Friday, January 11, 2019

The Genesis of Ecclesiastical Embroidery in Ancient Russia

"The Genesis of Ecclesiastical Embroidery in Ancient Russia"
A translation of
Valkevich, Svetlana Ivanovna. "Genezis vyshivki 'Litsevoe shit'jo' v Drevnej Rusi." Hauchnij zhurnal KubGAU, 85(01), 2013: 1-12. The article in the original Russian can be found here:

Translation by Ivan Matfeevich Rezansky, OL (mka John Beebe)

[Translator's notes: This is a rough translation, although I've done my best to convey both the meaning and style from the original. Comments in square brackets are my own. The text contains some specialized vocabulary. I have attempted to translate these, but have also there indicated the original term in transliterated Russian, sometimes with additional notes, in brackets. The images in the final section were added by me to help illustrate the stitches being described.]


The article traces the history of origin of ecclesiastical embroidery in Ancient Russia, the use of works of embroidery in the design of Christian worship and decorative furnishings of the temples. The process of creation and artistic features of the medieval Russian art sewing.


The processes and phenomena that form modern art have deep roots in traditional culture. They are of particular importance in times of economic restructuring and of social infrastructure. The legacy of many centuries, assimilated by the Russian people, became their artistic heritage and formed medieval Russian art. A historical study of the culture of artistic embroidery in Russia suggests that, both in theory and in practice, there was a cyclical process of conversion of folk culture.

Embroidery is one of the most ancient forms of artistic creativity. Its history hearkens back to a distant era when embroidered images were heavily associated with magic and were valued as a type of "amulet" guarding against evil forces. Samples of embroidery with themes of Slavic pagan mythology from both ancient archaeological digs, as well as from peasant embroidery from the 18th and 19th centuries, suggest that this kind of art was widespread in the pre-Christian period. Medieval Russian examples in museum collections in Moscow, Sergiev Posad, St. Petersburg, and Torzhok hold a special place in Russian embroidery. In their methods and appearance, they verge on the art of medieval Russian painting, and is rightly referred to as "needle painting." The historical development of Russian embroidery has not yet been sufficiently studied. The origin of ecclesiastical embroidery in Russian appears to be the Byzantine tradition.

By the 7th century, religious matters played a significant role in Byzantine society. Orthodoxy was tightly connected to nation. Monasticism and wealthy monasteries began to develop, as well as the influence of the clergy on the souls of believers, the respect surrounding the clergy, and the veneration of holy icons owned by those monasteries (Dil', p. 53). Byzantine trade spread to the furthest borders of Asia and through the mediation of the Avars, Bulgarians, Hungarians and other peoples, penetrated deep into western Europe. Through the Turks, Pechenegs, and Kumans, they reached other tribes through the northernmost regions of Russia. The best products from these countries were delivered directly to Byzantine markets, including silk fabrics, raw silk, linen, coarse and fine woolen fabrics, dyed and patterned scarves, leather, leather products, furs, weapons, metals, precious stones, pearls, and much more (Vejs, p. 459). This state of commerce in the Byzantine Empire favored the spread of sumptuous decoration in churches and palaces.

Byzantium entered into relations with the Kievan state starting in the middle of the ninth century. Russian marauders repeatedly harassed Constantinople starting in 860 (cf. 907 and 941). And yet, Byzantine emperors readily recruited soldiers among these brave warriors, and Rus' merchants often visited the Byzantine markets. Byzantine nationality already existed by this time. The empire enjoyed religious unity, political power, and a greatness of spiritual life. Above all, it became the great Eastern empire, and for 150 years (from 867 to 1025) experienced a period of incomparable grandeur (Dil', p. 83). The influence of Byzantine culture also extended beyond the regions under their protectorate. Relations between the empire and Rus' grew even closer after Grand Princess Olga visited Byzantium in 957 and adopted Christianity (Kostomarov, p. 9; Karamzin, p. 60).

The economic prosperity of Byzantium, its solid financial management, and the significant flourishing of its industry and commerce in the 10th century gave the empire not only power, but also great wealth. Byzantine artisans produced many masterpieces of art, including silk fabrics of many bright colors completely covered with embroidery, magnificent items glistening with enamel, dazzling jewelry made of precious stones and pearls, finely carved ivory, bronze and silver, and glass decorated with gold. These luxurious wonders brought the Greek masters world renown. Trade developed extremely well. Byzantium elevated the wealth of the entire world through the activities of its merchants, the power of its fleet, and the rich possibilities of exchange enabled by its ports and grand markets (Dil', p. 88). The Byzantines regarded art as materialized sensual reflections of spiritual archetypes, and endowed the objects themselves with "true" secret meaning. Along with explicit functional practicality, they also had symbolic purpose. Both religious items and items of secular ceremonial use, such as imperial regalia, were imbued with multiple meaning (Kul'tura Vizantii, p. 520). The powerful influence of Byzantine art spread throughout the world -- in Bulgaria, Rus', Armenia, the south of Italy. Constantinople was the shining center of this wondrous blossoming, as the capital of the cultural world and as a queen of beauty. Behind its powerful defensive walls, the "Devout City" contained incomparable magnificence. Hagia Sophia, the harmonic beauty and opulent ceremonies amazed all who attended. The Sacred Palace, reflecting the ambition efforts of ten generations of emperors, embodying unheard of magnificence. The Hippodrome, serving as the arena hosting all kinds of pageants to amuse the populace. These were the three centers toward all life in Byzantium gravitated. Along with this, a multitude of churches and monasteries, magnificent palaces, rich markets, and masterpieces of ancient art filled the squares and streets, and turned the city into a glorious museum. Only 10th century Constantinople could boast of owning the 7 Wonders of the World as had been known by the ancient world. Foreigners from both West and East dreamt of Byzantium [sic] as the only city in the world filled with golden radiance (Dil', p. 91).

