An Embroidery done in Opus Anglicanum style by the author (13cm x 7cm) cotton on silk based on a panel the Messenger from Limburg from Manessischen Liederhandschrift

 Opus Anglicanum
(English Work or how to paint with a needle)

"About the same time [1245], my Lord Pope, having noticed that the ecclesiastical ornaments of certain English priests, such as choral copes and mitres, were embroidered in gold thread after a most desirable fashion, asked whence came this work? From England, they told him. Then exclaimed the pope, 'England is for us surely a garden of delights, truly an inexhaustible well.'" Thus the chronicler Matthew of Paris describes the enthusiasm of Innocent IV (1243�54) for vestments he saw in England. By the end of the thirteenth century, the Vatican had acquired more than one hundred such examples of opus anglicanum.  In fact opus anglicanum embroideries derived their name from the cataloguing of such work in the churches. Opus Anglicanum is Latin for English work or �work of the English� and reached its heights between 1250 �1350. (although some authors take it back to 1100)

Many types of liturgical vestments such as copes were commissioned from embroiders and were given and sold to churches abroad where they were much prized; even popes commissioned such vestments. Therefore many sacred examples of opus anglicanum have survived.  Surviving Sacred Embroideries include the:

v     Syon cope (late 13th century) V & A Museum
v     Butler-Bowden cope (early 14th century) V & A Museum
Panel �Christ charging the apostles� (approx 1300) British Museum
Bologna Cope (1315)
Ascoli Piceno Cope (1275)
St. Bertrand-de-Comminges cope
Cope of St Sylvester
Vatican Museum Cope
The Jesse Cope (1295-1315) V & A Museum
John of Thanet Panel (1300-20) V & A Museum
Burse (1310-40) V & A Museum
Alb apparel �Life of the Virgin� (1320-40) V& A Museum
Chasuble orphrey (1310-40) V & A Museum
Durham Cope
Steeple Aston Cope (1320)
Chichester � Constable Chasuble (1330-50) Metropolitan Museum

 Who did these embroideries?

There is no doubt of the existence of professional workshops of embroiders during this time even though it was not until 1561 that Elizabeth I granted a charter of incorporation to the Broderer's Company. Many of the names of embroiders have been lost to us but some remain in household accounts especially of Henry III; Adam de Basing, William le Settere and Mabel of Bury St Edwards are some of the names mentioned.  Some writers� claim that men were the only embroiders of the time, certainly men dominated many guilds but there is lots of evidence to claim that women participated too. Besides Mabel of St Edwards the 1292 Statues of the Embroiders and Embroideresses in Paris clearly includes both sexes as well as detailing the working conditions, minimal standards of gold thread and apprenticeship terms for the craft.  Apprentices had to serve a minium of eight years service under a guild member and a member could take on only one apprentice at a time. (Statues reproduced in Staniland 1991:13)

 So how much did it cost to make?

 In 1271 for an altar-front for the High Altar in Westminster Abbey the wages of 4 women working for 3 � years cost 36 pounds. The gold, silk, pearls enamels, garnet and silver needed for the work cost 220 pounds - try calculating that in today�s wages! (Staniland 1991:9)

 Secular Embroidery
(or what stands still long enough for me to embroider it!)

English work was not done just for the churches although not much remains of secular forms but we do know that they did exist.

From surviving paperwork of purchases and household accounts we know that embroiders were commissioned to undertake work on clothing, horse trappings, banners, palls, hangings, royal vestments, cushions, and bed hangings. Unfortunately almost none of these pieces have survived, and through the accounts do not specify the type of embroidery it is possible to postulate that English work was being used.

The surviving secular items that we do know about include �

Buskins - (Long embroidered Stocking) one complete pair found in a tomb in Canterbury early 13c plus fragments at both the British and V&A museums.  The Canterbury one is embroidered with a net diaper of gold thread, each compartment containing a small star or cross device, or an eagle. Even the feet are powdered with six rayed stars and cross and spots of gold.  (drawing above from Snook 1960:27)

Sandals � also found in a tomb in Canterbury. Silk, lined with damask silk. Richly decorated with gold and silver in underside couching and with gems. The design includes a lion, dragon, and eagle and a cross device; carbuncles and fleurs-de-lis enriched a border along the top edge. (Snook 1960:27)

The buskins and sandals could still be considered part of liturgical vestments as they were taken from tombs in Canterbury but one thing that tends for me to put then in the secular basket is the lack of any sacred designs in the works upon them.

Aumoniere (purse): the one pictured below depicting lovers was worked in Paris about 1340. (Staniland 1991:43)

What Happened to English Work?

Around the middle to the second half of the Fourteenth century there is a marked decline in the design and quality of the embroidery being produced.

There is a number of theories to account for this, some researchers claim the black plague wreaked havoc not only in the embroidery workshops but also among the silversmiths who produced the fine needles necessary for the work. Metal needles would definitely have been used to create these works as it would have been impossible to stitch the multi-layered fabric in such delicate designs without them.

Others claim that wars in the later part of the fourteenth century drained the resources necessary to commission such fine works and yet others claim that advances in the weaving of brocades and velvets provided stiff competition to the embroidery workshops.

Whatever the reason another century would pass before works even approaching the quality of English work would again re-emerged.

What do you need?

A frame - English Work must be worked in a frame, especially if you are doing gold work. This is impossible to do free handed.

Good light! � This is important if you want to be able to see beyond your nose by the time you finish your work (can I do it till I need glasses).  Even guild embroiders in Paris in the late 13th century were forbidden to work at night or by candlelight. ��for work done at night cannot be so well or skilfully done as that done by day� Statutes of the Embroiderers and Embroideresses of Paris 1292-1303 quoted in Staniland 1991:13.

 Ground Fabrics

 In period surviving examples are done on:

v     Fine Linen, mounted above a coarser linen lining
Velvet, backed with linen
Silk often in twill weave, also lined.

Before everyone goes out and grabs a piece of velvet a bit of reality bites. To do this type of work on velvet you will need a fine piece of linen or cotton with the design transferred on to it and then tacked to the velvet so that you are embroidering through three layers of fabric. The worst is yet to come � after you finished you have to trim any fine pile which works its way though the embroidery plus trimming off any remaining cotton or linen design fabric, without cutting any of your stitches. (yuk � the hair cut from hell, yes this is how they did it in period see Snook 1960:19). 

 I recommend the linen or silk but remember the weave must be tight enough that you will not pull the stitches through the weave and heavy enough to withstand the close stitch work and tension of the frame. I have a hard time finding the right fabric for a ground and tend to use Duchess Silk, (a heavy dense fabric, not too bright and shiny) as a good compromise fabric (I have yet to find twill weave silk, but I am still looking so please let me know if you find any).


v     Split Stitch
Underside Couching - This stitch allows for much greater flexibility in the fabric than surface couching therefore is much more practical for garments.
Standard or Surface Couching (standard couching was seen in later 14 century works and many writers consider this a short cut to underside couching and part of the decline in English work)




Couching                                                                                          Split Stitch

 Silk Floss

Choosing your silk can be difficult. I find it best to use a silk that has a light twist as this tends to reflect light best and tends to look a lot glossier than floss with a tighter twist. The downside to this is that it is more likely to fray and break (it�s a trade off). The brand I recommend is Cifonda but it is very hard to find a reliable supplier and some of their colour batches tend to be a bit different. Other excellent brands include Au Ver A Soie, Electra and Madeira (this last one has a very tight twist and tends to be a bit dull but is the most readily available and great for underside couching).  Beware Rajmahal or �Art Silks� as they are not silk but rayon in disguise.

Make sure before you start that you have a good range of colours to blend from light to dark. For draperies I tend to use up to five or more shades of the same colour to get the right effect and it is best if you can have all your shades at hand before starting your work.

The gold and silver cord required for this work is another difficulty and I have not found a brand that I can recommend without reservation although Kreinik or DMC threads are pretty good. Don�t forget that a number of works were multi-media incorporating pearls enamels, garnets and other gems. So if your tastes run to the sumptuous then try and incorporate some of these into your work.

Choosing your Design

Surviving examples (which are mostly sacred) have quite a variety of subjects including lives of saints and the holy family, angels, prophets, apostles, birds and foliage etc. (Illuminations and Bestiaries are a wonderful source of inspiration for a design)

The image to the right is of a cope from Steeple Aston, Oxfordshire; the full image shows an angel playing a lute on horseback against a fully worked silver background in underside couching, c. 1320 (Synge 1982:12) 

Note: If you look closely you can see the stitching in the underside couching in the background being used as part of the pattern, this can be seen on a number of works where the texture of the underside couching creates part of the design. 

Design Analysis

The period of English work is before the renaissance and the rise of realistic human representations, despite this there is still a lot of drama in the scenes that are shown in English work. Design elements that you may notice are the dramatic poses, large eyes, elongated fingers, curly/wavy hair (sometimes in strange colours i.e. one of the figure below has forest green hair), copious drapery and often a narrative element in the design.

