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Padded Metalwork Embroidery

THL Lucia Thaylur

There are numerous extant pieces of padded metalwork embroidery decorating coifs, jackets, mittens and gloves, copes, book covers and wall hangings. So far, the earliest piece I've found is from 1332 and is described as part of the horse trappings belonging to John of Etham. Erica Wilson, in The Craft of Gold Thread Embroidery and Stumpwork, provides a very detailed description of the trappings: "three lions passant embroidered on fine English velvet, very plush and blood red with such detail that every tawny hair was laid down with a fine gold thread. Even the full curling eyebrows were sewn in relief and the scarlet rimmed black eyes flashed with crystal disks. Their sharp claws were raised and worked over in azure silk" (p. 13). 

From horse trappings to part of a luxurious chausable described by Kay Staniland as a fragment of heraldic embroidery worked in surface couched gold thread and colored silk (p. 29).
Another interesting piece is "The Shield-shaped panel" c 1500 from the Bayerischesmuseum. Munich. 
Wark describes this piece as a painted background which has small embroidered details. The figures in the boat are high relief and silver thread is couched in the ripples of water. (p59). 
Schutte, Christensen p.282
In A Pictoral History of Embroidery. Schutte and Christensen describe an altar frontal of St George and the Dragon dated 1460 by Antonio Sadorni of Barcelona. They tell us it's relief embroidery in gold thread, silver wire cords and silk in white red, blue, brown, yellow and green The foreground, the architectural details, animals and costumes in or nue, faces and hands in split and stem stitch, flowers in satin and stem stitch. (Schutte. Christensen p 315). 

Seal Burse of Queen Elizabeth I
One of my favorite pieces is the Seal Purse of Queen Elizabeth 1, pre 1596 AD, now in the British Museum.

Museum description of burse:

Panel from the Burse made to hold the silver Great Seal of Elizabeth I. The panel is made of crimson velvet worked in purl wire, gold and silver-wrapped threads with the Elizabethan Royal cypher in raised work. The rampant lion of England and the Welsh dragon support the Royal arms, surmounted by a crown with, below, the Tudor rose flanked by the cypher E.R. The quarterings of the Royal arms are in blue satin alternating with scarlet; the Tudor rose has a yellow floss centre with applied silver sequins. Silver sequins also appear on the velvet ground, which is worked with purl wire and leaf forms. The border is worked similarly with shamrocks and flower-heads and the outer borders with ears of wheat. Photo of burse from the British Museum: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlightburse_of_elizabeth_i.aspx.


Sharp embroidery scissors for cutting thread (90% of needle threading problems stem from dull scissors) Scissors for cutting metal threads (cutting metal will ruin your embroidery scissors). Needles: large eye for taking threads to back of work, sharps for couching. Light-good lighting is essential-reflection off metal threads is very deceiving. Reading glasses-even those with 20/20 or corrected vision will benefit from a pair. Hoops or frame which will hold your work tight. If using velvet or velveteen as ground fabric, a frame is a "must have".

Beeswax or Thread Heaven-a pass or two over either will help keep your thread from knotting. Hand lotion-silk threads will "catch" on dry areas of your hands and this will cause fraying. Empty spools for metal thread, either wooden or plastic. I prefer wood because you can use permanent marker to mark which size metal thread is on the spool. Safety pins for holding excess fabric out of your way, if you are using hoops rather than a frame. Mellor-a tool for turning and arranging threads. A "t -pin" will also work. Pliers for pulling even the most obstinate threads thru fabric. 


Silk, linen and velvet all make suitable bases for metalwork embroidery. I f using velvet use a frame large enough to not leave "hoop marks" near your design. Al l fabrics should be backed with cotton muslin or linen to be able to support the weight of the padding and metalwork. 


The metal threads for padded raised work are made the same way today as they were when the techniques evolved. The difference is mainly in the type of materials used. The threads on museum pieces are badly tarnished which implies the metals have always been alloys. Gold would be too soft to be made into embroidery thread and most likely would kink and break. Tanja from Berlin Embroidery tells us "Gold 2% W M is the highest standard gold thread that can be purchased for Goldwork. 2% gold is also known as Admiralty or Government standard and are 2% gold plating on white metal (WM) - silver plated copper. Gold 2% is a brighter and truer in colour to real gold than the Gilt metal threads." (http://www.bedinembroideiTXom/goldworksupplies.htm#faq). 

Japanese thread is made up of a metal foil wrapped around a thread core. In period, this core would have been silk but today the core is synthetic or cotton. Imitation Jap thread comes in a variety of sizes from 1 to 7 with 1 being the thinnest. Japanese Gold threads range from 8-13 with 8 being the thinnest. The core is sturdier than Imitation Jap thread so less likely to untwist. Jap threads are used for filling design areas.
Cords, Twists (Torsade) are twisted cords. The twists are couched down by sewing the stitch at the same angle as the twist of the cord so that the stitches hide in the twists and are invisible. A couching thread of the same color is used to sew down the twisted cord. The cords and twists are used to outline filled designs or in some cases to fill design areas. Various sizes are available and should be chosen depending on the size jap thread you are using. 