The conversion of Kievan Grand Prince Vladimir to Christianity at the end of the 10th century was a decisive event. The end of the 10th century (980-1015) culminated complete unification of the Eastern Slavs into the state borders of Kievan Rus'. The old pagan religion of the Eastern Slavs reflected a variety of religious ideals, and as such, the ideology of various echelons in the development of primitive Slavic society. This Slavic paganism did not well fit the interests of an emerging class of feudal lords (Mavrodin, 130). By the time of Svyatoslav [(ruled Kiev 945-972)] and Vladimir [(ruled Kiev 980-1015)], a considerable body of Christian literature written in Old Slavonic already existed in neighboring Bulgaria, completely understandable to all Russians. But, the princes of Kiev were slow to adopt Christianity as, according to Byzantine theological and legal views of the time, this would predicate the transition of any newly converted nations to vassal dependence on Byzantium (Rybakov, p. 397). But, in 988, Byzantine emperor Basil II received an army of 6000 mercenaries from the Grand Prince of Kiev, to help with the suppression of feudal uprisings. For this, Grand Prince Vladimir demanded the hand of a Byzantine princess in marriage. He also at this time seized the city of Cherson, and from there, he dictated his terms to the emperor. He wanted to intermarry with the imperial house, marry a princess, and convert to Christianity (Dil', p. 84; Rybakov, p. 397). Emperor Basil II gave in to the insistence of the Grand Prince, and convinced him to be baptized. Vladimir was baptized in Cherson (989), and then baptized his people in Kiev. Vladimir's son Yaroslav (1015-1054) continued and completed the work begun by his father: he turned his capital Kiev into a rival of Constantinople and one of the most beautiful cities in the East. A group of Poles who visited the capital of Rus' left behind an interesting description of Kiev, preserved by the historian Titmar: "In the large city which was the capital of that state, there were more than 400 churches, 8 shopping areas, and an extraordinary conglomeration of people..." (Rybakov, p. 411).

With the advent of Christianity in Rus', and the large number of churches and monasteries embellished with finery and ceremony decorated with embroidered items which followed, there arose a particular branch of artistic needlework -- ecclesiastical embroidery [litsevoje shit'jo, lit. "facial embroidery"], or so-called needle painting, depicting state and church leaders and Biblical and Gospel stories. Ecclesiastical embroidery formed under the direct influence of Byzantium, but flourished greatly in medieval Russia. Once acquainted with this style of needlework, Russian craftswomen eagerly mastered its methods and technique (Khudozhesvennoe shit'jo, p. 14).

Ecclesiastical embroidery of this period, which was dominated by a religious outlook, received primary importance. Along with icons, it was given an important role in the social structure. These works typically feature images of saints with scenes from their lives, evangelical or Biblical scenes, and borders with similar images or ornamentation, and with embroidered liturgical or supplemental inscriptions. These works are constructed from expensive silk fabrics and silver, gold, and later gilt threads. Convents were renowned for their embroideries. By the 15th century, monasteries became the focal points of various artistic crafts such as the production of items with ecclesiastical embroidery and goldwork.

Ecclesiastical embroidered works were used in the decoration of the Christian church and the decoration of its shrines. Patron saints were embroidered on church vessels, clergymen's clothing, covers displayed beneath icons [peleny], altar cloths and burial shrouds, and curtains for the royal doors. Banners and epitaphia [plaschanitsy] (large icons embroidered or painted with the image of Jesus Christ or the Holy Mother lying in their tomb) used to decorate sacred ceremonies, and embroidered iconostases to accompany people on long journeys or on military campaigns. Valuable embroidered items were given as gifts to clergy from other Orthodox countries.  

These embroidered works were distinguished by the complicated process of their creation. Sometimes several artists would be involved in the production of a single item: "masters" ["znamenschiki"] -- icon artists [ikonopistsy] and artists who specialized in illuminators [travschiki] and calligraphers [slovopistsy] "celebrated" [znamenili], that is, drew out the images, backgrounds, and words to be embroidered. The images were drawn out onto paper and transferred onto fabric, or sometimes they were painted directly onto the fabric. For this step, they used ink, soot, white lead, minium [red lead], and other paints. These masters were usually professional icon painters, illuminators and calligraphers. Once the master's cartoon had been applied to the fabric, the design was outlined in white thread and then embroidered.

Creating an embroidered work was a time-consuming and lengthy process. It began with the choice of fabric to serve as the background and foundation of the work. The selection was influenced by various factors. The body and borders were typically embroidered on monochromatic fabrics, such as taffeta, damask, satin or velvet. It fell to skilled needleworkers to do the embroidery. They used both silk thread, as well all sorts of gold threads, including spun [pryadenye, literally, "spun thread," possibly passing thread?], "wrapped" gold [skan', modernly called Japan gold], "drawn" wire [volochenye, possibly couching thread?], gimp cord [kanitel'], bullion [truntsal], and gold plate [bit', literally, "to beat"]. Embroideries were also decorated with pearls, precious stones, and gold and silver beads decorated with niello, engraving, chasing, and enamel. Just as diverse was the technology of needlework. Embroidering with multicolored silks, Russian needleworkers would try to emulate either the smooth, colorful surface of the icon, or the satin surface of the fabric. For this type of work, very smooth stitches [atlasnyj shov, typically translated as "satin stitch", but doesn't make sense in context] were suitable, of which there were two varieties: split stitch, where the needle would pierce the middle of the previous stitch; and satin stitch [glad'] where the stitches were placed immediately next to each other. Usually this method was used to stitch the faces, and later by the 15th century, sometimes the entire composition was thus embroidered. From the 15th to the beginning of the 16th century, faces are sewn using light colored silks of a single tone. Starting from the middle of the 16th century, shading was introduced along the outline and around the eyes, using silks of a darker color than the main color, and the stitches typically followed the contour of the design. Starting from the 16th century, multicolored silks began to be replaced by gold and silver threads. Where gold and silver threads were sewn down continuously, couching patterns varied widely, among which the brickwork [klopets], diagonal rows [kosoj ryad], and zig-zag [gorodok, literally, "little village"]. [jeb: see diagrams at the bottom of the page] The outline was typically sewn in low relief over couched strings [po verevochke]; a string was first attached following the contour of the design, and then gold or silver threads were couched back and forth over the string.

The person (typically, the face) was embroidered using different shades of fine, sand-colored silk; clothes and everything else was embroidered using silk, silver, gold, and later gilt threads using various stitches. Sometimes a thick linen or cotton fabric was placed under the golden thread to provide relief. Often the embroidered piece was decorated with precious stones and trimmed with pearls. For durability, when embroidering on silk, they would reinforce the silk with dyed linen and then sew a lining onto the piece. 

Works of ecclesiastical embroidery were highly valued and carefully preserved. It is possible to trace this through the numerous and varied contributions to large monasteries of embroidered items. The collections of ecclesiastical embroidery in the historical-architectural art museums/reserves of Zagorsk, Aleksandrovskaya Slaboda, Kostroma, and others are of inestimable value. Embroidered items were often accompanied by supplemental inscriptions indicating the time of their creation, the intended recipient, the name of the donor, sometimes the reason for the contribution, and in rare cases, even the name of the needleworker. For example, in the Contribution Book of the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius, there is the following entry: "7027 (1519) - on the 16th day, Vasily Ivanovich, Grand Prince of all the Russias, granted the contribution of his brother, Prince Semyon Ivanovich, 30 rubles." The sovereign, Grand Duke Vasily Ivanovich, made a contribution recorded in the donation book of the 83rd year (1574-75): "A black altar cloth, on which is embroidered the likeness of the Miracle-Worker St. Sergius, the crown is sewn with gold, around the crown is situated a single strand of pearls, and then is laid a smoky stone. The veil is blue, and the center is grey, and a cross of pearls is placed upon it, an inscription near the cross and near the Vision is written in pearls. On the same icon cover are 14 stones on situated on taffeta. The first veil is written in the books; the damask icon cover is blue, around is a circle of cherry; the image of the Miracle-Worker Sergius is embroidered with gold and silver, and on the Miracle-Worker, 24 stones; around the shroud of the Miracle-Worker Sergius is covered with pearls. There are two shrouds in the books" (Vkladnaja kniga, p. 26). Early works of the 16th century still retain the character of the pictorial style echoing the icon school of Dionysius and his students; but at the same time, gold and silver embroidery was introduced, laid out with colorful silk forming small ornamental motifs in imitation of imported cloth of gold. They are already more modest, but still have pearls and precious stones, mainly decorating the haloes of the saints and the inscriptions.

A new important stage in the development of ecclesiastical embroidery can be traced through the example of the workshop owned by the Staritsky princes, the closest relatives of Ivan the Terrible. Concentrated in this workshop were, perhaps, the best artists and needleworkers, creating a special embroidery school whose works later served as subjects for imitation. Here they created monumental Great Aers with multi-figured compositions and complex inscriptions. In the Godunovs' royal workshop, works of ecclesiastical embroidery were turned into jewels through the abundant use of pearls, precious stones, and gold and silver pellets of various shapes and sizes, decorated with niello. The decorations were always subject to complex artistic goals.

