Posted by: kljolly | May 26, 2020

Fabric Art

Embroidered tapestry is a misnomer, as is often pointed out regarding the Bayeux Tapestry, which is actually an embroidered wall hanging. Many people use “tapestry” generically to mean any cloth hanging on a wall. Technically, tapestries are woven fabric art, while embroidery is the art of stitching on or in already woven cloth. Another perhaps anachronistic term may be “quilt,” patchwork cloth pieces sewn together and over-stitched with a backing and sometimes filler; and appliqué, pieces of cloth sewn onto fabric.

But all of these techniques–weaving, embroidering, quilting, appliqué, and many more variations on fabric art–were undoubtedly in use in early medieval Northumbria. It is just that the evidence for this artwork rarely survives, except under extraordinary conditions, such as St. Cuthbert’s vestments from the early tenth century (unfortunately, Durham Cathedral’s online collection does not offer images).

In the year 941 of my novel, Aldred finishes his pilgrimage with Cathroe and finally arrives home at his family’s Easington estate. Along the way, he encounters wall hangings in the church at Keswick, and again at his home church as done by his sister Bega. In addition, his mother Tilwif is making vestments for Aldred’s ordination as deacon (and for his sister Bega as deaconess, but that is another story).

However, fabric art is not my metier: like Aldred, I am a wordsmith. So I am reliant for inspiration and information on my artist sister Ann, art historian Carol Neuman de Vegvar who made an early intervention in Ohio where this all began, and the expertise of embroidery scholar Elizabeth Coatsworth as well as that doyenne of early medieval textiles, Gale Owen-Crocker (see bibliography at end). Any errors in this post are my own and subject to their very welcome corrections and additions.

First, the inspiration from my sister Ann, whose artwork hangs right where I can contemplate it at leisure. Umpteen years ago, she rashly promised to make me a quilt based on the Luke carpet page in the Lindisfarne Gosples (British Library, Cotton Nero D.IV):

She thereby embarked on a multi-year inter-state odyssey involving a team of artisans worthy of Eadfrith and his colleagues Æthilwald and Billfrith in the Lindisfarne Gospels. I will not recount the saga here, but the result is stunning:

This is, first of all, a quilt: fabric squares pieced together in blocks matching the background in the manuscript illumination. But it also uses appliqué to place the Greek cross and the other squares “on top” of the quilt as well as at the corners. Third, it is in some sense “embroidered” with machine quilt stitching in various patterns replicating the serpentine and vine scroll work of the original. Last and the most modern, yet recalling the work of the manuscript illuminators, is the fabric pen work highlighting the vine scroll stitching: gold on the cross, blue, red, and green on the bird and beast bodies.

Clearly not all of these techniques could be used in tenth-century Northumbria, but similar effects could be had using different tools. Hence, my recourse to the historians of textiles and embroideries.

In the Keswick church, Aldred encounters a series of wall hangings telling the story of St. Kentigern, although most of them follow the story of his mother St. Thaney. Here is the description of the first wall hanging through Aldred’s eyes:

Once he looked more closely, he realized that the wall hanging was not of simple construction, woven cloth embroidered with thread.  It was more like a manuscript illumination.  As tall as a man and as wide as his arms outstretched, the base fabric was a fine white wool tightly woven, framed by tablet-woven bands with intertwined endless patterns, such as those his mother and sister made. Over the white wool was a central panel of pale yellow linen squares forming a heavenly background for the story.  But the whole center of the hanging was taken up with brightly colored figures—people and objects cut out of linen cloth—overlaid in a technique he recognized from his mother’s handiwork, appliqué.  Then over these, someone had stitched outlines, faces, and designs in various patterns his sister would be able to name—some stitches like feathers, others crosses or chains, some thick, others flat to produce the appearance of depth. This embroidery reminded Aldred of a bishop’s stole, such as Cuthbert wore even now in his wooden coffin at Chester-le-Street.  The bright silk threadwork, silver, gold, blue, red, caught the flickering light of the lamps at different angles, bringing the people to life.

I thought about adding:

Later he noticed several small gaps, as if something had been cut away.  When he asked about them, he was told that bright gems and flat gold crosses had been removed to pay off the Vikings and prevent them from ripping the tapestries from the walls.

Or maybe they originally used gold and silver wire, since these wire techniques are found in Scandinavia, so I could have the artisan learn the craft from local Scandinavian women?

For the Easington church, I have his sister Bega designing and creating with other women the Luke carpet page. Here is Aldred’s first encounter with it:

     Aldred traced his finger over the interlaced beasts and birds on the wall hanging, flora and fauna in shades of blue, red, and green outlined in yellow.  His sister Bega had created a wonder greater than those embroidered cloths he had seen at Keswick church.  Not that the materials Bega used were superior—she had sewn it with rags from old clothes and leftover scraps of textiles from the loom, embroidered over with dyed threads, no fine gold thread here.

            No, what was amazing to Aldred was that she had recreated with precision one of the cross pages from the Lindisfarne Gospel book at Chester-le-Street, down to the last detail of colored squares and bird heads.  He recognized it as soon as he had entered the side door of the Easington church and saw it hanging opposite on the north wall.  The Gospel of Luke.  Not the size of a book page, but the size of a man.


            Standing back now from the embroidered cloth, Aldred’s eyes blurred and refocused.  What had stood out to him when he first walked in to the church was the golden equilateral cross dominating the center.  When he had come closer, he had realized that Bega had made this Greek style cross out of bright yellow silk with dense red interlace embroidery, to give the appearance of shimmering gold.  But after he had stepped up to the tapestry, his eyes were drawn to the birds and beasts in the rectangular boxes surrounding the cross, tracing his finger over the interlace just as he had done as a boy with Bega, examining the endless knotwork on the family horn, and on the many stone crosses he had encountered since then. 

