Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles Blog

Welcome to the third post in the Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles Blog series. This time Dr Katrin Kania, Dr Margit Hofmann and I discuss colours and dyeing silk threads for the Cuthbert Maniple Recreation Project. (Unless otherwise stated, all image copyrights are the authors)

Katrin studied Archaeology of the Middle Ages and Early Modern Time at the University of Bamberg, Germany. She specialised on historical textile techniques and experimental archaeology during her studies, finishing with a PhD on medieval garment construction and sewing techniques. She is now working at a freelancer, running an online shop for historical textile tools and materials as well as offering presentations, courses and workshops on different techniques. She also organises the yearly European Textile Forum, a conference with a strong focus on craft aspects.

Margit is a professional botanical dyer. After training in the UK and France she set up Alte Künste, which focuses on creating high quality, light fast dyes for modern textile crafts. Her major focus is keeping alive and broadening knowledge of historical dyes and plant based dyes. She works with conservators, archaeologists and museums.

AM: The Cuthbert Maniple Recreation Project is an experimental embroidery project. It uses materials and equipment as close to the originals as possible. The project’s main aims are to make one section of the maniple, investigate working methods, the embroiderers’ decision making and thinking processes and to explore how the maniple would have been engaged with at a multi-sensory level by different audiences. The project is partially funded through a Society of Antiquaries, London, Janet Arnold Grant.

Deacon Peter, taken from C.F. Battiscombe (ed), The Relics of St Cuthbert (1956)

The Cuthbert maniple is a church vestment that looks a little like scarf. It would have been worn over the left wrist by a member of the clergy. It was made in c. 910CE along with a matching stole. It is embroidered with silk and 99% pure gold threads and depicts the full length figures of two Popes and and their Deacons, one on either side of a Dextera Dei (The Hand of God) symbol. On the front of the two end tabs are the heads of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. On the reverse of the end tabs is the embroidered inscription , ÆLFFÆD FIERE PRECEPIT, and PIO EPISCOPO FRIDESTANO, ‘commissioned by Queen Ælfflæd’, ‘for Bishop Frithestan’. However, no-one is sure whether Frithestan, who was Bishop of Winchester, received the stole and maniple set. In 934 King Athelstan took the stole and maniple to Chester-le-Street and gave them to the shrine of St Cuthbert. At some point both vestments were placed in St Cuthbert’s tomb. They were rediscovered in 1827 when Cuthbert’s shrine and tomb, then in Durham Cathedral, was opened. Now they are on display in their own gallery in the Cathedral.

As part of the recreation I wanted to use silk threads that were not only the right thickness and twist but had been dyed to the correct colours, or as close as possible, with natural dyes. This led to a collaborative sub-project with Katrin and Margit. The dye sub-project took nearly a year because of the complex nature of colour and what the name of a colour really means and the dyeing process itself. Here Katrin and Margit tell us a little about these fascinating subjects.

When we discussed the colours of the silk threads and compared them to the names Grace Christie gave them (see the image below), we discovered that there was a difference in what she thought the shade was and our perceptions today, even taking into account the change in the maniple’s colours over time. You mentioned that you’ve come across this in your own work, can you tell us a little about this and how it compares to our experiences on the Cuthbert Maniple Project?

Grace Christie, English Medieval Embroidery (1938), p. 47.

KK: There’s several layers to this question – colours are difficult!

First of all, there can be a difference in how the colours appear today as opposed to when Grace Christie looked at them, due to changes in the textile itself and colour deterioration. There will also have been some change between today and when the maniple was new, as there’s no such thing as an absolutely stable colour, not back in the Middle Ages and not today. So, change over time is one factor, and it’s possible that this took place even between Christie’s survey and our recent one.

A second one is perception of colour. It may well be that Grace Christie had a different perception of colour, and a different reference frame for colour names, than we have. While it’s possible to discern different shades of one colour, it’s not so easy to describe them. We also, as individuals, have a different perception of colours; what I still see as “blue”, you might see as “green”. I have a friend who once told me that she refers to a certain pair of trousers as “green”, though everyone else in her family tells her they’re grey. When both of these issues – description and perception – come together, it can get vastly confusing!
That’s why we have colour charts today, for instance the Pantone palette or the RAL colour charts. When I studied archaeology, I was told that a very handy thing to have was a stamp-collector’s colour book (Michel Farbenführer), as that would allow to describe different soil colours with a colour code. That’s only really useful, though, if everyone involved has the same colour chart.

The third factor is different frames of reference. I was not at all mystified when I saw a shade of blueish green referred to as “porcelain” in a recent catalogue, but only because I come from a region where porcelain is produced, and I have seen the raw mass – which is exactly that shade. For someone only knowing the fired state, though, this colour name is not a very smart choice. Another example: I was wondering for a long time about the colour of gold in the Middle Ages, as the usual (positive, high-quality) descriptor in Middle High German is “red”, which did not fit at all with my personal perception of the gold I knew. Turns out I knew the wrong gold – if you look at a Krugerrand coin, which is gold with about 8% of copper as alloy material, it looks distinctively reddish. My reference frame for “gold colour” was, however, the modern more yellow or white-ish gold variations, made by a different, more popular alloy today.

How do we go about dealing with this problem?

Most of this problem can’t really be dealt with – it’s just something that we have to make sure we’re aware of, and that it gets communicated properly both within the project and, later, through the publications. We’ll never truly know about the frames of reference of the medieval people, or about those of researchers who have since passed away. Frames of reference can also change over time, so the same person might describe colours differently 20 years later. We also cannot estimate exactly how a colour looked when it was new, as there’s too many variables in a natural colour that will influence how it ages. So much of this is, and remains, guesswork.

What we can do to make things easier for future researchers is document colours as much as possible with a fixed reference frame. That can also help with screen calibrations, a common issue today when looking at colours in digital sources. Taking photos with an RGB tool is one way of including a frame of reference; these are available in photography shops. Other colour charts can also be used, of course – the more widely available or accessible these are, the better.

Most colour charts are, however, not easy or cheap to get, as printing the exact colours is a difficult process itself. Because accessibility to the reference is key for this to work, I’ve come up with using Euro banknotes, folded and stacked so you can see the colours of the different notes, as a colour chart.  Since printing money is a process that is definitely very closely controlled, the colours will be similar enough on the notes for all practical purposes.

