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Opus Anglicanum Embroidery

During the eleventh to fourteenth centuries, embroidery was a popular pastime for daughters of nobility, as well as being a highy respected profession for both men and women, even though the first Embroiderers Guilds were not formally founded until the fifteenth century.

The most beautiful work done during this time was Opus Anglicanum – or “English Work”. Amongst embroidery historians, Opus Anglicanum is considered the pinnacle of all forms of embroidery.

It is characterised by the use of densely embroidered fabric, with very little of the background showing, as well as stitch techniques as split stitch and intricate couching techniques.



The picture above is a detail of an English altar frontal from approximately 1320. You can see from this detail the intricate split stitches used for the figures, as well as the lively expressions and detail.

Split stitching was done not only in straight lines, but spirals, circles and curves to create contours and depth in the pictures.

Gold couching was extensively used, and the goldwork technique of Or Nue was born from Opus Anglicanum embroidery.

What really does stand out with Opus Anglicanum is that the stitch techniques involved are all very simple – it’s the high quality of the embroidery that sets it apart from all others.

Split stitches using one strand of silk, stitches so tiny that from a distance, they looked like paint meant that the pieces were extremely time consuming. Usually a single embroiderer only worked on one small part of each piece, whilst a noblewoman stitching a piece could take years to finish.

These embroideries were highly prized – and a status symbol for both religious and secular leaders.

Household records of Edward III of England showed that in 1317, Queen Isabella, wife of Edward III, paid 100 marks - about $50,000 today - to “Rose, the wife of John de Bureford, citizen and merchant of London, for an embroidered cope for the choir, lately purchased from her to make a present to the Lord High Pontiff from the Queen.”

Opus Anglicanum work was originally used for both ecclesiastical and secular works, however very few secular pieces survive today.

Quite a number of ecclesiastical pieces survive today – both in museums (the V&A Museum as well as the New York Metropolitan Museum have some stunning examples) as well as cathedrals around England and Europe.

Sadly, Opus Anglicanum declined almost to extinction as a result of the Black Death during the fourteenth century. In fact, as a result of the Plague many professional embroidery workshops were completely wiped out. This was also a major factor in the rise of the amateur embroiderer in Europe.

Some work was still being produced, but it was by no means of the exceptional quality of the earlier pieces.

However, as this was a type of embroidery that relied on the skill of the embroiderer, it is one that, happily, we can all aspire to recreate.


Recommended Reading

Embroiderers (Medieval Craftsmen) by Kay Staniland

Royal School of Needlework Embroidery Techniques by Sally Saunders

Royal School of Needlework Embroidery Techniques by Sally Saunders

Is there anything that you would particularly like to see an article on? If so, please contact me with your suggestions.

Happy Stitching


Happy Stitching from Megan



© 2010 Megan McConnell



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