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Goldwork History

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The history of goldwork

Gold has forever been a symbol of affluence and status. And goldwork embroidery has a long history, having travelled across Asia and through Beirut with the silk merchants. Emperors in Japan and China wore wonderful silk garments richly embroidered in gold; embroidered gold appeared on ecclesiastical vestments, church adornments (i.e. alter frontals, pulpit falls) and clothes in ancient Egypt (in the tombs of the pharaohs), Italy, Greece, India, and Persia. Even the Bible’s book of Exodus references cloth of gold after the birth of Christ.

One of the oldest and finest English embroidery techniques, goldwork dates back to the 10th century when the monarchy, the clergy, courtiers and rich aristocratic families wore it in ostentatious displays of wealth and power. And down the centuries, they continue to be the only ones rich enough to employ the artistic embroiderers.

Goldwork Threads

The goldwork threads used to be beaten 18 carrot gold, wound around strands of animal or human hair, because the gold’s brittleness it was later wrapped – initially by hand – around silk, animal gut, paper or parchment. In the early days This was phenomenally expensive.

Mostly worked through churches and specially trained groups, goldwork embroidery is very much an art form, with fine art and historical properties at its heart. The most renowned examples of English embroidery are the beautifully preserved St Cuthbert’s stole and maniple, which Queen Aelfflaed commissioned in 901AD and are now displayed in Durham Cathedral. They are covered completely in gold laid work and couched thread.


During the 200-year war from 1095 to 1291, Crusaders left England adorned in clothes, pure golden threads and slept in sumptuous tents dripping in riches. But as the war dragged on, those riches were lost. Beautiful works of art were cut up and used to pay soldiers’ wages.

The largest collection of English goldwork embroidery only survived because the pieces were taken to the continent for safe keeping during the Reformation. The Vatican has at least 100 pieces, and many of Europe’s larger cathedrals and museums have fine examples of Opus Anglicanum, the style of the period. The most sought after pieces used the most complicated technique, underside couching. I tried the technique myself and it’s no wonder it died out – it takes a lot of practise. It’s also expensive to work, but as demand for the glorious goldwork embroidery became increasingly popular, the working of it changed to speed up production and be more accessible to more people. As that happened, the wonderful era of Opus Anglicanum embroidery came to an end in the mid-14th century.

My experience with goldwork

One of the things that attracted me to goldwork embroidery is the contrast between the highly polished surfaces and the sumptuousness of the fabrics on which they were worked. I have loved goldwork embroidery for as long as I can remember. A visit to the V&A Museum means a chance to see the fabulously designed and worked Syon Cope, a piece in so fine a split stitch it was described as acu pictura, Latin for “painting with stitch”.

St cuthberts stole

When St Cuthbert’s stole and maniple were made, a thread called floss silk was in wide use. It gave a great sheen to the embroidery and the metal thread to be couched. In most items at the time, Asian silk formed the core, with linen used to line the back of the stitching, sewing through both layers to add weight to the fine silk and to keep the heavy threads from showing through to the front. The linen also strengthened the garments, helping them to hang properly.

in Russia they were using pearls and jewels in their embroidery, adding to the opulence of the craft.

Velvet was also widely used, bringing real richness to the embroideries of the 13th century; the only problem was the pile on the velvet, but as with everything, the artisans found a solution.

English ecclesiastical embroidery changed dramatically after demand grew in the mid-14th century. Its popularity saw a new richness in luxurious woven silks and velvets and a reappearance of surface stitched couching. Long and short stitch came into the fore at this time, using thicker floss-silk to fill orders faster. Another way to cut down on the dense embroidery was to work in bands called orphreys along the edges of the copes, with smaller designs worked either side.

In the 15th century, raised work became very popular, mostly using wire purls over string and padding to create diaper patterns across rows of laid threads. The resulting diversity in designs and patterns was beautiful; the stitching’s placement could change the reflections on the surface as light played on the materials. Embroiderers with such imagination and skill could charge extraordinary amounts for their works of art

Devolution of the Church

Then came Henry VIII’s reign and an end to this glorious period in English goldwork embroidery. When he split from the Catholic Church, he destroyed anything related to the faith and removed all gold for his coffers. Along with it went goldwork embroidery.

The loss was huge. A few precious vestments that did survive thanks to families that continued their religious masses in secret hiding the vestments. Refusing to give up the religious relics and all they stood for. Many vestments made it across to the continent where many of them remain national treasures. 

Portraits of Henry show his richest clothes laden with jewels and riches, mentioned in the accounts of the time, stating the use of “Venice gold and Damask gold”. Both are flat gold wrapped around a silk core and couched over on to the rich fabrics. So, again, goldwork embroidery appeared as adornment of the rich, making a statement about wealth and power.

After Henry came Elizabeth I. During her reign, wardrobe inventories included magnificently embroidered clothes. Embellished with all manner of jewels, pearls, Venetian gold, twist, plate and wire purls. Setting a new wave of rich embroidery. When she tired of a dress, the court embroiderers cut off the fabulously worked pieces and re-apply them as slips to a new dress. Or they would use several detachable parts such as, sleeves and stomachers, using the precious pieces again and again. Her pictorial dresses told symbolic stories of countries, morals and status, representing the power she held all over the world. 

When Elizabeth died, she left “documented” over 1,000 dresses in her Great Wardrobe.  A vast number of these were cut up to fit Anne of Denmark, wife of James I.


About this time came the invention of fine wire drawing machines, the thickness of hair. Japanese thread, where wires were silver wrapped in a gold coating wound around a core of yellow silk. Texture from the wires that were being finally drawn and spun into hollow wires. These wires were attached to the cloth in various lengths, over threads and with beads to create wonderful three-dimensional effects.

Through history, the skills of embroiderers have been extraordinary, but , we have lost many of the skills of yesteryear. We are unlikely to see again the dedication and craft that is goldwork. We do our best to encourage the use of goldwork embroidery, to produce beautiful works of art with the modern twist. People like Hand and Lock with Carn Griffith’s help still produce masterpieces, their military work so finely executed. Benton & Johnson, Bill Barns and his family heritage of knowledge.

Or nué vs Italian shading

Invented in the 15th century, the Or nué technique involves threads of passing or Japan thread laid down parallel . By varying the spacing and colour of the couching stitches, the embroiderer can create elaborate, gleaming images. It is often used to depict the garments of saints in church embroidery. Italian shading uses coloured threads, but does allow the direction of the couching stitch to change,to match the design. Unlike ornué where the colour stitches remain at 90 degrees to the gold thread being couched.

Russian and Greek orthodox and Spanish gold-work.

These three are the main contributors to Ecclesatical goldwork in the modern era. Though some churches have goldwork in altar frontals or smaller pieces on robes in the uk and America. Its not on the scale of these.

These contain richly embroidered pieces, move from standard padding such as felt and carpet felt. Using cork and leather, they are far more elaborate in design and use a variety of patterns in the pieces rather than the basic brick stitch pattern used in the smaller pieces . They incorporate much more symbolism and iconography with in the designs, than the protestant pieces.

Places to See Goldwork

  • Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Imperial War Museum
  • Durham Cathedral
  • Wells Cathedral
  • Hand and Lock studios
  • National Gallery of Scotland
  • Spain – almost all churches
  • Dolce and Gabbana
  • Royal School of Needlework


we offer many options to learn this dying skill. From work on own kits, to day classes and intensive training in the the more complex aspects of goldwork.

three stacked goldwork stars the top in gold, second in copper and base in silver

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