Before adding embellishment with needle and thread to your medieval clothing and accessories, delve first into the aesthetics, artistic context, and history of medieval embroidery in your chosen time period. For those new to the concept of embroidered decoration in the late 14th or early 15th century in Europe, this article (adapted from a slide presentation I gave in February 2019 at the Hoplologia Chapter Meeting) will provide basic information on its appearance, placement, techniques, and materials. It is not intended to answer every question, but rather to give you a start on the topic.
Aesthetics: Visual and Thematic
To understand what makes an embroidery design appropriate for European medieval versus some other time period and location, you should start by understanding the themes and visual markers of art and craft in the late medieval era.
Themes commonly found in the International Gothic style: Christian saints and biblical stories; nature – flora, fauna, and hunting; courtly love; architectural frames and structures; rich color; metallic gold and silver; and geometric patterns.
These aesthetics cropped up everywhere artistry could be applied — buildings, woodwork, metalwork, fine art, and craft. Embroidery for church, object, and body also incorporated the look and feel of these themes.
This selection of late 14th century and early 15th century tapestries shows a great variety of international gothic themes – literary, historical, mythical, religious, and romantic. The visual motifs do not disappoint either – flowing, draping clothing, outdoors scene, fantastical beasts, and heraldry. All of these contributed to the late 14th and early 15th century visual and imaginative aesthetic.
Anything woven in a tapestry was also fair game for professional medieval embroiderers. The same artists employed to provide cartoons for tapestry makers were also doing the same sort of work for embroiderers. I cover this further along when I get to how artists drew cartoons for the highest-end embroiderers. For now, I wanted to share this selection of tapestries to draw the connection between textile artistry and the larger aesthetic influences of the time period. The textile arts were very much in sync with the artistic conventions of the time period.
The above sampling of extant embroideries from 14th– and early 15th-century textiles with non-religious themes shows how varied the styles of medieval embroidery could be. The purse fragment is a gorgeous combination of delicate and wispy floral motifs and a coyly romantic narrative figure. The half-beast, half-human figure proves that whimsical themes from the borders of illuminated manuscripts did indeed jump from page to fabric. The gryphons exemplify extremely fine couched goldwork intended to present a smooth surface. The lecturn cover provides great inspiration for simple decorative motifs that could repeat on a hood mantle or other clothing edges. All of these examples come from A Pictorial History of Embroidery (see bibliography at the end).
As an example of the nuance we must apply while interpreting period figural art sources, beware what I call the “Limbourg Brothers Watermark” — two solid bands with circles inside. While this motif regularly appears on clothing in illuminations from the Limbourg workshop as well as other, earlier workshops, I doubt it was as ubiquitous in real life. I parse this design element as short-hand for “these clothes had some embroidery on them”, rather than a faithful presentation of an exact design. However, parallel lines probably did regularly frame bands of decoration. The motifs surely varied though, and were not limited to plain circles.
Literary, Wardrobe Accounts, and Sumptuary Laws
The literary texts of the late 14th and early 15th century abound with embroidery references. The above slide provides two, with supporting visual sources from the time period. Note, Sir Lanfal originates with Marie de France in the 12th century, but the alms purse does not get a mention until the late 14th-century version.
Or nué is a technique of shading gold by surface couching (see further on for more info on this technique) with various colors of silk thread placed closer or further apart to concentrate the color. Or nué tends to be identified as a 15th century technique, but as you can see from that first quote, it was known and referenced as early as the 1380s in France, and it was used on clothing.
The top image shows or nué at its finest, when it was peaking in the first half of the 15th century. The green color comes from green silk thread surface-couched over a solid layer of gold thread. The spacing of the green silk determines how dark the green shadows appear, and how golden the highlights are.
Regarding the reference to the broom cods embroidered for Charles VI of France and the Duc de Touraine, the small green and yellow plant in the lower right is a heraldic depiction of the broom flower and cod, or “planta genista”, a heraldic device used by the Plantagenets and indeed, where the dynastic name comes from. The black-and-white version is another heraldic device of the same plant, showing the cod (or pod). The collar is a reproduction of the broom cod collar worn by Richard II in the Wilton Diptych shown at the top of this article. This humble plant enjoyed a place of honor on both English and French royal clothing.
I bet he complained it was too hot or itchy, being a teenager. And notice that the son and heir’s garments were completed before his mother, the queen, had her garments finished. Was this sex-based bias in action, or just a logistical failure on the part of the project manager?
In all seriousness, let this paint a picture in your mind — the staggering detail and epic scenery stitched onto this clothing. For those who could afford it, embroidery on clothing was a giant undertaking in which complex imagery was painstakingly wrought.