Numerous items made in the workshops owned by the famous merchants, the Staritskys, have been preserved. The museum in Zagorsk houses a burial shroud called "Sergius of Radonezh, with scenes of his life," made in 1671, 183cm x 67cm, inventory no. 400. Sergius is depicted full length in monastic robes. [jeb: see closeup image of this work at the bottom of this page.] His right hand is held before his chest in a gesture of prayer; his left holds a folded scroll. The Trinity and nineteen hagiographical scenes are depicted around the border. The faces and hands are satin stitched in light grey silk, shaded with greyish-brown silk. The background of the central section, the border, clothing and halos are all covered with gold and silver thread couched down with barely noticeable silk stitches. The primary couching patterns are a separated diamond pattern [razvodnaya kletka, literally, divided cell] and diamond pattern [yagodka, literally, "berry"]. All of the image outlines, folds of the clothing, and around the inscriptions are decorated with large, medium, and small pearls. In Sergius' halo, there are 5 plaques [zapony] with enamels, rubies and emeralds in gold settings (along the rim of the stones). The lining is of lilac satin. The date when this piece was created can be established from its entry in the Contribution Book of 1673 (Vkladnaja kniga, p. 769): "On the 11th day of July, year 179 (1671), Anna Stroganova, the widow of Dmitriy Andreevich Stroganov, and his son Grigorij Stroganov, and his daughter Pelegaja Stroganova gave to the Trinity Monastery a shroud [dedicated] to the Miracle-Worker Sergius, sewn with gold and silver; Sergius is decorated with 5 rubies in bezels, and near the stones there sparkle rubies and emeralds; near the crown and in the fields and the outfit, there are the life of the Miracle-Worker Sergius, and at the bottom there is an inscription in small pearls; the lining is of tausin [a reddish-blue] satin" (Khudozhestvennoe shit'jo, p. 83).

The names of donors found on embroidered works, along with other historical written sources, indicate that the courts of princes, boyars, and the wealthy had their own embroidery workshops called solaria [svetlitsy] where specially-selected and well-trained embroiderers would work. Embroidering liturgical items was considered to be a pious activity. In more or less every wealthy house of Medieval Russia, there would be a solarium [svetlitsa], a brightly-lit room especially dedicated to women's handiwork. In these workshops, sometimes as many as 50 craftswomen would work under the guidance of the mistress of the house, herself often a skilled needleworker. Most important of these solaria at the end of the 15th century were those of the Grand Princes of Moscow, which by the middle of the 16th century were nicknamed "the Tsaritsa's Glittering Chambers" [tsaritsyny svetlichnye palaty]. The needleworkers included tsaritsas, princesses, boyarinas, merchants' wives and common craftswomen. The subtlety of execution, the elegance of design, and the exquisite use of color are exemplified by the items embroidered by Maria Miloslavskaya (first wife of Alexei Mikhailovich), considered to be a unique monument to ecclesiastical embroidery. Embroidery was a time-consuming and lengthy process; several master needleworkers would often contribute to a single piece. Works of ecclesiastical art produced by these numerous solaria were donated to both churches and monasteries.

In particular, many works have survived from the 15-17th centuries. From these, it's possible to trace the evolution of this art form, which preserves the best traditions of earlier times. At this time, more so than in previous centuries, embroidery was done using silver and gold threads, sewing techniques became more complex and advanced, and pearls and precious stones were used more heavily. Many of these embroidered items are no longer seen as mere embroidery, but as decorative and precious masterpieces. The Zagorsk State Historical Art Museum preserves items from some of the best art workshops of the 16th century. These include contributions from Grand Princess Solomonia Saburova, Vasily III, the famous workshops of the Staritsky princes and Tsaritsa Anastasia Romanovna, as well as the royal workshop of Boris Godunov, completing the evolution of embroidery in the 16th century.

The 17th century saw an end to the development of medieval Russian artistic embroidery. Ecclesiastical embroidery started to largely imitate precious icon covers [oklady].  Its images, with rare exceptions, lost their former inner significance. The crisis of religious worldview made itself felt, as many religious works acquired an emphasized secular character. On the borders of works, facial images are typically replaced by luxurious ornamentation, dominated by floral or geometric that are complex and intricately developed (Khudozhestvennoe shit'jo, p. 20). 

Works of ecclesiastical embroidery testify to the close cooperation of visual and decorative principles. However, in its development there is a clear tendency to a constant strengthening of the latter role, due to the very nature of the art of embroidery. This tendency was expressed in the complicated nature of the stitches, the patterns of haloes and garments, and in increased attention to the decoration of the border. Through these works of ecclesiastical embroidery, one can get an idea of ​​the national character of embroidery and feel the depth of the folk foundations of this art, which is so closely associated with ancient painting and peasant embroidery. The organic fusion of these traditions, carried out by the nation's talented craftsmen, provided this art with a unique originality and deep content.

Cited Sources:

1. Vejs, German. Istorija kul'tury narodov mira: Kostium. Ukrashenija. Predmety byta. Vooruzhenie. Khramy i zhilischa. Obychai i nravy. Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Eksmo, 2004.
[History of Culture of the Peoples of the World: Costume, Decorations, Housewares, Armament, Temples and Dwellings, Customs and Manners]

2. Vkladnaja kniga Troitse-Sergieva monastyrja / izdanie podgotovili E. N. Klitina, T. N. Manushina, T. V. Nikolaeva. Otv. Red B. A. Rybakov. Moscow: Nauka, 1987.
[The Contribution Book of the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius]

3. Dil', Sh. Istorija Vizantijskoj imperii. / Sh. Dil'. Per. s fr. A. E. Roginskoj pod red. B. T. Gorjanova. Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel'stvo inostrannoj literatury, 1948.
[History of the Byzantine Empire]

4. Karamzin, N. M. Istorija gosudarstva Rossijskovo. Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Eksmo, 2004.
[History of the Russian State]

5. Kostomarov, N. I. Russkaja istorija v zhizneopicanijakh ejo glavneishikh deyatelej. Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Eksmo, 2009.
[Russian History Through the Biographies of its Greatest Figures]

6. Kul'tura Vizantii vtoraja polovina VII-XII vv./V. P. Darkevich. Otv. red. Z. V. Udal'tsova, G. G. Litavrin. Moscow: Nauka, 1989.
[The Culture of Byzantium: Second Half: 7-12th cent.]

