Embroidery - the embellishing of fabric with stitches - was already a well-established craft in 16th-century Europe. Eor several centuries professional embroiderers had been among the most respected of crafts­men, their art linked with that of the illuminator. 

Most of them, at least in England and France, were organized into powerful guilds which, by maintaining high standards of workmanship and by protecting the interests of the embroiderers, helped to ensure the high standing of the craft.

It was customary for the royal courts of Europe to employ professional embroiderers to work heraldic insignia and all kinds of furnishings. The church was also a lavish patron, and although some work was done in monasteries and convents, the best and most valued was made by pro­fessional specialists. From early on 'the labours of the distaffand needle' were considered of prime importance for ladies all over Europe, and spinning, weaving and fine needlework formed an important part o'" every girl's education prior to her marriage.

In the medieval period the finest of all embroidery was the ecclesiastical work produced in England. Opus Anglicanum, as it was called, was worked with coloured silks and couched gold and silver threads, and the designs - of saints, angels and heraldic motifs - have close parallels in the manuscript illumination of the time. 

Opus Anglicanum was exported to Europe on a large scale, and although France, Germany and Flanders produced embroidered vestments of a similar style, their quality rarely matched the fine work which came out of the ateliers of London and East Anglia.

The ground for most of these embroiderers was twill-weave, silk-lined with linen. Velvet was used from the early 14th century instead of linen. Other grounds used included samit, taffeta, camoca (a combination of fine camel hair and silk) and, from the 14th century, satin. Some of the most common Opus Anglicanum stitches include Opus conscutum applique, Opus phrygium - gold work, Opus anglicanum stitch - split stitch, and Opus pectineum - woven or combed work.

Inventories and accounts from the Vatican are a valuable source of information on Opus Anglicanum, for it was favourite with many Popes and the bulk of Vatican embroideries of this time were of this kind.

 Many of the best examples of this work are ecclesiastical merits the finest copes now remaining ns Cftc Syon Cope in the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

A srtdjiid'y of the copes of the whole medieval period has revealed that JiWre were three distinct periods in the evolution of Opus Anglicanum.

The earliest period is from 1250 to 1275 and the principal features of the designs are saints or Biblical events enclosed by a medallion. Group­ings are arranged in concentric circles. Few examples of this period now survive.

The second period is from 1275 to about 1325 and the Syon Cope was made at this time. Rather than being confined by circles, the figures and scenes in the design are ringed by Romanesque quatrefoils sometimes interlaced. Another surviving cope of this period is the Daroca Cope in the Museo Arqueologico, Madrid.

The last period occupies the remainder of the 14th century. Figures now stand under Gothic arches and the scenes are separated by columns. The finest Opus Anglicanum comes from this period.

Chasubles have also survived and a typical example in the Victoria and Albert Museum is in red brocade with scenes from the life of Christ with saints standing under Gothic arches. Mitres were embroidered inOpus Anglicanum though only fragments have survived, such as the remains of one belonging to Bishop William of Wykeham (1367-1404), now in New College, Oxford. 

The embroidery used both silver thread and gems. 

The Victoria and Albert Museum also has an altar frontal from the late 14th century. 

Worked on a ground of crimson velvet, the figures are appliqued in gold, silver and coloured thread and surround the cruci­fixion scene. 

Palls have survived in greater numbers, many of which are in the possession of London livery companies such as the Vintners', the Saddlers' and the Fishmongers' Companies.

The quality of Opus Anglicanum work began to decline during the 15th century, although a magnificent pall belonging to the Fishmongers' Company which, it seems, could not have been made before 1536, has suggested to some experts that the age of Opus Anglicanum might be extended by a hundred years.

Although the emphasis in 14th and 15th century Europe was on ecclesiastical embroidery, there was at the same time a growing use of domestic embroidery. 

Woven tapestries, for example, were of im­portance in furnishing the draughty castles and houses of the rich, and embroidered bed hangings were also invaluable in the cold winters of northern Europe.

There was an increasing use of embroidery for costume and personal adornment. 

Much of this, whether it took the form of fine linen under­garments or the embroidered and bejewelled purses for which France was famous in the 15th and 16th centuries, was done domestically as well as by professional and religious embroiderers.


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