Note what was going on here. The deck was blatantly stacked against regular citizens such that they had to be five times more financially successful than landed gentry in order to display themselves fashionably. Can you imagine such class-based restriction going over well today? We’ve come a long way.
Fortunately for the sartorially-minded, smack dab in the middle of our favorite time period, a king indifferent to regulating such things came along and declined to endorse or enforce the sumptuary laws. Fashionable excess marked the last 20 years of the 14th century at all levels of society, for anyone with enough money to purchase or create it themselves.
Types of Medieval Embroidery Found on Clothing and Accessories
When blending two or more colors or shades to mimic realistic appearance such as the folds and wrinkles of clothing, or the variegated appearance of foliage, the technique may be called needle painting. Such fine work became famous in England and spread throughout Europe, under the name “opus Anglicanum”. It grew from liturgical vestments and accessories and advanced into secular use. This popular technique worked well on the fancy alms purses of the time, but also enhanced clothing, as we saw in some of the wardrobe accounts mentioned earlier. This style of embroidery often came with couched metal threads, which I’ll discuss more later on.
If the former slide was about the fine art of painting a picture with a needle, this slide is about creating graphic art with a needle. The color image shows one of many medallions on a wall hanging executed entirely in kloster- or convent stitch, which I cover further on. The purpose of this stitch is to fill in a lot of ground with a solid color, quickly and evenly.
The image on the right is a great example of the use of scrolled vines to contain motifs such as heraldic heater shields and leaves. This design would look great around the bottom of a hood mantle. Brick, satin, and stem stitching create this crisp look.
Velvet, which has a hefty nap, poses challenges as an embroidery ground. There were two ways to handle it. Work the embroidery first on a manageable ground fabric like linen and then transfer it to the velvet, as in the case of the extant jupon of Edward of Woodstock of England, known today as the Black Prince. Alternatively, apply the ground fabric directly to the velvet and then embroider through both layers, as in the case of a set of orphreys held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, dating from 1340-1370, where the red silk shows through under worn embroidery attached to green velvet.
Appliqué also fills large areas quickly. The North German Tristan hanging, dated to the last 20 years of the 14th century, is a beautiful example of this technique, which works well on clothing in addition to wall hangings.
What Items Were Embroidered?
The left-most image shows two men wearing ornamented belts from the frescos in the Oratorio di Santo Stefano Seveso, dated roughly to the late 1360s. The detail comes across as embroidery rather than metal. The woman wearing the short green cloak with edge embroidery as well as the group of women with one dress displaying embroidery around the neckline are from Lancelot du Lac et la Quête du Graal, BNF MS Français 343, dated to roughly 1375. The man with what appears to be an antler-themed decorative motif embroidered on his gown comes from Gaston Phébus’ Book of the Hunt illuminated around 1407 or so. The woman wearing the fashionably tight green dress edged in what may be embroidery enhanced with pearls is from a Bohemian manuscript from the Wenzel workshop, dated to 1387 (Austrian National Library, cod.sn 2643, fol. 344r).
Here we have a selection of extant 14th-century embroidered accessories. Stylistically, the range varies greatly. There is lots of room for you to move around aesthetically within the realm of 14th century style. In the case of the redrawing of a shoe from Olaf Goubitz’s Stepping Through Time, I could not find any surviving leather shoes with embroidery from the 14th century, so I’m sharing this shoe from a few centuries earlier because it shows simple embroidery that would not look out of place on a 14th century set of shoes.
Photos and diagrams above are used by permission of Isis Sturtewagen and Camilla Luise Dahl, authors of “The Cap of St. Birgitta”, published in Medieval Clothing and Textiles 4 (see full citation at the end of this article). No carbon dating has been done, but it’s generally accepted that this cap is from the 14th century. It was probably embroidered in a home setting, rather than professionally, and has two types of embroidery on it — interlaced herringbone and a simple stitching pattern that one might call a deconstructed cross stitch — the same slant to the stitches, but separated so that they do not cross over each other.
That said, there were professional embroiderers of women’s headwear, at least in Paris, in the 14th century. They were referred to as “crepiniers de fil et de soie”, or “makers of headdresses of thread and silk” as explained by Sarah Grace Heller in her article “Obscured Lands and Obscured Hands: Fairy Embroidery and the Ambiguous Vocabulary of Medieval Textile Decoration” in Medieval Clothing and Textiles 5.
Embroidery Placement on Clothing
Edge embellishments were routinely placed around necklines, cuffs, and hems. There was also the occasional seam embellishment, at least according to the figural art of the time. Most seam embellishments appear as narrow wares sewn down over or adjacent to the seam. Their appearance in the figural art of the time often obscures whether these are woven bands, fabric strips, braids, or orphreys — a term for bands of embroidery. We usually hear of orphreys in the context of religious vestments, but the name applies to any embroidered band.