Couching thread or passing thread is used to couch metal threads in place. There are numerous sources but any fine silk thread will work. The larger the jap thread the heavier couching thread you'll want to use. prefer working with #3 or 4 jap thread and find Gutermann 100% silk works well and is less expensive than products sold for the specific purpose. 

In The Embroideries at Harwick Hall: a catalog . Santina Levey shows various techniques for metalwork as well as different types of ground fabrics-.pages 39-57. In Royal School of Needlework Embroidery Techniques, Saunders devotes an entire chapter to working with metal threads p 110-133. 

List of metal threads
In Royal School of Needlework Embroidery Techniques, Sally Saunders provides a list of metal threads readily available for today's stitcher. 

(Saunders p. 117).Smooth and rough purls make wonderful additions to a piece but are a little more difficult to work with as they are hollow and you sew through the core. They are very "springy" and once sprung, can't be reused. Since they are beautiful to see on a piece, I feel they are worth the extra effort. 

Sources for metal thread:

Berlin Embroidery
Japanese Embroidery Center 


Most metal threads are quite pliable as well as very fragile. To secure the metal threads they are taken to the back of the piece and whip stitched down with small even stitches. This step is important to keep threads from being pulled out on the right side and to keep the metal threads from fraying. 


This technique, called emboutir (to pad) is described in Art of the Embroiderer by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin. St Aubin also shows an illustration of the technique (p 30) but I believe it's labeled incorrectly. Rather than three layers, there are actually four. 
Drawn based on illustration from St Aubins (p 30). Note the petal directly under "B" You can see the intended stitch lines.
Saunders technique
In Royal School of Needlework Embroidery Techniques, Sally Saunders shows two methods for elevating stitches (p. 135). This simplified flower illustrates the technique.
Method 1 uses the largest piece on the bottom, the next size on top of that and the third piece -the smallest -goes on top. Method 2 reverses the layers, with the smallest layer on bottom. 


Wool is probably the easiest to work with for large areas but sometimes smaller areas are better padded with string or cord. Sometimes stiff card stock also works. In period, even "waxed paper" and hair were used!


couching metal threads
Beginning on an outside edge, the metal thread is laid over the padding in pairs of two threads laid side by side and couched (or stitched) in place with tiny stitches. The first row establishes the pattern and care must be taken to get stitches evenly spaced. The following row is laid close to the first row and stitches are placed between the stitches of the previous row making a "brick" like pattern. If the brickwork is done in colors it is called or nu and various patterns may also be employed. 
Curves are a little harder as it is easy to get the stitches too close together. To avoid over packing an area decide how you will space the stitches and try to keep them aligned with previous rows. 

couching problem area 1
couching problem area 2


Metalwork is all about the way light plays on the metal. Padding allows some dimension but the direction of stitches allows the light to reflect even more. Instead of applying straight rows (what I call the lawn mower look), try adding a multitude of direction to stitches.

Torsade or twist
Once your basic design has been filled in you'll most likely want to put twist around
The edges to make the piece look more finished. This will help to smooth the appearance of turns and /or unevenness I use a single strand of silk to couch the twist and just follow the slant of the twist. 


A "bead" of wire is cut and then flattened in a press to make a sequin. Sequins range in size from #4 (8mm) to #14 (3mm). They are available in either silver or gold. Often more than one size and color will be used on the same piece. The added glitz from spangles is well worth the time it takes to sew them on! 

By now you should have enough information to get started on your first piece. Don't be afraid to experiment and if something is "not working" for a specific piece, try something else. What works for one project may not work well on another but the only way you'll find out is to try it. I've been working with padded metalwork for many years and have only one hard and fast rule: keep it fun! 

Samples of my work using the padded technique.
sample padded 1
sample padded 2
Works Cited
Germain de Saint-Aubin. Art of the Embroiderer. 1983. Los Angeles County Museum of Art and David R Godine, Boston Massachusetts.
Levey, Santina. The Embroideries at Harwick Hall: a catalog. Great Britain, The National Trust. 2007
Saunders, Sally. Royal School of Needlework Embroidery Techniques. Batsford Ltd., London 1998
Schutte, Marie & Sigrid Christensen. A Pictoral History of Embroidery. 1964. Praeger, Inc USA
Staniland, Kay. Medieval Craftsmen Embroiderers. 1997. University of Toronto Press
Wark, Edna. Metal Thread Embroidery. 1989. Kangaroo Press Pty Ltd, Kenthurst
Wilson, Erica. The Craft of Gold Thread Embroidery and Stumpwork. 1973. Charles Scribers Sons, New York.
Some photos: