Embroidery,  FAQ,  Klosterstich,  Materials,  Wool-Silk Thread

FAQ – materials for embroidery – threads, fibers & fabrics

2013_racaire_2Recently I already posted about research & medieval embroidery inspiration and today I will answer another question of one of my dear blog members about my materials for embroidery – my threads, fibers and fabrics. 🙂

The actual question was: “…where do you buy the threads or fibers, and materials that they might have used back then?”.

Well, this is again a very good and simple question that needs some further consideration of several important details. I took some time to think about this question and decided to dig a little bit further and to reveal some of the things I discovered throughout the last years.

Short side note:
I am aware that most of you already know some or all of the facts which I listed underneath. This FAQ posting was put together for a blog member who is new to “medieval embroidery”. Therefore I took the time to answer her question as detailed as possible to give her a basic idea of the Middle Ages and my beloved art as well as the used materials. You know, I love to talk about embroidery. 😉

Ok, first things first, when talking about the used materials the very first problem starts with the term “back then”. When we are talking about medieval embroidery or anything “back then”, we are actually not just talking about a short period of about 10 or 50 years. The “Middle Ages” actually include several busy centuries. Wikipedia gives a time frame for the “Middle Ages” from the 5th to the 15th century and the SCA even includes the 16th century. That means furthermore that we are not only dealing with many centuries but also many different art and fashion forms like the Romanesque art, the Gothic art, the Renaissance art.

But not only the style and century are important for us in this case. Whenever we are looking at the “Middle Ages“, we are especially taking a look at a whole continent with many different states, languages, production possibilities,… and most important, also a class society. This continent – Europe – was also influenced by its neighbors through the imports via the silk road, the Arabic and Mongolian invaders, serious climate changes,…

The different art styles like RomanesqueGothic and Renaissance didn’t appear at once everywhere all over Europe at the same time. They rather slowly merged from one style into the other. You can imagine them as new art ideas and art forms which traveling merchants, artisans and craftsman spread over the continent. This is also the reason why we sometimes can find very special styles in one region but not in another or why some regions used special techniques or patterns we don’t find in others.

Another interesting point is the access to materials, the production possibilities as well as the possibility to afford them. Well, when you relate Europe to North-America you will see that it isn’t huge. But also Europe has many different climate zones and not everything can be produced everywhere. For example – while some countries were quite famous for their lovely and fine linen fabrics, some other countries in the colder climates were well known for their wool fabric. And there were several medieval cities all over Europe with specialized workshops (for linen weaving, embroidery, lace,…) well known for their art in their region and beyond.

Concerning the access to materials – well, if you want to be precise, it is not only a question of what was used “back then” – it is also a question of if you had access to it, where it was used and if you would be able afford it. If you had the luck to live in one of the cities which were trade hot spots, you could have had access to the beautiful articles of trade which come through your city – still limited by the trade routes of your local merchants. Living somewhere else you were highly depending on local merchants and their stock or what you or your local craftsmen produce and sell.

Not only that, it was also a matter of which class you belonged to. As an unfree person you will hardly ever be able to afford any silk or fine materials besides the fact that you would work from sunrise to sundown and would not even have the time to think about it. And even if you were a free citizen and wealthy citizen of one of the big towns and could afford it – in many cities there were city laws that prohibited too much splendor – and you would not be able to wear it anyway if you didn’t want to get punished for it. And well, nobility was sometimes too poor to afford some of the things either, even if law would have allowed them too. Yes, there were laws about the usage of pearls, gold, colors and even how much fabric you may use for your garment to prevent too much splendor. And the best of all – every city had it very own laws. *lol*

What fabrics were actually used, you might ask at this point. Well, here my “basic” answer without any further definition or limitation to time, region, availability, usage,… and please keep in mind that I am not a specialist for fabrics, threads and materials nor their history or have researched them myself:
Nearly everything that could be turned into fabric and threads was actually turned into fabric and threads. That means that besides the materials we still know in our modern times, like linen, cotton, silk and wool fabric, they also had a very nice variety of nettle and hemp fabrics and fibers which were also used for clothing and household use. All this fabrics were available in different qualities, thicknesses, quantities and weaves. Just the width of the fabric was limited by the width of the weaving frame used by the weaver.

