In the 15th century, a goldwork technique known as Or Nué reflected the great skill of the medieval embroiderer. I recently received an e-mail from a friend with a photo of an exquisite example of this technique.
This is from the “Mantle of the Virgin,” a cope embroidered apparently in the Netherlands in the 15th century. It belongs to a group of vestments embroidered for the Order of the Golden Fleece, a chivalric order founded in 1430.
This is “needle painting” at it’s most glorious – it is worked over gold threads, the shading managed by the spacing between the couching stitches over the gold. The cope is, from what I understand (although I’m certainly open to correction!), linen, completely covered in metal thread and silk embroidery in a variety of techniques. The design was actually first painted by an artist onto the fabric, and then turned over to an embroiderer or a guild for the needleworking.
You can read about Or Nué on the Historical Needlework Resources website, where they also display a fantastic example of the technique.
If you want to try the technique without the investment of “real” gold threads, you can practice with the numerous “gold” threads available at hobby stores, notably those produced by Kreinik. They’re fairly inexpensive, and it would at least give you a sense of how Or Nué is accomplished. Heck, I’ve even played around with the technique using regular cotton perle as my laid thread – it works! The perle obviously has more give than metal threads, so the tension on the couching thread has to be pretty light. It’s a really inexpensive and fun way to see if you like the technique.
To see how couching works, check out my couching video in the Video Library of Hand Embroidery Stitches.