A Paradise in Silk and Gold: Re-creating a Stuart Embroidered Jacket

Jen Thies - Genevieve d'Aquitaine

Over three years ago the Plimoth Plantation Colonial Wardrobe Department initiated the ambitious task of recreating an embroidered jacket from the early 17th Century. The entire project is complete now after being headed up by embroidery consultants Dr. Tricia Wilson Nguyen and Wendy White, and is blogged from the beginning to the current state at: http://thistle-threads.com/blog/

The jacket pattern pieces and lace pattern come from the Laton jacket (V&A Museum number T.228-1994), but the actual embroidery pattern and repeat comes from another embroidered jacket in the V&A museum (V&A Museum number 1359-1900). At the time the project started, the Laton jacket was mounted and in a sealed display, but prior to that Janet Arnold had examined it and drafted the pattern pieces determined for use. However due to that mounting method, it was impossible to examine the embroidery as close as necessary for creating the reproduction pattern repeat that Plimoth needed. Victoria & Albert Museum Textile Curator Susan North worked with Plimoth staff and volunteers on determining a suitable jacket for the embroidery pattern, and gave the wardrobe department detailed pictures of this other jacket for use in designing their many and varied stitching instructions. The embroidery pattern and repeat were drafted by Tricia, and I believe are the property of the V&A Museum. The embroidery pattern was later checked against a similar panel in the same style, only it has nine motifs where the pattern repeat from the jacket has twelve, but is from the same workshop that produced the second jacket. The Embroiderer's Guild in England has possession of this panel in their Museum Collection.

The motifs were worked in a combination of silk perle and Gilt Sylke Twist threads, with vine work done in gold passing thread. The flora and fauna are outlined in backstitch or reverse chain stitch and the surface is filled with detached buttonhole stitch, or trellis stitch. Some areas are filled with the ceylon stitch which requires no prior outline. These particular fill stitches leave most of the expensive silk and gold on the surface of the fabric, with as little as possible on the reverse side. Incredibly detailed instructions for the stitches are available online in PDF format. A quick search on the blog for stitch instructions pulls up links to the PDF instruction files.

The Gilt Sylke Twist thread in use on all of the floral motifs is a new custom thread made for this project. Tricia experimented with several techniques on her own in an attempt at re-creating the special blended thread of silk wrapped in gold used on the original jacket. She then turned to Golden Threads in England and Access Commodities to recreate the glitter thread used in the embroidery on the original jacket. This is a thread that hasn’t been made and used for 400 years, and has now been re-created for this project. Gilt Sylke Twist is currently available from the Thistle Threads website, under the accessories area:

A closer look at the embroidery on the V&A jacket shows not just beautiful threads and detailed stitch types, but also different hands on the one piece. Pictures of two cornflower calyxes from a jacket in the MET showed that one was embroidered quite loosely, and the other in a tighter gauge. One plausible theory was that only the masters and journeymen would have been trusted to work with the valuable gilt threads, so the apprentices would have worked their way up twisting silks and then the small portions of the silk embroidery. By using almost 100 volunteer embroiderers and hosting group stitching sessions, Plimoth Plantation has not just re-created an embroidered jacket, they have re-created, in part, an embroidery workshop. In participating I got a feeling of what these workshops must have been like 400 years ago, the different levels of skill and the group nature of the project. A very basic analysis of some of the stitched motifs also showed a plateauing trend of more consistent stitch gauge achieved over time and built up experience, proving that practice really does lead close to perfection.

In addition to re-creating the embroidery on the jacket, Plimoth has recreated the gold and silver bobbin lace found on the Laton jacket for trimming their recreation. There have been just as many discussions and experiments tried with different types of thread to recreate the lace on the jacket. Plimoth volunteer lacemakers made more than five yards of the lace for the jacket, coif and forehead cloth. One detail that presented quite a challenge was the teardrop spangles on the peaks of the lace. Circular spangles or oes are easily available commercially, but Mark Atchinson, the Plimoth Plantation blacksmith, was asked in to work with Wendy White, with her jewelry and metalwork experience, to closely examine some existing spangles in local museum collections and figure out how to re-create them. After careful analysis and making a custom set of punches, the teardrop spangles were made in house, and pre-strung onto the bobbins to be slid in place during the lace creation itself. In keeping with the technique of original lace, the spangles were not sewn on, but worked into the bobbin lace pattern.

The last group stitching session was held on 5/29-6/1/09, and the embroidery on the pieces was very close to completion. Only a day or two of work was left of stitching on oes and the final detached wings and peapods, which was spread out over the summer in a few presentations and demonstrations. The jacket was then assembled by Jill Hall; first a mock up with pink silk lining to work out any construction questions, and then the embroidered jacket pieces, the lining cut from a hand woven pale blue silk, and the lace was attached to the edges. Wendy White is credited with working the plaited braid stitch on the seams of the jacket. Although the project is complete, the results will continue to benefit the historic embroidery community Since records were kept by each volunteer of thread length used, time spent on a motif, and the signed pattern to determine which stitcher did which portions, there is quite a bit of data to mine. There are also plans of publishing a book on the experience, and hopefully (if negotiations go well) the master book of the stitching instructions and directions for each individual motif, and the master pattern repeat.

Unfortunately in the current economic times, staff changes at Plimoth Plantation jeopardized the project and the grant anticipated for the original planned exhibit never materialized. Luckily Dr. Tricia Wilson Nguyen stepped up to handle the finishing of the project and negotiated new plans for display and exhibition. Currently the jacket will be on display at Winterthur in Delaware starting on March 9, 2010, in first a mini-display and ultimately moving up to a larger display for Fall 2011. Hopefully a symposium of the many lessons learned from this experience will also be organized to coincide with the larger display. Fund-raising is still required in order to pay for the displays of the jacket, and ultimately storage. There are many products that have become available thanks to this project, and funds from the sale of these will continue to benefit the jacket.

You can purchase Embroidery Sample Kits and Lace Sample Kits initially created to evaluate stitchers and lacers prior to volunteering to participate in the jacket project.Thanks to the project, you can also now purchase Gilt Passing thread like that used on the vines, tendrils and center of the flowers on the jacket, as well as postcards with designs from the original Embroiderer's Guild panel and notecards of the recreated motifs. Each sample kit sold donates a tax-deductible $20 to the jacket project. Each postcard, pack of notecards, and spool of gilt passing thread donates $1-5 to Winterthur specifically for exhibiting the Jacket Project.


Gilt Sylke Twist threads are also sold in a variety of colors, with $5 per spool going towards the Jacket Project as well.



http://thistle-threads.com/blog/ Thistle Threads Blog with an archive of all discussions since the beginning of the project.

http://thistle-threads.com/shop/ltdmuseum/jacketproject.html  Online purchase of products that support the Jacket Project.

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/objectid/O11095  V&A item number T.228-1994, also known as the Laton Jacket.

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/objectid/O15345  V&A item number 1359-1900, the jacket that provided the embroidery pattern.

http://www.embroiderersguild.com/collection/index.php  Embroiderer's Guild in the UK, owners of the similar patterned panel.

http://www.winterthur.org/  Winterthur Museum and Country Estate in Delaware, where the completed Jacket Project will be on display in the Fall.


©2010 Jennifer Thies