Short side note: I would like to point out that some people (including myself) think that only little of the materials which were used in the Middle Ages actually survived. There are medieval paintings showing finest translucent veil fabric no one actually knows how they might have produced it or dyes that can’t be reproduced anymore… *sigh*

Even if some of the fabrics could also be afforded by the less wealthy and might have been even somehow embroidered or elaborated, the rich medieval embroidery some of you already know was very special. Good quality embroidery needs good technique, time and good materials. And like with the art styles which spread all over Europe, also embroidery techniques had their regional “hot spots”.
If not worked in a specialized workshop, embroidery was normally a work done by noble ladies who were also supposed to oversee their household and their servants. Embroidery was a highly accepted and even expected pastime for a noble lady and even for a queen. Like noble man were trained in their special knightly arts from an early age, also noble ladies had to learn and practice their embroidery skills as part of their education.

Talking about embroidery techniques and their regional “hot spots”… Lets take my beloved Klosterstich embroidery for example, which became rather popular in the 14th century and was also used in the next centuries. Klosterstich was a technique just worked in the regions of what we know now as southern Germany – mostly worked in nunneries – yes, exactly, by nuns who were daughters of noble families.
The surviving examples of embroidery worked in this technique mostly found in in southern Germany and Switzerland allow the conclusion that Klosterstich (also called cloister stitch or nuns work) was not really used outside this rather small and special region. Though the usage of this technique in southern Germany and Switzerland differs quite a lot, it is the same technique. I couldn’t discover this technique in any other part of Europe if we disregard that it might have been used in the Bayeux tapestry for some details. Unfortunately this can’t be said for sure until the back side of this parts can be inspected. And well, it was also used for German white work but this can be also disregarded.

Before I get lost again in too much special details – embroidery was not a normal female pastime. To not harm your eyes, you could only embroider when the light was good enough and you had no other work to do like working on the field, the garden… This somehow limited elaborate and rich embroidery to the embroidery workshops and society levels which could afford not to work and to have servants and which also could afford the (sometimes very expensive) materials like silk threads, pearls, gold,…

And now we get to the threads and materials they used in the Middle Ages. But well I have to admit that there is actually no rudimental answer to this question. Why? Because it always highly depends on the kind of technique and embroidery you want to recreate and how accurate you want to be in your recreation. But if we don’t want to be too accurate, we can say that threads like silk, gold and silver threads (fine gold and silver bands wrapped around an inner core consisting of another material like silk,…), pearls and beads, linen threads,… and much more was used in the Middle Ages.
As soon as we want to be more accurate we already need to take a closer look at the surviving examples of embroidery and examine the materials. For example pearls – the 12th century loved to use pearls but as soon as we come to the 13th century beads become also very popular. And if you want to be very accurate you will try to find the right beads with the right shape with the drill in the right direction with the right color,…

Well, no, I don’t think that I have a rudimental answer for “…where do you buy the threads or fibers, and materials that they might have used back then?”. To be honest, whenever I find an inspiring embroidery I try to check the description of the used fibers. This is only possible if I have a book with very detailed information about the embroidery which inspires me. Unfortunately this books are very rare, hard to find and if you find them, awfully expensive. In most cases the answer of the book is just “silk thread” or “wool thread” or “linen thread” in this and this color.