MH: To add to what Katrin said on colour perception over time. One way to approach historic naming of colours is to use historic dye recipes and then compare the resulting colours to how they were named. This gives some clues if the modern naming differs significantly from the historic.

How did you go about finding the right dyes and processes for this project? Did it differ in any way to other projects you’ve undertaken? How?

MH: We had Grace Christie’s description and your colour outline to start with. The next step was to consider the date of the Cuthbert maniple and define the range of dye plants available then. That way we excluded all dye plants native to the Americas, Oceania & the Pacific as well as the more exotic dye plants from Asia right from the start.

Of course, all fugitive [none dye fast] dye plants got skipped as well. No historic dyer would have used a fugitive dye plant for embroidery silk because silk was, and is, far too expensive to waste with low quality dye and secondly, as embroidery the silk is combined with other dyed silk, as well as the ground fabric [fabric on which the embroidery is worked]. Therefore, re-dyeing a fugitive silk [silk that’s lost colour] was out of the question. This project differed from my usual dye approach in that we were aiming at a very specific range of shades. This is not my standard approach for modern yarn dyeing. I usually work the other way round: I start with specific plants and then work with the shades they give. Here the shades were defined first, which resulted in a kind of probability assessment for which plants and sequence of plants to use (see below).

Probability Assessment

We already knew that modern language & labeling would not lead to the expected results. So, we took this into account. As it is with a re-construction, we were working backwards from intended shade to the dye-recipe to reach that shade. I was sure how to reach some colours, others – especially with only small variation between some shades – were trickier as they still had to be distinctive enough for the eye to discern them.
My approach was a kind of probability assessment: for each colour I had various dye recipes. I ranked them, starting with the one we expected to give the closest result and ending with the least likely but still within a reasonable range of the intended shade.
That way – in case our expectations were not met by reality – we could switch to a different recipe. Especially if it was a sequence of dye-baths and the first one already did not bring the needed colour at that point of the process; the following steps would not change that. So, we could switch to different recipes early on and did not have to start from scratch.

We had one case where the results of two different dyes were too close for the planned use in the project – so we re-calculated & re-dyed one colour to be more distinct from the other. Which is what the original artist creating the maniple would have done as well: choosing from a range of available shades the one that fit best the intended use.

Silk threads before the dyeing process

Can you describe the process of dyeing the threads?

MH: It was a classic approach to dyeing silk.
First, wash the silk threads to make sure they are properly de-gummed, as well as removing whatever remained on the silk from the yarn-making process.

Then followed a sequence of mordanting and dyeing. Depending on dye plants and intended shade these could add up to several mordanting processes and up to four dyeing sessions. To increase colour depth and the stability of the chemical bonds between mordanted silk and dye, the threads would usually stay in the dye pot until the liquid had cooled. But I remember one case where we wanted a rather pale shade from a usually very aggressively colouring dye plant. The best method for such a case is to remove the silk from the dye-bath as soon as the intended shade is reached (always taking into account that the colour of wet silk looks significantly darker than dry silk). The dyed silk then gets placed in a water bath of the same temperature as the dye-bath and stays there for up to 1 hour. That way the chemical bonding between silk and dye-colour can fully develop without more dye accumulating on the silk at the same time (as would happen if the silk had stayed in the dye-bath).

Searching for pale fawn

How did you get the different shades / right tones / depth of colour?

MH: There was a whole range of parameters that went into defining how to reach the intended shades.

On top of what Katrin already mentioned the factors that were important from my side were mostly:
a) I already knew from previous experience that the sequence in which different dye plants are used on the same fibre results in different shades of the final colour. We used this intentionally to reach specific shades.

b) Natural dyed silk tends to have significantly paler results than the same dye on wool. This needed to be taken into account when aiming for specific shades and colours. Increasing dye-material or time in the dye bath usually does not increase the colour significantly. It is more helpful to switch to different dye plants or to a sequence of various dye-plants to reach an intended shade.

c) Besides the tendency to paler shades, the shade of colour silk takes from some dye plants is significantly different to wool. As with the previous point, experience as well as expectations from dyeing wool cannot be fully transferred to dyeing silk. That is something I learnt very early on, when I started dyeing pure silk years ago. And I was relying on that experience when working on the actual dye-processes for each shade of the Cuthbert maniple.

Dyed silk threads drying

What happened after the dyeing process?

MH: After the dyeing process I let the colours set on the silk threads. There are differing methods out there for handling freshly dyed fibres. My experience is that it increases the quality of the dye significantly when the fibre is left to dry with fresh dye for some time before washing. I am aware there are sources discouraging that. I cannot confirm this.

How did you prepare the threads after they had been dyed, ready to send to me? Why did you do what you did?

KK: I reeled off the threads from the skeins they had been dyed in, winding them onto spools for storage. Then the portions for the Cuthbert project were measured off and wound onto spools to send to Britain. Even with very careful handling of the threads, they tend to get a little disorderly in their skein, so re-winding them for easier handling has proven to be a good thing in general.

Winding the dyed silk thread
The silk threads on their spools and ready to travel to England

One of the most important aspects of this project, and particularly this part of the project, is the collaborative work. How do you feel about this, particularly in relation to this project?

Has it helped develop greater understanding of past / lost processes?

MH: One huge insight for me was to understand how modern sources on historic dyes and their wide-spread availability has influenced our modern awareness of natural dyes. We had a fun discussion on the darkest shade of black in the project. It boiled down to the question of using walnuts or not. I was firmly against this as dyeing black historically was a branch on its own in Europe and the recipes for high quality black were not walnuts. It was fun because I am sure the uniqueness of equating walnut with good black dyes is a modern development: Black walnuts (Juglans nigra) are native to North America and this type of walnut does indeed make an awesome black botanical dye. But our European version of walnuts needs some heavy tampering with modifiers to get to a black shade that usually weakens the fibre in the process. It was therefore a cheap and unfortunately rather low-quality dye. I heavily doubt that would have been used for embroidery silk.
In the end we did both: dyeing with European walnuts (plus heavy tampering) and the traditional way of over-dyeing red with blue for direct comparison. European walnuts did not make the cut.

Collaboration to achieve the right results?

MH: Be open to skip what you had planned for vs something that actually works.
Also: do not get too attached to your own beliefs and rather go for trying things out.