When I used the leaf design from the orphreys above on my hood’s mantle, I reversed the order of the color gradation. The original had darker colors on the inside. This is an example of using a period source as a jumping-off point to design something new but faithful to the aesthetic of the time period. If you are a re-enactor, this should be your goal when creating items as you believe they would have appeared in the target time period. We don’t have enough extant pieces to only slavishly copy. For the sake of a natural-looking variety, we need to synthesize several sources and come up with something relatively new design-wise that also adheres to the look and feel of the chosen time period and location. At least, that is my approach.
Here we have two visual examples from the early 15th century of garments with embroidery on them. Our squire on the left has only the sparest depiction of embellishment on his flowing short gown. It’s possible these white dots are little white flowers, as mentioned by Chaucer. The allegorical figure of the sun on the right has decoration more akin to what Chaucer seems to be describing, though it’s also possible that he’s wearing a fine lampas-woven silk brocade. The emblem of the sun and the lion on his chest and abdomen, however, would have likely been appliquéd embroidery.
Occasionally, illuminations yield gems of fashion like these seen above, where clothing has a burst of decorative embellishment in only one area of the body.
In both examples shown above, the devices were likely embroidered on a separate ground cloth and then appliquéd onto the garment. In the case of the dog seen on Charles VI of France’s sleeve, it almost certainly would have been made of couched gold thread of the highest quality gold filé.
Design and Cartoons
The art of designing a complex medieval embroidery in the form of a carefully shaded cartoon was often separate from execution of the embroidery itself. Royal and noble households frequently employed fine artists to create intricate and unique tableaux for a team of embroiders to bring to life with silk and metal threads. Artists in this time period often worked from model books containing idealized examples of a variety of figures, especially when employed by a particular guild or master intent on maintaining a signature aesthetic. This was a form of branding in practice long before the contemporary concept was developed.
To illustrate the richness of medieval embroidery designs among the highest classes, here’s an example taken from history. According to Lisa Monnas, in her book Merchants, Princes, and Painters, four artists spent 24 days drawing embroidery designs for matching sets of clothing for Richard II of England and his first wife, Anne of Bohemia, to wear to the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin in 1386. These included white harts (stags) worked in pearls, gold and silver thread, and colored silk placed on red velvet. The artists received better payment than the embroiderers. It’s easy to envision that some or all of the decorations carved in this royal couple’s effigies as shown in the slide above represent embroidery rather than brocaded fabric.
Evelin Wetter, in her article “England and Central Europe” in the excellent book, English Medieval Embroidery: Opus Anglicanum, explains how prick-and-pounce templates reduced the dependence on artists for embroidery designs. Perhaps it annoyed the embroiderers and those holding the purse to be so beholden to fine artists for the initial design work, especially where projects required mass production.
The appearance of reversed, mirror-image figures serve as a tell-tale sign of the use of a pricked template. The figures on the right in the slide above is a dead giveaway for the use of this kind of stencil. Turn the stencil over, add some color changes along with a few tweaks to how the folds appear in the skirt, and voilà, the figures look different enough to the casual observer.
The moral of the story is this: if you want to embroider your clothing or an accessory, plan it out in advance. Graph it, draw it — get it just the way you want it before you pick up the needle and floss. Also, save yourself the headache and transfer your design to the fabric you’re embroidering. You may need to touch up your cartoon as you go, as friction might wear it away.
Since metal thread was expensive and brilliant to behold, medieval embroiderers kept it above the surface of the fabric rather than stitching it in and out like regular thread or floss would be stitched. A separate silk thread called a couching thread, would be sewn around the metal thread at intervals to keep it in place. Embroiderers commonly couched down two metal threads at a time. The diagram in the upper-right corner shows one thread at a time, but many extant examples have two, which is a great time-saver.
Earlier in this article, I discussed or nué, a technique of surface couching which used the couching thread placement to shade color over the gold thread and create intricate detail. This developed first as simple geometric background surface couching and evolved into more complex figural shading.
It’s worth noting that the example in the middle image above, which has such intricate couching of gold thread, comes from a purse dated presumably to 1398, and was likely not originally a purse, but perhaps a wall hanging or a banner. The arms supposedly represent the marriage of Edmund, 5th Earl of Stafford, to Anne Plantagenet, daughter of Thomas of Woodstock, the youngest son of Edward III. The marriage took place in 1398, when she was 15. However, her relatives first married her to his older brother in 1390 at the age of 7!
We see laid work most famously on the Bayeux Tapestry, which dates quite a bit earlier than the time period under discussion. I found extant examples that fall within the 14th century were thin on the ground during my search. I suspect laid work lost popularity to many of the other fill stitches already shown above by the turn of the 14th century.
