Metallic Threads - A Background to Their Use in Textile Work
Metals, and gold in particular, have long been used in the embellishment of textiles. These textiles were created to symbolise the wealth, and therefore power, of the owner and through the centuries many ways of working the raw metals were developed.
The earliest gold threads used in textiles were not threads at all but thin strips of metal which had been cut from sheets of beaten or rolled gold. These strips (filé or lamella) were then woven into a textile (most commonly as a supplemental brocade weft) or embroidered onto a textile ground.
Metal strips were also used in the creation of ‘spun’ threads. These threads were made by winding the flat strips tightly around a central core. This resulted in a metal which was more flexible than the flat sheets and could therefore be used in more variety. The core of these threads was commonly silk, although linen was also used. More unusual cores are also known; including wool, horsetail hair and an animal product . A recent study of the use of metallic threads in tablet woven bands shows that all of the ‘spun’ metallics use strips which have been s-spun around the central core. If silk, the most common colours were natural, red, and occasionally yellow - yellow being used almost exclusively in Byzantium.
Pure gold (or an alloy with a high gold content), in either of these forms (flat strips or spun) , is bright and shiny and even today historical examples retain the beauty of the original. These characteristics made it a popular choice for certain types of work even after other types of threads were developed, for instance, flat gold strips were still being used in embroidery in the thirteenth century, and imitation versions of both can still be purchased today.
Spun threads were also produced using silver strips. Silver, on the whole, seems to have been less popular than gold. There are no known examples of flat silver strips having been used in tablet weaving , and it is generally thought that silver was used less often in textiles because of its tendency to tarnish.
Drawn wire was another form of metal used in textile work. These wires are 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 eighth century. Tablet woven bands from Birka in Sweden (Viking) use both gold and silver drawn wires and include one where the gold wire has been 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.
Wire drawing was known in England at least as early as the 1470s. Interestingly, the first owner of a wire drawing business in England that is known (excluding of course any goldsmiths who may have included the technique) is a woman - Anne Framlyngham.
In 1476 her husband acknowledged a deed of gift to three men, of various types of tools and equipment for wire drawing. This deed was part of the marriage settlement of Anne and her husband and besides listing all of the equipment, included the terms of the gift. Anne was to “rule and guide the said instruments and occupation and ‘all things concerning the same and take and perceyve all manner [of] profits’.” Included in the inventory are several items to produce flat sheets of gold.
A further development in metallic thread production was the gilding of silver rods prior to it being drawn into wire. This wire was then flattened and spun around a central core. Gilt silver thread first appears in European textiles in the ninth century and continued in general use. In comparison to other forms of gold thread, it was relatively inexpensive.
All of the above threads had certain limitations. Besides the cost, the threads were heavy. Used in any quantity, the metal put a strain on the foundation fabrics. An extreme example is the cloth-of-gold found in 1544 in the tomb of the Empress Honorius (died AD 400) which melted down to 36lbs of pure metal. These two factors meant that, on the whole, the use of metallics was limited. However, people still wanted to incorporate gold and silver threads into textiles, so imitation threads were developed, which in turn led to a greater use of metallics in textiles generally.
The most important of these imitations is now referred to as membrane gold or membrane silver. Animal membrane (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. Early examples of this type of thread include a 12th century silk of Spanish-Islamic origin. It is also possible that these membrane strips were used flat in tablet weaving; probable examples date from the 13th to 15th centuries. Flat membrane strips are also known from certain Chinese silks (13th century) however, in China, the membrane was later replaced by rice paper, and occurs in both flat and spun forms.
Venice gold is often cited in accounts from the fifteenth century. Silkwoman Elisabeth Langton sold 1 oz. of Venice gold for 4 shillings, while Margaret Paston had amongst her items which were taken during the Duke of Suffolk’s attack, both ‘gold of Venyse’ and ‘gold of Gene’ . Venice gold was made by gilding skins; the vellum was then cut into strips and wound around silk or hemp. It was the thread of choice during the Middle Ages and long considered the best type. It continued in popularity well into the seventeenth century , and was occasionally used in the 1970s by the Royal School of Needlework for repairs.
Cyprus gold was also associated with membrane gold, (most usually using animal gut) this however, is now disputed. A type of gold thread known to have been made in Cologne consisted of a rougher type of membrane than that of Venice gold, spun around a core of linen or hemp. Lucca gold is said to have been flattened gold wire wound around silk; this definition is also sometimes used for Venice gold. At present, the author has yet to find a satisfactory definition of Genoa gold.
The many differing definitions of the types of gold thread found during the Middle Ages can be confusing. The confusion could arise from the fact that Venetians and Genoan merchants often brought in goods from other areas. So, one type of gold thread bought from a Venetian could have been called Venice gold, even if it had made made elsewhere. Most sources tend to generally agree on what consitutes which type of gold, even though it seems clear that in the very least, different cities produced differing qualities of thread.
Tablet woven bands from the fifteenth century which used membrane gold, and where the core thread has been identified, show that linen was more common as a core than silk. Whether or not there were variation in prices of Venice gold (dependent upon the core thread) is unknown, but the English authorities and trades were certainly alarmed by qualities of metal that was being sold. In 1423, the Wardens and Fellowship of Broderers’ obtained an Act of Parliament against the ‘making of silver and gold with copper for embroidery’, and in 1489 against the ‘deceitful weight and working of gold of Venice, Florence and Genoa, and the untrue packing thereof’.
There are a few rare instances of other metals having been used to adorn textiles. Two examples of spun threads on tablet woven bands are unusual - one is spun gilt-copper, the other spun-bronze. Another usual thread is the drawn pewter wire which was made by the Lapps of Sweden. Generally, this pewter wire was closely twisted around a core of reindeer sinew and used in their costume embroideries.
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This article first appeared on the Soper Lane website