​History of English Ecclesiastical Embroidery with Suellen Pedley

​Suellen Pedley gave a comprehensive and very interesting talk on English Ecclesiastical Embroidery.   She started with the fragments of vestments found in St Cuthbert's tomb in Durham dating from the late 9th / early 10th century.  The work was incredibly fine - 16 threads of gold per 1/8 inch!    She said that they must have had very fine needles to do the work and explained that there would have been the technology to make them.   She then moved on to the mid medieval pereiod of the Opus Anglicanum, showing slides of some lovely copes including the Sion Cope and the Bolognia Cope.   As well as the marvellous embroidered figures, it is amazing to realise that the entire fabric was stitched so that the background linen looked like a woven fabric.   It must have take such a long time.   This was the high point of English embroidery when it was very sought after on the continent as well.

After 1348 when the Black Death reached England and caused the death of about 2/3 of the work force, there were few embroiderers available and their labour was too expensive to spend decades embroidering copes.   This coincided with velvets and sliks coming from the east so the style changed to working embroidered slips and then applying them to the fabrics, as it was much less expensive.

The reformation brought the end to such church vestments and most of those existing were either cut up or burnt to recover the metal thread.   Detailed records were kept so that we know what things were destroyed.    From Elizabeth 1st, vestments weren't worn - just surplises and copes to keep the clergy warm.   By the time of Charles 1st, the quality of the embroidery had fallen.   It was very similar to the stump work style.    On the continent, however, beatiful ecclesiastical embroidery was still produced but much of it had little religious content.

After 1830, when the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed allowing Catholics to worship in public, there was new demand for vestments.   The Oxford Movement led to the restoration of the Eucharist as the most important service and this also led to the return of vestments in the Anglican Church.   Anglican monestories and convents opened and they all wanted vestments.   Many nuns were sent to convents on the continent to learn the gold work and silk work skills needed.   Again brocades were used with embrodered slips applied.

We were brought up to date with a discussion of the work of Beryl Dean and Jane Lemon.   Suellen then descibed how she designed a new canopy to go over the shrine of St Alban.    The whole talk was fascinating and has inspired me to read more on the subject.

Back to News