Who were the designers? Like the embroiders many of the designers names are also lost but with the similarities between embroideries, illuminations, painting, and miniatures of the time there is little doubt that the designers moved between each medium. (This is one thing that almost all writers agree on)


 Detail from an altar front 1315-35,From Christ�s Charge to St Peter in a series of scenes of the Passion of Christ (Staniland, 1991:35)

Once you have chosen your design draw in as much of the shadowing as possible on to your pattern. All of your guidelines will be covered in dense stitching so a detailed pattern will not show through, plus it is much easier to use as a guide and it makes it simpler to graduate your shades of colour if you can see how the shadows falls on the drapery. The image to the right is a section of one of my patterns that shows the shading of the drapery.

In period they would have used the pricking and pouncing method to transfer their design, except for velvet. Although I do remember reading one theory that the work was drawn directly onto the fabric, the reality is that except for velvet (were there are traces remaining) we don�t know. I personally like to use iron on transfer pencils and glad bake paper to transfer my design, as I tend to put in too much detail to try and join the dots after pouncing � your choice, your grey hairs.

 OK! So how do I embroider it?

All Right! you have the design, the frame, the stitch, floss and a great source of light, now how do you bring them together to make a work of art.

Embroidery differs from painting in that we have texture and never is that more important than in English work. To bring this type of embroidery to life you must first plan out the direction of stitches for the hair and drapery so that the flow of the design is enhanced and enriched by the stitches.  When light hits your embroidery (especially when you use pure silk) you can see the flow of stitches giving your work a three dimensional aspect that almost makes the figures look alive.

To achieve this effect stitch lines must follow the flow of the drapery, the face is the most important part of the embroidery and in many designs the cheeks are commonly done in a swirl of slightly darker or rosier colour than the rest of the face. 

The picture below shows the flow of stiches on the face and hair of the Archangel Gabriel taken from the cope of Pius II at Pienza, which is from the first half of the 14th Century. This is an excellent example of a typical Opus Anglicanum face and how to plan the flow of stitches on a work to best enhance your design.


Stitch plan for the Archangel Gabriel from the cope of Pius II at Pienza (Dean 1958:145)

Remember you can overstitch fine details over your split-stitched base. I have overstitched eyes and eyebrows in faces, defined fingers as well as defined details in animals as shown below. In the picture of Aumoniere shown above it is possible to make out outlining stitches on the fingers (at least you can in the original picture which is in colour in Staniland � there you have an excuse to pick up the book it is well worth the price!).

Close up of the peacock off my favour showing the overstitching to highlight the feathers

Blending colours in drapery

Blending from one shade to the next is simplicity itself.  In many works no blending is required as the colours change from one shade to another with no mixing. But if you want a more naturalistic look or are working in single strands then you need to establish a buffer zone between each shade were you work both colours alternating so that line between one colour and other is blurred. (As shown in the image to the right.)

The image below to the right shows a close up of some drapery on a piece I am currently working on which demonstrates this effect.

If you are working in more than one strand then it is even easier. For example if you are working two stands then when you get to your buffer zone take one thread of each colour and twist them together so that you make a new intermediary colour. Use this blended thread in your buffer zone. 
                                            (As shown in my very rough diagram to the left.)

Good luck with your embroidery and Enjoy!!!!

Lady Acacia d'Navarre
St Florian della Rivere, Lochac, West Kingdom



Cavallo, Adolph (1979) �Needlework� Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Smithsonian Institution, USA

Christie, A.G.H. (1938) �English Medieval Embroidery� Clarendon Press, Oxford

Dean, Beryl (1989) �Ecclesiastical Embroidery�, The Bath Press, Avon

Digby, George Wingfield (1963) �Elizabethan Embroidery� Thomas Yoseloff, New York.

King, Donald (1963) �Opus Anglicanum: English Medieval Embroidery� The Curwen Press, London

King, D. & Levey, S. (1993) �The Victoria & Albert Museum�s Textile Collection: Embroidery in Britain from 1200 to 1750� Canopy Books, New York

Staniland, Kay (1991) �Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers�, British Museum Press, UK

Snook, Barbara (1960) �English Embroidery�, Bell & Hyman, Great Britain

Synge, Lanto (1982) �Antique Needlework� Blandford Press, Dorset

Wardle, Patricia (1981) �Guide to English Embroidery� Victoria and Albert Museum, Her Majesty�s Stationary Office, London


 Panel made for the wedding of Massimiliano D'Asburgo with Marie de Bourgogne
Embroidery called "Opus Anglicanum", XV century.
Exhibitor: Antichit� Piselli - Balzano