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Monday, June 6, 2011

My embroidery documentation

Okay, so some of you heard that I entered by embroidery project into the SCA's "Art and Sciences Competition", which is kind of like a 4-H fair for medievalists.  Judges don't compare your work to other entries, but to a set of criteria, and then score you accordingly.

I wrote up documentation for the competition – it describes the the entry, and any research you did – and after I placed first at Regionals (the state of Indiana), I advanced to "kingdom" (IN, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan). You're allowed to modify your documentation but not your entry.  So what follows below is the documentation for Kingdom – where I placed second, by the way.  (That's not as amazing as it sounds; since the judges are scoring you against criteria, it's possible for everyone to walk out of there with a first place score, or for no one to do so.  I didn't "win" compared to other entries.)

Subsets of the criteria include Documentation, Methods and Materials, Scope (your intent with the piece), Skill (how well you pulled off your intent), and Creativity.  A final subset is Judge's Impressions, which is the only area where a judge is allowed to let their personal opinions influence the scoring.

Without further ado.


Opus Anglicanum embroidered belt favor, completed December 2010.


The piece is an SCA-typical belt favor embroidered in the Opus Anglicanum style of the European 14th -15th century, based on imagery and artifacts dated between 1340 and perhaps 1380 (with one example from the mid 15th century). The piece is constructed of two-ply cotton embroidery thread on cotton muslin which has been doubled for strength.

This embroidery technique is known to have been used for such elaborate work as papal and royal garb, but it was also seen in more modest items such as relic pouches or the ubiquitous aumônières or almoner’s purses. While belt favors of this type are unique to the SCA and not to historical period (period favors consisting of kerchiefs, removable sleeves, gloves and the like), both are elaborately decorated items worn suspended from a belt, making the embroidery form perfect for my purposes.

The main sources of my information are three website addresses which carry a great deal of scholarly book citations and, most importantly for my purposes, pictures of surviving artifacts from the time period.





All three websites were constructed by women in the SCA who researched and then created almoner’s purses for their own use, and detail both their research and methods of construction.

While I realize my own documentation would be helped by going deeper into my research in order to locate and use some of the primary and secondary sources they uncovered, the fact is I never planned to enter this piece into competition. My general habit is to research something I want to create, create it for its own sake, and then be nagged into finally entering the thing into A&S. In this case, I really only wanted to try my hand at embroidery for the first time since childhood, and to create a belt favor for my husband as an excuse for learning the embroidery. For those needs, the research on these websites was more than sufficient. And then I completed it, my friends nagged me to enter A&S, and behold!, here we are.

Having said that, the documentation you are reading now will incorporate images and examples from those websites and cite the sources from which they originally came, in addition to photos of my own piece at various stages of development.

Interestingly, when I returned to my sources to help build the documentation for my piece, I discovered that purses themselves were also treated as favors in period. The author of quotes the following:

Since the height of courtly love in the 12th century, purses have enjoyed status not only as a fashion accessory but as a romantic token or favor, passed from one lover to another, according to Andreas Capellanus, the famous author of The Art of Courtly Love.
Camille, Michael. The Medieval Art of Love. London: Harry N. Abrams, 1998, page 51.

So it would seem that the adaptation of this style was both circular – a purse used as a favor inspired me to create a favor that resembled a purse – and even more appropriate than I had originally thought!

Methods and Materials

As described above, the piece was stitched using cotton embroidery floss on cotton muslin. Period examples were generally made with silk thread, often with gold or silver thread used for the background, and stitched onto linen, which may have stood alone or been appliquéd onto velvet for final construction of the purse itself. I, however, have a budget and discovered that locally, silk thread was going to be difficult to come by, especially in the variety of colors that I would need.

As an aside, one judge at my regional A&S fair commented that, while they understood the substitution of cotton for linen on this piece, they were a bit concerned with having so much of it show, as I left the belt loop un adorned. Following up on this observation, I noticed that in my husband’s most frequently worn garb, his belt is partially hidden under the “skirt” of his riding jacket, or under the blousing of whatever tunic he happens to be wearing, which by happy accident, means that the cotton belt loop is hidden as well. I confess this wasn’t a deliberate consideration on my part, but I’m perfectly content to enjoy the result anyway.

Almoner’s purses were embroidered on both sides, usually with related images, but occasionally with simple geometric designs on the back. My stitching capabilities as well as the typical way of displaying belt favors in the SCA made it much more sensible to embroider the front panel only. The embroidered panel itself is situated on the bottom third of a long, narrow strip of fabric, which was then folded over to create the belt favor’s loop, and the edges hemmed. The hem itself has not yet been completed; the current stitching was NOT done by me, and was meant to be temporary so that the favor could be presented to my husband on a specific date. Fortunately, I did remember to take a photo of the back panel itself, included here as “Image 1”.