How did distance affect collaborative working?

KK: I’ve been working together with dyers over distance for many years now, and it does get easier with practice. Reference colours do help, and you’d need those anyways, when talking about a specific shade. It also helped that I know Margit’s range of colours from her knitting yarn stock, and about the shade variations possible with a single plant. We sent a lot of pictures back and forth as well, and discussed things via phone.

MH: Adding to what Katrin said, it helped that we have worked together in the past already. We had some idea how the other perceives and names colours. This reduced the time to a mutual understanding significantly; and it helped us to realize early on (before the actual dye process) when we were using the same or similar words but meant different things.

Did modern technology help at all?

KK: Of course, modern technology did help – sending a photo was never as quick and easy as in the time of instant messaging. Discussions by phone to clear up details, and group discussions by email were key to get things sorted out, and of course much quicker than writing letters and collecting and spreading the individual answers.
What helped most, though, was a solid understanding that the outcome of the dyeing will be a range of shades that should be different enough from each other to be distinguishable and thus do the job of creating a legible embroidery, but that there is no specific utterly exact outcome that has to be reached. That is just not possible with dyeing. It’s not even possible with modern chemical colours, as you can clearly see from the admonishment on every ball of knitting yarn to only use yarn from the same colouring batch in one project – and with natural ingredients and their much greater variation in chemical contents, that way madness lies.

MH: All that Katrin already mentioned. Plus, from a dyer’s perspective, modern technology is a blessing. We have protection, gloves, dust masks that historic dyers could not even dream of. Also, thermometers and electric heating for dye baths make my life as a modern botanical dyer much easier.

The recreation in progress. Each figure is 11cm high
Detail of the original head
Detail of the head

Thank you

I would like to thank both Katrin and Margit. I hope this admittedly short interview has given some insight into the collaborative sub-project the dyeing process became, along with its complications, the dyeing process and the excellent results. Next month Dr Karen Carr will be talking about the availability of steel needles and the contribution they made to embroidery, including Coptic and Chinese, in late Antiquity.

Contact: If you would like to contact either Katrin or Margit about their work, please use one of the links below.


Email: katrin.kania@pallia.net
Instagram and Twitter: @katrinkania


Email: http://www.altekuenste.eu/en/contact/

Instagram: @altekuenste

Publications and Useful Resources:

Katrin: https://www.pallia.net/en/main-page/bibliography

European Textile Forum homepage: www.textileforum.org
pallia homepage: http://www.pallia.net

Margit: http://www.altekuenste.eu/

Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles

Welcome to our second instalment of Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles. This month we are taking our first steps outside the early medieval period, further back in time to the Hallstatt period (800-400 BC). Enjoy!

Ronja Lau (MA): Working with mineralised textiles: Textile analysis of Hallstatt period burials from Magdalenska Gora, Brezje and Podzemlj

Today I am delighted to introduce Ronja Lau. She is based at the Freie Universität in Berlin, where she works with the archaeological textiles. Previously, Ronja spent time researching her Master’s thesis at the Natural History Museum Vienna, where she analysed mineralized textile fragments from an early Iron Age Slovenian necropolis, which dates to the Hallstatt period. Ronja also specialises in Structure from Motion (SfM). She uses the method frequently in her research of textile tools and on larger projects such as that of the Bronze Age settlement of Asva in Estonia (University of Rostock). Over the last four years she has worked with Uwe Sperling, excavating in Estonia and contributing to the project’s forthcoming publications (Heinrich Schliemann Institute). Here she discusses her Master’s research.


Multiple Slovenian cemeteries of the early Iron Age/Hallstatt period (800-400 BC) offer the opportunity of mineralised textile finds. Due to preservation on metal objects, they need to be contextualised and analysed using a variety of methods. The following article discusses what methods are important and what can be learned from very small textiles fragments. Gaining information from Experimental Archaeology, nationwide overview and textile tools are just a few methods shown within this research. The work was a collaborative project with Karina Grömer and the National History Museum and formed part of my Master’s Thesis.

Research history

The archaeological sites of Magdalenska Gora, Brezje and Podzemlj represent settlements and cemeteries of the so called Dolenjsko group in south east Slovenia. The geographical area is advantageous due to iron deposits, rivers and valleys. Settlements likes Magdalenska Gora, Stična or Vače developed into wealthy centres, reaching their cultural climax between 725-600 BC or HA C1 to HA C2. Most of these Hallstatt period sites were excavated from the end of the 19th century into the early 20th century. Private excavators or noblewomen from Germany and Austria focused on the large burial mounds, where they expected to discover lots of jewellery and weapons. The mounds contained multiple burials that were evenly split into cremation urn graves and inhumations, dating to the early La Tène period. Unfortunately, the acidic soil destroyed most of the skeletal material and other organic objects.

The excessive late 19th-century excavations were insufficiently documented. As Slovenia and the sites were part of the Austrian Monarchy, most of the objects were transferred to Vienna and are now part of the Natural History Museum’s collections.

All three sites Magdalenska Gora, Brezje and Podzemlj were published between 1960 and early 2000. Those publications build a strong base for the interpretation of the textile finds. Lise Bender Jørgensen analysed some of the textiles in the 1980’s, publishing her results in 2005. During my research more textiles were identified inside the Museum’s storage facilities.

Figure 1: artefact number 66808, chain with textiles, copyright Ronja Lau

Analysing Textiles

In grave 4 (d) at tumulus XXVIII in Podzemlj Grm, were discovered 16 bronze foot rings, two belt plates, a heavily corroded bronze chain with textile fragments attached to it and a clay bead. Unfortunately, there is no more information about the grave’s measurements, stratigraphy or the condition of the deceased. The grave inventory suggests it was probably a wealthy female burial. The corroded chain with textile fragments (artefact number 66808, figure 1) was discovered in storage and first analysed as part of this project.

Figure 2: Podzemlj, grave 6, artefact 66808, chain with textile. Microscopic image, 50x copyright Ronja Lau

Photography and microscopy (figure 2) are essential for further documentation. With a digital microscope it is possible to achieve fast and sufficient pictures of the textile and single threads. All the technical details can be collected on the basis of a digital microscope picture. Information like yarn/ply, thread twist, twist angle, yarn diameter and thread count were tabulated (figure 3). Most of the time it is not possible to clearly identify warp and weft, as the textile fragments are to small and no starting borders can be seen. Therefore, system 1 and system 2 are synonyms declared by the researcher. This small table creates a quick visual overview and makes it possible to compare textiles.