Therefore, long time ago, I really gave up my idea of creating perfect looking medieval embroidery and made a deal with myself to not overcomplicate things and to try to use what I have, what I can find and what I can afford – always with the thought on my mind which goal I aspire with my recreation. I think this part really depends on your own choice – you can either make it as easy as possible with what you can find at hobby lobby or other general crafting stores; as good as possible with what you can find and afford at the internet or local yarn shops which also have special silk or linen threads; or as “period”/”medieval accurate” as possible by getting your own sheep and make the wool threads and everything else by your own hands. Though I always found the last option very tempting I am not sure if I really want to go this far. 🙂

But something I can really give you is a list of my favorite embroidery materials and online shops where available. Even if some of this materials were not used “back then”, it really would take an specialist to see the difference. I also added some photos of embroidery for which I already used this materials to give you an idea how the finished embroidery looks like when executed with the reviewed fibers. 🙂

I think that the best, finest and most affordable silk thread for couching with which I worked till now is from “The Handweavers Studio & Gallery” in London, United Kingdom -> Silk Thread
During my second trip to London I got a hint concerning this shop and spent a small fortune on silk there. I never regretted that though I wish I had bought more of their wonderful silk threads while I was there. When I visited the shop they had two different qualities of silk – a very thin and a thicker one. I normally use the thin silk for fine surface couching work and the thicker one for outlines executed in Stem Stitch.
Btw. I already used their beautiful and very thin silk threads for the surface couching embroidery which you can see on the next three photos underneath but more about it in the next “Gold” & “Silver” thread passage.

Some years ago I also got me some silk from thesilkmill for a very special silk embroidery project – something like a 14th century silk pouch project. Though I still don’t know for which project I am going to use this threads, I already have the beautiful silk threads for it. And well, they were 50% off and it was christmas… There is nothing wrong with a “small” christmas present for oneself, isn’t it? 😉
PS.: the silkmill has really good offers and discounts from time to time – they normally advertise them at their facebook fanpage. 🙂

12th century slit neckline with surface couching - Medieval embroidery“Gold” & “Silver” thread
Though real gold and silver thread is already available in the re-enactors scene, I have to admit that I can’t and also don’t really want to afford the price for it. I am not even sure if I would buy it if I could afford it. This real gold and silver threads are just too delicate to handle. I prefer to be able to use and wash my stuff rather then just look at it and worry that it might get damaged.

Therefore I looked around and finally found a really great substitute for real gold and silver threads: “Ophir” thread by the company “Coats”
0300 for gold and 0301 for silver – 40m affordable and machine washable viscose-metallized polyester thread which doesn’t tarnish and also doesn’t break as easily as threads with real metal (and gold/silver in it). I normally use this “Ophir” threads in combination with my very thin silks from “The Handweavers Studio & Gallery” for decorative surface couching for my 12th century projects.

You can see two of this projects worked with “Ophir” “silver” thread and the mentioned very thin silk from “The Handweavers Studio & Gallery” on the picture above and underneath. The picture above shows a detail of my neckline embroidery for my 12th century red silk dress and underneath you can see my 12th century silk fillets (a special kind of medieval headdress). For both projects I used the embroidery technique “surface couching” and the “Ophir” & thin silk thread combination. I just added some extra pearls and beads to my fillet embroidery for some additional and more rich looking embellishment.

12th century embroidered Fillets - Medieval embroidery

…and here a detail photo of some surface couching embroidery technique with the same materials, just in another color for another clothing project: “Ophir” gold thread and thin yellow colored silk. The blue outlines were executed with the already mentioned “thicker” silk thread which I also got from “The Handweavers Studio & Gallery“. I know, it is really not very thick but in comparison to the thin silk thread I use for couching it is very thick. Btw. all this small “lines” on top of the golden thread are tiny couching stitches. All of them are executed with very thin silk thread – yes, this is the thin silk I was talking about. 🙂


I also have some DMC “Fil argent mi-fin” & “Fil métallisé” (silver and gold) which I found in a craft store during one of my visits in Helsinki. This threads contain real metal + gold/silver on a cotton core but I really don’t like to work with this DMC metallic threads. They are very thin, delicate and break easily. I think they are far too much trouble for their rather high price.

14th century Klosterstich project - "We have Dragons" - Medieval embroideryWool
I tried several wool threads over the past years. Finally I can say that my favorite wool thread is from Renaissance Dyeing. I can highly recommend this beautiful and rather thin wool thread for delicate wool embroidery. The wool thread from Renaissance Dyeing is one of the threads which I use for my delicate and period looking Klosterstich embroidery.
At the picture on the right you can see my “We have Dragons” Klosterstich embroidery project. I used the threads from Renaissance Dyeing for this project.

Hint: Renaissance Dyeing has already a very nice assortment of colors but if you need a color shade which they don’t have in their online color chart, you just need to contact Renaissance Dyeing. They normally respond very fast and usually also have some “special colors” in their stock which they don’t have in their online color chart. As Andie from Renaissance Dyeing once explained it to me: just a small change of the pH-value of the water (rain water, well water,…) and the final result can look completely different. Well, dyeing is definitely also an art form. 🙂

Racaire_Nailbinding_12th-century-cap_2Wool – Silk
I actually purchased this threads for a 12th century nailbinding project but I was curious and also tried out if I can embroider with them. And what shall I say, I simply fell in love with the lovely “Baby Silkpaca lace” threads from the company malabrigo.

This 420yards/ 385m of 70% baby alpaca and 30% silk mix is a dream to touch and the threads come in many vibrant colors. And though it is not cheap, a ball of 420yards of wool/silk mix for about 10$ is a really good deal when you consider how much other alpaca or silk threads with less yards/m cost. 🙂

…and here an example of Klosterstich worked with the “Baby Silkpaca lace” thread. Yes, all my recently embroidered patches for my needle books were worked with this thread. 🙂


…and here the small pouch I made for the very first blog birthday raffle. For this project I used another medieval embroidery technique but also worked with the same “Baby Silkpaca lace” threads. I also used this thread for the tassels and the cords.


…and it also can be used for medieval split stitch embroidery:



Btw. I already found a small and very cute local yarn shop with malabrigo threads in my new home town Bowling Green via the “Locate a Store” page on the malabrigo website before I even moved to the states. Recently I visited the shop and it was really not easy to resist to buy more lovely silk and linen threads – they have a really nice assortment. But as soon as I worked up more of my “Baby Silkpaca lace” I will visit the shop again. They have some malabrigo yarns but actually don’t sell the “Baby Silkpaca lace” yet – I hope I can convince the shop owner to order some for me. 🙂

For heavy duty and when the fiber needs to be durable rather than pretty I prefer to use cotton threads. Like for the embroidered favor* which I embroidered for my sweetheart. He wears this favor while he is fighting and wherever he goes during every SCA event and though it was already used a lot, it still looks rather great.
(*= A favor is an old sign of affection. In the SCA it is normally a somehow decorated band hanging from the belt of your love or a very good friend.)

The cotton threads which I use for embroidery are the “Basics” threads from the company “Lana Grossa”. They are affordable, machine washable and very durable. Every one of this “Basics” threads actually consists of 3 thinner threads – by splitting one thread into its 3 single threads the 115m per ball are easily tripled and it takes like forever to use up one of this cotton thread balls. I already successfully worked Klosterstich and Bayeux Stitch with it and also used it for decorative embroidery on several other clothing projects.

Here an example of Klosterstich embroidery executed with cotton thread for you:

Klosterstich Rosenband - Medieval embroidery

…and decorative embroidery for clothing with cotton thread (machine washable!) on one of my “short” 12th century dresses – Chain Stitch and Stem Stitch embroidery. 🙂

12th century inspired embroidery - Medieval embroidery

…and on one of my “long” dresses:


…and finally also some embroidery inspired by the Bayeux tapestry worked with cotton thread:



beaded "Reliquary Pouch" - Medieval embroideryPearls & Beads
Well, I prefer my pearls and beads nice and cheap. Therefore I normally hunt for them at ebay or buy them wherever I find them for a good price. 🙂

…and finally lets get to the:

Well, I lost the access to my favorite fabric shop in Vienna/ Austria when I moved to Kentucky/ USA but I hope I will find a good source for nice fabrics soon. Unfortunately my favorite fabric shop in Vienna, which is a factory fabric outlet shop, doesn’t sell fabric online.

