Metal Embroidery on a 14 th Century Heraldic Surcoat

Lady Maudelyn Godeliva Taillour

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Depicting the Device of David le Ymagour

Metal embroidery was widely used on 14th Century on heraldic items. Although very few secular embroideries survive, many descriptions are known of costumes and hangings adorned with heraldic devices (Wardle, 8). One of the most famous examples of metal thread couching with a heraldic theme depicts the leopard of England on what is believed to be a horse covering for Edward III, made in 1330-40 (Staniland, 29).

The embroidery techniques used on this surcote fall under the category of ‘Opus Anglicanum.' ‘Opus Anglicanum' refers to English embroidery from the early 13th to the latter half of the 14th centuries. The threads used were colored floss silks, pure gold thread, and to a lesser degree, silver (Gostelow, 63). One of the most outstanding characteristics, and for which it was highly prized, is the appearance of depth that is created by working stitches spirally (Jones, 29). For this project, I have used a modern approximation of the silver thread, couched with white silk thread, and colored silk floss for details worked in a split-stitch.

The ground fabrics that received Opus Anglicanum ranged from silk to linen to wool. In the 13th century, silk twill and linen were most commonly used, but by the 14th century there are surviving examples of velvet grounds (Gostelow, 64). Velvet was somewhat difficult to work on because of the pile, and by the end of the 14th century the demands of mass production would lead to the practice of embroidering on a silk ground over the velvet, or embroidering on a silk or other ground, cutting out the design, and appliquéing the design on top of the velvet. The method used on this velvet surcote utilizes linen stretched on a frame, with the velvet being stretched tautly over and secured to the linen (de Dillmont, 154).

Before beginning an embroidery project, a design would need to be drawn on a ground. Artists were often employed to create designs for embroiderers. Cennini describes methods for drawing for embroiderers using charcoals, crayons, and ink to transfer the pattern on the fabric (Cennini, 105-106). Motifs could be transferred by tracing a design on paper, pricking the outline through the paper, then pouncing chalk pumice or charcoal to create fine dots of powder on the fabric. The dots would then be fixed with ink or paint (Staniland, 31). I simplified the process by using a photocopy of the device and a pounce wheel to punch holes in the paper. I rubbed powdered tailor's chalk through the holes and then filled in the design using an ink pen.

Gold and silver threads were worked in a method called couching. Couching is defined as “a stitch holding down another thread,” (Gostelow, 369). Couching helped economize on the very expensive hand-made gold thread, which could be quickly damaged when used for other embroidery stitches (Staniland, 40). Although the finest form of couching in Opus Anglicanum was underside couching, or pulling the metal thread to the back of the ground, surface couching was also popular (Gostelow, 64). By the time this surcote would have been created, the quality of English embroidery was in decline, and more likely to have been surface couched. Early English embroidery had reached its peak in the middle of the 13th century, but prolonged wars and the invasion of the Black Death caused a general decline in the quality of embroidery and the need for mass production. Faster surface couching replaced underside couching (Gostelow, 69). Surface couched threads are laid in parallel lines on the upper surface of the ground and then held in place by stitching so that solid blocks of color are formed (Staniland, 40). This surcote being of 14th century style, the couching is surface. Spiraling and/or manipulating the direction in which the silver thread is laid create movement in the design of the device.

Metal threads are difficult to manipulate and are usually ‘laid' and then couched with a finer thread (Gostelow, 370). In underside couching, even linen thread could be used to hold down metal threads, but with the visible stitches of surface couching, silk thread is used. Although England seems to have been the leader in fine embroidery in the 13th and 14th centuries, there are no surviving records of standards governing the craft. If we look at the regulations governing the embroiderers of Paris, approved in 1303, we see the importance of using silk for couching:

“11. Furthermore it is ordained that anyone doing gold-threadwork
shall sew with silk,” (Staniland, 13-14).

The silk threads would be placed, as in this surcote, to create patterns (Staniland, 42-43). This surcote has a ‘brick' pattern, as described in de Dillmont, p. 184. This was common in wool, but it could also be used for gold-work (Staniland, 42).


Silver thread : The #7 Jap thread is a close approximation to the silver-gilt thread of the Middle Ages. Narrow strips of silver-gilt were wound around the core of silk thread (Staniland, 16).

Silk Floss

Velvet ground fabric

Linen backing

Paper, chalk and ink


Cennini, Cennino d'Andrea. The Craftman's Handbook New York Dover, 1954.

de Dillmont, Therese. The Complete Encyclopedia of Needlework Philadelphia: Courage Books, 1996.

Gostelow, Mary. A World of Embroidery. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975.

Jones, Mary Eirwen. A History of Western Embroidery. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1969.

Staniland, Kay. Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Wardle, Patricia. Guide to English Embroidery. London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1981.

(All copyright privileges remain with the author. Copyright 2002 Jennifer K. Mathews, also known as Lady Maudeleyn Godeliva Taillour)