Image 1. Back of the finished embroidery.

My sources show that almoner’s purses often depicted secular motifs and scenes such as fanciful beasts, musicians playing, and quite often that of lovers in a garden, suggesting that the name “alms purse” was merely a catch-all term, perhaps from the Christian exhortation to practice charity (, or possibly a holdover suggesting that at one time the purses were reserved for such a use (pure speculation on my part). As the favor was a gift for my husband, I kept the secular theme of love but chose instead to design a scene of my own, depicting myself and our daughter in the garb that we wore most often. (The child has since outgrown the dress portrayed in the image, but the colors were originally chosen to represent a specific outfit.) The two figures stand between stylized trees, typical not only of illuminated manuscripts of this time frame, but also of the almoner’s purses themselves.


Image 2; artifact made in Paris circa 1340.

  • Cited on as Camille, Michael. The Medieval Art of Love. London: Harry N. Abrams, 1998, page 50.
  • Cited on as an item in the collection at Hamburg, Museum fuer Kunst und Gewerbe (Inv. 56,137).

The embroidery itself was done in Opus Anglicanum, or “English work,” so called for the expertise and renown of English artisans at the height of this technique’s popularity. The main elements of the technique are figures embroidered in split stitch and outlined in stem stitch, on a background which was most often (but not always) done in gold thread worked in underside or “invisible” couching. Other stitches included chain stitch, satin stitch and knotwork, but these always were much less prevalent than the split, stem, and underside couching stitches. Another hallmark of the style is the use of a range of hues to achieve lifelike shading. Stitches on the faces of human figures often followed the contours of the cheeks and foreheads, resulting in additional lifelike effects as the stitches caught the light from different angles when the fabric was moved about. Finally, in Opus Anglicanum, no ground fabric remained visible once the piece was complete. Again, Image 2 provides an excellent example of the typical features.

As you can see in the entry, all of these hallmarks have been adhered to with the exception of gold thread worked in underside couching. A period artifact survives which shows a background worked in colored thread (Images 3a and 3b). I took advantage of this as well as extant imagery’s resemblance to period manuscripts to create a diapered effect using “laid work”, which gives the appearance of satin stitch while conserving thread, in alternating directions and overlaid with a lighter thread to represent the whitework so typical of manuscript diapered backgrounds.


Image 3a. German orphrey ca. 1450 showing colored background instead of gold


Image 3b. German orphrey ca. 1450 showing colored background instead of gold

Image 3, cited on as “German orphrey mid 15thC, St Anthony Abbot and a female martyr. V&A Museum, London. Photos courtesy of Mistress Acacia de Navarre.”

  • The website has three photos, of which two depict the figure of the abbot; I have labeled these 3a and 3b. The third photo, of the female martyr, is not included here. The web page’s author seems to imply that this was the only example of an exception to the gold-background “rule” she was able to locate, although it is possible that it was merely the first such.
  • ( defines “orphrey” as “an ornamental band or border, especially on an ecclesiastical vestment.”)

In my entry, I placed a grid on the background in stem stitch to keep the alternating squares consistent. Since my original concept drawing was done on graph paper, it was easiest to use that as the “skeleton” or template for my diapered squares – which means that, yes, I embroidered graph paper lines onto my piece. I had thought at first that the grid might remain visible, but I discovered that it was best put to use by piercing through the grid lines with the needle. This served to keep the “satin” stitches an even length, and also ensured that no fabric would be left uncovered at the ends of the stitches. Since the gridlines are now hidden, please see “Image 4” for proof of the depths of my geekery.



Image 4. Embroidery in progress, showing grid “skeleton” for diapered background

Every area apart from the hands and faces is worked in at least two and most often three colors, with the tree trunks making use of four and the lady’s gown five distinct shades; there are approximately thirty distinct thread colors used in the piece. The lady’s shoes are done in satin stitch, the stitching on the faces follows the contours of the cheeks, and no ground fabric is visible, even if the piece is bent backward somewhat. I attempted to make use of modern satin thread for the diapered background, but found it so extremely frustrating to work with that I opted to pull it out and start over. I had hoped to use satin for a bit of “shine” in lieu of actual metallic threads, but in the end I preferred not only the ease but also appearance of the natural-fiber thread.

It should go without saying that the embroidery was done by hand and not by machine. After outlining, I began by filling in the wimple and veil, followed by the skin, and from there worked my way through the different areas mostly going from smallest to largest. Apart from the leaves and lady’s gown, every area had its own specific set of colors that were not repeated elsewhere (and in fact the leaves use different shades of green than the gown), such that completing an area also gave me the satisfaction of finishing an entire color group as well. I kept all the thread and my concept sketches in one bag, and ceremoniously removed the colors once they were no longer needed.

