British humour is wonderful when it comes to talking about Middle Ages embroidery. Opus Anglicanum, otherwise known as English Works, is a generic name used to describe techniques, patterns and history of English embroidery in the Middle Ages. It is also the name chosen by Tanya Benham for her business, which has to do with just that. Let’s meet!
Photos – © Opus Anglicanum- photos protected by copyright – thank you.
Interview – Claire de Pourtalès
Woman’s face © Opus Anglicanum
Christmas dragon © Opus Anglicanum
Can you tell us about your origins and your story with embroidery?
My name is Tanya Bentham, and I’m from the North East of England. My Mum was an artist, her family were toymakers and showmen. I did art at school, but the teachers put me off pursuing it as a profession when I got to A level. There were two of them and they contradicted each other every fifteen minutes so their students never knew if we were coming or going. Plus, it was a very academic school, so creativity wasn’t really encouraged. Out of five students I was the only one who got a passing grade – I was also the only one who didn’t go to art college. I think the older teacher would have managed Ok on her own, but the younger one was terrible. All she did was drone on about how talented the boys were at the last school she’d worked in, which didn’t do much for our morale!
I still don’t like drawing very much, I put it off and get irritable about it. The Scientist (my partner) makes it worse by going “But you like drawing, and you’re so good at it” which makes me grumpier because I’ve told him so many times that I don’t like drawing – he can’t draw at all, so he just doesn’t get it. I feel like I’m competent at drawing, but I’ll never be good, and I’m vain and hate doing things I’m not brilliant at. I’m good at medieval drawing though, which is a distinctive style of its own. So, I’m happy drafting cartoons for needlework. I would be too impatient to spend the same amount of time on a painting as I would on an embroidery. Embroidery just feels like the right medium for me.
What is your background with textile, medieval art and embroidery?
I started re-enactment when I was 15, in the English civil war society. I joined the king’s army because I was 15 and shallow and they had better frocks than the Parliamentarians (they also had cieliegs (pronounced Kaylee – a folk dance party with a Celtic word) where I could dance with students from Durham Uni – it was much more fun that the school disco and no one ever groped you. I always wanted to make the pretty dresses. I made my first medieval dress when I was 14 (it was terrible, my Mum still has it somewhere) and drifted into early medieval re-enactment where it was the one thing to embellish all the things. Early medieval led to late medieval because the art is more interesting.
Norman dress © Opus Anglicanum
What was the idea behind Opus Anglicanum?
It started as just the WordPress blog. I came to the internet in my mid-thirties, and I was always more interested in it as a way of connecting with other embroiderers – my local embroiderers guild was all cross-stitch kits, so it didn’t interest me at all. Americans all assumed I was SCA (Society for Creative Anachronisme), or that I was completely new to embroidery because I was new to the internet.
The blog was partly my own record, partly because I had this vague idea that I’d eventually like to write a book on medieval embroidery, and you seem to need a social media presence to make that happen. I had a very firm idea that I would make my historical sewing blog different by publishing something every week, even if it was just something from the archive, because the internet seemed to be littered with textile blogs that hadn’t been updated in months if not years. I’ve mostly managed it. I think I’ve forgotten once because I was really busy, but mostly I’ve posted more than once a week because I usually have more than one project on the go.
Can you make a living through it?
I have a vague long-term plan for embroidery to make up half of my income. I’ve always been self-employed, and I love my day job as a Viking/Ancient Greek/Roman lady in primary schools – I get a real kick out of it and I’ve missed it during covid, but to be honest, it’s physically very demanding and I feel that now I’m in my fifties I’d like to do that two or three days a week instead of five. Plus, although children make me laugh, they’re are pustulous little germ magnets even when there isn’t a plague going round. I get tired of picking up all their bugs – going down to three days a week would at least give me time to get well again. It’s exhausting when you have to work through it.
Why this passion about medieval times?
I’ve always loved the history of everyday life, specifically women’s lives. I think medieval women are more interesting than people give them credit for and had more agency than traditional history affords them. I think my A level history teacher started it. At 16 I went from a failing school to a very academic private girls’ school, where the history teacher was far too wise and wily to ask teenage girls to read serious books over the summer holidays, so she assigned books like Catherine, by Anya Seton, novels which gave a flavour of the Middle Ages and touched on history, but which were engaging. Catherine captivated me as did Sarah B. Pomeroy’s academic Goddesses, whores, wives and slaves which I discovered on my own and devoured like a juicy novel (I’ve always loved reading non-fiction). If you look at someone like Nicola de la Hey who was sheriff of Lincoln in her own right, or Jean de Clisson who turned to piracy to avenge her murdered husband you see that there were always women who did their own thing and gained respect for it.
Zodiac © Opus Anglicanum
Hounds © Opus Anglicanum
Where do you find your sources?
I love marginalia and am in a long-term relationship with the Luttrell Psalter.
Any books, site, museums, blogs, artists, that you would recommend?
