Saturday, September 05, 2009

Gold thread used in backstitch?

Note: please read the comments to this post for new insights

Bertus from Deventer Burgerscap told me about this nice picture of a 15th century leather pouch, embroidered in gold thread:

The embroidery used to decorate the pouch raises some very interesting questions: Is gold thread used in techniques other than couched work, i.e. techniques in which the thread disappears at the back of the work, such as brick stitch or backstitch? If so, then how is this achieved?

Usually, there are two arguments against the use of gold thread in techniques other than couched work:
1)gold thread is too expensive to be used at the back of a work, where it will not be seen
2)gold thread is not flexible enough to be used in stitches such as backstitch or brick stitch.

Still, it appears to me that in some rare cases, gold thread is used in techniques which involve sewing the thread through the fabric. The pouch above, for example, seems to be embroidered in backstitch rather than couched work.

Other examples , complete with close up pictures, of this particular use of gold thread can be found here:

Takacs, I. (2006), Sigismundus Rex et Imperator. Kunst und Kultur zur Zeit Sigismunds von Luxumburg 1387-1437., J.P. Himmer, Augsburg p 96 embroidered cloth from ca 1830 with unknown purpose/function

Tongeren, Basiliek O.L. Vrouw Geboorte. I Textiel. (1988), Leuven: Peeters. On the cover is a close up from a pouch dating from ca 1300.
See also Isis' documentation on this pouch here:

It would be nice to know more about this (rare) use of gold thread. If anyone knows more about it, please let us know!

BTW: the leather pouch is for sale. Please let me know if one of you has bought it! (it's too expensive for me ...)


Tracy said...

I'm glad to see others are also intrigued by this little purse. I was the one who originally posted it on Armour Archive.

I think rather than backstitch the technique used is "underside couching", described in _A Pictorial History of Embroidery_ by Schuette and Muller-Christensen (1964) as being characteristic of opus anglicanum. Basically the gilt thread is pushed through the surface and the loop is caught underneath by another stitching thread, rather like a modern sewing machine's stitch. This stitch is consistent with the appearance of the vertical lines of stitching.

The satin stitch motifs on either side of the strap may be in plain silk floss which would have stood out against the gilded ground.

It must have been spectacular and precious when new. I wonder how it was lost, and if anything was in it?

Regards, Tracy

Machteld said...

Hi Tracy,

thanks for posting the picture and for pointing this out to me! Using underside couching seems much more logical than some type of back stitch.

It' s interesting to know that this type of goldwork was also used on leather. I wonder whether there are more examples of this type of embroidery on leather pouches.

Jerusha said...

This is great! I've been looking for European Embroidered leather (I know there's a pair of shoes out there somewhere!)

But in gold -- that makes it even more special. I'm betting with underside couching too. It's not until Elizabethan England that i see "stitched" gold thread

Chris Laning said...

I see others have suggested underside couching, which would also be my guess.

Other reasons not to pass gold thread through the fabric: If it's in the form of a thin gold wire, it can easily become work-hardened and brittle. If it's the more common form of a strip of beaten gold wrapped around silk, it's quite fragile and the gold tends to come apart with the surface friction it would experience being pulled through a hole. The modern type made from a gold-surfaced paper strip wrapped around silk is a bit more resistant, but it's still limited in the number of times you can pass it through fabric before the gold shreds.

Some of the Elizabethan "sweet bags" use silver thread for the background, and it's definitely passed through the fabric. There's an article here:

Tracy said...

I was thinking about other evidence of decorative stitching on leather which could be construed as underside couching. I haven't found any on archaeological finds of shoes or purses but there are patterns of stab hole in the triangular leather side panels of pattens which remind me of the HH purse. (found in _Shoes and Pattens_ and _Stepping Through Time_) I always thought the stab hole design was pretty subtle considering the medieval aesthetic. Suppose instead that the pattens were decorated with an underside couched cord? Not necessarily gilt- for lower classes, silk would be a luxury. Underside couching would minimize waste of the precious thread and maximize the visual impact. Is this a plausible conjecture?

Racaire said...

I think also that it could be underside couching :)

Chris said...

Pulling gold thread through the fabric was quite common before the introduction of "Anlegearbeit" (couching?). There are some archeological finds from russia for example, dating to the 10-12th century.
They were published by Marija Fechner in Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt in 1996.
I can send you a scan of the article, if you like :-)

Best regards, Chris.

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