Sunday, January 27, 2013

Testing Threads for 15th Century Embroidery

I enjoy medieval embroidery, and it's one of the few SCA arts besides garb that I'm usually willing to devote lots of time, energy and a reasonable amount of money to. In terms of medieval techniques, I like doing German brick stitch, but I also have an interest in all forms of embroidery accurate for 15th century Europe. The problem is that I have had very little experience doing embroidery with authentic materials (beyond decorative stitches on a some garments I've made). My thread of choice has been DMC #5 Pearl Cotton. It's a great embroidery thread in general, as it's easy to obtain, relatively inexpensive, and very pleasant to work with. I like the color range it comes in, and I like the smoothness and sheen it has in a finished project. It's not going to leave my craft supplies any time soon, but it's time to spread my wings into more accurate materials.

Silk and wool threads are evident in the extant embroideries from the 15th century, as well as metallic gold and silver threads. It seems that embroideries produced with linen thread fell out of widespread favor before the 15th century, though sporadic examples of linen embroideries are certainly still evident.

It's probably fair to say that silk threads used in conjunction with metallic threads hold the lion's share of 15th century embroidery samples still around today. Many of the created images are figurative in nature, particularly those on clerical vestments. Silk and metallic embroidery was also used on certain types of bags, most notably alms purses (or aumônières), but I haven't been able to locate many 15th century examples. I don't, however, particularly care to do metal thread work at this point as the learning curve could be pretty costly.

Removing metallic threads from the list of 15th century embroidery types leaves mainly secular embroideries, or rather works meant for personal use rather than ceremonial use. Embroidered panels (commonly, mistakenly, referred to as tapestries these days), pouches/bags, and cushions or similar household objects are at the top of the list. I haven't conducted enough research at this point to be able to determine just what thread types were in use on which items where in Europe. I have, however, been able to identify 4 groups of stitch types that were in use:

1. Brick and satin stitches
2. Klosterstitch & other self-couching stitches
3. Long-armed cross stitch
4. Stem/split/chain stitches, often used in combination

For the purposes of learning how to use silk and wool threads, I'm going to assume that either fiber type could have been used for any of these stitches. That may or may not be true, but as production is the goal for now, each of these stitches provide a different set of technical aspects to learn through.

So I set about giving myself a test environment, primarily to get a better sense of how silk and wool behave as embroidery threads, as opposed to the more familiar cotton. The first component of the test was a variety of threads.

I purchased 6 threads to try out. Clockwise from left above: Rainbow Gallery Grandeur Twisted Silk, Trebizond Silk, Kreinik Silk Serica, Bella Lusso Crewl Wool, DMC Medici Crewl Wool, and Caron Impressions 50% Silk 50% Wool.

I then set my embroidery frame up with three panels to try each of the threads on. From left to right: 28-count linen, 32-count linen, and 28-count cotton canvas.

Each thread was applied to each of the 3 panels using brick stitch, long-arm cross stitch and split stitch. I chose to skip couching for now, since that's still a stitch method I'm learning, and I didn't want that learning curve to impact the results of the tests. The samples are small, but the point of each was just to get an idea of the behavior of each thread sample, and to maybe determine the most ideal application of each within my test environment.

Some of the difficultly in the test was that I needed to learn some things about using silk and wool on the technical/user end. When I identified something that I may have been doing wrong that was affecting the performance of the thread, I either redid the sample with a better technique, or I simply noted what I had done wrong and determined what about the thread/stitch sample was not affected by that error.

One error that I'd made at the start was that I'd purchased different colors. For a truer test, I should have located a similar color for each thread so that color did not need to be factored into the test. As it is, some colors show the stitch differently than others, slightly skewing the results.

After applying each thread to each fabric in all three stitches, I had 63 samples. I'll post my thoughts on each thread in my next post.


  1. I'm not aware of silk being used for cloiserstich - although i was used for laid and couched work right up until the c16th, usually as a background for gold

    1. I wasn't sure that it had, but I also hadn't gotten that far into the research end. Thanks for the info!

  2. I've heard Tent stitch is also a biggie.

    The bulk of my experience has been a double running stitch (blackwork) in silk, but I think this will be applicable across the board - run the thread gently through beeswax. It ends up being easier to work with, and doesn't knot as badly (or when it does, it's easier to work the knot out).

    1. I had thought briefly about using beeswax, but I wasn't sure what it would do to the luster. Next experiment!

      I'll have to look into tent stitch, since I've only come across that in more modern contexts. Can you point me in the right direction for medieval examples?

  3. I'm looking into researching and replicating English C15th embroidery. Could you point me in the right direction to start, a bit of reading material etc. Please?

    1. When I started learning about medieval embroidery, I found this site helpful as a starter: Since there are various formats of embroidery that you can focus on, I thought it was a nice introduction to get my bearings. I also recommend the medieval stitch tutorials by Mistress Briony that you can get started with here: