HNW - Tristan quilt (long)

Sarah Randles s-randles at
Mon Mar 26 22:12:24 PST 2001

Nancy asked:

>May I please ask if you think the brown ?silk quilting threads on these two 
>quilts were originally red?  So many of the medieval tablet-woven bands that 
>I studied are now in various shades of brown and originally thought to have 
>been red.

I can't be sure without a chemical analysis (which I'm not going to be able
to do), but my feeling is that it's unlikely.  Firstly, there is no real
evidence of fading - both of the brown threads are quite uniform in colour,
and in the case of the V&A quilt where I could see the back, the same
colour on the back as on the front. Of course, the V&A thread is not
original, and I have no way of telling how old it is, although it has to be
earlier than 1904 when the V&A museum acquired it, since it has not been
restitched since then.  I only saw the front of the Bargello quilt, but
again, the colour is quite uniform. The fact that the V&A quilt has been
restitched in brown suggests that the restorer was copying the colour
scheme of the original stitching, as it appeared to them (which may already
have been faded at the time).  Assuming that any fading occurred as a
result of exposure to light, the original colour would have been visible in
the parts of the thread which were shielded from the light, i.e. those
parts which were between the layers of the quilt.  If those parts had been
red, it would seem likely to me that the restorer would have used red
thread for the restitching.  

None of this speculation precludes the thread having been red, or for that
matter black, another possibility which I considered.  The quilts are
virtually unique (with the exception of a part of a third quilt, which is
likely to have been made in the same workshop) so it is impossible to make
any judgement on the basis of style - we don't know whether this style of
work was usually depicted in red, or for that matter any other colour.

In terms of the antecedents of quilting, it's clear that it developed from
functional quilting for armour - i.e. the arming jack, or gambeson.  The
quilters that can be documented for this period (the fourteenth century)
were male and employed in armouries rather than working in embroidery or
tailoring workshops, which might explain the relentlessly masculine
treatment of the Tristan legend in these quilts (they focus entirely on the
martial aspects of the story, and don't deal with the love story at all)

Sarah Randles
s-randles at

Australian National Dictionary Centre
Australian National University
ACT 0200
Phone: (02) 6125 0476 Fax: (02) 6125 0475
(On Thursdays and Fridays, I am at the School of English, ADFA on Ph: (02)
6268 8842, same e-mail address.)
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