Embroidery: The Glory of the Golden Age 1250 – 1350

I watched a series on BBC iPlayer “The Fabric of Britain” which had three episodes: knitting, wallpaper and embroidery.

This blog post focuses on the episode on embroidery.  The golden age of English embroidery refers to the period 1250 – 1350 when the skilled work of English embroiders was highly valued, and was referred to as “Opus Anglicanum”, meaning English work.

Embroidery silks

What I found particularly interesting was the history discussed in the episode “The Wonder of Embroidery”; England was a leader in the craft of embroidery in the western world in the 12th – 14th centuries, elevating it to an art form known as “Opus Anglicanum” i.e. English work, which commanded high prices. 

The Syon Cope, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, illustrates the highly detailed embroidery, using split stitch for facial contouring and underside couching to hold gold thread in place as the main embroidery techniques.

The Syon cope, English, early 14th century. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, acc. no. 83-1864

Syon Cope (V&A Museum)
Plants for dyes

They did not have the vibrant modern colours we have today; they relied on natural dyes from flowers, leaves, seeds, roots, bark, moss and mushrooms etc.  Yellow could be made from yarrow and dandelions; shades of pink from roses and lavender; red from madder; orange from onions; blue from indigo or woad.

Find out more about using natural dyes

The dye could create a different colour on animal fabrics (wool) or plant materials (linen). The dyes are fixed with a mordant, which could change the colour of the dyed thread or fabric. Salt, vinegar, alum or iron can be used for this purpose, or other plants such as rhus typhina which contains tannin.

Staghorn sumac leaves

Most examples of religious vestments using Opus Anglicanum are on display in Europe; why rarely in England? Blame the Reformation for that – ecclesiastical embroideries were destroyed in much the same way as the abbeys are now ruins of a past age.

London, where the Guild of Broderers is based, was particularly badly affected, and so the skills were lost. As the population recovered, less detailed work at a lower price came from other areas in Europe, and the golden age of English embroidery was over. Find out more about the art of embroidery at the Worshipful Company of Broderers [image: Coat of Arms]

Broderer Coat of Arms
Map showing spread of bubonic plague

What makes this relevant to today? The impact of a pandemic. The decline of English embroidery can be largely attributed to bubonic plague – a pandemic which was responsible for the deaths of 50 million people, 60% of Europe’s population. Other sources suggest the toll was closer to 200 million. Read more about the history and spread of bubonic plague at History Today. [image from History Today]


Typically, Opus Anglicanum was used to embellish the formal regalia for the clergy. The chasuble is an example of such a vestment, worn by a priest during Mass, it is a garment from the shoulders to the knees, which is often embroidered with biblical scenes such as the crucifixion on the back so that the congregation would be able to see this during the ceremony as the priest faced the altar. 

Sometimes embroideries were re-used, for example a cope trimmed to make an altar cloth.

Clare Chasuble V&A Museum

Read more about Opus Anglicanum at the Victoria and Albert Museum where the specific stitches used are clearly explained. There is also information about an exhibition which ran there from 1 October 2016 to 5 February 2017.

Which skills do you consider are at risk of dying out in the present day that we should make an effort to preserve? Please share your views in the comments.

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