My second textile study involves an investigation of the Hardwich Hall textiles, which are an amazing collection of Elizabethan embroideries that have formed the base of an in depth study by Santina Levey, who is a historian who worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, for 20 years, the last nine as a Keeper of the department of Textiles.
Her book Elizabethan Treasures The Hardwick Hall Textiles is an absolute mine of information and a superb companion for this study.
When I visited Hardwick Hall my main interest was in the large number of pictorial appliqué hangings that dominated the State withdrawing Chamber in 1601. This was where Bess would have entertained her most important visitors. Some of the fine quality velvets and silks used for these pieces would have been taken from the monasteries and convents that were dissolved during the reign Henry V111.
This hanging depicts the warrior queen Zenobia in what looks like Elizabethan dress and clearly shows the influence of strapwork design on the border and the bodice of her dress.
This next design is ‘one of 8 panels panels decorated with strapwork and with heraldry relating to Bess and her family. Cut-pile velvet with appliqué cut from cloths of gold and silver, outlined and linked by silver and silver-gilt thread and cord couched with coloured silk. The initials ES for Elizabeth Shrewsbury are worked in gold twist, other details are in coloured silks’ 66x 52 cm, Santina M Levey.
On these large panels the strapwork has been laid flat and trails of applied flowers and leaves have been worked over and under the strapping design.
In this smaller panel of which there were 28, the strapwork is laid over padding and the four corners are decorated with floral sprigs cut from rich fabrics, ‘...... padded and ornamented with silk and metal threads and cords in couched work and some stitched details‘ 30x30 cm Santa M Levey
It is Levy’s opinion that these panels were worked by professional embroiders who were working in Bess’s household, although Bess herself has been recorded as being an accomplished embroiderer. She is also known to have worked on a series of octagons worked with Mary Queen of Scots while she was under house arrest with Bess’s husband Lord Shrewsbury as her warder. These are now at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk and I was lucky enough to see them this year.
It seems that English strapwork designs were so popular that whole rooms were themed to compliment each aspect.
In this example it can be seen how the textile design for the cushion echoes the plasterwork design of the ceiling.
There was also a trend for staining cloth at this time and though there is very little of this work that has survived, Hardwick Hall has a collection, one of which combines embroidery.
John Blackhouse, also known as John Painter was known to have done a lot of the painting and stenciling at Hardwick, bit it is not known if he did this piece.
It is possible that the embroideries were carried out by Thomas Lane and his assistants as there is a record for dye stuff being ordered for an assistant called Amyas in 1595.
This is one of a set of 9 panels each measuring 68.5 cm x 69.5cm which were originally blue, but have now faded to green. The base fabric is velvet and the strapwork design was stained a darker colour and outlined with couched bundles of silk threads. The roundels are white velvet outlined loosely with twisted yellow silk threads. The birds and other images have been stained onto the velvet and then the details stitched in.
There are 9 cruciform shapes to a panel, this includes the semi circles down the sides and the quarter circles in the corners. Levey suggests that the panels may not have been designed to but up against each other but were probably meant to have a plain border surrounding each one, but if this was the case the piece would have been very large and therefore the design would have been too small a scale.
This small fragment of a valence or border of linen an shows the white satin stained (painted) with a motif and green velvet strapping applied with bundles of silk thread couched in place.
One of the reasons that there is so much information about the textiles at Hardwick Hall is that as Bess had come from a humble background she had learnt to keep scrupulous accounts of all incoming and outgoing monies in a way that was never done in aristocratic families, as the wealth was handed down through the generations and rarely accounted for.
Levey starts her book with an incredibly detailed inventory for 1601 even down to yardage of fabric and cost per yard. One example was that Bess paid 22s for ‘thre ounces of sylvar Lase for bynding lace for a bed’ and £2 12s of gold chain lace and mixed braid of metal and silk threads.'
I decided to work a sample using the method and design of the above stained textile. First I made a rough sketch of the design to understand the structure.
I also coloured the design and made a template to see if it was possible to make a block that would show the interlacing of the design. In the end I decided that the deign was probably painted or stencilled as a complete pattern and the interlacing was introduced with the outline stitching.
Next I tidied up the design and made it more symetrical, I then made a foam block and printed one repeat of the design using a stamp pad on cotton, just for this experiment.
According to the notes in Levey's book, the outline of the design was made by couching down bundles of silk thread. I've used silk for the outside of the design but found it a bit bulky for this small size and so I changed to stranded embroidery thread for the inside lines, which proved to be much easier.
And just for fun I thought I'd see what it would look like with an image in the central oval.
I enjoyed these experiments with this design and could see it working as a wall hanging, maybe with some quirky animals in the central ovals as a counterpoint to the structured design of the strapwork
Lastly on this, rather lengthy, first exercise is the compulsory traditional Elizabethan stitches, which predictably gave me a lot of trouble in the making due to their complexity, but I could see the value of having a go at doing them just to give me a huge repect for the people who produced this type of work and stiil do.