My rules for my own fabric shopping were always rather simple – I try to get linen, linen-cotton blend, silk or wool fabrics and I try to avoid fabric which contain polyester or other synthetic fibers. But I have to admit that this is not always possible. Whenever I see a linen, linen-cotton, wool or silk fabric that pleases me and is available for a good price I will definitely get and use it. 😀

Ok, let’s talk about special fabrics for our craft. For surface covering embroidery techniques which cover the whole surface I normally use linen fabrics. Though some people love to work with “special embroidery fabrics” like “Aida”, I could never get myself to work with this fabrics. I think that they are overly expensive, not really necessary and in most cases they look and feel like plastic to me. I think that a linen fabric with a rather loose weave looks much more medieval, has a much better feel and is definitely cheaper. But well, my motto is “live and let live” – everyone shall use the materials he/she likes best. For some more difficult embroidery projects – like surface couching or raised goldwork – it will be necessary to get special stuffing material or backup material – but I will discuss this as soon as we get to one of this special projects.

And even if you go out and buy all materials you need to start a project, some thread, fabric and needle combinations will work for one technique but maybe not for another. Therefore, whenever you want to start a bigger project or a nice embroidery it is always a good idea to test first if your thread, fabric, the chosen size of needles and the embroidery technique work well together. If you want to read more about it, I already wrote about it in my posting: Craft with Racaire – Needle-roll #1 Just scroll down a little and go to the section about “How to find the best combination of needle + thread + fabric + technique for your project“. In this section I described how I make sure that the combination of materials and the technique I want to use for a project really work together.

I really wish I could give you links to some good online fabric shops but the only online fabric shop which I tried out yet is Puresilks. This shop has a beautiful assortment of silk fabrics and was recommended to me by my awesome sister Bella. I already ordered some of their blue 100% Silk Brocade Vestments Fabrics and also some gold colored silk for our 12th century wedding dress project. I am very happy about the fabric we received.
Btw. I just saw that they also have 100% linen fabric – might be worth a try as soon as I run out of linen fabric. 🙂

Nevertheless, I am somehow prepared for a hopefully not too long “fabric shortage”. I brought my complete fabric stash with me in my moving boxes and got even some extra fabric from my sister Martina before I moved. That should keep me busy for at least some time. 😉

In summary I would say that it is not that important if your materials are really medieval – a successful and good looking project also depends on how much work, love for detail and fun & love you put into it. I wouldn’t go so far to say that you can make cheap and poor material look good but when you pay attention to the good quality of your threads and fabrics, you already made a great step in the right direction. The rest is just the right technique, practice, practice, practice and – never forget – fun! …and well, nice medieval inspiration and patterns are also good to have. 😀

…and now it is time to find an end for this rather long posting about materials for embroidery but I have one last recommendation for you:

If you would like to know a little bit more about medieval embroiderers – there is a beautiful small book which I can recommend:

Medieval Craftsmen – Embroiderers

This very nice small book is one of my favorite books about embroiderers in the Middle Ages and definitely a good read for everyone interested into medieval embroidery. It is available for some bucks at Amazon – just check out the “USED” book section for a good price:

Amazon.com: Embroiderers (Medieval Craftsmen)
Amazon.de: Embroiderers (Medieval Craftsmen)

Ok, enough about fabrics, threads and fibers for now. I hope you enjoyed our excursion into materials for embroidery and more… And now I really need to start my next “embroidery” project – a hands-on Klosterstich photo tutorial! *wooohooo* 😀

Best regards Racaire