Figure 3: table of technical data for textile 66808 copyright Ronja Lau

The next step is easily shown with a different example. 86602 is a bronze belt plate from Magdalenska Gora, Preologe, tumulus II, grave 57. It was found in an inhumation burial orientated east-west. A horse had been buried half a metre above the human. Multiple objects were found together with the belt plate: bronze helmet, two fibula, two belt plates, a “Kelt”/axe, two lances, a knife, three bronze lids, multiple bronze buttons, bronze fittings, bronze divider, an iron hook, an iron axe, multiple iron and bronze rings (probably from a horse, as there is fur attached to it) and four clay vessels.

Belt plate 86602 has a number of interesting textile fragments attached to it and is therefore a good example to show the microstratigraphy of textiles and other objects. Bavarian Cultural Heritage Office PlugIns mean Photoshop can be used for free. This guarantees a uniform mapping of information like structure, material and technical data directly onto the picture of the archaeological object.

Figure 4: Mikrostratigraphie, artefact 86602, belt plate copyright Ronja Lau

Microstratigraphy visualises the behaviour of the textiles in combination with the object they are associated with. Using the same colours and structures seen in the map (figure 4) organic fragments can be identified. As seen in figure 4 the blue part was a layer of fur with textile layers on top. Some fabrics tend to bend over the edge of the belt plate, which is shown on the left-hand side, with textile 86602-D and A. This method is very useful for interpretation and proving your hypothesis.

Figure 5: mineralised fur on metal ring, artefact number 86608 copyright Ronja Lau

Usually no other samples can be taken from mineralised textiles, as they are no longer flexible or already persevered. To identify the fibres of a mineralised textile, the whole object needs to put inside a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Belt plates and other bigger finds are not suitable for this. But there is a special object, which did fit inside the SEM and offered fibres, which can be seen in figure 5. Mineralised fur was discovered on multiple rings that came from the same burial as belt plate 86602. The excavator said it was found within the male burial, but the fur was clearly from a horse. With the help of the Natural History Museum’s zoological department, samples of a Przewalski horse were analysed (figure 6). The results from the head of the Przewalski horse showed significant similarities to the original sample (figure 7). It is plausible that all the rings were actually part of the horse harness, which was buried just half a meter above the human. Due to erosion and collapsing cavities it is possible that the harness moved.

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Figure 6: sample of the Przewalski horse-head hair copyright Ronja Lau
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Figure 7: sample of horse hair from 86608 copyright Ronja Lau

Experimental Archaeology

The collected data from the previous methods need to be interpreted and contextualised. Textile archaeology benefits from interdisciplinary work with archaeozoologists, zoologists, archaeobotanics and the natural sciences. Experimental Archaeology can shed light onto crafting techniques, skills or procedures. Usually single experiments are made to recreate woven fabrics to show how long it takes and what the finished fabric looks like.

During the project the Natural History Museum Vienna and University planned a cremation experiment (figure 8) to answer a number of different questions including the behaviour of metal objects in a fire, textiles, pottery and anthropology. The experiment was designed to observe as much as possible.

Figure 8: cremation experiment copyright Ronja Lau

For the experiment with textiles questions like: how does a textile behaves during a cremation, what is left of the textile and how can we connect this with existing archaeological finds, can be asked.

During a long hot fire like a cremation the common opinion is, that textiles burn completely and nothing is left. Previous cremation experiments have already proven this wrong. Charred textiles can survive particularly well when attached to a metal object and then put into an urn (archaeological finds like this, were already be identified by Karina Grömer). As there are also textiles from urn graves in the context of the Slovenian burials, this knowledge is part of the interpretation of those textiles.


For the interpretation I collated technical data gathered from all the textiles from the Slovenian burials. Slovenia is part of the so-called eastern Hallstatt territory and can be compared with other sites. As there are only 26 textiles (figure 9), only a statistical trend can be compared with the 296 finds from the Hallstatt salt mine in Austria also dating to the Hallstatt period (figure 10). The similarities are probably no coincidence, as the main use of twill, twist patterns and quality are seen throughout the eastern Hallstatt regions.

Figure 9: weaving patternsin Slovenia (Magdalenska Gora, Brezje, Podzemlj) copyright Ronja Lau
Figure 10: Weaving patterns from the Halstatt salt mine copyright Ronja Lau

Another interesting observation is the existence of plied yarn in woven textiles in the three Slovenian sites. Just a few fragments build a connection to the western Hallstatt region, where plied yarn was frequently used. Sites like Hochdorf and Hochmichele (Germany) are examples for western Hallstatt textile preservation. Precious plied yarn fabrics could have been part of a contact and exchange network from west to east and were therefore placed in wealthy burials.

Of course, the small textile fragments of the Slovenian burials cannot be used to construct a whole garment, but the placement of objects inside a grave can lead to an interpretation. As Magdalenska Gora, Brezje and Podzemlj lack sufficient documentation; other sites like Stična and Molnik were used as corroborative evidence to find the position of objects in the graves. The belt plates were a surprise, it is commonly thought that they were positioned on top of the pelvic bones or belly but this wasn’t the case (figure 11). Multiple belt plates were laid at the feet of the deceased or next to body. Belt plate 86602 is one example of a belt plate placed next to the feet. The reverse of the belt plate is covered with different high quality textiles.

Figure 11: belt plate position of Magdalenska Gora, Brezje, Podzemlj. Molnik and Sticna copyright Ronja Lau

Most of the time textiles from burials or other contexts are interpreted as clothing, but fabrics suit different purposes, for example as a cover, shroud, container or just a grave good. Identification can be difficult and has happened only a few times, for example in Hochdorf.

The belt plates with mineralised textiles hint that textiles went into the grave, which were not clothing.

Objects like fibulae (brooches), buttons, belts or needles are connected with dress when found in a typical position (figure 12) and therefore textiles are also connected to it. But if those objects are found somewhere else, other interpretations are possible and should always be considered.

Figure 12: fibula positions in graves from Magdalenska Gora, Brezje, Podzemlj. Molnik and Sticna copyright Ronja Lau

Structure from Motion as a method in textile archaeology

In addition to the textile finds from the Iron Age burials in Slovenia, are a large collection of textile tools. Spindle whorls are generally part of female burials. They were analysed following the Centre for Textile Research Copenhagen (CTR) guidelines (L. Bender Jørgensen 2005; and https://ctr.hum.ku.dk/about/). This makes it possible to compare single finds and whole complexes from different cultural regions. The data bank will be available for different research, experiments or questions in the future. Unfortunately, the spindle whorls are fragile, fragmented and suffer from every touch. This makes it difficult to work with them. As a lot of the whorls are individually decorated or polished, the surface is always interesting to examine. Photography can help, but 3D modelling, a fast developing method for digitally preserving archaeological finds, is proving extremely versatile and popular.

The 3D modelling method, Structure from Motion (SfM) was tested with a few very small objects, like spindle whorls, during this project.

I’m skilled at using SfM for bigger objects like pottery or stone structures. SfM is cheap, as you do not have to buy expensive software, equipment or scanners; the time taking the photos and building up the 3D model on the computer is affordable. Figure 13 shows perfectly the surface, colour and damage of the spindle whorl. A personal aim would be, to do this with every object and add it to the already made data bank. Unfortunately, this was not the focus of the Master’s thesis, so I wasn’t able to model every spindle whorl. This is a task for future projects.

If your browser does not render the 3D image, you will need to download and view it as a pdf. Once downloaded, use the curser to move the image around.


Woven fabrics of all kind have always been part of prehistoric, historic and present societies. This sounds trivial but it is necessary to point it out, as textile archaeology is not always taught or in the minds of archaeologists. One of the goals of this work is to strengthen the perception and acknowledgment for textile archaeology and archaeological finds from old excavations. It is not only modern excavated material that can be meaningful; finds from the late 19th century are worth re-examining.

Interdisciplinary work is necessary to research, analyse and interpret organic finds, especially combining humanities and the natural sciences. I’m an archaeologist and can learn most of the natural science methods, but that is not enough to understand the whole potential.

Another important aspect is the use of uniform terminology and guidelines for all the analysis, giving other researchers the opportunity to work with the material, understand working methods and develop new questions to investigate. Scientific results should not be kept by one researcher, as knowledge can only grow with the work of others.

This leads especially to experimental archaeology and its great potential, to observe for example, behaviour, intentions and techniques. To help us gain a better understanding of prehistoric human skills.

Thank you

I would like to thank Ronja for taking the time to write such an interesting and detailed account of her research. If you would like to hear more from Ronja why not tune in to EXARC’s next FinallyFriday, ‘Sew Much to Do, Sew Little Time’, when Ronja and I will be discussing our work and interests in archaeological textiles. It takes place on 7th August at 17:00hr AMS time. Information can be found here: exarc.net/finallyfriday.

Next month we will be stepping back into the early medieval period to focus on one aspect of recreating an early medieval embroidery. Dr Katrin Kania (textile archaeologist and researcher), Dr Margit Hofmann (a specialist in natural dyeing techniques) and I will be discussing what colour actually means when dyeing silk threads for the St Cuthbert Maniple Recreation Project.

Contact: If you would like to contact Ronja about her work, please use one of the links below:

Email: ronja_lau@web.de

Instagram: _ronja_lau_

Facebook: Ronja Lau

LinkedIn: Ronja Lau

Bibliography / Further Reading:

F.E. Barth, Die hallstattzeitlichen Grabhügel im Bereich des Kutscher bei Podsemel, Antiquitas 3, Bd. 5, 1969.

L. Bender Jørgensen, Hallstatt and La Tène Textiles from the Archives of Central Europe. In: P. Bichler/K. Grömer/R. Hofmann-de Keijzer/A. Kern/H. Reschreiter (Hrsg.), Hallstatt Textiles (Oxford 2005) 133-150.

S. Bökönyi, Mecklenburg Collection, Part. Data on Iron Age horses of central and eastern Europe (Cambridge, USA 1968).

L. Douny/S. Harris, Wrapping and Unwrapping, Concept and Approaches. In: L. Douny/S. Harris (Hrsg.) Wrapping and Unwrapping Material Culture (Kalifornien 2014) 14-42.

J. Dular, Podzemlj (Ljubljana 1978).

J. Dular, Halštatske Nekropole Dolenjske. Die hallstattzeitlichen Nekropolen in Dolenjsko (Ljubljana 2003).

B. Fath, Spinnen und Weben-Verhüllen und Verknüpfen, Textilherstellung und deren Darstellung in Gräbern der Frühen Eisenzeit Oberitaliens und im Ostalpenraum, In: A. Kern/J. Koch/I. Balzer/J. Fries-Knoblach/K. Kowarik/C. Later/P.C. Ramsl/P. Trebsche/J. Wiethold (Hrsg.) Technologieentwicklung und –transfer in der Hallstatt- und Latènezeit (Langenweissbach 2012) 71-81.

L. Fischer, „Structure from Motion“ in der Praxis. 3D-Visualisierung mittels Digitalfotos. Netzpublikationen zur Grabungstechnik, Nr. 6 (Westfalen-Lippe 2015).

M. Fritzl/M. Konrad/K. Grömer/A. Stadlmeyr, Rituale in der mitteldonauländischen Urnenfelderzeit: Eine Annäherung durch experimentelle Kremationen. In: F. Pieler/P. Trebsche (Hrsg.) Beiträge zum Tag der Niederösterreichischen Landesarchäologie 2019 (Asparn/Zaya 2019) 42-54.

S. Gabrovec, Magdalenska Gora V. Arheološka najdišča Dolenjske. Ob 100-letnici arheoloških raziskovank v Novem mestu, Arheo-Dossier Dolenjska (Ljubljana 1990) 39-42.

M. Gleba, Wrapped Up for Safe Keeping: „Wrapping“ Customs in Early Iron Age Europe. In: L. Douny/S. Harris (Hrsg.) Wrapping and Unwrapping Material Culture (Kalifornien 2014) 135-146.

K. Grömer, Eisenzeitliche Hügelgräber im Attergau. In: P. Trebsche/M. Pollak/H. Gruber (Hrsg.) Fundberichte aus Österreich Materialhefte Reihe A, Sonderheft 5 (Wien 2007).

K. Grömer, Römische Textilien in Noricum und Westpannonien im Kontext der archäologischen Gewebefunde 200 v.Chr.-500 n.Chr. in Österreich (Graz 2014).

K. Grömer, Kremationsexperiment „Inzi 18“ in Asparn an der Zaya, 28.6.-1.7.2018 – Fragestellungen und Beobachtungen zu den Textilresten. Report Textil Archäologie 2018 / 13. Unpublizierter Untersuchungsbericht, Naturhistorisches Museum Wien (Wien 2018).

B. Nowak-Böck/H. Voß, Standardised Mapping System for Digital Documentation of Organic Materials on Metal Finds an In-Situ-Blocs, Archaeological Textiles Review 57, 2015, 60-69.

A. Rast-Eicher, Fibres. Microscopy of Archaeological Textiles and Furs (Budapest 2016).

S. Tecco Hvala, Magdalenska Gora. Družbena struktura in grobni rituali želesnodobne skupnosti (Ljubljana 2012).

V.O. Vitt, Loshadi Pazyryk shikh Kurganov, The horses of the kurgans of Pazyryk, Sovjetskaia Archeologia vol. 16, 1952, 165-179.


In progress: The value of old collections – interdisciplinary research on the Hallstatt Period grave Tum. II/gr. 57 from Magdalenska gora in Slovenia, Lau, Grömer, Rudelics, Kroh, Winkler, Annalen des Naturhistorischen Museums Wien 2021.

In progress: R. Lau, Mineralisierte Textilreste Aus Hallstattzeitlichen Gräbern In Slowenien

Textilarchäologische Analysen Anhand Der Funde Von Magdalenska Gora, Brezje Und Podzemlj (Wien 2020).

In progress: Ausgrabungen in der Bronzezeitsiedlung von Asva im Jahr 2019Uwe Sperling, Hans-Jörg Karlsen, Valter Lang, Andres Kimber und Ronja Lau (Rostock 2020).

Useful Resources:




Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles

Welcome to the first Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles Blog post. This is an exciting time! I’ve been thinking about an early medieval textiles blog that welcomed everyone for a while. It’s important that the blog is accessible; I want everyone to know how great early medieval textiles (and early medieval embroidery, of course) are and how important they were to early medieval societies and to us today. I also want it to include posts about textiles from around the world (its all-inclusive), so you will find textiles from other periods making an appearance as well.

So, thank you to everyone who supported the idea. You pushed me into actually doing something about it! And thank you to Gale Owen-Crocker who agreed to be my guinea pig. She didn’t even hesitate.

An important final note. This blog will engage with textiles and their cultural history from a period that we today commonly describe by using terms such as Anglo-Saxon and Viking. This is an inclusive site and does not misappropriate these or any other terms in order to promote racist ideologies. The administrator reserves the right to remove offensive content.

Gale R. Owen-Crocker: researching medieval clothing and textiles, and the Bayeux Tapestry, of course

Gale R. Owen-Crocker is Professor Emerita of the University of Manchester, UK. She was formerly Professor of Anglo-Saxon Culture and Director of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies. Although she studied Middle English and Old English literature at undergraduate level, it was her PhD on Anglo-Saxon costume that defined her future area of study. Today she is known for her work on clothing and textiles from across the medieval period (AD 450 – 1400) and throughout Western Europe. She is also an expert on the Bayeux Tapestry. Gale is a champion of interdisciplinary research and collaborative working, has always been an enthusiastic mentor to the next generation of early medieval cultural scholars.

Hi Gale, thank you for agreeing to be my guinea pig for Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles. There are so many things that we could discuss but I thought it would be interesting if we concentrated on your methods for researching medieval dress and textiles.

Dress in Anglo-Saxon England was the result of your PhD research at Newcastle University. How did you become interested in this field of research?

I had been in love with Middle English literature (specifically Chaucer) before I even went to University, but once there I discovered earlier literature, Old English, and found my natural place. In my final undergraduate year, a course on Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology introduced me to wider Anglo-Saxon culture. I wanted to do PhD research on something that brought together archaeology and text and my supervisor suggested what we then called ‘costume’, as he knew nothing about it. (He still claims he knows nothing about it 52 years later, but SOMETHING must have brushed off!) It was the perfect subject for me. I always notice what people are wearing, and remember their wardrobe.

Can you explain your focus and research methods for this project? How were they new?

I began by looking at the positions of clothing fasteners in furnished graves to identify patterns. Not only were there regular positions, there were sometimes textile fragments attached to metalwork. To do this I read every volume of every county and national archaeological journal since their inception and made my notes by hand (no photocopiers or computers then). That took a year. I ploughed through German books for evidence of Roman sculptures of barbarian peoples in their national dress. I read right through the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary and followed up every citation to see its context. I found that, though dress/textiles were rarely mentioned in literary texts, there was a wealth of information in non-literary texts: wills, medical recipes, glossary lists. I handled every Anglo-Saxon manuscript with human figures in the British Library and the University and college libraries in Oxford and Cambridge. I dug as a volunteer at Mucking, where they had Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and also grubenhauser – sunk featured buildings. The cross-disciplinary approach and the whole range of evidence I accumulated was a new approach. Fortunately, though I only had a scholarship for 3 years, there was no time limit or word limit on my thesis, so I was able to take all this time to do the research, and I also improved my Old English skills greatly when I moved to a job at Manchester University, which had marvellous library holdings and a group of people all teaching Old and Middle English and English Language, who were always available for discussion. It also gave me the opportunity to make visits to museums in Scandinavia. Nobody would be allowed to take this amount of time these days. I hope my publications have made short cuts for scholars coming along so they don’t have to re-invent the wheel for every thesis.

Now you study dress and textiles from across the medieval period (AD 450 – 1400) and greater geographical territories (Western Europe), why?

