Monday, December 01, 2014

Embroidery basics: silk thread types

This is an updated version of a post I made back in 2009. As I have noticed that people are still struggling to find the right type of thread for their medieval embroidery, I thought it a good idea to bring the subject up again. So, here follows a slightly more detailed comparison between modern yarn types and medieval originals.

There are many examples of Medieval brick stitch embroidery, but I decided to use this late fourteenth century German altar hanging from the Metropolitan Museum as an example, since I managed to take good photos of it where you can clearly see the details of the silk thread.

Some of the white threads (for instance the white zig-zag pattern at the bottom of the image below) are clearly less shiny, and they also have a stronger twist than the silk. This is probably because the thread used is linen rather then silk. We know from several embroidery pieces from the same period, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), that linen was often used for the white areas.

In the images below you can see a comparison of modern cotton, spun silk and filament silk embroidery floss. I used DMC cotton embroidery floss (rust brown), Soie d'Alger from Au Ver à Soie (pink) and 1200 denier from DeVere Yarns (gold).

Filament silk is made by reeling one continuous silk fiber from the silk cocoons and plying those together to form one thread. This results in very strong yarn, since one fiber is over 1 km long. After the reeling process shorter fibers stay behind. When these are combed they can be spun into yarns. This results in a less strong and less shiny and more fuzzy yarn. A more detailed description of the silk reeling process can be found here.

You will notice on these samples that the modern filament silk is much more similar to the medieval original. The reeled silk is much more shiny and less fuzzy than the cotton and spun silk threads. Here is a photo of my samples next to the original from the MET. The silk thread from DeVere has slightly more twist than the medieval silk.

The medieval embroidery appears to have been pressed, so that the individual stitches seem more flat than the ones in my sample. After pressing my own piece of embroidery, it looked even more similar. The twist of the thread is much less noticeable after this treatment.

There are different types of filament silk, depending on the thickness (expressed in 'denier' or 'nm' usually) and the amount of twist in the yarn. For medieval embroidery, both brick-stitch and needle painting types of embroidery, very loose twist filament silk was used. (If there are any exceptions to this rule, I still have to find them.) At the moment I only have experience with the silk thread from DeVere Yarns, but I will do a comparison of different brands of reeled silk soon(ish). A quick overview:  

Loose twist filament silk
  • basic characteristics: very strong, shiny, very even thread
  • suitable for period embroidery, narrow wares, possibly less suitable for tassels
  • modern option: e.g. Devere Yarns - 1200 dernier silk, Au ver a Soie - Soie Paris
Spun Silk
  • basic characteristics: less strong and shiny, not as even as filament silk
  • less suitable for period embroidery, possibly suitable for tassels
  • modern option: e.g. Au ver a Soie - Soie d'Alger, Aurora Silk
I would like to call on all medieval embroiderers out there to use the right type of silk. There is no point in using silk when you are using spun silk. Then you could just as well use cotton! And, as you have just seen for yourself, you do clearly notice the difference!


Marina said...

Do you have any idea what type of silk yarn (see here: is offering and if it is suited for mediavel embroidery?

Isis said...

Marina, I have no experience with Sartor's embroidery silk. From the pictures it looks like it is the right kind for medieval embroidery, but this is very hard to tell from an image of course. I suggest contacting them of ordering a small sample to see wether it is the right kind.

sbuchler said...

This is very cool, thank you!

I think it's important to include how tightly the thread is twisted into the "thread desirability calculation"; since in my experience a tight twist can overwhelm the difference between spun and filament silk. From my own tests, there is barely any difference in luster between Soie d'Algers and Soie de Paris, despite one being a spun silk and one a filament silk. The only explantation I've come up with is that they're both tightly twisted threads.

Kathy Storm said...

I really want to switch to filament silk, and have for years, but my embroidery production has dropped in recent years and I still have a large backstock. *sigh* Someday...

sarkins said...

Marina, the Sartor's silk floss is suitable for embroidery, but very fine. I've tried some embroidery using it and it was too hard even manipulate with the thred. You have to join more threads together to get some thicker yarn. I have some at home, could make some detail photo at the weekend

Celticflame99 said...

What ground fabric are you using? How many threads over are you going, and how many threads side to side did you cover when using the whole bundles like this instead of separating?

Thanks for your time!

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