HNW - 15th/16th c. embroidery (long)

Chris Laning claning at
Wed Mar 21 11:59:48 PST 2001

At 9:45 PM -0800 3/20/01, Avien wrote:
>I'm hoping to get some help.  I'm sort of new to embroidering, I do some
>cross-stitch and a few other things.  Anyway, I'm making another set of
>RenFest costumes and I would like to embroider them.  I'm looking at late
>15th and early 16th c.  I have quite a few books on order through ILL and
>I'm always happy to order a few more.  Basically, I was hoping someone could
>recommend books or other sources for historically accurate embroidery.  I
>know blackwork was used but after reading some of the recent messages, I
>think the books I ordered won't work.  Any help would be greatly
>appreciated.  Thanks.

Looking at portraits and illustrations of English, French, Italian 
and Spanish men and women from Elizabeth's time, by far the commonest 
decoration on gowns, doublets, jerkins, robes, and other "main" or 
"outer" garments seems to be either bands of cloth (velvet, silk, 
ribbon-like bands, etc.) or elaborate patterns made out of cords and 
braids which are stitched down to the fabric. These are every bit as 
time-consuming (!<g>!) as embroidery, and look a lot more authentic.

It's an over-simplification to say "Outer garments were rarely 
embroidered in Elizabethan England," and like all 
over-simplifiactions, it's WRONG a lot of the time. (Awright, you 
guys -- I know you will come up with counter-examples!) But so many 
of us start out with the assumption that *all* gowns, doublets, etc. 
were embroidered that I always encourage people to go look at lots of 
portraits first, and think about what they see.

For one thing, if you look at portraits showing elaborate fabrics, in 
some cases it is fairly clear that the design is woven in, not 
embroidered. This was, if anything, even *more* ostentatious than 
having your clothing embroidered, because you had to import it from 
Italy, France, or somewhere else where they were weaving silk with 
elaborate 'dobby' looms. Remember that buying a new gown was about 
the equivalent in cost to us buying a new car --  brocade or woven 
patterns made it a Mercedes or a Jaguar!

Among the nobility, you also do see some clothing that is, or could 
be, embroidered with similar allover designs, especially late in the 
Elizabethan era, but it is still not common among people below the 
highest noble ranks (earls, dukes, marquesses). I maintain in general 
that what the Queen is wearing is not a good model for ordinary 
people's clothing!

If you go to popular books with titles like "medieval cross stitch" 
or "Celtic samplers" or "Elizabethan floral embroidery" you will not 
find the sort of thing that you see being used on outer garments. But 
these are things I see a lot of people at Renaissance Faires trying 
to do, especially if they have not thought things through or haven't 
looked at a lot of period pictures beforehand. I would never say that 
cross stitch is not period, but THIS kind of cross stitch on THIS 
kind of garment certainly isn't.

Also, the kind of wool embroidery with twining flowers, birds, et 
cetera that we are all familiar with from American Colonial times 
doesn't seem to become fashionable in England until at least a decade 
or so after the death of Elizabeth. (You do see floral embroidery in 
a somewhat different style as early as 1600 -- but it's in silk and 
gold, not wool, and it's on a few specific garments, namely women's 
jackets and men's linen "nightcaps," which were both items worn 
mostly at home in private, not out in the street.)

Now, for underwear -- especially shirts, chemises or smocks, 
handkerchiefs, and women's caps, the story is  different. In 
portraits you see a lot of blackwork in silk thread on linen (which 
is occasionally done in red, just to confuse us!). There are also 
rather simple embroideries done in stem or outline stitch, and 
occasionally other stitches such as braid, chain, speckling and 
buttonhole stitches. Some of the blackwork patterns have a few cross 
stitches as part of the pattern, but usually not a lot of them.

Again you have to consider not only time, but country and context. 
You will see somewhat different styles of embroidery in the Germanies 
and the Low Countries, where Kayta is from, than you do in England. 
(Kayta, most of the elaborate scroll and cherub bands I see on linen 
still seem to be done mostly in straight stitch, but I'm sure you 
have more examples than I do.) You will see different styles used on 
towels, cushions, and table carpets that are not used on clothing at 
all, as far as we can tell (needlepoint "tapestry" is definitely for 
furniture, not people!).

You can find blackwork patterns in a number of sources, but read the 
descriptions carefully, because a lot of very nice patterns are 
actually modern designs in a period style (including all those on 
Marmor's excellent Web page, I believe). Of course there is nothing 
"wrong" with these if you like them and know what they are. For 
braidwork patterns and more blackwork, the Big Three sources (all in 
paperback) are Bassée, Vinciolo, and Nourry (listed below).

Kim Salazar's _New Carolingian Modelbook_ is another excellent source 
for period blackwork and cross stitch patterns, though I don't know 
how easy it is to get right now. (Kim, do you know if people can 
order it and from whom?)

Book listings:

German Renaissance Patterns for Embroidery: A Facsimile Copy of 
Nicholas Bassée's New Modelbuch of 1568. Introduction by Kathleen 
Epstein. Curious Works Press, Austin, ISBN 0-9633-3314-3.

Renaissance Patterns for Lace, Embroidery and Needlepoint: An 
unabridged facsimile of the "Singuliers et nouveaux portraicts" of 
1587. Federico Vinciolo, Dover publications, ISBN 0-4862-2438-4.

Patterns: Embroidery: Early 16th Century, by Claude Nourry & Pierre 
de Saincte Louie. Lacis Publications, ISBN 1-8916-5616-3.

To look for on ILL: (it's been reprinted recently but is still 
something like $80):
Apropos Patterns for Embroidery, Lace & Woven Textiles, by Margaret 
Abegg. 1978, Abegg-Stiftung Bern, ISBN 3-7272-9005-6.
O   "Mistress Christian Ashley" * (Chris Laning <claning at>)
|    gentlewoman to Dorothy, Lady Stafford
+   Guild of St. George, Northern California
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