I was already familiar with later medieval English literature. Attending the major annual International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo and organizing sessions there, I heard papers on all aspects of medieval dress and textiles and saw the value of bringing them together. Historians would tell me they had had no idea of the literary evidence, literature scholars had no idea the archaeology existed, people who like to make things copying pictures might have no idea about text.  When, with Robin Netherton, I founded the journal Medieval Clothing and Textiles,we deliberately pursued an eclectic approach. Together we edited it for 15 years. From our authors and our peer reviewers I learned a lot. An invitation to spend a few weeks as visiting professor in Munich gave me the opportunity to see collections in a number of regional museums. Professor Han Sauer, who invited me, was most generous: I was only required to give three lectures/seminars, I was taken to the ballet, opera and countless lunches and dinners. I had lots of spare time and I got masses of editing done on my laptop in my hotel room; but I also had lots of time for going out and about. I had decided to specialise for the occasion on gold-brocaded tablet-woven bands (taking my material from Nancy Spies’ Ecclesiastical Pomp and Aristocratic Circumstance), and Professor Sauer arranged for me to be taken (variously by himself, his secretary, postgrad students), to all the museums I listed. Not only did I find a wonderful collection of recently excavated, early (sixth-century) gold brocading in the museum a short walk from the University, I discovered that many of the bands listed by Nancy Spies were still attached to complete vestments. There were stunning collections in the Museums, notably in Bamburg, the vestments from the burial of Pope Clement II, who died in 1047. It was fun always having a companion to discuss things with. I remember Professor Sauer standing in front of a showcase observing very seriously that today it is women who wear high boots; in those days it was men. This Bavarian experience was the foundation for the book Clothing the Past.

Does it give a better and / or different understanding of dress and textiles when they are studied over longer time-frames and wider geographical areas?

You must never be ‘blinkered’ to the wider time and geographical areas. The clue to interpreting the positions of brooches in Anglo-Saxon female graves lies in the Roman sculptures of barbarian women in what was continental Germania. With an almost complete absence of male dress evidence from graves, we NEED those Roman sculptures of barbarian men, and the later Anglo-Saxon manuscript depictions of men to suggest what they might have been wearing in the more obscure centuries of their era. The wider time range can, however be misleading. Before I published my Dress book, the Anglo-Saxon period (all 6 centuries of it) had never been studied for itself, with its chronological developments, and, in costume books was often lumped together with later European dress.

What are the pros and cons compared to studying one period and / or a smaller geographical area?

You have space for regional differences and major changes. There was, for example, a transformation in women’s dress in the late sixth- to seventh century, and it had changed again by the late tenth/eleventh. On the other hand, you mustn’t ignore foreign influences. I once did a research trip to the Netherlands, going to all the major archaeological collections in museums from north to south. It was fascinating to see the changes in culture, which are so reflected in the regional differences in early Anglo-Saxon archaeology.

Gale and Dr Anna Henderson at the launch of ‘Making Sense of the Bayeux Tapestry: readings and re-workings‘ at the Leeds International Medieval Congress, 2016

Obviously, we know that you’re a big Bayeux Tapestry fan. How did you become interested in this mammoth wall hanging? What is it about the Tapestry that keeps drawing you to it?

I started to look at it for my PhD research as art evidence of dress. I returned to it when Elizabeth Coatsworth and I were compiling our database on surviving medieval textiles of the British Isles (yes it is probably English, not French). My colleague and friend Reg Dodwell, Professor of Art History at Manchester, had written an influential article on the BT and told me he had read everything written on it. I thought ‘If he can, I can’ (but no, I haven’t). It gradually got ‘under my skin’ and every time I look at it I see something new. 

You’ve published quite a number of papers about different aspects of the Bayeux Tapestry, can you give us some insight into your working methods? What grabs your eye, how do you identify these ‘new’ stories, and how do you go about researching it?

I have unusual eyesight. My right eye was very short-sighted, but if I got close enough I could read anything, however small. I found that, looking at facsimiles of the BT I was noticing details that nobody else had seen. Relatively recent eye surgery has made my life in general easier, but I have to some extent sacrificed this ‘special view’ for it. I will never lose the habit of looking at details, though. Each ‘story’ needs its own research. The Latin inscription, for example, is a linguistic matter, and that research had been done (though it was a bit conflicting). It also led me into finding a Canterbury grave-stone with similar script. Though the sculpture was published, I think comparing it to the script of the BT was an original contribution.

Over the last few years, you have used Object Biography Theory to support your research, what makes this approach so good for studying medieval dress and textiles?

Textiles are generally published either in terms of their decorative art, or in technical terms by describing their fibre, spinning and weaving. The latter is the beginning of Object Biography. Textiles are also particularly prone to repair, and recycling. For me of course the story is always about people: makers, wearers, repairers …

You often use interdisciplinary methods; collaborating with people from different working backgrounds: makers, scholars from different research areas etc. How did this begin and why?

The interdisciplinary methods go right back to my PhD research. The collaborations happen because I am a friendly person. I like talking to people. I get invited to give talks at all sorts of places, re-enactment societies, Universities, historical and art societies, conferences. I listen as well as talk. I am well aware of my own inadequacies. I can’t draw, for example. I will tackle any Romance language (written) but German is hard for me and I don’t know Welsh or Irish. I don’t have a science background. I like to find a collaborator whose expertise compliments mine.

Gale at the launch of ‘Textiles, Text, Intertext’, a book published in her honour. The book’s two editors are Jill Frederick and Maren Clegg Hyer (Kalamazoo, 2015)

What makes this a good / better way of working, especially for studying medieval dress and textiles?

It saves time. It avoids the laziness of saying that is too hard for me, I’ll ignore it. It also makes work fun to share with somebody. For our 5 year, grant-funded lexis-project we had a team of 3 directors, 2 research assistants, one administrative assistant, two specialists on Irish and Welsh and a PhD students; and we attracted other post-graduate students to work on associated areas as well as ‘interns’, undergraduates who came from Smith College, USA and Hamburg, Germany, as Honorary Research Fellows for work experience in my Faculty under my supervision.  For the Encyclopedia Project – also about 5 years – we had 4 editors and numerous authors, as well as 2 people at the publishers in Leiden very much involved who we met personally from time to time. Working that way is stimulating and exciting. I do like smaller collaborations too. It is nice just to be able ‘to talk about it’.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just published a Bayeux Tapestry article in collaboration with my former MA student Maggie Kneen who is a professional artist. We hope it will cause a bit of a stir. We hope to go on to complete together the book that has been in bits on my computer for years. A book called Sense and Feeling in Daily Living in early Medieval England which I edited with Maren Clegg Hyer, the 4th in a series on Daily Living in Anglo-Saxon England, is at press. I have just checked the proofs of the index and it should be published next month. I am editing a collection in honour of Elizabeth Coatsworth, again with Maren Clegg Hyer.  A collection in honour of Shirley Ann Brown is at the early stages. I am editing that with Sylvette Lemagnen, formerly Curator of the Bayeux Tapestry. A book about Animals in early medieval England is at the discussion stage.

