HNW - Re: Quilts and Coverlets

Sarah Randles s-randles at
Thu Apr 30 19:41:33 PDT 1998

Katen wrote:

>I found another picture of medieval embroidered bed-linens.  (For
>those of you playing along at home, turn to page 57 of "Chronicles of
>the Age of Chivalry: The Plantagenet Dynasty from the Magna Carta to
>the Black Death,
>There is a picture on this page, captioned as follows:  "Drawn thread
>work decorates this noble's bed, underneath the woolen coverlet."

I have to admit to being immediately suspicious.  I haven't seen this book,
but unless it was written by a textile historian, or used one as a
consultant, I would want to know how and why they identified the stitching.
Unfortunately, too often it goes along the lines of someone saying 'My
mother used to do some embroidery that looked like that, I'll ask her what
the stuff she does is called'.

>The embroidery (it looks a lot like blackwork, actually) features
>quatrefoils within diamonds along bands that go across the width of
>the bed and on either end of the pillow.

This description suggests to me that it is in fact woven, rather than
embroidered.  A regular quatrefoil pattern of this type is easy to weave,
and quite common in extant woven textiles of this period.  Many such
textiles were produced in Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries,
and exported all over Europe.  Perugia was one centre for such woven
linens, and there is at least one instance I can recall, of a painting
depicting a tablecloth very similar to two separate extant pieces (Cecil
Lubell, _Textiles of the World_ , the dragon cloths).

This does not mean, however, that such a piece could not have been imitated
by embroidery, and I suspect many were.

> and hangings,
>carpets and other furnishings are frequently mentioned in household

They certainly are, but the interpretation of such accounts is not without
its problems.  The lexicography (i.e. the words used) of medieval
embroidery is a new field with a lot of work yet to be done.  I believe
someone at the University of Manchester is doing some work on this.  As
yet, however, it's very hard to determine exactly what terms mean, and to
relate descriptions to extant textiles.  The water is further muddied by
the fact that often inventories of goods were compiled by clerks who may
have known very little about textiles and how to describe them.

 The hall was reserved for special festivities, when the
>tables were spread with linen damask tablecloths ...

Hmm.  This source starts to look like someone made up most of it off the
top of their head.  I don't suppose they cite any evidence for this?

>The bed was the most important single piece of furniture.  It was
>furnished with one dorsal and three side curtains, often richly
>decorated with embroidery in worsted wools on linen.
 Some beds also >had a canopy.

I think there's some serious mixing up of periods happening here.  The
worsted embroidery to my knowledge occurs no earlier than the sixteenth
century (at least in England, which is where I believe the fashion to have
started).  The vast majority of fifteenth century beds I have seen
depicted, and I've looked mainly at the panel paintings of the Low
Countries) are plain, possibly wool or velvet.  I do have a memory of some
embroidered bed hangings described in an inventory somewhere from the
fifteenth century, but I think that the description was fairly sketchy.

>Any splendour in these sparsley equipped rooms was in their soft
>furnishings:  hangings and carpets as well as bed curtains.

Not so.  Again, look at the Flemish panel paintings, or for that matter
some of the Italian interiors.  Lots of carved wooden furniture there, lots
of it pretty impressive.

On the whole, I think you'd do better by looking carefully at the pictures
in this book and drawing your own conclusions that trusting what the text


Sarah Randles                                    email: s-randles at
School of English                              phone: 02 6268 8842
University College ADFA                 fax:   02 6268 8899
Canberra ACT 2601
Web Page:


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