7. Mavrodin, V. V. Proiskhozhdenie russkogo naroda. Leningrad: Izdatel'stvo Leningradskogo universiteta, 1978.
[The Origin of the Russian People]

8. Rybakov, B. A. Kievskaja Rus' i russkie knjazhesva XII-XII vv. Moscow: Nauka, 1982.
[Kievan Rus and the Russian Principalities of the 12th-12th (sic.) Centuries]

9. Khudozhesvennoe shit'jo Drevnej Rusi v sobranii Zagorskogo muzeja. Moscow: Sovetskaja Rossija, 1983.
[Artistic Embroidery of Medieval Rus' in the Collection of the Zagorsk Museum]

[jeb: has some very handy diagrams for goldwork stitches and their names in Russian. For those who can't read Russian, I've included and annotated these images below:]

Diagonal couching
(косой ряд, kosoj ryad)
Zig-zag couching
(шов городок, shov gorodok)

Brickwork couching
(клопец, klopets)
Couching over string
(по веревочке, po verevochke)

Divided Cells
(разводная клетка, razvodnaja kletka)
Diamond Pattern
(ягодка, jagodka)

[jeb: Here is a closeup of the shroud decorated with the image of St. Sergius of Radonezh with scenes of his life, 1671. Khudozhesvennoe shit'jo Drevnej Rusi v sobranii Zagorskogo muzeja. Moscow: Sovetskaja Rossija, 1983, p. 203.]

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Laid and Couched Griffin Embroidery

For today's post, I'd like to present a decorative embroidered griffin, worked in a laid and couched stitch commonly referred to as the Bayeux stitch. I created this piece to practice the stitch prior to the first time I taught the stitch at Warriors and Warlords, an event in the Kingdom of Northshield, where the griffin is one of the populace badges. The embroidery has since been framed for display in my house. Overall, this project took approximately 25 hours to complete.

Historical Context

Laidwork embroidery, where the threads are laid across the surface of the work and then couched into place, has many forms throughout the medieval period. Bayeux stitch is so-called because of the particular Anglo-Saxon variation that was used by English needleworkers in the late 11th century to produce the Bayeux Tapestry commemorating the lead up to and Norman victory in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Although few other pieces remain from the medieval period demonstrating this stitch in use, the skill of execution seen on the Bayeux tapestry suggests to me that the stitch was already in common use by the time that work was created. Its sturdiness and economic use of dyed thread would have made it an ideal choice for decorating a wide range of items, potentially even clothing. 

Bayeux Tapestry, Everyday Life - Bayeux Museum

An almost identical stitch called refilsaumur or refil embroidery was seen in use in Iceland in the 15th and 16th centuries. Several extant items are decorated using this technique, including several altar frontals and a large wall hanging. (Gudjónsson, 14-19). Here again, the use of laid and couched stitch seems to be primarily focused on decorative items, although Gudjónsson does mention that the cross orphrey on a chasuble is seen using this style (14). It’s interesting to note that artistic style in refilsaumur is visually quite similar to the artistic style in the Bayeux tapestry, despite the centuries dividing these two cultures.  

 Altar frontal from Hólar, Iceland, mid 16th century. Gudjónsson, p. 19

Note that both the Bayeux Tapestry and the Icelandic works in refilsaumur use stem stitch to outline the designs. This covers the edge of the laid and couched work, and was typically done in an alternate color such as black to provide a contrasting outline to each element in the design. On the Icelandic works, some elements were also outlined using metallic gold thread, notably the crozier heads in the image above.


The embroidery was worked using:

  • 100% linen fabric. The Bayeux tapestry and refil items from Iceland were also embroidered on linen tabby fabric.
  • DMC purl cotton floss in a variety of colors. Period items were typically worked in wool crewel yarn. As I was new at this stitch and am mildly allergic to wool, I used cotton floss. This was also the material I was planning to use for my class, for reasons of cost, so I used the same thread for this sampler. If I were to work another project in this stitch, I would consider using wool yarn instead.


The design for this embroidery was a cartoon hand-drawn by me, inspired by a number of medieval bestiary entries for the griffin. The griffin was often depicted holding and eating horses, but I excluded that design element for this work. The image was transferred onto the linen fabric, and then I was ready to start embroidering.

