I’m still fascinated with the goldwork-on-velvet panel I’ve been exploring lately. In discussing it with Phillipa Turnbull, who is an expert in historical embroideries, she suggested Italian, and part of a canopy from a half tester bed, confirming Lesley-Ann’s comment on the original article about the piece. The half tester is a bed with a partial canopy just above the very head of the bed. No certainty on the dates, but guessing 17th / 18th century. I may follow up with some other sources Phillipa suggested, to be more certain about the time period. I’m always for consulting experts – it’s much better than just guessing, so I was grateful that Philippa kindly took the time to discuss the piece and to recommend further avenues of exploration.
But in the meantime, what really fascinates me about the panel is the variety of goldwork couching techniques displayed in it, and the variety of gold threads and thread sizes used. It isn’t until you really get up close to the piece that you start to see all the details! I’m using a magnifier to look at some parts and take notes, but the macro setting on the camera is pretty useful, too, because it can get in there close, and then I can zoom farther in, using Photoshop.
This element in the design features some interesting approaches to couching and filling.
Notice how the middle section of the element (shooting upwards in the curve) looks almost dimensional or wavy? That’s achieved by those blue stitches you see there, towards the base of each segment in that center swash.
In each segment on the swash, one side of the gold and silk threads filling the segment is stitched over with colored silk, in an Or Nué-ish manner. The blue silks (three shades) are flat silk, so the sheen on the silk is quite apparent. The colored silks help couch down the gold and silk threads that run perpendicular to them, filling the small space in the segment.
Or Nué is a goldwork technique involving couching a gold thread with colored silk, and using the colored silk to create either a picture (by following the design lines of a particular object and working in details using the colored silk couched over the gold thread), or an overall effect of shading and color (by increasing and decreasing the spacing between the colored silk couching threads).
To get an idea of what I’m talking about, you can see some examples of Or Nué here on Needle ‘n Thread: this Or Nué peacock feather, and this Or Nué little flower. You can also see how Or Nué is used to created shading, looking at the robes on this Mantle of the Virgin, part of a cope embroidered in the 15th century.
If you’re familiar with Or Nué and have seen it done today, you’ve probably seen it worked over either gold passing thread or Japanese threads, as in the examples given above. In this piece, though, the gold threads are tightly twisted gold threads, rather than the single-ply, wrapped threads like Japanese gold or gold passing. Between each gold thread there’s a bit of space filled with a thick twist of silk. So the colored silk on the ends is couching down both the twisted gold thread and the thicker silk thread. Pretty neat stuff!
That silk thread in there reminds me very much of Trebizond silk (if you were looking for a substitute today). It is thick and somewhat loosely twisted flat silk. The difference: Trebizond, made by machine, is a z-twisted thread, while the stuff in this piece is s-twisted.
I like the alternating of the silk and the gold for a filling – I may have to try this!
It was actually in this section that I found my opportunity to verify my guess of a linen base to all the embroidery. The threads here, because they are loose where they aren’t couched, could be gently nudged apart with the tip of a blunt tapestry needle, to reveal what was directly underneath the goldwork (a finely woven linen).
Above, you can see that right next to the segmented Or Nué element, there’s another element that is filled with alternating gold threads and silk threads. Notice that the gold thread here is also a twist, but it is a larger gold thread than the one used in the Or Nué segments (which you can see on the right in the photo above). The couching technique in the element on the left is simply an alternating “bricking” pattern, and each couching stitch holds down a gold and a silk thread at the same time.
The Or Nué couching approach shows up in other places on the whole piece, so that there’s a definite unity in the embroidery. You can see the same technique here in green, over the same gold threads spaced with silk.
And in other parts of the design, you can see the technique worked over rococco (a wavy gold thread), without silk in between.
Can you tell I’m having fun with this?! I hope my explorations don’t bore you too much! There’s a lot to learn, looking closely at old pieces like this, and we don’t often have the opportunity to do so. There aren’t too many museums that would allow us to poke and prod their display pieces, after all…! I hope the techniques we’re looking at and the points we discuss along the way help to inspire you in your own needlework. Even if you never approach goldwork or silk, even if you never make your own canopy for your bed out of gold, silk, and velvet (!), my hope is that this study will inspire even more appreciation for the art of the needle, no matter what aspect of that art you pursue.
If any questions occur to you along the way, do feel free to leave a comment below, and I’ll do my best to find an answer!
And as for me, the study has convinced me of one thing – One Absolute – One Profound Truth that may influence me the rest of my life:
I need a half tester bed. With a canopy.
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