You’ve always mentored and encouraged the next generation (including me), if someone reading this blog was thinking about a career studying medieval dress and textiles, what advice would you give them?

I am not a career expert, and I have been retired some years, but I would suggest that if you want to make a PAID career out of it, get a good degree in an established academic subject. That might be a Science degree or one in Textile Technology or one in History, Archaeology, Art History or a language with a big emphasis on the medieval – choose the course carefully as a lot of places have reduced their medieval element in recent years. There are degrees in Fashion and Textiles and there are a few Medieval Studies degrees but generally the latter have a small intake. If you go the Arts way, make sure you also have a good grounding in science, because that is the future. If you want to do a prestige postgraduate qualification in Textiles (like in Glasgow or Copenhagen) you will very probably need to have the science. Isotope analysis, DNA analysis, ultra violet and raking light photography, multispectral imaging (MSI) and high-performance liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (HPLC-MS) are just a few of the techniques now in operation. You may like to learn to hand sew, to spin and weave and embroider. Find a good re-enactment society and they will be glad to advise you. I think you will find it hard to make a full time job out of medieval clothing and textiles. You have to carve a niche for that out of wherever you land. You have to have skills that you can apply to other things.


I would like to thank Gale for taking the time to give us some insights into her working methods and research practices. Next month we will be travelling further back in time, when Ronja Lau discusses her experimental archaeological research with textiles from Slovenian cemeteries of the early Iron Age/Hallstatt period.

Gale giving her retirement speech in 2015. Dr Chris Monk can be seen in the background

Useful Resources: http://lexisproject.arts.manchester.ac.uk

Publications / Further reading:

Here are a list of dress and textiles book only publications by Gale.

2018 With Elizabeth Coatsworth Clothing the Past: surviving garments from early medieval to early modern western Europe, Leiden and Boston: Brill.

2016 with Sylvette Lemagnen and Shirley Ann Brown, L’Invention de la Tapisserie de Bayeux: Naissance, composition et style d’un chef-d’oeuvre medieval. Colloque international, Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, 22-25 septembre 2016.  Bayeux: Point de Vues / Ville de Bayeux.

2016 With Anna Henderson Making Sense of the Bayeux Tapestry: Readings and Reworkings, Manchester University Press.

2014 With Louise M. Sylvester and Mark C. Chambers, Medieval Dress and Textiles in Britain: A Multilingual Sourcebook, Woodbridge, Boydell.

2012 The Bayeux Tapestry: Collected Papers, Variorum Collected Studies Series, Farnham, Ashgate.

2012 with Elizabeth Coatsworth and Maria Hayward, Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles­ of the British Isles c. 450-1450, Leiden and Boston, Brill.

2011 The Bayeux Tapestry: new approaches, ed. Michael J. Lewis, Gale R. Owen-Crocker and Dan Terkla, Oxford, Oxbow.

2007 (With Elizabeth Coatsworth) Medieval Textiles of the British Isles AD 450-1100: an Annotated Bibliography, British Archaeological Reports, British Series 445, Oxford, Archaeopress.

2005 King Harold II and the Bayeux Tapestry, Woodbridge, Boydell,

2004 Dress in Anglo-Saxon England: revised and enlarged edition, Woodbridge, Boydell and Brewer.

Contact: If you would to contact Gale about her work please email her on: gale.owencrocker@ntlworld.com

Cuthbert Recreation Project

This update is about hands

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St Cuthbert Project update Hands! 🖐 I’m pleased with these too, especially the nails, which I wasn’t sure would work. I recorded stitching the fillings but need to edit the snippets before I post them. Watch this space. The outlines are worked in stem stitch. The silk thread is doubled and the slight S-twist is created through the stitching process. I’ve included a detail of the original for comparison. #workinprogress #embroidery #handembroidered #technique #historical #silkthread #silk #earlymedieval #medieval #earlymedievalarchaeology #earlymedievalhistory #earlymedievaltextiles #textilearchaeology #textiletechinques #materiality #archaeologicaltextileart #archaeologicaltextiles #historicalembroidery #historicalembroiderytechniques #embroiderartisart #damngoodstitch #textileoftheday #splitstitch #stemstitch #handcrafted #craft #historicaltextiletechnique #historicaltextiles #colour #color

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Cuthbert Maniple Project Update

The next update of the Cuthbert Maniple Recreation Project is up on Instagram

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Cuthbert Maniple Update I finally took the plunge and went back to the head, only to discover that I’d drawn it incorrectly (argh!). So unpicked the neck and tonsure. I redrew the head on artists acid free tracing paper and when I was happy with it, I redrew it on the ground fabric. Unfortunately I had to use a modern transfer pen as the original outline refused to budge when I tried to erase it (another interesting research point). The stitching didn’t take that long really, despite having to refer back to images of the original regularly. What’s interesting are the lines of stitching, not straight up and down but following contours, similar to later Opus Anglicanum examples. The same with the hair. I then outlined and inserted the features. I have to say that after a rubbish start, I’m pleased with the results, despite the differences you can see between it and the original. #embroidery #embroiderer #handembroidered #technique #silkthread #silk #earlymedieval #earlymedievalarchaeology #earlymedievalhistory #earlymedievaltextiles #textilearchaeology #textiletechinques #archaeologicaltextileart #archaeologicaltextile #archaeologicaltextiles #historicalembroidery #historicalembroiderytechniques #bordado #broderie #naturaldyes #naturaldye #handdyedyarn #splitstitch #stemstitch #handcrafted #craft #historicaltextiletechnique #historicaltextiles #colour #color

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This time it’s the head

The Story of how my book, ‘The Lost Art of the Anglo-Saxon World: the sacred and secular power of embroidery’, came into being

A blog piece I’ve written about the story behind my book, The Lost Art of the Anglo-Saxon World: the sacred and secular power of embroidery, has just been published on the Oxbow Books blogspot. Check it out via the link below.


Kierri Price

Hi Kierri,

I’ve received your message but when I tried to reply my email server kept telling me the email you supplied isn’t valid. Can you resend it and I’ll try again.