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Tent, Tenters & Tenterhooks

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Tent, tenters & tenterhooks: some historical canvas work
by Christian de Holacombe

I had one of those “revelation moments” a while back — where you suddenly put two pieces of information, both of which you already knew, together for the first time, and it dawns on you, “Oh, so THAT’s why…”

This particular one was about tent stitch, that simple little diagonal stitch that looks like half of a cross stitch and is so often used for the modern embroidery on canvas that we (inaccurately) call “needlepoint” or “tapestry work.”

Through some completely unrelated research on Tudor maps, I had recognized an area in the town of Stafford, England, that was called “the tenter-banks.” Just outside the town walls, and not at all built on at the time, this was clearly an area of open ground (now conveniently hosting the railroad station) where large pieces of woolen cloth could be dried after fulling and shearing.

To do this, the pieces of cloth were stretched tightly on a frame, so that they would dry smooth and straight. The frames are called “tenters” and the cloth is attached to the frame by being caught on a row of small, sharp “tenter-hooks.” (So now you know where “on tenterhooks” comes from!)

And finally it dawned on me that tent stitch is called tent stitch because the fabric is stretched on… a tenter frame. Simple, once you think of it!

We can broadly define “canvas work” as embroidery where the tent stitch, or other similar stitches used, completely cover the background fabric. In our period (Europe before 1600), canvas work seems to have been used almost exclusively for furnishings and small accessories, such as cushions, purses, and upholstery. The small, uniform and tightly packed stitches make a very durable and hard-wearing surface, which has often survived where more fragile fabrics have not.

Tent stitch, sometimes also called petit point, is by far the most common stitch used for 16th-century canvas work. Sometimes details are added in stem, satin, or split stitch, and as is very well demonstrated by the sweet bag on our cover, plaited braid stitch, encroaching Gobelin stitch, and bits of goldwork technique and other stitches were also used for details.

There is also quite a lot of period canvas work done in cross stitch, such as the famous Oxburgh hangings, worked in the household of Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, by many hands including the Countess herself and Mary Queen of Scots.

There are also table carpets and cushion covers worked in long-armed cross stitch, which produces a very well padded and tightly stitched surface that is particularly sturdy. These stitches are also not so apt to distort the fabric they are worked on; solid tent stitch tends to skew the grain of the base fabric because the pull is on the diagonal.

A bit more exotic are pieces worked in “Turkish knot” stitch, which is actually a needle-made imitation of the knots used in carpets imported from the Middle East. These carpets were very fashionable and expensive in our period and can be seen in many period paintings.

In modern times, we usually do canvas work on a special “just for needlework” fabric, which is very loosely woven with gaps between its threads and is heavily starched to hold its shape. But while 16th-century account books record the purchase of special needlework fabric, many of the surviving pieces that use tent stitch have been worked on what looks like quite ordinary, white or off-white, not too tightly woven linen. While it may have been specially prepared with starch or other treatments, it looks very much like the plain linen we can easily find in fabric stores.

In a similar way, it is not too difficult for us to find suitable thread. Many of the larger 16th century canvas pieces were worked in wool, and modern “needlepoint” wool is available in a very wide variety of sizes and colors. A surprising number of the period pieces, however, were worked in silk, including the Oxburgh hangings and many of the smaller and more “precious” pieces, like elaborately decorated sweet bags. Affordable silk has become much easier to find in the last thirty years or so, due to improved trade relations with China; it’s still more expensive than wool, but no longer quite so out of reach.

While sources of period motifs take a bit more searching, canvaswork is still one of the more accessible period needlework styles in our repertoire. It’s probably second only to cross-stitch in the number of people who have already tried it even before they become interested in historical embroidery. All in all, it’s a technique that offers great possibilities for the Current Middle Ages.

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