Materials and techniques of the rare and intricate embroidered binding on a medieval almanac.
I have been looking at historic textiles all my life. To me, they are the root system that supports my practice as a craftsperson. So, when fellow maker Rosie Taylor-Davies sent me an image of the medieval almanac, I was immediately intrigued. My initial response was one of awe at the scale and intricacy of the embroidered cover. As a maker of textiles, my admiration is not just intellectual, but also an embodied understanding of the skill and effort required to make such an object. Although some aspects seemed familiar to me, the work on the almanac is very unusual, and my overriding question was: “How had they made it?” Through a combination of close observation of the binding and practical experiments, I set out to discover more about this unique object.
The eight folded leaves of the medieval almanac are enclosed in an embroidered limp binding comprised of three layers: a woollen fabric base, a parchment inter-layer and a linen outer cover embroidered with silk, all stitched together around the edge. It’s rare to find an embroidered cover on a medieval almanac, perhaps because of the perishable nature of textiles. In this case, wear and tear account for some of the damage, but the wool fabric appears to have been eaten by insects in many places. However,one advantage of this damage is that it exposes the internal areas, and I discovered that the parchment layer used as a stiffener has writing on it (faintly visible in the image) and was recycled from another document.
The overall impression of the embroidery is of intricate detail. There are two layers of stitching in the construction, incorporating ten different stitches. Just two colours, pink and green, are used throughout the embroidery, with each colour dominating in turn to create six distinct areas, each with a grid design. Today the colours are faded, but the dull pink was once a fuchsia purple, made using a dye extracted from lichen, while the green was dyed from a combination of blue from woad and yellow from weld, both plant-based. The effect would have been striking, as this comparison of the original binding and freshly dyed re-creation shows.
Three different types of silk thread are found on the almanac (shown left to right in images above): loosely S-twisted two-ply is used for the functional sewing, for example around the edge, while flossy silk and gimp thread are used for the embroidery. I have never seen a gimp thread used in this way and, so far, no one else is aware of any comparable work. My study of historic English embroidery has revealed that a vast amount of knowledge has been lost, resulting in stitches that have been misinterpreted for over 100 years. The process of reviving lost techniques has to start with an accurate analysis of the existing work before considering how something was made.
As thread type and scale affects the embroidery, it was important to recreate the gimp in order to understand more about its properties. Today, the making of gimp is an industrialised process, and it is rare to find anyone who can produce gimp by hand. In the early 15th century, techniques for spinning thread were commonplace, and gimp could easily have been produced using a spinning wheel or drop spindle. My practical experiments in reproducing the gimp not only helped me to gain an embodied understanding of the techniques, but also generated physical examples that could be compared to the original (see image).
In the Wellcome Collection conservation department where I did my experiments, without immediate access to my textile equipment, I had to improvise with things to hand. A blob of Blu Tack moulded onto the end of a pencil made a surprisingly adequate drop spindle, replicating the essential attributes of a weighted stick. Making a two-ply thread was relatively quick, especially as the silk only needed a loose twist (top image). The gimp was a different matter, as one-ply has to completely cover the core ply (bottom image). There is a big difference between understanding a concept and actually doing it, so it was exhilarating to see the theory working. Nonetheless, I felt like a learner driver, kangaroo-hopping along the road as blobs of silk covered the core. Practice gradually enabled me to gain a ‘feel’ for the process, improving the angle and twist to get closer to the original.
Recreating the gimp thread has given me an even greater appreciation of the amount of work undertaken even before the embroidery was begun: this fine gimp would have taken a long time to make, effort that can barely be seen with the naked eye. While it does add to the crisp appearance of the stitches, its real value lies in its strength. The gimp thread is more robust than the flossy or two-ply silk, and it is used in the stitches forming the outer layer of the embroidery. In some places, the outer surface of the gimp has been damaged,but the core thread continues to hold the embroidery in place, illustrating that the maker’s aim for durability has succeeded, making their extraordinary effort worthwhile.
As a craftsperson, I feel a shared affinity with the makers from the past. Years of observing the cause and effect of my own actions allow me to recognise and interpret the signs of activity seen on the almanac. It is possible for one person to have the required skill set to make the whole binding, but it is likely that many craftspeople were involved in the production: a silk-woman making the thread and braids, a dyer to add colour, and a weaver for the wool fabric. The range of stitches and intricacy of the embroidery shows that the embroiderer had a repertoire of knowledge, and a skill that can only be honed through practice. Nevertheless, the stitching is not always precise, and the arrangement is somewhat erratic.
Today, technique is often transmitted as a prescriptive step-by-step process, and our understanding of materials is dominated by uniformity and consistency. We expect exact reproduction, and this tends to impact on our practice. In an era when everything was handmade, variety was the norm for textile production, from thread-making to final object, and inconsistency was an accepted part of normal working practice. In this context, the almanac’s stitching demonstrates embodied knowledge, with an ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and a fluid ‘felt-through’ rather than ‘thought-through’ approach. To me, this speaks of a capable embroiderer intuitively stitching, rather than working with rigid conformity.
There’s nothing to contradict a single embroiderer, but who that might be remains a mystery. Both men and women were embroiderers, coming from a variety of backgrounds, from maids to royalty, working at home, in religious communities and professional workshops. Stitching was also an integral part of bookbinding, so the embroidery may have been done in situ, or it may have been subcontracted as a separate process and delivered for the final stages of the construction process. While the exact circumstances of the maker are unknown, my sense of kinship towards them was heightened when, peering down my magnifier at the almanac binding, I discovered a long red hair caught up in the stitching.
In medieval times people believed that words and images held power; for instance, textual amulets were worn to ward off illness. The act of folding and binding words could increase their power, making the almanac an instrument of mystic potency as well as a source of medical and celestial knowledge. The embroidered binding contributes to the convergence of the physical and the metaphysical. The intricate stitching goes beyond simple ornamentation, functioning as a metaphor for the layered, hidden depths of complexity within. The brightly coloured and eye-catching binding draws the viewer into a world that is larger than the confines of its binding. The potency of the almanac remains undiminished. It has taken me on a fascinating journey, luring me into the medieval world where the micro and macro interconnect, and tangible objects embrace the mysterious and divine. By following a maker’s path and recreating aspects of the almanac, I have been able to reclaim some of the lost knowledge of the past, while broadening and deepening my own creative practice.