Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Medieval Textiles: What is Cloth of Gold?


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What is cloth of gold? Yesterday’s post showing a magnificent example of goldwork on cloth of gold seems to have intrigued several people who have either e-mailed or posted to ask “What exactly IS cloth of gold?”

To answer this question simply, real cloth of gold consists of gold either beaten or worked into long strips and wound around a core (such as silk) and then this thread is used in weaving a very rich fabric, which is relatively stiff, heavy, and expensive.

Today, we don’t see “real” cloth of gold much, although there are some places where it can still be purchased. Unfortunately, we do see a lot of lamé fabrics, which are “gold” fabrics made out of synthetics, with a bright metallic sheen.

There is also “cloth of gold” that’s made from imitation gold.

It’s much more common today to find gold threads used for goldwork than it is to find real cloth of gold!

It’s really interesting to see how gold threads are made. The passing threads you couch in goldwork or the purls that you cut and sew on like beads are all made essentially from the same material – the material produced from the stretching and thinning process of the gold is just treated in different ways to make typical goldwork supplies.

Gold is mixed with other alloys to make it strong enough, and often, especially in the older goldwork supplies, the other metal it is mixed with is silver.

Hence, real gold used for goldwork can tarnish over time – in fact, it does tarnish over time. So besides the expense of real gold, the fact that it tarnishes led manufactures to seek methods for producing imitation varieties.

To show you the difference between real gold threads and imitation, here’s a photo. You can see how, over time, the read gold threads in the trim at the base of the photo have tarnished (they’re decidedly darker), but the imitation gold has not.

Anyway, if you’d like to read about the history of gold threads, this article titled Metal Threads: The Historical Development (PDF) by Anna Karatzani of the Department of Works of Arts and Antiquities Conservation and the Technological Educational Institution of Athens might be of interest.

Another interesting article can be found in Issue 31 of Complex Weavers’ Medieval Textiles (PDF). This particular issue discusses medieval linen weaves, cloth of gold and goldwork, as well as twills and their designs, among other things. It’s a neat little newsletter.

Hope that helps answer your questions!


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(18) Comments

  1. thank you! Finally I have a good explanation. I read often about the Tudors, and obviously it was a favorite. Oh, the splendor and lush life!

  2. Hi
    When I was a little girl learning English History and in particular about “Field of Cloth of Gold” I was told that it was made from the beard of the humble mussel.
    By The way silver tarnishes but not gold

  3. I often come across references to red or green cloth of gold in Tudor accounts. What does this refer to? How does it differ from ‘normal’ cloth of gold? thanks. The cope is amazing by the way

  4. Hi Mary, very interesting and informative site! Do you know where I can buy – or at least see – some ‘gold cloth’ here in the U.S.?


    1. Hi – you might try contacting LaLame in NYC. Part of their company specializes in ecclesiastical fabric, and they might have a cloth of gold in their collection. They don’t have a full website, though, so I think you’d have to call them.

  5. First, I enjoy your posts immensely. Something to aspire to.
    One of my professors in the Textiles Dept at Florida State University in the early 1960’s referred to a white cotton fabric as cloth of gold. It was fairly heavy, plain weave. rather like percale but much heavier. I could never see what she was referring to as it looked all white to me.
    Do you have any idea to what I might be referring??

    1. Hmmm. Not sure! Maybe she was referring to cotton in general, as it fed a boom in wealth to manufacturers during the industrial revolution? Otherwise, I’m not sure what she would have meant.

  6. I understand the concept of cloth of gold but given that, how can medieval monarchs have records of “green cloth of gold” or “red cloth of gold”. Does this mean that the gold wrapped thread is only used in the warp or weft and a coloured thread is used for the other?

  7. I would like to get material or thread with real gold, copper and silver in it. Can you guys get me the right email for this please.

  8. I have an old fabric framed that I bought at an estate sale years ago. I would like to determine if it is real cloth of gold lame It is probably old Chinese or Japanese. Who can help identify it ?

  9. Very helpful…One question:I often see references to coloured cloth of gold. Do the colours refer to the warp threads?

    1. Hmmm. I’ve not seen colored cloth of gold, so I don’t know. Is it a newer fabric? Or are you seeing it in historical contexts? If it’s newer, most cloth of gold produced today is not actually cloth of gold. It’s cloth of lurex and other synthetics. So the color could easily be the other threads in the weave.

  10. Actually Gold in its purest form is the only element that doesn’t react with anything else on the planet
    “Gold does Not tarnish” every person in the world know that, so you writing that just makes you sound stupid and ignorant. There are many reason why other forms of imitation Gold is used. It might have been smart to say, if there is to much other metals and no enough gold in the thread ot may tarnish, 24k over silk thread does not tarnish.

    1. Gold that is mixed with an alloy to make a wire to wrap on a thread core does tarnish, because the added metal that makes the alloy – thus adulterating the gold – tarnishes. There is no real metal thread these days made of pure gold.

      Re: “if there is to [sic] much [sic] other metals [sic]” (“to” should be spelled “too” and “metals” should be singular, or “many” should replace “much” and “is” should be plural) – the highest quantity of gold in real metal embroidery threads made today is 2% and even those threads are becoming rare, so I can safely say that goldwork threads, where real gold is involved, tarnish.

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