For each section of the image, I used Bayeux laid and couched stitch to fill the area. The laid stitches were laid down in parallel rows along the longest axis of the area.  The couching stitches were then laid down perpendicular to the laid stitches and tacked down in rows about 5 cm apart. The couching stitches in period works were typically in the same color as the laid stitches, but a few areas can be seen where the couching stitches are in a contrasting color; as such, I experimented with this option in a few areas (e.g, the griffin’s chest). In the griffin’s tail, I used a period technique to work the embroidery around curves. The laid stitches are placed in wedges still following the direction of the curve. The couched stitches for each wedge are perpendicular to the laid stitches, resulting in a “fan” of radial couching lines. A similar approach was used on the Bayeux Tapestry as well for curved areas. The colors used are used more to show contrast between adjacent elements, rather than with a slavish attention to realistic depiction, as was also common in the Bayeux Tapestry.  The background of the work was left mostly bare, as was also done in the Tapestry.

One lesson learned in this piece is that the use of perl or crewel yarn makes the embroidery rather dense and thick. I was using hoop frames at the time, and found that when I had to move the frame, the thickness of completed embroidery could make tensioning the frame difficult for unworked areas. This resulted in the waviness seen in the border around the griffin. For future items, I would use a scroll frame or slate frame instead, which will better handle tension for larger items like this that are larger than a typical hoop frame. 

I liked the final result and have taught Bayeux stitch now at several events in Northshield and East Kingdoms since completing this item.


--. “Bayeux Stitch.” Bayeux Broderie,

--. “Bayeux Tapestry.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Jan. 2019,

--. “Embroidery.” The Bayeux Tapestry, 13 May 2008,

--. “Griffon.” Medieval Bestiary,

--. “Laid Work.”  Textile Research Center, Leiden,

--. “The Bayeux Tapestry.” Everyday Life - Bayeux Museum,

Gudjónsson Elsa E. Traditional Icelandic Embroidery. Elsa E. Guðjónsson, 2003.

Wilson, David M. The Bayeux Tapestry. Thames & Hudson, 2004.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

A&S Documentation

I spent the last several days writing up A&S documentation for two items I plan to exhibit at an Athena's Thimble panel later this month at Birka, an event in southern NH.

The first was the write-up for the pouch and goldwork I created last month. (See my blog entries in December for the Or Nue Heraldic Bee project.) 

The East has a very nicely codified rubric for judging A&S projects that gives entrants a clear expectation of how their project will be judged, and also helps ensure consistent judging from one project or event to another. I found a useful write-up with suggestions about how to write documentation for the East Kingdom A&S rubric. 

It had been some time since I last wrote up a paper like this, so it took me a while to get into the swing of things. But, based on the rubric and the article I mentioned above, I eventually came up with a documentation format that includes:

  • An introduction, describing the item
  • A picture of the item, in case the item and documentation get separated
  • The historical context, describing the historic precedent for the item or methods used in the art project
  • A list of materials used in my project, including description of they are similar to or replace period materials, and why any substitutions were made
  • The methods of construction, basically a description of how I created the item
  • The bibliography of works I consulted or quoted in this project write-up
Based on this, I created this documentation for the pouch project, and was pretty happy with the result.

Once that was done, I felt I was on a roll, and decided to write up the griffin embroidery sampler I created a number of years ago. This recently got a very warm reception in the populace vote at Autumn's Inspirations, but the A&S score on it was a bit low because I had no formal documentation accompanying it. I decided to enter the display at the last minute at that event, so I hadn't brought any documentation with me. 

The format I created above leant itself well to describing this project as well. I was able to write this up pretty quickly, as it was quite a bit simpler in A&S scope. It wasn't really ever created with the intent of entering it into an A&S competition, so I'm not terribly concerned about that. But, as I am planning to panel this for competency in Laidwork, the write-up will be useful. My documentation for this project can be found here.

It will be interesting to see how this documentation is received by the judges at Birka. I'm sure I'll get feedback that will allow me to improve both my future projects and future papers.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Transferring a Design

I'm starting a new piece, this time a rendition of my wife's heraldry. Here is Cwen's registered device:
Per fess sable and argent, two decrescents and a bear stantant gaurdant within a bordure all counterchanged

I offered to make this in metal thread similar to the rendition I had recently done of my own device. Since her device is in sable and argent, I had the idea of doing "or nue" (shaded gold) using silver metallic thread rather than gold.

The first step, of course was to draw out the design. I'm never terribly happy with my drawing skills, but I eventually came up with the following. I was pretty happy with this design, and Cwen liked it as well. 

The bear sticking out its tongue was particularly amusing, a detail I copied from a number of heraldic devices I found online, such as this one from the city of Bern:
Image result for heraldic bear arms

I'm embroidering this badge on black linen. After stretching the linen in my slate frame, I got ready to transfer the design. The badge will eventually be appliqued onto another item, so I didn't need to be too careful about centering the badge in the frame. I roughly centered it, and pinned it into place.

One of my Xmas gifts this year was a pricking and pouncing set, used to transfer designs from paper to fabric. The pricker is basically a pin vise used to hold a small crewel needle. You use this to poke holes in the design through the paper. I poked holes every few millimeters. I had done this before with a plain needle, but found the vice made it much more comfortable to hold the needle while this task. Pricking holes in a large or complex design can be a bit tedious, so anything that makes it more comfortable is welcome!

Once all the lines had been pricked, I got out my new pouncer. This is basically a wooden knob with a bit of felt glued to one end. It would be really easy to make these! But, my set came with one pre-made. 

