We’re bringing the craft closer to home in this instalment of Embroidery Through the Ages. Today, we are heading back to the medieval era. Let’s delve into the medieval style of embroidery with the rise of Christianity in Britain, the “English style”, and the most famous tapestry in the world…

Sunday Best

In 54AD, the Romans brought Christianity to Britain. They soon outed the Celtic Church, believing it barbaric, and by the late 7th century England had been converted to Christianity. 

As Christianity spread, the need for vestments grew. Vestments are garments worn by officials of the church in Christianity. Workshops were set up, usually overseen by an Abbess, the head of an Abbey of nuns, where both men and women worked on the clothes. The vestments of the clergy were often grand and opulent, signifying the wearer’s close relationship with God. As such, gifts of fine silk and gold thread were sent from Rome to England. The skill and level of decoration needed for vestments meant that many people would work on just one garment, making different sections before bringing it together. This technique is still used today in fashion houses, with one person rarely making one garment alone. 

Opus Anglicanum

Opus Anglicanum, meaning ‘English work’, became popular in the 8th century. Many vestments were made under Opus Anglicanum, and its popularity grew in the 12th century, when it was used in the giving of democratic gifts. 

Garments made in the Opus Anglicanum style had metal threads, precious stones and pearls worked into them, to represent the wealth and status of the wearer. While Opus Anglicanum was worn in secular society, these pieces were very expensive, and therefore primarily used in a liturgical setting. Like the vestments of early Christian rule in Britain, many Opus Anglicanum garments included gold thread. 

St Cuthbert’s New Clothes

In 1827 the coffin of St Cuthbert, the patron saint of northern England and bishop of Lindisfarne, was opened. Contained within were a maniple and stole, two types of vestment. Considered the earliest examples of Opus Anglicanum, the stole and maniple are believed to have been present to the shrine of St Cuthbert in the early 10th century, despite his death almost 300 years earlier. This dating is down to the inscription stitched on the garments; “Aelflaed ordered this to be made for the pious bishop Frithstan”. Aelflaed was the daughter-in-law of Alfred the Great, and Frithstan the bishop of Winchester from 909 - 916.

Made on a base of silk, the stole and maniple contained strips of pure gold thread, typical of Opus Anglicanum vestments, and became an important example of the skill needed to create these wearable works of art - each 8th of an inch contained 16 golden threads!

The Bayeux Tapestry 

Perhaps the most famous example of medieval embroidery in the world, the Bayeux Tapestry tells the tale of the Norman’s conquest of England. 

Its history is patchy. Some believe that it was stitched by Queen Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, and her Ladies in Waiting. Others believe that it was created as a piece of Norman propaganda. The most convincing, however, is that is was commissioned by Bishop Odo, builder of Bayeux Cathedral from which the tapestry gets its name. 

While called the Bayeux Tapestry, the piece is technically a work of embroidery. Using vegetable-dyed crewel wool stitched onto linen, the tapestry reaches an extraordinary length of 230 feet. 

Don’t feel daunted by this amazing work of history, even we haven’t made a 70 metre embroidered panel! Why not start with one of our embroidery kits?