Like many other things we take for granted today, like medicine, irrigation, spices and mathematics, decorative goldwork embroidery came from the East. It’s believed that goldwork embroidery originated in China centuries ago and the craft was exported from Asia, via Beirut, Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia to the Mediterranean by silk merchants following the old spice routes. It subsequently spread to North Africa, and then through Spain into Italy, and on to the rest of Western Europe, the British Isles, Scandinavia and North America.
It’s been found on vestments and clothes in ancient Egypt, in the tombs of the pharaohs, Italy, Babylon, Greece, India, and Persia. It can also be seen in the beautiful garments of Japan and China, where the emperor’s gowns were richly embroidered in gold. Here the gold threads were couched in coiling patterns to embroider five-clawed dragons, birds and beasts, or laid in pairs of fine lines to mimic stylised clouds or to enhance silk embroidery.
References to a cloth of gold are even found in the Bible, linking goldwork embroidery to Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian cultures. One such cloth of gold (which was woven rather than embroidered) was found in the tomb of Empress Honorius, who died in 400AD. It was subsequently melted down, and weighed in at 36 pounds of pure metal: it must have been hard work wearing it in the circumstances.
Sadly, few ancient pieces of goldwork and metal thread embroidery still exist: many have been destroyed, others lost in the mist of time. One of the earliest known surviving examples of embroidered goldwork is the St. Cuthbert maniple from the 10th century. On this maniple the metallic fibres were added on to the surface of the fabric rather than woven into it. In fact, in subsequent years, they often used two layers of fabric to strength and support the stitches—generally linen for underneath with a richer silk on the surface.
The first metallic threads were made of pure beaten gold, which was subsequently cut into strips. These strips were later wrapped around materials such as silk, parchment, animal gut or paper. Most goldwork thread was only produced in quantities sufficient to make a particular garment. There was no metal thread manufacturing industry to speak of until the late sixteenth century. 13th century English ladies actually prepared their own gold thread before working it. From the written transcriptions that have been discovered, this type of gold thread appears to be almost identical to the thread used today—gold that was twisted around a core of flax or silk. However, artisans stopped using pure gold for embroidery as it was so brittle and extremely expensive. Instead they used threads that consisted of gold laid over silver to help maintain its strength and reduce the costs.