10th to 15th century - medieval islamic inspired embroidery,  Bayeux Stitch,  Books,  Books - Embroidery,  Embroidery,  Embroidery Patterns,  Islamic,  Islamic laid and couched work,  OvO - Order of the velvet Owl - pouch,  Projects,  Refilsaum

…my medieval islamic inspired embroidery project – from the medieval inspiration to an actual pattern or “an interesting journey” .2

And today we are taking another close look at my very first medieval islamic inspired embroidery project – the OvO pouch for Gloria, my dear mother-in-law.

My last posting was about the problems I had to solve concerning the Arabic inscription of the extant medieval islamic embroidery before I could even think about starting with the actual embroidery. But once this initial problem was resolved, I could continue with exploring the embroidery technique which was used for the extant medieval islamic piece which inspired me.

Which brings us right to the next step of my quite interesting journey:

Problem #2: exploring the extant medieval islamic embroidery technique

To be able to start with the development of my own embroidery pattern I didn’t really need to know all about the embroidery technique which I wanted to use. I just needed a basic understanding of the technique as it wasn’t crucial for the development of my pattern.

Normally I try to understand an embroidery technique as good as possible before I even start thinking about developing an embroidery pattern. An embroidery technique can highly influence what one can do – or even more important: can’t do – when it comes to a pattern. Therefore it is always quite helpful to know what problems you might have to deal with further down the road concerning your project. That’s why I normally try to get a good overview over the actual technique which I am going to use before I start developing my pattern. Especially when I am working with a technique or technique variation I am not completely familiar with. 

Well, this is what I would normally do but this case was quite different. Right from the beginning my major goal was to copy the original pattern and to just add a little bit more to it. In this particular case I didn’t need to worry how to solve certain parts of the embroidery pattern in regards to the embroidery technique. The embroiderer who embroidered the extant piece already solved this task for me. However, I still had to take a close look at the execution of the technique as the goal was not only to copy the pattern (to a certain possible degree) but also to copy the technique as well – as close as possible due to my knowledge, my capacity and the alterations I was going to make to the initial pattern.

Thankfully the embroiderer who created the extant piece already put a lot of thought into the main pattern and its final execution which spared me a lot of time concerning the pattern development. Though I still had to face and resolve the issue with the missing parts of the Arabic inscription, I already had the framework for my main pattern finished and just needed to work at the fine tunic like the actual size of the embroidery, the center part with the owl I wanted to add and replacing the lion with an owl…

But back to the embroidery technique. My goal here – like always – was not to simply copy the position of one thread after another. My personal goal is always to understand why a technique was worked the way it appears on the fabric now. And if that is not possible, I at least try to develop a good feeling for the basics so I can recreate them and give them the medieval appearance or “vibe” I am known for. Yes, I always try to develop my own version of the embroidery techniques I use, based on my own experience and understanding why some stitches might have been executed in a certain way.

I also take some freedom to not always agree with the medieval embroiderer and to go my own way when it comes to patterns or technique variations. Btw. technique variations and different “opinions” about how to execute a certain pattern is quite medieval as several extant embroideries still prove to this day. You can read more about this obvious different “opinions” when it comes to the pattern outlines and the actual pattern execution in Dr. Kohwagner-Nikolai thesis about Klosterstich tapestries from Lower Saxony: “Per manus sororum…”.*

(* …a great book about the Klosterstich / cloister stitch technique but unfortunately only available in German)

At this point I would like to point out that I only examined the embroidery technique of one piece that inspired me and which you can see on the picture underneath. Without examining more medieval islamic embroidery pieces only one thing can be said for sure now:

One embroiderer embroidered this embroidery in a certain way.

Which just means that this piece is not an indication if this technique was commonly used during the medieval time in the Middle East / islamic countries. No generalization can be made at this point concerning the use of this technique and/or technique variation. And that is fine – at least for now. 🙂

…and to be honest, examining the basics of the used embroidery technique of this certain piece was already difficult enough as the extant embroidery is definitely not in its best shape:

Copyright Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford; This item is from Eastern Art Online: Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art, jameelcentre.ashmolean.org, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Textile fragment with lion and inscription, possibly from a bag or pocket

  • Object title: “Textile fragment with lion and inscription, possibly from a bag or pocket”
  • Date: 10th – 15th century AD
  • Place: Near East
  • Material and Technique: Linen, embroidered with red and blue silk; linen backing; with stitching in flax
  • Dimensions: 13 x 12 cm max. (length x width), along length/width 21 / 21 threads/cm (thread count), ground fabric 0.05 cm max. (thread diameter), ground fabric 0.03 cm min. (thread diameter), additional fibre, embroidery 0.06 cm (thread diameter)
  • Accession number: EA1984.87

But even if this embroidery is not in its best shape, every remaining thread as well as every little hole where the thread is already missing can give a certain indication of how the embroidery technique was worked. And as that is all what we have in this case, as well as in so many other cases when it comes to medieval embroidery and especially early medieval embroidery, we have to make the best out of it. However, when you take a closer look at the embroidery via the close up function at the website of the Ashmolean Museum, you will discover that the used embroidery technique in this case is very similar to the “Bayeux Stitch” and “Refilsaum”. 

Why do I just call it similar and not the same technique, you might ask at this point. Well, that is a good question and the answer is quite easy: Most sections of the Bayeux tapestry executed in the “Bayeux Stitch” are worked the following way:

  • 1st layer: basis threads “laid” parallel next to each other, covering the whole section*
  • 2nd layer: holding threads “laid” over/on top of the basis threads of the 1st layer, generally slanted by 90 degree and with some space in between
  • 3rd layer: holding stitches couching the 2nd layer (holding threads) down

(* this basis threads are often worked over the longest possible distance which makes it possible to cover the section as fast as possible)

Btw. if you would like to get a good impression of the Bayeux tapestry yourself, I highly recommend David M. Wilson’s book about the Bayeux Tapestry. His book has very detailed and rather big pictures of the Bayeux tapestry. It is one of my favorite books about the tapestry and helped me a lot when I started examining and working this technique more than 10 years ago. 🙂

But back to the embroidery technique which I used for this project. What makes this example of islamic stitch so different to the “Bayeux Stitch” is the execution of the 2nd layer. The holding threads on top of the basis threads are not worked in the for the Bayeux tapestry usual 90degree angle in relation to the basis threads but what looks more (or less) like a 45degree angle. And this acute angle generates a quite interesting pattern.

And not only that – it looks like some (or maybe all – difficult to tell based on so many missing threads) of the outlines were worked in a similar “self-couching” technique and not like the Bayeux Stitch, where the outlines along the border of the filled sections were normally executed in what looks like a more or less proper executed Stem Stitch.

To cut a long story short – this stitch is very similar to the Bayeux Stitch with two small but quite major differences. And though I decided not to work the outlines in the “self-couching” technique but to use the Stem Stitch instead because it gives me a much more proper looking outline, I think that I made a pretty good job concerning reviving the old pattern. It might even give a good impression of how parts of the extant piece might have looked like when they were still new. 

If this project made you gusto for islamic embroideries, I have another personal book recommendation for your embroidery book collection:

“Embroideries and samplers from Islamic Egypt”
by Marianne Ellis

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I hope you enjoyed todays posting about the embroidery technique which I used for my medieval islamic inspired embroidery project. Stay tuned – more about this project will follow soon… 🙂

Best regards Racaire…and here you can find some other postings about this project: