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A Historical Chain

A Historical Chain published on No Comments on A Historical Chain

A Historical Chain
Tangwystyl verch Morgant Glasvryn
Is This Stitch Period? #6
Filum Aureum, Winter 2004

Chain stitch is commonly used today in ways that show off its unique shape and structure. But the chain stitch embroideries I’m familiar with from the SCA’s historical period use it in the same way as split or stem stitch – as a filling stitch, one that follows the contours of the motifs (or of their internal details).

When packed closely together in this type of use, chain stitch can be difficult to distinguish from stem or split stitch, and for quite a while I was skeptical about many catalog descriptions of pieces claiming they used chain. The easiest way to tell is if the work is damaged and you can see the loops “unchaining”, or if the ground fabric is damaged and you can see individual chain-rows separating out.

Chain stitch was popular in Egypt (and possibly other parts of the Middle East) from a fairly early date – at least from the later Roman Empire. It continued to be popular there at least through the 12-13th centuries, adapting to new fashions, materials and motifs. Examples from Europe proper are much scarcer, and the stitch doesn’t seem to be part of the repertoire of the great embroideries of the high medieval period.

It’s always something of a matter of chance which pieces have survived, but we can make a few general observations. Surviving works in chain stitch may either be solidly embroidered (the Huysbourg altar hanging – see catalog) or have the ground fabric showing between the motifs (as in the Coptic pillows). The work is most commonly done in wool, either on a linen or woolen ground fabric.

A few pieces differ from this pattern. The embroidered “necklace” on the tunic of St. Bathilde is worked in silk (on linen), as are at least one 12-13th c. Egyptian piece and the Huysbourg hanging. A 9th c. middle eastern piece of uncertain origin is worked in wool on cotton. And the woolen Egyptian pieces in general use linen or cotton to embroider the white parts of the motifs. (There may be a logical explanation for the rarity of silk embroideries using chain stitch, since this stitch is less able to show off the smooth gloss of the silk.)

In some of the Coptic Egyptian pieces, chain stitch is used in combination with stem stitch, where the latter is used for solid blocks of color and the chain is used to create thick free-standing lines (such as the handles of a vase or the stems of foliage).

Catalog of examples

Harris-1993-lgThe earliest examples I’ve found are from ca. 3rd century Palmyra [1]. They are unusual in that the ground fabric is silk, often a patterned damask weave. The embroidery is done in colored silk (yellow, green, and blue) in fairly large sloppy stitches creating rather abstract flower and vegetation designs. The pieces are very fragmentary and their original purpose is hard to determine.

The next pieces are primarily from Coptic Egypt, although some may have been imported from elsewhere. They are very similar in overall style, using classical Greco-Roman artistic motifs, often featuring human or mythological figures.

There are several relatively large pieces that consist of a square frame enclosing a human torso. In some cases, these appear to have been cushion covers, in others the use is impossible to determine.

On the left is a 4th c. example from Harris [2] where the human figure represents “Autumn”, holding a cloth carrying fruit. (There’s also a companion piece representing “Winter.”) The frame is worked in some decorative stitch forming a lattice effect, but the interior area is worked solidly in chain stitch.

Another very well preserved example from the 5th c. is given in Thompson [3]. The human figure here is also likely to be allegorical, as it has wings and is carrying a basket and some odd-looking staff or rod. In this piece the purple woolen ground fabric shows between the motifs and the frame as well as the interior design is done in chain stitch. The frame is filled with several types of flowers with an outer edge of engrailed points tipped with “pearls” (i.e., white circles). A wide variety of colors are used, several shades each of red, green, and blue, as well as orange, yellow, and white. The white is linen, while the colors are all worked in wool. There are a couple of other very fragmentary pieces of similar for-mat in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Coptic Egyptian examples aren’t confined to this one particular motif, however. Thompson [4] shows several small roundels, probably of the 4-6th century, worked solidly in chain stitch in wool on linen. Each has a single motif: a partridge-like bird or a bowl of fruit. It’s possible that these were used as decorations on tunics. (Circular tunic ornaments of similar size are found in tapestry weaving.) The embroidery is done in light blue, pink, red, white, light green, and two shades of brown.

Vase-boxAnother piece that may originally have been a tunic ornament is a rather small plain square frame enclosing a vase with flowers emerging from it [5](right). The piece is mostly worked in stem stitch, with only the linear elements (e.g., stems and vase handles) done in chain. It is also unusual in being done in a monochrome style (in purple wool on natural linen, with details worked in white linen) similar to a style often seen in tapestry weaving of the time.

While many of the Egyptian pieces are somewhat stylized in design, a fragment showing part of a centaur from the 4-5th century is much more naturalistic and sophisticated in its depiction. Schuette and Christensen [6] describe it as being done in red, green, and brown wool and white linen, on a red woolen ground fabric.

Schuette and Christensen [7] also includes our cover picture for this issue, the largest surviving piece I’ve seen using chain stitch, although it’s a minor part of the work. This is a curtain or hanging from 4th-6th c. Egypt, worked on linen in blue, yellow, pink, purple, and several shades of green wool. The solid parts of the motifs are worked in stem stitch, but the lines (such as stems and vines) are done in chain. At the top of the curtain, there is a row of pots or baskets from which grapevines emerge. Scattered over the rest of the piece are stylized trees and flowers.


Schuette-6-lgA rather different artistic style can be seen in another piece from the same book [8] (left), attributed to 6-7th c. Persia. The fragmentary piece shows rather stylized human figures in various activities, worked solidly in chain stitch using white, red, green, and black wool on a white wool ground.

Continuing with the Egyptian material, we see some definite changes in style in a group of 7th c. examples published by Errera [9]. These are worked in silk on linen in a relatively small number of colors: only three or four at a time, but taken from green, red, black, pale blue, and two shades of brown. The pieces are built up out of bands of motifs, often mirrored around a central line, with stylized trees, birds, and animals, sometimes enclosed in roundels or cartouches. Some of the bands are solidly embroidered, while others are done as outlines with the ground fabric showing through. The stitches are relatively large and loose compared to the size of the motifs, making the details hard to identify.

These pieces are fairly similar to a group attributed in Kühnel [10] to the 12-13th c. (The difference in dating should not be relied on. Much of the Egyptian material has been dated on stylistic grounds alone, and opinions have changed over the last century.) Two of these pieces are identified as “pillow covers” and involve several bands of motifs like those described above, mirrored around the central band, sometimes with scattered motifs between the bands. A somewhat larger variety of colors are used in these pieces. The third piece is unclear as to function and has a different structure with a scattering of lions (or perhaps dogs) outlined alternately in blue or red, and originally filled in (but the filling has now disappeared). This group are all worked in silk on linen.

Kuehnel 3171 lg

Kuehnel 4915BW lg

Tissus 179 BW lgAnother silk-on-linen piece of the 12th-13th c. with randomly scattered animal motifs appears in Tissus d’Egypte [11] (right). The colors are now two shades of pale brown, with occasional details in dark blue, but the piece may originally have been more colorful.



Tissus 175BW lgGoing back in time a little to the 9th c., there are two pieces in Tissus d’Egypte [12] that resemble each other. Each appears to be part of a continuous band of roughly round frames enclosing a very stylized lily-like flower. The embroidery is done in wool using a relatively small number of colors (and white cotton). One piece also has stylized floral motifs but is too damaged to interpret reliably. The ground fabric for one is natural wool, and cotton for the other.

Tissus 178 lgAlthough most of the 12-13th c. Egyptian pieces I’ve found have been done in silk, Tissus d’Egypte [13] also has one done very delicately in wool on linen, with a realistic (if somewhat crude) animal motif – from the fragment, it looks like it might be a saddled camel – and vegetation. Rather unusually, the visible ground fabric on this piece is covered with a decorative pulled-thread technique worked in white linen.



