Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #20

This month I am really pleased to be able to bring you a post by Fran Sales. She is working with a team of staff and volunteers at Norwich Castle, creating an embroidered hanging for the Norwich Castle: Royal Palace Reborn project. Here Fran tells us about the project’s aims and progress so far.

My name is Fran Sales and I have been asked to give an account of an embroidery project I am currently working on. This is a wall hanging intended to decorate one of the newly refurbished interiors of the Norwich Castle Keep, as part of a major redevelopment project Norwich Castle: Royal Palace Reborn. The project delivery stage started in August 2020, following a large grant from the National Lottery Heritage fund. One of the largest heritage projects of its kind (the overall budget is £13.5m), this hugely challenging redevelopment is still ongoing and is now due for completion in 2023.

The interior of the castle keep is being transformed by reinstating the original levels as closely as possible to what they would have looked like when first designed and built in the early twelfth century. Among the recreated spaces will be the great hall, where King Henry I may have celebrated the Christmas feast of 1121. This is where the completed panel I am working on will hang. Besides myself, five other ladies are working on panels which will make up the wall hanging once all six sections are stitched together. Other volunteers are working on the border sections which will surround the embroidered figures. The border work suits volunteers who do not have as much time to spare. I have estimated it has taken me 200 hours to complete “my” king, namely King Edward the Confessor.  

Here is how I became involved in this ambitious and ground-breaking project.

When I retired to Norwich in 2012 I was slightly disappointed that there was not a nearby National Trust property where I could offer my services as a volunteer. It did not cross my mind that with Norwich Castle on my doorstep I would soon have the perfect opportunity to volunteer to be part of  a major historical transformation.

I became a member of the Costume & Textile Association. This is an organisation based in Norwich, for people with an interest in the history and development of costumes and textiles.  Membership is open to everybody, not exclusively for Norfolk residents.

Out of the blue all Costume & Textile members received an email in the summer of 2017 asking if anyone was interested in a forthcoming ambitious project to make a wall hanging in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry. The email went on to explain that this would be a depiction of the history of East Anglia in the eleventh century after the turmoil of the events in 1066. The idea was that the completed work would hang in the Norwich Castle Keep after the completion of a very ambitious lottery funded project to recreate the historic spaces of this palace of the Norman kings.   

I immediately volunteered and went along to the castle for the first meeting. It then struck me that I knew nothing about embroidery or tapestry making and that perhaps my enthusiasm to get involved would not end well. We were told to make a name badge to wear at the next meeting and to work the lettering in stem stitch. What on earth, I thought to myself, is stem stitch?  I looked the stitch up on Google and then watched three YouTube tutorials. I was surprised to find that all three tutors worked the stitch in a different way!  However, I embarked on a long and steep learning curve and eventually I was selected to be one of the twelve main embroiderers, each of us working on a linen panel  measuring approximately 150 cm x 60 cm.  Our panels were to be worked using the original Bayeux stitch which has not been in general use for hundreds of years.

Fran’s finished panel

Our Norwich Tapestry consists of two stories. The first story—that of Hereward the Wake—is made up of eight panels and the story of The Revolt of the Three Earls takes up further six panels. We used Appletons 2 ply wool and the linen fabric was specially purchased from Bayeux.

Each panel was set on a slate frame approximately 84cm square and as each panel was very long, the fabric had to be moved on three or four times to complete the stitching. None of us had trestle stands to support our slate frames and by trial and error we found that the best way to support our work was using an ironing board while resting the bottom of the wooden struts of the side of the frame on the arms of an armchair. It worked perfectly!

We all spent a day preparing the panels at the Refectory of the Norwich School, located in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral, on the hottest day of 2018!  We then picked a number, raffle ticket style, to decide who worked on which panel.  I was thus allocated panel one, which I believe is one of the few panels to include female figures, my panel featuring Hereward the Wake’s wife Turfrida and his mother Edith.

Making this embroidery was the idea of Dr Tim Pestell, Norwich Castle’s Curator of Archaeology and he wanted as many people as possible to be included to make this a real community project. I worked on the main scenes in my panel and the top and bottom border designs were worked by the volunteers with less time to spare. That way more embroiderers could get involved. My top and bottom borders were completed by two talented ladies from local villages, an artist and a weaver.  

I was the first to complete my panel, working from September 2018 to June 2019, and taking 750 hours.

The Wall Hanging Concept:

The team at the castle then decided I might have some time on my hands. I was approached by Dr Agata Gomolka, Norwich Castle’s Project Assistant Curator and asked if I would like to supervise a team of embroiderers working on wall hangings. I was told that three wall hangings were envisaged and the first would feature three kings and three emperors, complete with an authentic border design. The plan was to hang the completed works on the north wall of the great hall of the Castle Keep, reinstated as part of the castle transformation Norwich Castle: Royal Palace Reborn. It was explained that each of the six panels making up the hanging were to be worked on red material, and to measure approximately 38cm wide and 58cm high. Then the individual pieces would be joined up and arranged in two rows surrounded by the decorative border plus an additional horizontal row of the border design separating the two rows of figures (the completed hanging measuring 1.5m by 1.5m). Here is a photo of the wall hanging proposal (excluding the frames):

Kings and Emperors, North Wall

The six figures in the image above are:  Top row left to right are Augustus Caesar, Constantine, Charlemagne. Bottom row, left to right are King Edmund, King Edward the Confessor, and King William I (William the Conqueror—father of Henry I).

Initially the entire work was going to be on a red wool material sourced by Agata. The pandemic changed our plans. During the first lockdown we have lost access to many of the spaces of the museum, including those that housed materials for our project. When Agata finally managed to gain access, she was horrified to discover the red wool had been attacked by moth. In order to prevent any future conservation issues, a red linen material was quickly substituted for the woollen original material that we had planned to use.  

Agata drew up the designs for the kings and emperors and also the border design which would go round the completed work. As group meetings were severely limited due to covid restrictions, in the summer of 2020 Agata and myself met up in her garden. Here she set up a full size mock-up of the designs set against the backdrop of her garden shrubs and trees.

The Stitch:

After the design had been finalised the next question to be answered was what stitch should be used. Agata did not want to use the Bayeux stitch as that has been used extensively for our Norwich Bayeux-style tapestry. We knew we were being restricted by chronology and that our hanging ought to look like it was made in the early decades of the twelfth century – the years of the reign of Henry I.

Two styles came to mind. Firstly, Opus Anglicanum. The Latin translated means ‘English work’.   However, this was thought be more suited to a later period than our work ought to represent. 

Thoughts then turned to the Girona Tapestry (The Tapestry of Creation). This rare survivor is now housed in the Museum of the Cathedral of Girona, in Catalonia, Spain. This is not a tapestry but another imprecisely-named embroidery. As a  Romanesque panel of needlework from the eleventh or early twelfth century, the Girona Tapestry represented a perfect  model for us, it being of the right period, the right context, format and subject matter. The flatness of the Girona stitch is close to what Henry’s hangings could have looked like, but what exactly is the stitch? Agata was able to consult Dr Manuel Castiñeiras about this. He has written a book on the Girona Tapestry and he was able to point us towards another recently-published work that included technical examination of the textile. For the first time scholars were able to examine the back of the hanging and their findings confirmed that the work was originally stitched entirely in stem stitch. This was the confirmation we needed to go ahead with that simple but very effective stitch.

The Girona Tapestry as the model

Agata pointed out that King Henry I could have commissioned his wall hangings abroad. It was also possible that he was the recipient of such hangings from other rulers.

The Border Design:

Frame Model

The design we decided to go with is copied directly from a design carved into an impost block of the great Romanesque portal of the Norwich Castle keep. The intention was to draw inspiration from the existing fabric of the Norman building, and to emulate the influences that two- and three-dimensional art forms would have had on each other. We hope that the resulting work will look as if the ‘Norman’ embroiderers adapted the design of the Norman sculptors or vice-versa.

