Cloth of Gold
By THL Cassandra of Glastonbury
"Cloth of Gold." The phrase brings to mind images of fairy tales, princes (both secular and of the church) and sumptuous weddings. Think of the story of Rumpelstiltskin, spinning straw into gold. Picture yourself at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, located in France, where Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France met in 1520. Both kings brought large retinues, and the name given the meeting place reflects the unexampled splendor of the pageantry. Imagine what it would be like to wear a gown so heavily laden with gold that you feared to sit lest you permanently crease it. Visualize velvets laden with gold in the weaving and more gold embroidered upon it.
The earliest gold threads used in textiles were not threads at all, but thin strips of metal that had been cut from sheets of beaten or rolled gold. Metal strips were also used in the creation of 'spun' threads.
These gold threads were made by winding the flat strips tightly around a central core, commonly made of silk (although linen was also used). Gold, being a very malleable metal would twist around the core without breaking. It would not have been possible to dip or plate the core thread because the temperature required to melt gold would have consumed the core thread. More unusual cores are also known, including wool and horsetail hair. A recent study of the use of metallic threads in tablet woven bands shows that all of the 'spun' metallic threads use metal strips that have been S-spun (counterclockwise) around the central core. Pure gold (or an alloy with a high gold content) in either of these forms (flat strips or spun) is bright and shiny.
Drawn wire was another form of metal used in textile work. These wires were made by pulling thin rods of gold or silver through progressively smaller holes. This technique occurs early in the work of goldsmiths, but does not seem to have been used in textiles before the ninth century AD. Tablet woven bands from Birka in Sweden (Viking) use both gold and silver drawn wires, including one where the gold wire was hammered flat after weaving. The drawn wire was also occasionally hammered or rolled flat and then wound around a central core in the same way as other flat strips to form spun threads. It is quite possible that some of the early flat strips and spun threads originated as drawn wire.
The most important of these imitations is now referred to as "membrane gold" or "membrane silver." Animal membrane has also been used (some Italian documents refer to the intestines of cattle is first gilded or silvered, and then cut into strips). These strips are then treated in the same way as flat metal strips, and wound around a central core. By using less precious metal, this method produced threads that were both less heavy, and more importantly, less expensive.
Gold thread could be attached to cloth using an embroidery technique called "couching." Couching is performed by placing the metallic thread along the path you wish it to take and carefully tacking it down with an embroidery thread. This technique can be used to outline a motif. Drawn gold wire was used throughout Europe and the Mediterranean for embroidering textiles.
Liturgical vestments in the Middle Ages were heavily embroidered and ornamented, For example, the needlework on one cope (a decorative, non-functional garment worn by a bishop) included double-headed eagles, thistles, fleur-de-lis and seraphim standing on wheels, all connected by tendrils and metal spangles.[2a]
Tablet weaving creates a very strong band. With the addition of gold thread, these bands became ornamental trim for both the church and nobility. The bands could also be used as a form of jewelry, like a circlet.
Elaborate bands of tablet weaving with a metal supplemental weft (the set of threads that go across the fabric at right angles to the warp) used in the brocading have been found in many burials and other archaeological sites. The earliest bands with a pure gold weft can be traced back to the fifth century.
Velvet is woven by using rods that are a flat piece of steel or brass and are as thick as the pile is long to raise the weft thread into loops, like you find on bath towels. The loops are later cut, producing velvet. The background weave is a simple plain (tabby) weave used to stabilize the velvet. By varying the size of the rods, different lengths of pile can be produced. This is referred to as pile-in-pile weave.
Even plain silk velvet was expensive. It was commonly sold for trade weight with gold. The craftsmen who had the skills to weave pile-on-pile velvet with gold brocading and bouclé (yarn formed into loops) were paid up to three times what the lowliest weaver of plain velvet was paid. Only a few centimeters of fabric could be produced each day. A weaver might produce 200 feet in a year, barring accident, illness or anything else that would interfere with production.
Special orders, usually of heraldic designs, made it necessary to build larger looms, requiring three, rather than two people, to operate it. The standard width was between 54-60 centimeters due to production issues. Some weavers had to resort to having an assistant insert and remove the velvet rods at his command. The pomegranate and thistle flowers were favored emblems.[2b]
Some Italian velvets from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries show patterns done in bouclé of gold and silver thread. Bouclé is formed by creating loops of yarn in the weft. Velvet, dyed red with kermes, an insect that produces a vivid red dye, when brocaded with gold had a value far superior to all other fabrics and could grace the wardrobe of an emperor. Figure 1 through Figure 3 show a close up of a red-and-gold sixteenth century silk velvet with gold brocade.
Because the acquisition of these velvets required a large outlay of coin, items made of these velvets often appeared on official lists of inventories, dowries, and in wills.
The surviving examples of cloth of gold were found as grave goods. More examples are found in portraits and historical documents. The reason more did not survive is that when the cloth became too worn, it was burned and the precious gold was retrieved.
In Spain, a cap found in the tomb of the Infante Ferdando de la Cerda was made of cloth of gold embossed with the royal coat of arms and decorated with bands of gilded leather and gold.
The Golden Gown of Queen Margaret was made for Margrethe I of Denmark. The fabric was real gold metal and silk. It was on exhibit at the Danish National Museum when they had a show of Margrethe I The gold cloth was fabulously made with an intricate woven pattern.
Figure 4 shows a silk damask with areas of gold brocade from Lucca, Italy, c. 1300.
While cloth of gold is still produced in workshops in Lyons, France or Valencia, Spain, professional secrets are still carefully guarded. The cloth produced is of an ornate style found in the eighteenth century.
Cloth of gold was very expensive, hard to produce, but highly desired by anyone wishing to make a display of his or her wealth. Because of the weight of the fabric, its uses were limited to outer garments, robes of state, or canopies to shelter royalty from the elements. Those of more modest means could use gold thread for embroidery or purchase tablet-woven trim that was brocaded with gold to make a fine display.
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All photos are courtesy of the Danish Museum of Decorative Arts, August 2000 and Lady Halima, mka, Lynn Meyer.
Figure 1: 16th Century silk velvet with gold brocade.
Figure 2: 16th Century silk velvet with gold brocade.
Figure 3: 16th Century silk velvet with gold brocade.
Figure 4: Silk Damask from Lucca, Italy