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Linens for Lent

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Linens for Lent: A Context for Pulled-Thread Stitches

— by Christian de Holacombe, Guild Deputy

While we don’t see many pieces of needlework done entirely in pulled-thread work in the Middle Ages, there’s an interesting class of textiles where we do see bits and pieces of this technique fairly often. That is in the church textiles used for the penitential season of Lent. The piece shown on the right, part of a hanging showing the Last Supper, is such an example, now in the Chicago Arts Institute.

Part of church textile showing the Last SupperDuring Lent, the richly colored silk and gold altar coverings and vestments used during the rest of the year were often put away, and replaced by those of simpler materials. Statues and crosses in the church were also sometimes covered with veils as a sign of mourning. Many of these textiles were of white linen, decorated only with white-on-white linen embroidery or with a minimum of colored silks. The example on the right is embroidered in white and natural colored linen thread, with lesser amounts of blue and brown silk.
Thirteenth century hanging, pulled whitework Without much color to create contrast, these textiles are worked in a wide variety of patterns of greater and lesser density. Most common are patterns in counted-thread satin or flat stitch, including stripes and diamonds. Each figure may have a different stitched pattern for his or her clothing. These are often worked with incredible fineness, on base linen which may be woven with 40 to 60 threads per inch.

Pulled-thread stitches appear in these textiles as a filling for haloes, and sometimes as an open background against which figures may stand out. Single or double faggoting seems to be the most common. In the close-up of Christ’s halo below, areas of faggoting are worked in different colored threads to create the lighter and darker areas within the halo. closeup of halo, showing lighter and darker worked areas

loosely worked stitches above, tightly worked stitches below It’s easy to see how pulled-thread stitches could have developed in this context. A little experimentation with the flat stitches (left) would have shown the embroiderers that the same stitch may have quite a different effect when pulled tightly than it does worked at a normal tension.

The combination of counted-thread and pulled stitches in these fine linen textiles is referred to as Opus Teutonicum, or German whitework. It appears especially in southern Germany in the 13th and 14th centuries. These textiles are complex and fascinating, though difficult to photograph because of the lack of color. Some of the best examples are in Schuette and Christensen’s Pictorial History of Embroidery.


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