"The Period Embroidery Frame" by Bannthegn Alianora da Lyshret.
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Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
The Period Embroidery Frame
by Bannthegn Alianora da Lyshret
While it is possible to embroider on loose cloth, the process is very awkward and will lead to puckering and distortion of the stitches. From the earliest times, the needleworker has fitted her ground fabric into a tautening frame.
I was taught my first simple embroidery stitches by my grandmother when I was a little girl. Like most modern needleworkers, I began with the modern ring frame, or embroidery hoop. As I became more skilled and interested in fine needlework, I moved on to rectangular frames, which were much more satisfactory in terms of tautness and lack of fabric distortion.
IÕve been interested in period techniques and tools for 3 decades, looking into the subject willy-nilly as I researched medieval embroidery. IÕve been able to find masses of material on the general subject (Especially during the past 10-15 years. In my early SCA career [1970 and on] there was very little information readily available.), especially books and articles dealing with fibers and stitch technique. IÕve found the search for information on pre-1600 needlework equipment very frustrating. ItÕs a subject sometimes glossed over (References to frames, but no description.) and mostly ignored. There are a few books that deal with needlework tools and accessories, but their authors seem to believe that needlework history began somewhere between 1680 and 1850.
So, it was on to other sources of information. Period commission and guild accounts describe fabrics, fibers, gems and metals distributed to embroiderers, but IÕve never found a reference to an embroidery frame, apart from guild cautions to embroiderers to be certain that their fabric is tautly mounted. My assumption is that the embroiderers always provided their own frames, making them irrelevant to the accountants. Cennini describes a method of painting embroidery motifs in ink onto fabric mounted in stretcher frames. This is the sum total of my results so far.
IÕve been left with three other resources: 1) Extant objects; 2) Period art; and 3) Common sense Ņpractical archaeologyÓ.
1) I had the good fortune to spend three weeks in England in the mid-nineties. Though it was no exhaustive medieval needlework tour of Europe, I was able to see quite a number of period pieces, most at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. There were no actual period stretcher frames on display, though there were some later period "Slate" frames on display. I was fortunate enough to happen upon an under-curator, who described the standard earlier period frame as a simple rectangle of soft wood, similar to the modern stretcher frame. Though there are some fragments at the Museum of London (I didnÕt see them there, but they are supposed to have them), no whole frames still existed in England to her knowledge. (I would be thrilled to hear from anyone who might have a reference to surviving medieval stretcher frames.)
2) My survey of period art hasnÕt come up with much, either. It seems that while the product was highly valued, the process wasnÕt much romanticized or often deemed a fit subject for art during the period. Just about every portrayal I have found is definitely late in our period. The embroiderer seems to have become a more interesting subject in the post period, with a number of pictures and engravings existing from the 17th Century.
The general result: All of the frames portrayed are rectangular wood of two basic styles: 1) The ŅStretcherÓ style, a butted, square cornered frame, possibly fitted by combed or toothed ends as are the modern versions, and 2) The "Slate" style, in which the pieces are fitted crossing at the corners, either by pegging or by means of a hole in the vertical pieces through which the horizontal bars are fitted.
The fabric is mounted into these frames in two ways: First, and most commonly shown, the ground fabric of a smaller size than the frame is sewn into the frame with whipped stitches between the edge of the frame and the edge of the fabric. The other method is to fasten the edge of a piece of ground fabric larger than the frame into the frame using tacks.
3) Given what little hard information I have yet been able to find, some of my conclusions and most of my interpretations are based on my own experiences in embroidery. Working the same themes, with the same stitches, on the same or similar ground fabrics, using the same fibers, I think I have a good feel for the process as my medieval counterpart would have experienced it.
First, a rectangular frame is absolutely necessary to achieve the tautness of ground fabric necessary for fine embroidery. Ideal is a rectangular frame held by a stand of some sort, allowing the needleworker to work with both hands, and to use the Ņunder and overÓ technique necessary for perfect stitch placement. (The best result in embroidery is achieved by plunging the needle under the surface and coming up from underneath on each stitch. There are a few exceptions of stitches that can be worked well entirely on the surface, but only a few.) Period needleworkers are portrayed using trestles to support their larger frames, and leaning stands for smaller versions. A small frame can be held in the hand, and except for couched metal work, I have found this more convenient for frames smaller than 8 inches square.
Mounting the ground fabric: Most of the illustrations show the ground fabric whipped into a larger frame. In spite of this, I have found this method far less satisfactory than mounting larger fabric with tacks. This is the only way to get a drum taut fabric surface, and one must have such a taut surface when doing metalwork. My interpretation is that economics and other practicalities played a role in the mounting choices. First, the medieval craftsman could only own so many different lengths of finished wood, and the size of the objects commissioned would probably vary far more than the frame pieces available. The whipped mounting allows more flexibility.
Second, is the fact that sometimes the embroiderers were working on finished garments or pieces thereof, rather than on whole cloth. The whipping method of mounting is less damaging to the edges of fabric than tacking, thus preserving the precious textiles. Thirdly, constantly tacking into a piece of wood will damage it, eventually destroying its ability to hold another tack. My interpretation is that the tacking method may have been reserved for metalwork embroidery.
As a modern needleworker, I have the luxury of being able to waste the edges of my fabric, and to afford to have a large selection of frame sides in every needful size, and the ability to replace them when too holed to hold another tacking. On the rare occasions that I do work on finished garments or pattern pieces, I have modern, non-damaging plastic frames such as the Q-snap available to me. Therefore, I use the tacking method exclusively when working with whole cloth.
There are two other types of frame common with the modern needleworker, the scroll frame and the ring frame. Though I have seen late period and slightly post-period depictions of embroiderers using what seems to be a scrolled fabric frame, these were very late period and very large pieces. I have, as yet, found no period references to them, and my current belief is that they were, in fact, limited to large pieces and the late portion of our period. I base that on my own experiences with trying to execute period embroidery techniques using a scroll frame, which is much more conducive to canvas work (needlepoint) and quilting.
The ring frame or hoop, is made up of two rings of either wood or metal, in which mounting is achieved by placing the fabric over the smaller ring, and then placing the larger ring around the fabric and smaller ring. The wooden version is tightened by means of a screw set into the outer ring, and the metal version is automatically tightened be means of a spring. I had, for many years, simply assumed that the wooden ring embroidery frame was a period tool. It is often portrayed in movies and novels with pre-1600 European settings, and itÕs very simplicity argued for its early use.
Surprisingly, I have yet to find a single description of, or reference to, a ring embroidery frame in Europe in our period. The earliest mention I have found of round or ring frames comes with the introduction of tambour work in the late 17th or early 18th Centuries.
In my own experience with fine embroidery I abandoned the use of the ring frame many years ago, as it was more a hindrance than a help in my work. A ring frame cannot hold fabric taut enough, is more difficult to set in a stand, wrinkles, distorts, and often soils the ground fabric, and must constantly be rearranged and tightened. A ring frame is really only usable when working from the surface only, in which case a looser hold can be helpful. Given my experience I seriously doubt that medieval embroiderers would have found a ring frame any more useful. (Lady Katherine of Cate Hall has suggested that another reason for the absence of ring frames is the possible difficulty of bending the proper thicknesses of wood, which might require later steam technology. Neither of us know much about period woodworking, so any enlightenment would be welcome.)
Cennini. 1978. Craftsman's Handbook (Il Libro dell' Arte)
King, Donald, and Santina Levey. 1993. Embroidery in Britain from 1200 to 1750: The Victoria & Albert Museum's Textile Collection. Abbeville Press, Inc.
Newton, Stella Mary. 1980. Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince. Rowman & Littlefield.
Staniland, Kay. 1991. Embroiderers (Medieval Craftsmen). University of Toronto Press
Wark, Edna. Metal Thread Embroidery.
Warner, Pamela. 1991. Embroidery, A History
Some online period embroidery resources:
The Bayeux Tapestry
Medieval/Renaissance Embroidery Homepage
Viking Embroidery Stitches and Motifs
A Stitch Out of Time
Atlantia Embroidery and Needlework Links
Period depictions of embroiderers that show frames are difficult to find. Here are some:
Online Pictures showing Embroidery Frames:
(These are all 17th & 18th Century, but show pegged and stretcher frames)
Illustration of a "slate" frame ( HasnÕt changed over the centuries)
Photo of StanilandÕs. Embroiderers shows embroiderers working at an upright rectangular frame.
Copyright 2001 by Sandra McDaniel, 1915 East Berridge Lane, Phoenix, AZ 85016. <fretknot at cox.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.