The fabric was placed in a square frame rather than a hoop and the figure was completed over a span of about eighteen months (two years if you include “downtime”).


I’m kind of a fan of scope. As I mentioned earlier, I have never made a piece with the intention of entering it into competition, but I am naturally drawn to detailed, complex work that requires patience as well as some degree of skill to accomplish. Below is a summary of my intentions for this piece:

• Motif Complexity – lifelike human figures in natural poses and a degree of emotion portrayed in both posture and facial expression.

• Design (how the motifs are combined, appropriateness to period and place cited) – a balanced and harmonious composition of motifs typical of the style of almoner’s purses, using a palette of colors that all complement one another well without clashing.

• Variety of elements/motifs/stitches/techniques – accurate to and entirely typical of the Opus Anglicanum style, with reasonable exceptions made that were plausible and known to have existed in period.

• Difficulty of materials chosen – NOT. Materials that would be easy to work with for a (more or less) first-time embroiderer, consistent with my desire to experiment, fit into a low-income budget, and possess a degree of both strength and washability, since the piece is meant to be used and not simply displayed.

• Difficulty of stitches and techniques – typical of the style. When choosing a new subject I tend not to pay attention to how difficult it may or may not be, since I plan to learn whatever I need to accomplish the project. As an inexperienced embroiderer I can only tell you that split stitch is very slow for me.

• Size and density of stitches – small and extremely dense, but again, my intent for the piece was to imitate the typical expressions of the Opus Anglicanum style.

• Extent gone to ensure appropriateness to period of techniques and materials used – minor. When embarking on a new project I most often utilize materials that I already have on hand, although I will take steps to avoid using anything too overtly modern in appearance without justification. As for technique, my interest is in learning how it was done, so my intent is to accurately utilize period methods wherever it is feasible.


• Accuracy in design realization – see design drawings accompanying the piece, including original color sketch and a later shading map made for the gowns of the two figures.

• Neatness (especially in starts and ends) – I have no idea how I rate compared to experienced needle workers. I tied knots for most of the starts and ends, and supposedly that’s some kind of cardinal sin depending on who you talk to.

• Tension – insert cheesy blood-pressure joke here. Overall I think I’ve succeeded in keeping the stitch tension very even. Keeping the fabric under uniform tension in the frame was difficult and I ended up with a slightly off-kilter rectangle once the piece was removed. My thanks to the judges at my regional A&S fair for their advice on how to avoid this in future.

• Uniformity (in stitch density, stitch length, etc.) – my first stem stitch around the outside border of the piece – in other words, the first embroidery I had done in roughly two decades – is pretty uneven, but that improved steadily over the course of the piece. The split stitch has some minor variation in length, and I can point out one or two flaws in density.

If applicable:

• Finishing of piece (hemming, appliqué, etc.) – the hem currently in place was meant to be temporary, and not done by me because I’m horrible (and painfully slow) at hemming anything.


Obviously you’ll be the judges here, since I have no hope of objectively evaluating my own creativity; I can, however, point out problems and challenges I faced throughout the project. As far as innovations are concerned, all I can really think of are the original design of the scene to depict a plausible variation on a known secular theme in extant artifacts, the variant background stitching used instead of underside-couched gold, and perhaps the use of a period embroidery style in combination with an SCA-specific cultural item.

Challenges included researching extant imagery and designing a scene typical to the period themes and representative of images in period manuscripts, selection of the entire color palette once the scene was determined, and designing the belt favor itself so that I could build it using a single piece of fabric. Once the embroidery was in place, I needed to figure out the best sequence and methods to hem the sides so as to eliminate loose ends, but avoid eliminating a loop for the belt to pass through. As a complete and utter non-seamstress this actually took me quite some time and several discussions to puzzle out.

There was only one circumstance that I think really qualifies as a “problem”, which I had nearly forgotten about. As Images 1 and 4 show, the lady’s wimple and veil were originally done only in white and light gray. They were the first colored area to be filled in after outlining was complete, so I was unable to tell whether the gray I used would be sufficiently dark. As it turned out, I went back after everything was complete and laid in some additional shading with the same dark gray used in the tree trunks. Apart from my first attempt to use “satin” embroidery thread for the background, this is the only area of the picture that I really needed to revise after beginning.


Thank you all for your review of my work, and your generally merciful commentary. I had two years’ worth of fun designing and constructing this piece; I hope you enjoyed looking at it as much as I enjoyed making it.

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