English embroidery by Linda Olsson (translated by Charlotte Holm).

   For 16 years now embroidery has been a field from the Middle-Ages I have treasured the most. Everyday I decorate different purses and cushions, and I´m always happy when I meet someone who is as passionate about history as I am. You have to be patient working with embroidery, and you do not reap the fruits of your hard work immediately. I´ve met quite a few people who believe it can´t take as long as over 200 hours making the purse they stand with in their hands. This just shows that we live in an age where products that do not take a long time to create may cost a lot of money sometimes, and products that take a long time to create and ought to cost a bit more, is often sold for lesser money than their actual worth.
In the Middle-Ages you made everything by hand, and didn´t have a choice between mass-fabricated products you can get everywhere or unique hand-made products. At the time it was the materials that did cost a lot of money. Today, many people want to pay a lot of money for mass-fabricated products, made in hundreds of copies, but are eager to beat the price down on something there only exists one of. Yes, time´s changed. I´ve made a few pages here with some information about embroidery , to create a bit respect for the profession of hand-made items. If you are patient
it´s a wonderful world revealing itself to you. Keep trying your best even if it doesn´t work for you the first time.

How to get inspiration.

   Where do you get inspiration from? The inspiration can come from many different sources. Among others, I get my own inspiration from the frescoes, conserved purses, cushions, from small boxes, or illustrations from books. If you go to London I can heartly recommend the V & A Museum. They have a great collection of Medieval embroideries, but do pay caution to check if the exhibition should be under reconstruction- I was in a situation like that when I first visited the Museum and had to leave without getting a look at any of it.

The major groups of style of embroidery  from the Middle-Ages.

”Opus Anglicanum”: ”English Embroidery”.  Is a nearly painted-on motif. There are some mutiple choices to take when dealing with the English Embroidery: For instance the colours, the combinations and the motifs. English Embroidery is among other things used on robes and costumes from the church , on embroidered purses, on the actual dress or on coats. I guess this must be my most cherished style of embroidery.
You choose a motif. It can be from an actual existing purse from the period you work with, or you can find inspiration from the church frescoes. This style of embroidery is known throughout the 14th Century and used all over Europe.

German embroidery: The motif is almost being weaved upon the fabric. It has no room for failues! All failures you make in this embroidery are visible to the eye. You have to be extremely careful counting the right amount of your stitches, because the motifs often are square or reverse! You normally use very bright colours of silkthread on white linen. With this kind of embroidery you count all the holes in the linen and it´s therefore sometimes called ”brick embroidery”. It´s georgeously beautiful and most people want to learn to make this kind of embroidery. There´s just one tiny problem: people do not know what´s in store for them when they begin embroidering- not to scare you off- but I must say that it takes a lot of swallowing..!
If you like mathematics and find the logic in it, then it´s no major problem for you. But for people like myself who´s no mathematician it was like entering the lion´s den. But do at least try it to gain the respect and insight into this kind of embroidery style, and you may find that this is the place where your strength lies- or in my case- doesn´t.

Opus Teutonicum: ”German white work”.
White linen where you embroider with white linen thread. Often seen on altar cloth. You do not fill out the surface of the textile, but use lots of embroidery techniques. So if you want to make a table-cloth , this is something for you . Again, remember it´s not an easy thing to do, but really is a beautiful kind of embroidery.

Intarsia: The motif is cut out and sewed onto the fabric.

Pearl embroidery: It´s been an entrusted trade to handle the expensive pearls. They are put on a silk  thread an sewed onto the fabric.

   The different materials:
Linen, wool, silk, wool coloured by plants, silk thread, gold thread, silver thread, needles, pearls, frames... yes the list is long.
The surface you use for the embroidery is often white linen. When you choose fabric for german counted stitch embroidery it´s important you do not buy roughly weaved fabrics, but choose something of a finer woven quality, where the holes still are easy to count. Or it wont take long before you give it all up. For the English Embroidery you use mostly the white linen as your surface, but you can also use silk or brocade.
The motifs are mostly made with coloured silk, but you can also use coloured wool. It´s very important that you do not use thread taht is too thick. Many threads hasn´t been thicker as two-threaded threads in the Middle-Ages, and often the one-threaded threads were the only ones used.
That is why it takes time to make the motifs, when you make an embroidery. It´s important to have a frame for your work, especially when you make larger embroideries: it prevents the fabric from becoming askew! You can of course make an embroidery without a frame, but you need more attention then not to pull your thread too hard, so that the motif begins to bulge from the fabric.

   Embroidery techniques.

   You use different embroidery techniques as those mentioned here:

 Egde stich  for eyes, mouth and nose to underline the fine details, but also to fill out the motif.
Split stich  are used for filling out the motifs, and also used for finer details on costumes and for faces. You follow the form of your motif. If it´s round you follow a round line.

  Layed down stiching. You begin by laying down the thread on the fabric, for example a gold thread- it´s being sewed on the fabric by another thread that isn´t gold, that could for example be a red silk thread. You often see gold or silver thread in use, but wool and silk can also be used for the purpose.

Double layed, heavy stiching: in several layers: this form is used to cover the surface quickly.
A) Cover the surface of the fabric with vertical/horisontal parallel rows of thread.
B) Put the thread horisontal upon the first layer.
C) Sew the thread with small stitches, either regularly over each other or in a zig-zag pattern.

cloisterstich: You can call it ”layed down stiching” but here you cover the fabric all over with the same thread.


      Transfering the motif.

   -The motif is drawn on a piece of paper or parchment paper with drawing charcoal.
-After doing this you make tiny holes along the drawn lines in the parchment paper with an awl.
-The parchment paper is lain upon the linen and coal dust is rubbed on so that the dust falls through the holes you just made. Then the parchment paper is removed.

     The way I do it. The moderne way.

   -I find the motifs I want to make, take some paper for baking or carbon paper to cover it with.
-I take a pencil and draw the motif.
-Turn over the paper and lay it upon the surface of the fabric and draw the motif one more time.
-Remove the paper and then the motif is transfered to the fabric.

    When you transfer a motif it´s important that you use a pencil. If you are tempted to use a pen to make the motif more visible, I only have one thing to say: Don´t do it! The first time your new and fine purse is exposed to rain or damp, something happens to the lines made by the pen...they become smeared and visible on your fine purse and it is not to save...

      A few links.

   Stainiland, Kay. Embroideries. ”Medieval Craftsmen”. British Museum, 1991.
Victoria & Albert Museum. ”The Needles Excellency”- A Travelling Exhibition, 1973.
Monastic Embroderies.

Examples on English Embroidery by Joice Miller

    Finally I have put some pictures of english and german counted stitch embroideryon the webside. I hope that I meet more people with the same passion for embroidery as me, in this year of the Lord, 2010.

Linda Olsson.


German counted stitch embroidery. Both pouches have been created by Nanna Schwarz.


English Embroidery. Both pouches made by Linda Olsson on request.