Last week, we looked at this high-relief embroidered goldwork lily, taking a preliminary look at how it was made by making some observations about it before taking it apart.
Today, let’s take it apart and look inside!
Taking apart a piece of old goldwork embroidery like this is not exactly a walk in the park. It doesn’t come apart with ease – it takes a bit of work, and it’s actually somewhat dirty work! Years of dusty accumulation and stiffening of threads make the deconstruction a little challenging.
First step, to cut the couching threads on the back of the piece.
Once the threads on the back are cut, it’s easier to bend the whole slip so that we can see between the petals on the lily. You can see the couching threads here, just at the base of the gold.
The couching threads pass from side to side across the back of the petal. Coming up into the fabric, they go over the gold passing thread (which is worked in pairs) and back down into the fabric, to pass to the other side of the petal. The gold passing thread is pinched and folded so that it turns back to cross over the top of the petal form, and on the other side of the petal form, the couching the thread comes up, grabs the pair of gold passing threads and goes back down into the fabric and crosses to the other side of the back.
The gold, then, is only on the top of the petal form, and crossing back and forth on the back of the fabric behind the petal is the couching thread.
So that’s essentially how the technique works. The petal form is not wrapped with gold. And the gold does not pass into the fabric. Instead, it is folded back and forth across the top and sides of the petal form, and couched on each side, where the gold is folded to make its return journey.
Once the couching threads are cut and picked out with tweezers, the gold thread can be folded back to reveal the petal form.
You can see that the petal form is sewn down onto the fabric, with threads passing into the pierced form. It is likely that the form is pierced (perhaps with a stiletto or a long needle – some kind of sharp, straight piercing tool) before it is sewn on.
The form you see showing above is as hard as wood at this point. You can tap on it and it sounds like you’re tapping on a hard surface, like thin wood.
So, is it wood? We shall see!
First, let’s take off some of the gold thread. Because the gold is worked in pairs, it comes off like one long pair of threads. It looks and feels very wiry, as if it just one solid piece of gold wire.
However, pick apart the end, and it is clear that it’s not solid wire. It consists of a silk core wrapped with gold wire. By gold wire, I mean gold and alloy.
Now we have all the gold thread removed from one petal. Time to take the form off and take a good look at it. It will reveal some secrets that debunk some previous ideas I had about the whole vestment embroidery.
First, we’ll lift the form. Aha! Something here looks very familiar. Remember the grapes we took apart earlier in this series, and the padding beneath them? It’s the same padding.
This dark brown speckled stuff is a felted wool of some sort. It’s thick and a bit scratchy, kind of like a carpet felt though not as rough. It reminds me more of a boiled felt that was woven first and then boiled. I really need to pick it apart under a magnifying glass to get a better idea. In any case, it’s felt of some sort.
The top of the form (the hard, smooth surface that feels hard as wood) is glued to the felt.
And here is the felt, peeled from the hard form.
And here is the hard form and the felt. Notice the rounded, smooth edges of the hard form, and how it bends to form the shape of the petal. Was it actually made this way? Well…. a little more exploration with clarify this, I think.
Notice, too, the pierced holes for tacking the form onto the ground fabric.
When turned over and examined closely, it becomes evident that the form is not wood at all. It is, in fact, paper. Card of some sort – thick, compressed paper card.
The years (and the pressure from the gold thread) have made the outer layer very hard, but the inside layers peel apart almost like a soft compressed cardboard. The pressure from the gold couched threads hugged the paper and felt into the curved and rounded petal shape we see here.
Now that the petal is removed, we see yet another familiar sight – the original ground fabric, which is the same ground fabric on which the grapes were worked. Even the pattern markings are the same. And it is backed with the same linen.
So, what have we learned?
1. The gold thread used to work this high relief goldwork is stiff and wiry, but it is not wire-proper. It is a wrapped gold passing thread. So far, the closest equivalent that I’ve found to this particular wire from this particular piece is Benton & Johnson’s 2% smooth gold passing thread, in size 4.
2. The form was created by adhering a rather thick, pressed paper card to a layer of thick (approximately 1/8″ thick) felt.
3. The gold thread does not pass into the fabric or behind the form, but rather is couched on each side of the form.
4. The couching threads are heavy duty threads and the gold thread is couched in pairs.
5. The piece was created simultaneous to, or in the same place as, and most likely with the same hands or group of hands as, the grapes, because the materials all the way down to the ground fabric are the same. It is likely that the grapes and the lily were made for the same vestment (I didn’t think they were, because, as design elements, they seem a bit incongruous). Whether or not this particular vestment that we’re looking at is the one they were made for is not clear yet. They could have been salvaged from another vestment and applied to ours.
Maybe further explorations will tell us some more!
Questions? Comments? Observations? Is there anything you want to know about this particular piece of goldwork (the lily), that you want me to explore further? Have your say below!
Deconstructing Goldwork is a short series here on Needle ‘n Thread. If you are interested in reading the backstory to this piece, you can find all the articles in the series so far listed in this index.