The set came with dark grey pounce, made from crushed charcoal and cuttlefish bone. This pounce is a pretty dark grey, so I didn't think it would be terribly visible against the black linen background. But, I read a great hint that you can use flour in a pinch as white pounce. I tapped the pouncer into a small amount of flour, and then rubbed the pouncer around the design, over all of the holes. 

Once I had gone over the entire design, I unpinned one end and peeled the paper up to confirm that the entire design had been transferred. The flour worked pretty well! I found I'd pricked a few too many holes in the face, so a bit too much flour came through and the design there was a bit less clear than I would have liked. But, it was good enough that I could make out the entire design. Good learning for next time!

Knowing that the fine powder wouldn't last long, I traced over the lines with a white chalk pencil, then did a quick backstitch over the lines with white thread to ensure the design would remain visible while I worked the embroidery.

Finally I stitched some guidelines across the piece to help me keep my silver work straight as I work the item, and it was ready to start the silverwork.

Next time: Argent nue?

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Time for Tassels

For a recent project, I decorated my new pouch with several tassels. I had not made tassels in quite some time, so I had to re-educate myself on how best to do them. After some experimentation, here's what I came up with.

The pouch I was making featured some Or nue embroidery that was in green and yellow, so I picked floss of the same two colors for the braided cord and tassels. I worked the tassels in DMC cotton floss because of time and cost - getting enough silk in the right colors would have taken a few weeks in the mail, and would have been relatively expensive. The tassels here were completed using two skeins of DMC (one of each color). 

The tassels were made by wrapping embroidery floss around a mandrel. I used a ruler as my mandrel, but any squarish object could be used as your mandrel. You're basically just using it to easily create a number of loops of floss of the same size. The ruler I had happened to be the right width for my project, and had a cork backing which created a couple channels where it was easy to pass a needle or use scissors to cut the loops.

The first step was to wrap my embroidery floss around the ruler. I wrapped green and yellow at the same time about 25 times to create the body of the tassel. Pick one end (we'll call this "down") and have the floss both start and end in that direction. In this picture, I'm calling the lower edge "down".

The next step was to cut a string about 14 inches long. I actually cut two strings, one gree and one yellow, and passed those threads through the body loops. I then tied it into a knot at the top to cinch the body loops together. Once knotted, you'll use these strings to tie your piece. Cutting the strings 14 inches long gives you lots of room to play with when it comes time to attach your tassel.

Now that all the loops were tied together, I cut the loops across the bottom of the ruler. This basically gives you 50 or so pieces of string knotted together at the top. To turn this into a recognizable tassel, I cut another piece of your floss about a foot long. I wrapped the string around the body, and knotted it off with a square knot to create the tassel's head. I trimmed off the extra length.

Finally, I trimmed the tassel so the strings are all roughly the same length, and as mentioned above, I used the strings at the head to connect the tassel to the body of my pouch. I chose to run the strings first through a silver bead before sewing them to the pouch fabric. Trim all the knots, and voila!

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Or Nue Heraldic Bee, part V

In my previous post, I completed the gold and pearl work for my embroidered heraldry, and appliqued it to the fabric ground. Now it was time to fashion a pouch out of the fabric.

I patterned the pouch as an alms purse, or aumônière. These purses are commonly seen in 13th-14th century artwork, and there are quite a few extant pieces showing that they were often embroidered, decorated with beads and tassels. It is thought, based on the name, that they started out as a purse for the distribution of charitable alms to the poor, but that they eventually became a standard purse for carrying around everyday items. I liked the alms purse idea, however, as a way not only to display my work, but also to carry around artisan-related items, such as personal tokens to give out when I see others doing great A&S work, as well as cards with my contact info that I can give out when I meet new artisans and would like to connect. 

My aumônière is not based on any single piece, but was instead creatively inspired by a number of extant pieces. A great article can be found online here with a number of photographs and descriptions of period pieces. I also found quite a few on Tumblr using a simple web search, and put together an idea of what I wanted mine to look like.
Half-silk velvet purse with tassels at the Museum of LondonAnother purse in the Troyes Cathedral10th or 11thc Byzantine relic purseParisian purse from 1340, other side

The first step was to sew the pouch. The front and back pieces are made of a very pretty mulberry wool fabric. The liner is black linen. The inner and outer halves were sewn together, then assembled and blind stitched together across the top seam. I then buttonhole stitched four holes across the top of the front and back to hold the lace string that would tie the pouch closed. This was my first time sewing buttonholes like this, but I thought they came out pretty well. 

To create the laces and decorate the seams of the pouch, I used cotton embroidery floss (more durable and easier to weave than silk) to create a cord. The cord was whipcorded using the Viking whipcording method as described by Mistress Eithni on her website. First order of business was to create a simple distaff to hold my cording. I created this from a 3' long dowel and a popsicle stick, glued and tied together.

I then wound the thread (two skeins of each color) onto some wooden doll form bobbins I picked up at Michaels. Dangle these off the distaff, and you're ready to weave!

The weaving was pretty easy and goes very quickly. I was using a diagonal stripe pattern. The only difficulty I had was that when I would pause to wind up the braided cord or to let out more floss from the bobbin, I would sometimes lose my place and ended up cording, then having to undo and redo the cording when I realized the pattern had gotten messed up. But, in an hour or so, I had more than enough cord to complete the project. 