Experimenting with different colour combinations and number of stem stitch rows to use:

The Figures:

As an art historian specialising in Romanesque sculpture, Agata was able to create line drawings of the figures that closely emulate the Romanesque figurative style. She has written a PhD on bodily rhetoric, scale and proportion in Romanesque sculpture and knows about the laws and problems of figurative expression. Creators of types of three-dimensional media such as metalwork (or even mosaic, not to mention smaller scale sculpture), have to adapt bodily proportions of their figures to suit the requirements of legibility, viewpoint etc. She took into consideration eurytmia; this is manipulation of form (disruption of proportion) of a figure to improve viewing experience when in situ. This involves elongating and enlarging upper bodies of figures that will be viewed from below. This is why our figures tend to have slightly larger heads and broad arms than at first might be thought to be appropriate. But it is not all about the viewing experience, as heavier upper bodies also feature frequently in the Romanesque manuscript illumination. We were determined to model our figures so that they suit Romanesque and not modern tastes! We have set out to make our hanging look as authentic as possible with every detail carefully worked out, every hairstyle and every attribute carefully chosen and either adapted from models or resulted from familiarity with Romanesque convention.

All this has been run past Professor Sandy Heslop, one of the most prominent Romanesque scholars. Sandy even suggested to broaden the arms on some of the figures, to make them look more imposing and assertive.

My Section of the Wall Hanging:   King Edward the Confessor

The Wool:

On King Edward I used Appletons two ply wool in eight shades. Red, dark green, light green, gold, light blue, oatmeal, black and white. The black shade, in addition to use on the face and lettering, was used for stem stitching around all of the outline of each design.

My stitches usually turned out to be approximately 7mm in length.   I did not consciously work to this measurement, the stitches just seem to naturally end up this size.

With regard to the length of cut wool to work with, when originally learning the Bayeux stitch and practising on calico, we were all told to use maximum 40cm cut lengths. With this particular red linen I found much longer lengths could be used quite successfully without fraying of the wool.   This is most probably due to the softer and more open weave of this particular linen. I tended to  use cut lengths of approximately 60cm and abandon them once they start to deteriorate, but often I could use the entire length without this happening.  This obviously helped speed up the stitching, spending less time starting and ending each worked length of wool. 

However, the wool has not been without its problems. We have found that some of the bleached white shade of wool used did not come up to expectations. Some ladies had no problem whatsoever with their supply of this shade, but unfortunately some others did. I carried out experimental work with some of the wool returned to me as “unsuitable”. I found some cut lengths frayed rather quickly and tended to break, regardless of how short a length of wool was being used. Even more unfortunate was the tendency of some lengths, which at first looked fine and suitably lush and bouncy, to only then turn into the consistency of cotton thread after only a very short time of stitching. There seemed to be no way of preventing this. This shade certainly seems to “work” differently from any of the other colours. The only suggestion I can come up with is that this particular shade of white is the whitest of white shades available and perhaps a more harsh dyeing process to obtain this shade has weakened the wool somewhat.

Not on this project, but on our Norwich Bayeux style tapestry: I can remember some of us found the dark blue wool seemed to shed fibres once it was used, particularly when being used for the lettering. So, different shades of the wool do seem to vary in how they perform.  

I use size 24 Pony brand chenille needles which have an extra-long eye and a very sharp point.   The hole of this particular needle seems a good size for bringing through the wool without friction against the linen.

My section of this the first hanging is now complete, as are two other rulers. Work is still on-going on the final three figures and also on the border work to surround the finished hanging. We have learnt a lot from our embroidery work so far and now look forward to using our experience gained for working on and completing the final two wall hangings.

I would like to thank Frans. It’s always fascinating to hear about the work that goes on behind projects like these; like another story it themselves, and I can’t wait to see the finished hanging in situ. Next month Abigail Youngman will be telling us about how she came up with and developed the BBC Radio4 drama, Bayeux, in which ex-queen Edith fights to save her skin and create a masterpiece of PR and embroidery.

If you would like to find out more about the Norwich Castle: Royal Palace Reborn project, Norfolk Museums or the Costume and Textiles Society, please use the links below:

www. museums.norfolk.gov.uk


2 thoughts on “Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #20

Add yours

  1. This is an amazing project. Many thanks for sharing the story and the details.
    I love that the castle is “brought back” to its origins and the tapestries are made using techniques appropriate for that era. The results are very nice. It must be exciting as a community to make the pieces that will adorn the halls.


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