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Thoughts on mastering medieval embroidery

As some of you might know, cutting stamps and printing fabric is actually not my main craft. It is rather a relatively “new” craft to me though I already practise and develope it for some years now. Every day I seem to learn or discover something new which is exciting and highly satisfying. However, there is a certain magic within what I consider my main field of expertise – European embroidery from the 11th to 14th century. Though I wish I had far more time for it, there are just so many work hours in the day and embroidery has to wait until I find some more time for it…

But regardless if European medieval hand embroidery, cutting linoleum stamps or blockprinting – I love them all! I might have my personal favorites but I enjoy them all equaly as crafting is a part of my life and personality. Yes, I simply can’t sit still unless I am too ill to get myself to do something.

Some people once told me that if I wasn’t so nice, they would have to hate me because of my talent. I agree, talent is nice but talent is just one thing and it only gets you to a certain point. To understand a craft fully, one has to allow oneself to imerge into the desired field completely. But what does that really mean?

Well, let’s take a look at it through one of my favorite fields which I just mentioned – European medieval embroidery. Since I started practicing and learning about medieval embroidery, which was about 20 years ago, I have seen a lot of class handouts and attended several embroidery classes. All of those have one thing in common – they all mainly focus on the techniques. Books, as rare as good technical literature is for this field, are slightly better as they also cover the needed materials and the really good books also cover how to prepare your embroidery frame…

I always had the impression as medieval embroidery has been like an unloved step child. During all the years when I visited countless museums all over Europe I could hardly find extant embroideries on display. Which is understandable. They are, the higher their age, quite fragile and in most cases not as appealing as all the shiny gold and metal work close by. I was very fortunate to have two of the very few exceptions close by and accessible to me – the treasury and the museum of applied arts in Vienna, Austria. Both had amazing medieval embroideries in a vast amount on display and I studied them as often and as in depth as I was able to.

During the last years I was happy to spot a slow change as more people start to find a passion for this artform and begin to explore and share it with others on a far higher level. Dr. Tanja Kohwagner-Nikolai with her thesis “Per manus sororum…: Niedersaechsische Bildstickereien im Klosterstich (1300-1583)” was like a light in the dark with a in-depth view on used materials and she went even further with illuminating also the people behind the craft.

Which brings me back again to the basics. To understand a craft you have to be able to go beyond technique or talent. Mastering a craft is far more than that. It involves an understanding of all the little things that go beyond the technique. Don’t take me wrong – understanding the stitches is a great first step and important ground work. However, unless you give some time to also understand the difference between the used materials, scissors or frames, you have just scraped the very bottom of this craft.

In the past often people asked me for advice concerning their embroidery and I made the experience that most “mistakes” can be based on: either useing the wrong needles, the wrong (or cheap) materials like threads or ground fabric or the technique is not right with the used materials or needles or frames. In most cases it was a combination of more than one thing.

Let’s start with materials. If you want to make an embroidery that looks like a million bucks, please don’t expect that to happen with DMC floss and Aida (or however this artificial base is called). There is a reason why some of the most beautiful extant embroideries are made from wool or silk. But it doesn’t need to be that expensive if you are just starting – high quality cotton thread is not only machine washable but will make a huge difference. Or try to work with some lovely (real) wool thread like from Renaissance Dyeing – I tell you, you will never go back to DMC thread once you experienced good quality thread as it makes such a difference!

This brings me right to the embroidery needles. Have you ever thought why they offer needles in many different sizes – with tip and without? It is actually pretty easy to remember: Different sizes of needles are good for different fabrics and can accomodate different weaves and tightness of weave. Tip or no tip is a question of if you want to pierce the fibers (tip) or if you rather slip inbetween them like it would be preferably for counting techniques like German Brick Stitch,… (blant/no tip). And no surprise – there are better and less quality needles available.

What kind of frame? Well, in most cases, unless you are an obsessed geek like I am, a round frame will do. If you want to embroider more elaborate, longer pieces, you might invest in a rolling frame. And yes, as with threads and needles there are many different quality levels of frames too. Regardless if round or rolling frame, which are both quite different in their handling, it is always important to pay attention to the tension of your fabric.

And still, even if you paid attention to all the single points if doesn’t prevent you from failure if your needle, thread, fabric, frame and technique don’t cooperate with each other. If you can’t thread your needle with your precious thread, if your needle won’t pass easily with the thread through the fabric, if your thread is not wide enough to cover your fabric with the stitch you are useing and gives it a relatively poor, unfilled overall look…

And this all doesn’t help either if you don’t understand the style and aesthetic you want to recreate or copy…

I hope this gives you an idea of why I say that technique and talent isn’t all. What makes you a Master is the understanding of all the little details that make your craft. It starts with the smallest thing involved, like a needle or the predrawing of the pattern, things that can be seen in the finished piece but can make all the difference.

This is not to discourage you on your way to mastering your craft but to encourage you to take a step back and take a look at the materials, techniques and tools you are useing and to question them. To see your boundaries, to explore them and to become better doing it. In my opinion – if you think there is nothing more to learn you might either have given up or stopped improving.

If medieval embroidery in all its beauty has taught me something is that there is always room for improvement and to learn more.