            Now that he stood a few feet away from the textile, it was the ground of white and blue diamond squares alternating on red that rose to the surface, while the squared cross and boxes sewn on top faded into the background.

            He tried to recall the manuscript image in his mind’s eye.  He had not really noticed the colored squares before when contemplating the cross on a parchment page, but in textile they seemed to come alive.  The blue squares suddenly swam before his eyes, and then the white, as if he were looking at a mosaic pavement, like the Romans made, but under water.

            Focusing on one set, he realized that each of the larger squares not only combined with each other to form a bigger pattern of multicolored diamonds, but each colored block was made up of smaller squares of fabric sewn together, including the red squares fitted between them.  Moreover, the blue, red, and white fabrics varied in color and texture, probably because they were made out of scraps of cloth, a mix of wool and finer linen.  He reached out and touched one of the faded blue squares.  It reminded him of an old woolen tunic of his father’s that had been made into a robe for him as a boy of 7 when he was sent to Chester-le-Street for his education.  In fact he vividly remembered wearing that faded and too-short blue robe three years later, the day he was running to his dying Uncle Tilred.

            He stepped further back.  A shaft of sunlight from the south windows suddenly appeared, probably a break in the clouds outside.  Now it was the outer red border and the four corners of the tapestry that lit up.  He moved back in, and then squatted down to look at the bottom left of the four corner emblems, the two upper ones high above his head.  On a dark background, Bega had embroidered two marvelous birds with multicolored feathers and fierce beaked heads, trailing interlaced red and blue tails.

            Leaning to the right he looked at the emblem in the bottom center, mirrored above and on both sides.  Here again interlace, but with two mammal heads facing out.  To make the interlace stand out like gold in the manuscript, she had cleverly appliqued the bright yellow fabric against a black background.

            He stood back up and examined the central boss of the cross.  The square had four circles in it, each filled with endless swirls that made him sway, almost losing his balance.

For Tilwif constructing the deacon garments for Aldred and Bega, I am reliant on the work of Julia Barrow and Maureen Miller cited in the bibliography below.

     Meanwhile, their mother Tilwif was sewing their vestments for Easter, a chrismal robe for Frith, alb, dalmatic, maniple, and stole for Bega and Aldred.

            The long sleeved alb undergarment, like the chrismal robe, was simple white linen they had in abundant supply.  Bega already had such a garment, but Aldred’s from Govan as subdeacon was worn and stained from his travels, so she made him a new one. 

            The dalmatic over the linen alb was more colorful, a calf-length natural colored tunic with red stripes from shoulder to hem and along the sleeve edge.  These dalmatics Tilwif made from their fine wool for warmth in the cool church.  For the stripes, she used tablet-woven braids with variegated red threads and texture created with alternating warp (z)- and weft (s)-spun threads.  Some of the women spun their spindles sunwise to produce warp thread, some the opposite direction making weft. Combined in a chevron tablet weave of two different shades of red, these braided borders stood out from the plain white garment, a reminder of the blood of Christ that washed them spotless as the wool of the dalmatic onto which it was sewn.

            The maniple was a white linen hand-cloth for the deacons to carry over their arm, ostensibly to cover or wipe any utensils during the performance of the mass.  Their house had stacks of these folded rectangular cloths on hand, made from the fabric left after making other garments and altar cloths, and hemmed with simple stem stitches done by the girls learning to use their needles.

            The maniple, alb, and dalmatic were quickly made from materials on hand.  The stole, however, was a long embroidered scarf worn over the alb and peeking out below the dalmatic.  Tilwif had already finished Bega’s stole before Aldred’s return, so now she worked on his.  Both scarves were made of finely woven undyed linen, about 3 inches wide, but almost entirely covered in intricate designs similar to those on the Luke Gospel cross wall hanging in the church. 

            Bega’s scarf imitated the pale blues, reds, and greens of the interwoven beasts in the four rectangualr patterns surrounding the central cross, but at the bottom of both ends that would be visible below the dalmatic, she replicated the equilateral gold cross with the last of Gytha’s yellow silk and red thread used in the wall-hanging.

            Aldred’s scarf looked more like the four corner emblems, green and blue interlace all along it, terminating at both ends with the bird’s winged bodies and heads.  As his mother worked on it, Aldred admired how the embroidered interlace looked like feathers, but looking closely he saw that where the interlace emerged at the bottom, each had a sharpened point, like a pen quill, his favorite tool.  The bird heads themselves were white and appeared more dove like, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, the comforter.

I will save for a later post the description of Easington’s flax production for linen, their spinning and weaving operations, and the twelve vills.

Thoughts and suggestions welcome.



Barrow, Julia .The Clergy in the Medieval World: Secular Clerics, Their Families and Careers in North-Western Europe, c. 800–c. 1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Coatsworth, Elizabeth. “Stitches in Time: Establishing a History Anglo-Saxon Embroidery.” In Medieval Clothing and Textiles I, ed. Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005), 1-28.

Coatsworth, Elizabeth. “Opus What?  The Textual History of Medieval Embroidery Terms and Their Relationship to the Surviving Embroideries c. 800-1400.” In Textiles, Text, Intertext: Essays in Honour of Gale R. Owen-Crocker, ed. Maren Clegg Hyer and Jill Frederick, (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2016), 43-66. 

Miller, Maureen C. Clothing the Clergy, Virtue and Power in Medieval Europe, c. 800-1200. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2014.

Owen-Crocker, Gale R. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Revised Edition. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004.



  1. […] the previous post I alluded to Easington as an “estate” transformed into a women’s religious […]

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