinated by textiles, although I realised only recently that it was a fascination. I taught myself to knit, crochet, cross-stitch, make clothes and make lace. Sadly, my needlework teacher at school was less than encouraging and, fifty years later, I still believe that I can’t do embroidery. When I bought this book, therefore, it was not with the idea of making any of the projects or even trying to sew in the style of Opus Anglicanum. I bought it to look at the pictures and to read about the techniques.

It is a beautiful book, designed to take a beginner in this style of embroidery to a fairly advanced point. There are eleven step by step projects, each introducing new techniques and getting progressively more difficult. Bentham works her pieces in shimmering silk thread and writes about how important the silk is and how it captures and reflects the light and the illustrations moslty capture this.

I haven’t read it from cover to cover, but I have looked at every picture and diagram on every page and they are worth looking at. Opus Anglicanum, as the name implies, originated in England. It was a style of embroidery that was prized all over Europe from the twelfth to the mid-fourteenth century. Tanya Bentham designs and teaches embroidery pieces based on originals from this period. Some of the designs in this book are more or less straight copies; others, such as the princess with a frog/ handsome prince in her hand or the woman taking a selfie, are adaptations.

There isn’t much history about Opus Anglicanum, but that’s because this is a practical book. Bentham’s enthusiasm for her subject shines through on every page. It was a brave decision by her publisher to allow her to write in her own chatty voice and I can see that this might annoy some readers. I’m not sure how much I would enjoy it if I were working through a whole project. She describes herself at one point as a mum chastising a teenager and there are notes throughout the book in which she says she is nagging the reader, because there’s something she doesn’t want them to forget.

I must repeat that I haven’t tried any of these projects, so I don’t know how useful the book is in teaching the necessary techniques. I can say that it looks as if it would set an embroiderer on the right path. The photographs are great and very clear. There are also complete lists of the supplies needed for each project, including the sizes and types of needles required.

Once you’ve finished the embroidery, there are instructions for what to do next, whether mounting it as a picture or turning it into an aumoniere (a medieval purse). There are templates for all the projects at the back of the book.

So, has this book made me want to try Opus Anglicanum? No. There are other embroidery styles I would rather try before Opus Anglicanum. It’s beautiful, but it’s not really me. Do I regret buying the book? No. I  love picking it up and looking at the pictures and reading a bit about the techniques.

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.

Available now:

Amazon

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Medieval Embroiderers

Butlerbowden_cope

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8939525

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.

Sources:

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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon

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