So far, I’ve only found two pieces from Europe proper – although one of them currently exists in
several pieces in more than one country!


chellesA relic associated with the 7th c. Frankish queen, Saint Bathilde [14] (left), consists of part of a white linen tunic with silk chain-stitch embroidery representing a series of necklaces around the neck opening. There are several solid bands with oval “jewels” and teardrop-shaped pendants, and a narrow “chain” from which a series of medal-lions and a “jeweled” cross hang. The colors are bright: red, blue, and green for the “jewels”, and two shades of yellow representing metallic gold. (There is no actual gold thread used.) The piece is quite unusual may not represent a typical use of embroidery … or it may – we don’t have much 7th-century French embroidery surviving.

Huysbourg ant - Cluny lgThe other European piece [15](right) is an antependium (church hanging) created in (or at one time residing in) Huysbourg monastery in France, ca. 1150-60. (One piece of it is in the Cluny museum in Paris, several others are in the Victoria and Albert museum in London.) It is solidly embroidered in chain stitch in silk on a linen ground. The design has a series of roman arches with a saint standing in each one. Above the arches are various acanthus motifs. The colors now appear to involve five or six different shades of brown, some of them slightly reddish, but it seems likely that these have faded from the originals.



[1] Pfister, R. 1934. Textiles de Palmyre. Paris: Les Éditions d’Art et d’Histoire.[2] Harris, Jennifer ed. 1993. 5000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press. Page 63.

[3] Thompson, Deborah. 1971. Coptic Textiles in the Brooklyn Museum. The Brooklyn Museum. #8.

[4] Thompson, Nos. 11a-c. There is also a similar embroidery with two stylized birds flanking a “jeweled” cross, done in chain stitch embroidery in wool on linen from Akhmim in London; see Kendrick, Catalogue II, pl. VI, no. 318 (1262-1888).

[5] Currently held at the V&A museum, who ascribe it to 4-5th c. Egypt or Mesopotamia.

[6] Schuette, Marie & Sigrid Müller-Christensen. 1963. La Broderie. Editions Albert Morancé, Paris. (There is also an English edition of this book.) Figure 1.

[7] Schuette & Christensen, Figure 7.

[8] Schuette & Christensen, Figure 6.

[9] Errera, Isabelle. 1916. Collection d’Anciennes Étoffes Égyptiennes. Bruxelles: Imprimerie J.-E. Goossens. Catalog #269, 270, 271, 272

[10] Kühnel, Ernst. 1927. Islamische Stoffe aus Ägyptischen Gräbern. Berlin: Verlag Ernst Wasmuth. Catalog #3171, 3172, 4915.

[11] Tissus D’Égypte: Témoins du monde arabe VIIIe-XVe s. 1993. Paris: Societe Presence du livre. Catalog #179

[12] Tissus, catalog #175 & 176

[13] Tissus, catalog #178

[14] Laporte, Jean-Pierre. 1988. Le Tresor des Saints de Chelles. Ville de Chelles: Societe Archeologique et Historique de Chelles.

[15] Musée national du Moyen Age, Themes de Cluny: A Guide to the Collections. 1993. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux.

This article is copyright © 2003 by Heather Rose Jones. Reproducing this article is not allowed unless you receive specific permission in advance; please ask.


Curtain flower lgCurtain tree lgThe tree (left), tulip (right) and border patterns (below) are from the curtain shown on this issue’s cover (see below). Enlarge as needed: the trees on the original are about 10 inches tall, the “tulips” about 3.5 inches, and the elaborate border about 5.5 inches. The trees and their leaves are worked with one side lighter green, the other darker green, as shown by the dividing lines. In the original, no two trees, tulips or repetitions of the border are alike – note the differences in the branches of the border pattern here. Improvise!





Coptic cover

Two of the borders from the pillow cover above. (The third border in this group is a repeat of the top border, upside down.) Outlines in this issue may be copied for personal use. Please give credit to the Guild if you use them in documentation.



Copyright of each article belongs to the original author.

Reproduction rights are not given by virtue of their appearance here.

If you wish to reprint any of these articles, in whole or in part, in any medium, you must first get permission from the the author. Please contact a Guild Minister or the Guild Webmistress, who will forward your request to the appropriate party and respond to you.

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