My mentor Linn Skinner used to emphasize that needlework did not happen in a vacuum. As history unfolds, economics change, and discoveries happen so needlework reflects these changes and values.
One of her good friends and needlework exhibit show partner, was a retired Deacon from Durham Cathedral. Linn was fascinated by the Durham textiles and talked of them often.
For those in needlework history circles, we know Durham as housing the remains and textiles of St. Cuthbert. The vestments, a maniple, stole and girdle, are probably the best preserved examples of Anglo Saxon Embroidery. They date from the early 10th C. They were probably made in Winchester which was a center for both embroidery and illumination at that time. The figures on the maniple look to be very similar in style to the illuminations of that time and may have have been drawn on the fabric by the manuscript artists.
The textiles show a form of surface couching which has come to be known as Cuthbert couching that is done with a metal thread and a silk thread. The Cuthbert couching is done with an interlocking stitch. It is done on perpendicular lines along the warp threads. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs - Vol. 23, No. 121 (April 1913) has an article "S. Cuthbert's Stole and Maniple at Durham", by G. Baldwin Brown and Archibald Christie. It contains full pictures and descriptions of the items and the stitching. The article also supposes that the purpose of the locking stitch was to hold onto the base fabric as well as each next stitch to create a net effect. It goes on to note that other extant items from the same time period using linen base and underside couching are now (1913) falling apart.
For the Cuthbert pieces it was a very high quality fine spun gold thread and couched down with a red silk thread. The stitches were done at a gauge of approximately 14 to inch. The base fabric was a silk net with a count of 56 x 56 threads to the inch. This put the gold threads at a ration of 2:1 and the couching stitches at a ration of 1:4 (Relics of St. Cuthbert by CF Battiscombe) Examples of surface, underside and Cuthbert couching show the differences in effect achieved by each method.
Aside from the remarkable couching the remaining embroidery was done in split stitch and outline stitch in silk. The colors of the silk threads are quite varied - dark brown and dark green outlines, fill stitches of blue-green, purple-red, various pinks, sage green, and purple-brown; among others.
It was recently announced that some one in the year 1140 wrote and compiled recipes for both food and medicine at Durham Cathedral's monastery. Students at Durham University are studying these recipes and doing some practical testing to create a feast. The recipes are diverse and include recipes from what is now France. The spicing through out the book includes parsley, sage, pepper, garlic, mustard, ginger, and coriander. All of which make great dyes as well.
No nothing happens in a vacuum. We are now learning more about the time period and can better understand the surrounding factors that play into the needlework. Linn would have been pleased.