HNW - Tristan quilt (long)

Sarah Randles s-randles at
Mon Mar 26 23:55:16 PST 2001

Nancy wrote:
>Thanks for your considered response to my query about the now-brown threads 
>having possibly been red originally.  Although I can understand your 
>arguments, I would like to say just a couple of things in response, not in 
>argument.  One, I have seen complete brocaded tablet-woven bands that are
>uniformly brown, so I am not sure that an argument that the threads in the 
>quilt don't appear faded to be inconclusive.  

I agree that the uniformity argument is by itself inconclusive, although I
think that uniformity in both the front and back of the quilt might be
somewhat stronger - it would, however, depend on whether the front and the
back of the quilt had been exposed to similar amounts of light, and I'm
assuming that light is the factor that would cause the fading.  This might
be incorrect, and the dye might fade without exposure to light.  I'm an art
historian rather than a conservator, and this is a bit beyond my expertise.

But a stronger point, to my 
>mind, is that brown is just not a color that you would think a medieval 
>quilter would have used on such exquisite pieces of work.  

I don't necessarily agree with this argument, however.  Firstly, we don't
really know what a medieval quilter would have thought appropriate - since
we have so few quilts.  The fact that quilting develops from, and in this
period continues to be, such a utilitarian form, suggests that it might
have been thought more appropriate to use a less 'flashy' colour.  More
significantly, I think that to label the quilts 'exquisite' is to project a
modern value judgement of their worth onto a medieval art form.  These
quilts were being produced at the same time, even in Italy, as some of the
finest embroidery of the middle ages, gold and silk work, painterly in
design and execution, and with designs by the great artists of the day.
The Tristan quilts are none of these things, and their materials, even if
the outline thread *is* silk, are quite cheap.  They are certainly not
comparable with the great textile works of art of the day.  There is
certainly a huge amount of work in them, but at a time when labour is
generally much cheaper than raw materials, this does not necessarily
indicate that they were highly valued.

The designs also have much in common with early drawings, which tended at
this point to be done in sepia coloured ink. Again not a terribly
conclusive argument, though.

Further, the 
>singularly most popular color of silk thread, at least in brocaded 
>tablet-woven bands, was red.  

Yes, and it does figure largely in the general northern Europe aesthetic of
the time, although perhaps less so in the Italian one.

Of course, an analysis of the dye would solve 
>the whole question!

It would be nice!

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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