Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Embroidery design and book illuminations

The Feldbach tablecloth (click here and scroll down for a picture) amazes and puzzles me for a number of reasons. One of those is the complex yet funny embroidery design and how this could be transferred onto the linen fabric.

According to Schuette and Muller-Christensen (Das stickereiwerk, 1963, p. 19), the tablecloth itself was embroidered by either nuns, merchant's wives or wives of local city governors. The embroidery design was done by professional painters. And my big questions are: How did they do that and how am I going to repeat that?

Cennino Cennini's book Il libro dell' arte is a late 14th century painters manual which describes how a painter can work an embroidery design onto the fabric. And he makes it sound so easy! These citations are taken from this website, which features the whole book.

Step 1: Stretch the fabric onto a frame

CLXII A Section Dealing with Work on Cloth: First, Painting and Gilding.[194]
Now let us speak about how to work on cloth, that is, on linen or on silk.[195] And you will adopt this method for cloth: in the first place, stretch it taut on a frame, and begin by nailing down the lines of the seems. Then go around and around with tacks, to get it stretched out evenly and systematically, so that it all has every thread perfectly arranged.


Step 2: Start working

CLXIV How to Draw for Embroiderers.[198]
Again, you sometimes have to supply embroiderers with designs of various sorts. And, for this, get these masters to put cloth or fine silk on stretchers for you, good and taut. And if it is white cloth, take your regular charcoals, and draw whatever you please. Then take your pen and your pure ink, and reinforce it, just as you do on panel with a brush. Then sweep off your charcoal. Then take a sponge, well washed and[199] squeezed out in water. Then rub the cloth with it, on the reverse, where it has not been drawn on; and go on working the sponge until the cloth is damp as far as the figure extends. Then take a small, rather blunt, minever brush; dip it in the ink; and after squeezing it out well you begin to shade with it in the darkest places, coming back and softening gradually. You will find that there will not be any cloth so coarse but that, by this method, you will get your shadows so soft that it will seem to you miraculous.[200] And if the cloth [p. 105] gets dry before you have finished shading, go back with the sponge and wet it again as usual. And let this suffice you for work on cloth.


And that's it! I think I'm going to cheat a bit with that, because I just can't draw...:-)

It's interesting to see the parallels between embroidery designs and book illuminations in the 14th century. The intertwined dragons of the tablecloth have been compared to similar book illuminations. Anne Warner writes about that in this paper. The goat-like creatures with the long hornes are a bit like these creatures in a French manuscript (see also previous post).

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