Underside couching enjoyed popularity in the 13th and early 14th centuries but surface couching gradually superceded it. The surface technique developed into the highly ornate and luxurious or nué already covered above. The underside version does produce a lovely effect, and you should not rule it out as a couching technique for this period.
Tools and Materials
The material brands and sources listed below were active as of February 2019 and could become obsolete at any time.
Decoding and understanding secular embroidery on clothing and accessories in the late 14th and early 15th century in Europe is a detective’s effort. There aren’t enough extant examples to give us authoritative data across the breadth and depth of what people saw and did in the time period. However, with a careful survey of the still-extant figural arts, crafts, and remaining artifacts combined with textual references describing materials, designs, and restrictions, we can get some sense of how different strata of society incorporated this beautiful embellishment.
Hopefully this overview inspires a few launch points for you to pursue your own studies. Be sure to look at the bibliography below, where I’ve provided references for further learning. The internet will take you only so far. Invest in a good book library and you will never regret it. I was able to put this presentation and subsequent web article together almost entirely from the sources in my existing library.
Bergemann, Uta-Christiane. Europäische Stickereien 1250-1650. Regensberg: Schnelle Steiner, 2010. Print
Browne, Clare et al. English Medieval Embroidery: Opus Anglicanum. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. Print
Christie, A.G.I. English Medieval Embroidery. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938. Print
Freeman, Margaret B. The St. Martin Embroideries. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1968. Print
King, Donald and Santina Levey. The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Collection: Embroidery in Britain from 1200 to 1750. London: V&A Publications, 1993. Print
Schuette, Marie and Sigrid Müller-Christensen. A Pictorial History of Embroidery. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963. Print
Staniland, Kay. Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. Print
Wardle, Patricia. Guide to English Embroidery. London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1981. Print
Medieval Embroidery Stitch Instruction
Christie, Grace. Embroidery and Tapestry Weaving. London: John Hogg, 1912. Project Gutenberg. Web. 18 Jul 2019. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20386/20386-h/20386-h.htm
Harlow, Eve. The Anchor Book of Free-Style Embroidery Stitches. Devon: David & Charles, 1997. Print
Knight, Lorna. The Sewing Stitch & Textile Bible: An illustrated guide to techniques and materials. Iola: Krause Publications, 2007. Print
Wilson, Erica. Erica Wilson’s Embroidery Book. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973. Print
Medieval/Renaissance Textiles/Clothing with References to Medieval Embroidery
Coatsworth, Elizabeth and Gale R. Owen-Crocker. Clothing the Past: Surviving Garments from Early Medieval to Early Modern Western Europe. Leiden: Brill, 2017. Print
Crowfoot, Elisabeth et al. Textiles and Clothing 1150-1450. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2001. Print
Dahl, Camilla Luise and Isis Sturtewagen. “The Cap of St. Birgitta.” Medieval Clothing and Textiles 4 (2008): 99–142. Print
Evans, Joan. Dress in Mediaeval France. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1952. Print
Garrett, Rosamund and Matthew Reeves. Late Medieval and Renaissance Textiles. Sam Fogg, 2018. Print
Heller, Sarah-Grace. “Obscure Lands and Obscured Hands: Fairy Embroidery and the Ambiguous Vocabulary of Medieval Textile Decoration”. Medieval Clothing and Textiles 5 (2009): 15–35. Print
Hodges, Laura. Chaucer and Costume: The Secular Pilgrims in the General Prologue. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000. Print
Hollberg, Cecilie. Textiles and Wealth in 14th Century Florence: Wool, Silk, Painting. Florence: Giunti, 2017. Print
Monnas, Lisa. Merchants, Princes and Painters: Silk Fabrics in Italian and Northern Paintings 1300-1550. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. Print
Newton, Stella Mary. Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1980. Print
Owen-Crocker, Gale R. et al. Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles c. 450-1450. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Print
Sylvester, Louise M. et al. Medieval Dress and Textiles in Britain: A Multilingual Sourcebook. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2014. Print
Van Buren, Anne H. Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands, 1325-1515. New York: The Morgan Library & Museum, 2011. Print
Cennini, Cennino d’Andrea. The Craftsman’s Handbook. New York: Dover Publications, 1960. Print
Joubeaux, Hervé et al. Trésors de la Cathédrale de Chartres. Chartres: Musée des beaux arts de Chartres, 2002. Print
Souchal, Geneviève. Masterpieces of Tapestry from the Fourteenth to the Sixteenth Century. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974. Print
Verlet, Pierre, et al. The Book of Tapestry: History and Technique. New York: Vendome Press, 1977. Print