The back of the embroidery on the Bacton Altar Cloth, an extraordinary textile artefact from St Faith’s church in Bacton, Herefordshire and now being conserved at Hampton Court Palace, thanks to Historic Royal Palaces and curator Eleri Lynn. This close up of the reverse of the fabric shows the incredible detail and skill of the embroiderer who made this object: thought perhaps to have been once owned by Elizabeth I herself. Silver chamblet, or ‘cloth of silver’, sewn with dyed silk threads and goldwork embroidery, gold wires and threads. A masterwork, and, well, gorgeous, obviously… (Photo by Natalie Rachel Walker).
As you can see from this super close up below, the back of the embroidery shows us that the whole thing has been worked using thousands of these tiny, delicate seed stitches, showing very expert handiwork. The artistry of the maker is also visible, when you see that, in order to attain the most delicate shading effect possible, on some stitches thread filiments of two or more different colours have been threaded into the same needle and used in the same stitch. Amazing.
Perhaps even more interesting, are these ink lines, plainly visible where the fabric has been left un-stitched. Why are they there? Well, in order to embroider an attractive pattern or shape, an embroiderer would outline the motif he wants to create onto the fabric before he begins, often using an erasable method, like ‘pricking and pouncing’, where a shape is pricked out in tiny holes on a piece of paper, and then chalk or charcoal dust is rubbed or brushed through the holes onto the fabric – leaving an outline which can be brushed or wiped away when the sewing is completed. Usually an indelible method, like drawing or painting with ink directly onto the fabric, would then be used to trace over the pounced design, ready to be worked with threads. Embroidery similar to the design of the Altar Cloth that survives on other textiles has most often been made by embroidering applique pieces, which are then added to the main fabric. In this case, however, the design has been drawn with ink, and then embroidered directly onto the silver chamblet. Obviously this would require a bit more confidence in one’s abilities: unlike with applique, there is no room for second chances or mistakes.
So that explains the presence of the ink lines. But why have they been left uncovered? Surely a craftsman expert enough to produce such a fabulous piece of embroidery, and confident enough in their own skills to draw it directly onto silver chamblet (a VERY expensive fabric made with silk and real silver metal threads), would not be slap-dash or forgetful enough to miss out a chunk of needlework like this by mistake?
Eleri Lynn, curator of the Bacton Altar Cloth for Historic Royal Palaces, raised the possibility of a more intriguing reason for this omission, when I spoke to her while viewing the embroidery conservation work at Hampton Court. Might the lines have been left exposed on purpose, to deliberately show the skill of the master embroiderer? To show, perhaps, that the design had been inked directly onto the fabric – and that the rest of the embroidery had followed this inked design so exactly, that these lines are completely invisible everywhere else. After all, these things show US that the embroiderer was very talented – maybe they are intended to show an Elizabethan viewer as well? A fascinating thought. Although, of course, it could simply have been because the embroiderer ran out of time, rushing to meet a deadline!
To find out more about the Bacton Altar Cloth, have a look at these:
HRP video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BD1Fy1WGqLk
Lynn, Eleri, ‘The Bacton Altar Cloth: Elizabeth I’s ‘long-lost skirt’?’ Costume (Journal) 52.1, 2018, pp. 3-25.
And for an imaginative take on the life of a royal Elizabethan embroiderer, visit the blog below: