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.

The goldwork threads used to be pure gold flattened and wound around strands of animal and human hair, but the gold was so brittle 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 to1291, Crusaders left England adorned in clothes pure golden threads and slept in sumptuous tents dripping in riches, among them goldwork. 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”.

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.

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, Venice 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. 

It was said when Elizabeth died, she left “documented” over 1,000 dresses in her Great Wardrobe. Again, 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. Known as Japanese thread, most of the 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 in my opinion, 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 with the little knowledge left to us, 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. The Royal School and the excellence of their teaching.

Or nué

Invented in the 15th century, the Or nué technique involves many threads of passing or Japan thread laid down parallel and touching. 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.

Places to See Goldwork

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

Metal thread

A variety of threads create differing textures.

Passing is the most basic and common thread used in goldwork. It consists of a thin strip of metal wound around a core of cotton or silk. For gold thread, the core is typically yellow or, in older examples, orange; for silver, white or grey. This is always attached by couching, either one or two threads at a time, and pulled through to the back to secure it. When multiple threads lay next to each other, use a technique called bricking: the position of the couching stitches is offset between rows, producing an appearance similar to a brick wall. This type of thread is used in making cloth of gold.

Japan thread is a cheaper replacement for passing and is far more commonly used in modern goldwork. It looks nearly identical, but rather than a strip of metal, foil paper wraps around the core.

Bullion or purl is structurally a very long spring, hollow at the core. It can be stretched apart slightly and couched between the wraps of wire, or cut into short lengths and applied like beads. This thread comes in both shiny and matte versions.

Jaceron or pearl purl is similar to bullion, but with a much wider piece of metal which has been shaped (rounded) prior to purling it, such that it looks like a string of pearl-like beads when couched down between the wraps of metal.

Lizerine is a similar thread that has a flat appearance having not been shaped prior to purling

Freize or Check purl is again similar, but the metal used is shaped differently, producing a faceted, sparkly look.

Faconnee or Crimped purl is almost identical to buillion, but has been crimped at intervals.

Roccoco and the similar Crinkle cordonnet are made of wire tightly wrapped around a cotton core, with a wavy or kinked appearance.

Milliary wire is a stretched pearl purl laced to a base of passing thread.

Broad Plate is a strip of metal a 2 millimeters wide; often this is used to fill small shapes by folding it back and forth, hiding the couching stitches under the folds. This is also available as 11’s plate which is 1mm wide and whipped plate where the broad plate has a fine wire wrapped around it.

Flat Worm or simply Oval thread is a thin plate wrapped around a yarn core and flattened slightly. This is used like plate, but is considerably easier to work with.

Twists or Torsade, threads made of multiple strands of metal twisted together are also sometimes used, some of which, such as Soutache, sometimes have different colored metals or colored non-metal threads twisted together. These are either couched like passing, with the couching thread visible, or with the thread angled with the twist to make it invisible.

In addition, paillettes or spangles (sequins of real metal), small pieces of appliqued rich fabric or kid leather, pearls, and real or imitation gems are commonly used as accents, and felt or string padding may be used to create raised areas or texture. Silk thread work in satin stitch or other stitches is often combined with goldwork, and in some periods goldwork was combined with blackwork embroidery as well.


Other Materials used

Kid leather is fine and malleable, which makes it ideal for going over leather or padding. It can also be sewn down in an undulating manner, but this is a tricky technique.

Soft string (bumf) padding is ideal for raising threads or wires in long tubular or to taper.

String is not usually sewn into but there are several ways to apply it, used in multiples of strands waxed and rolled together and tapered where needed. It is usually sewn over with Japan thread or purls over string.

Felt padding is a non-woven cloth produced by matting, condensing and pressing fibres. Yellow felt is used for padding under gold and white under silver. Felt is ideal for raising goldwork threads or wires.

Carpet padding is a wool blend of carpet felt with no irritant fibres and is used for high-relief goldwork padding. Cut it to shape and apply using a strong waxed sewing thread. Layering carpet padding gives extra relief.


Couching threads – Gutamans , silks, dmc cottons

Bees wax is a natural wax produced by bees in a hive. It is ideal for coating thread to make it stronger, longer lasting and easier to use.

Goldwork scissors (serrated blade) cut goldwork wires and threads. They are an essential tool if you use wires. They have a serrated blade to hold wire in place rather than it slipping, so your scissors remain intact and usable for much longer than ordinary scissors.

It has a dual purpose: use the pointed end to create corners on wires and to widen a hole in any fabric so you can push larger threads through.

The rounded end is a laying tool to position the wires for purls over string or cut work.

The embroidery mellor is gentler than a pair of tweezers as the rounded end has a champered edge.

The Mellor is mainly used for goldwork but can be used for other techniques such as Japanese embroidery.

As its paddle like handle and stiletto point can be used for laying the silk thread flat.

The Mellor is 2 7/8 inches or 7.3 cm, its width is just under half an inch or 1.2 cm.

Velvet board A double-sided velvet covered board helps you stay organised during beadwork projects. This board has an extra layer, creating two compartments to stop your beads rolling off. The reverse is a different colour for light beads or goldwork metals

Ophir – 3ply gold or silver coloured. Suitable for surface embroidery stitches; satin stitch, french knots etc.


  • Sally Saunders, Royal School of Needlework Embroidery Techniques, Batsford, 2006 ISBN 978-0-7134-8817-3 (paperback edition; hardcover editions were published previously but are now out of print)
  • Krenik – a major supplier of goldwork threads; see the real metal threads category, and Japan thread under ‘metallic threads’
  • Berlin Embroidery – a supplier of goldwork threads, kits and lessons, with extensive informational pages and many images
  • Lemon, Jane, Metal Thread Embroidery, Sterling, 2004, ISBN 0-7134-8926-X
  • Levey, S. M. and D. King, The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Textile Collection Vol. 3: Embroidery in Britain from 1200 to 1750, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1993, ISBN 1-85177-126-3
  • Practical articles on basic goldwork techniques and couching with colour are available from textile artist Ruth O’Leary
  • Cole, Alison, All That Glitters, 2006, ISBN 978-1-920892-33-3, The Midas Touch 2008, ISBN 978-1-920892-41-8

Goldwork (Essential Stitch Guides) Hardcover– November 1, 2012
by Helen McCook     ISBN 978-1844487028

Goldwork: Techniques, Projects and Pure Inspiration Paperback– November 1, 2011
Hazel Everett ISBN 978-1844486267

Goldwork Embroidery: Designs and Projects (Milner Craft Series)– August 1, 2007
by Mary Brown (Author) ISBN 978-1863513661

A-Z of Goldwork and Silk Embroidery Spiral-bound– 2008
by Kathleen Barac (Author) ISBN 978-0977547647

New Ideas in Goldwork Paperback– August 5, 2008
by Tracy A. Franklin (Author) ISBN 978-1906388034


Benton & Johnson,

Bill Barns,

Golden Hinde,

Mace and Nairn,

Berlin Embroidery,


Sarah Homfray,

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