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!