The resulting green and yellow striped cord looked perfect against the mulberry of the pouch, and was a very close match to the colors used in my goldwork. Here's a closeup of the resulting cord. I was concerned as I was whipcording that the resulting cord would be too thin, but when I got it off the distaff and compared it against the pouch, I found the size was just right. 

I blind-stitched the cord down covering the seams of the pouch. There was one smaller loop going around the pouch opening (where the inner and outer pieces were joined together), and a bigger one going around the outside seams. 

The outer loop started in the middle of the bottom of the pouch, and was extended at the top to create a "V" that can be used to hang the purse from my belt. A third loop was used as the drawstring. I used some silver beads I found to create a cinch on the purse string and to tip the laces, then created some tassels to finish off the laces.

A couple more tassels for good measure, and the purse was finally done! 

I'm very happy with the final result, and plan to present it at a panel for The Keepers of Athena's Thimble for competence in metal thread embroidery at Birka next month.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Or Nue Heraldic Bee, part IV

(See my previous posts on this project herehere, and here.)

In my last post, I appliqued the goldwork to my pouch material. Now it was ready for some final bling. The edge of the goldwork was a bit "pixelated" and rough, so I thought a great way to finish it up and round it out would be to edge it in pearl purl and freshwater pearls! If you're gonna bling it up in the SCA, might as well go all the way in.

For those who haven't heard of it before, "pearl purl" is a real metal thread used in goldwork embroidery. The name is a reference to its appearance. The word "purl" indicates that it is wire wound into a hollow tube, with no fabric core. It resembles a tiny spring. The "pearl" comes from the shape of the wire -- the wire is round in cross-section, giving the coil a bumpy appearance, akin to a row of golden pearls.
I purchase my pearl purl at Berlin Embroidery, a great online resource for goldworking supplies. The wire is a bit springy when it first arrives. The wire is typically stretched in length slightly to open up the coil for couching stitches. This also has the effect of making it a tad bit stiffer so that it doesn't "boing" about all over the place as you're couching it down. For this project, I'm using No. 3 gilt pearl purl. After stretching it slightly, I ran it around the outside of my piece, couching it down with the same green silk that I used in the Or nue. The darker silk helped to visually separate the individual coils with a bit of shading that helps the "pearls" of gold stand out.

Once I had one layer of pearl purl down, it was time to put on the real pearls. I found a strand of freshwater pearls in my stash that were perfect for this project, and laid down a row of them just outside the pearl purl. I had done pearl work on a few other projects, with varying success - I found them a bit wiggly or not really staying in line as well as I liked. This time around, I did some research online and found a suggestion that I ended up really liking. The pearls are each couched as follows:

  • First pearl: couch down once to the fabric
  • Second pearl: Bring up the thread before the first pearl, run it through the first and second pearls, and down into the fabric
  • Third pearl: Bring up the thread before the second pearl, run it through the second and third pearls, and down into the fabric,
  • etc.
  • Last pearl: Run the thread through the last pearl, and then again through the first pearl.
This ends up with every pearl having two couching stitches - one shared with the pearl before it, and one shared with the pearl after it. This creates a very stable couching, which also (because of the shared stitches) keeps the entire strand in line. I knotted off the strand every 1/8 of the way around the circle, so that if the couching stitches ever break, I'll only have to redo a small section of them.

Once the pearls were on, I ran a final row of pearl purl just outside them. This creates a "channel" for the pearls to sit in, as well as providing a nice outline.

Next time: finishing the pouch.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Or Nue Heraldic Bee, part III

As described in the last two installments on this project (see part I and part II), I had created an Or nue depiction of my arms, and decided to mount it to some very nice maroon wool I had to make a pouch. Now that the goldwork was done, it was time to affix it to the wool and complete the pearling and goldwork around the outside of the Or nue.

My first step was to mount one side of the wool outer pouch material to my slate frame. I read a few articles online with some suggestions on how to do this:
The last one in particular had a great suggestion about using pins along the hem of your fabric to help distribute/support the tension on the fabric across the width of the piece. I ended up using this idea. I first attached a linen strip to each of the two end pieces, and then affixed the embroidery fabric to the linen strips using a herringbone stitch. 

I then pinned the hem along the sides, and inserted the side slats. As I laced the sides to the slats, I used a backstitch just inside the pins. This really helped keep the sides straighter as I put tension on the width of the fabric.  Once the two sides were laced up, I pulled on one of the end slats to stretch out the length of the fabric as much as I could, and then inserted the cotter pins to maintain that tension. In the picture below, the longer laces at the top and bottom are the sides of the work (ie, the frame is rotated 90 degrees). The fabric has been hemmed over about a half inch along each of the sides, and the stitches were run through the hem.

Once the fabric was framed up, I measured out the center point, and used it to center the cut out goldwork on the wool, and pinned the work into place. 

I then used the same green silk to applique the goldwork onto the wool ground. The edge of the goldwork was a bit rough looking. I also noticed that in a few places, the white linen ground under the goldwork was peeking out from under the applique. To fix these problems, I  took a pass around the work in split stitch. Even though the edge will eventually be covered up by pearl purl, I liked how this really helped smooth out the work and made it look a bit more finished.