Obviously, the Luttrell Psalter – my Dad bought me the Folio Society facsimile for Christmas one year, but whenever I see a psalter or bestiary reproduction, I buy it for the pictures. I’m currently reading a book about bestiaries that I got for Christmas, one animal at bedtime every night. Last night was the camelopardus, or giraffe, so called because it resembles a camel with leopard’s spots. Apparently, the name giraffe is a much more recent adoption from the Arabic word ziraffa (my beloved Scientist has a PhD in biology, and I don’t think he appreciates being told the exciting new “facts” about zoology I’ve just learned).
Do you have other passions beside embroidery?
Silversmithing, which grew out of the need to have jewellery for medieval costumes. Twenty years ago you couldn’t buy anything beyond cast bronze, so I gave a local evening class a go. I actually prefer making large vessels like chalices and candlesticks, but my workshop is packed away at the moment because my house had a burst pipe.
And cats, obviously, although I’m currently none too pleased with the furry little demon that just walked across my keyboard…
Three bad cats © Opus Anglicanum
How many hours would you say you spend at embroidery?
It depends. Normally the only time I go a full day without sewing is if I’m really poorly – I don’t think this is particularly a virtue, the Scientist is convinced there’s something wrong with my brain. I literally can’t sit and do nothing, it drives him nuts – I mean I knit at the cinema because I can do it in the dark and it stops me fidgeting, otherwise sitting through a whole movie gets too much for me. He hates it when I sew in the pub, I hate it when I can’t.
When I work in schools, I have what I call my handbag embroidery, which is unframed so I can stick it in a bag and take it anywhere. I found that doing the actor thing and being a statue whilst the teacher brings the children in and settles actively pisses off a lot of kids, especially the boys, who become very naughty in their desperate bids for attention. Whereas if I sit and do my sewing, the same boys will loudly announce “Sssshhh! The lady’s knitting” only for one of the girls to say, “She’s sewing!” but they’ll sit quietly and wait for me to finish – it works like a charm!
Over the years my handbag embroidery, done in schools and occasionally at the pub, has produced three large wall-hangings. I’d just started and embroidered version of the Guthlac Roll* before covid, but it’s been sitting untouched since last March because it feels wrong doing it in the house.
Most days I’ll do computer stuff in the morning and then sew all afternoon. If the Scientist goes out I’ll sew until bedtime as well.
* The Guthlac Roll is a scroll in the British Library and comes from Crowland Abbey. It is basically the cartoon strip of the life of the Anglo Saxon saint, Guthlac. The roll is thought to have been a prep sketch for a larger artwork which was either never made or hasn’t survived, so embroidering it seems somehow apt, since one of the possible end products is an embroidery
You told me you wrote a book – can I ask what it is?
It’s not out until summer. It’s called Opus Anglicanum, and it’s a practical guide rather than an academic one, part of the Crowood Press series on embroidery.
Soon available © Opus Anglicanum
Man’s face © Opus Anglicanum
Do you share your love of Medieval embroidery through other means then?
I do public demos as part of re-enactment and talks for embroiders guilds. I normally teach a class each year at Leeds university International Medieval Congress, and I’ve been teaching at the Ashmolean in Oxford for some years now.
I’m really missing my physical classes at the Ashmolean in Oxford, but I’ve been teaching online since lockdown, which has been a bit of a learning curve. I’m not the most technically minded person, so learning to edit videos has been frustrating, but it has meant people in other countries have been able to take part. I’m currently teaching a masterclass in Opus Anglicanum faces. In the next few months, I think I’ll launch a new laid and couched work class and quite a few people are interested in an Opus Anglicanum Grim Reaper as a class, so I’ll probably get on with that soon.
Have you seen changes in the way people interact with embroidery since you’ve started?
Hmmm, tough one. I think there are more community projects like the Towton tapestry now, whereas my personal interests have moved away from the Bayeux style towards later stuff. I’ve recently been doing some Bayeux stuff and rediscovered the charm of it. To be honest, one of the things that pushed me to doing more later stuff was that more than one person saw my living history display from a distance, loudly announced “Oh God, not another bloody Bayeux tapestry!” and stomped off without taking a better look!
Unfortunately the lovely Bayeux tapestry cushion I just made has been adopted by my Main Coon, Branston, so it’s currently disappearing under a thick layer of grey fluff.
Antependium – Donkey (The flight to Egypt) © Opus Anglicanum
Darwin © Opus Anglicanum
Do you stitch on commissions? If so, what kind of work?
Mmm, I’ll do commissions, but only if I find the project interesting in the first place, and I’m not cheap. Plus, I have to like the person it’s for, otherwise it’s like giving a kitten to someone you don’t trust. Sometimes I sell finished pieces. I’ve been meaning to list some online because the experiments box is really a bit too full at the moment.
Did you have to send a kit to a strange location once?
Don’t think so, I had to send a kit to Russia once, which was difficult because the royal mail website couldn’t recognise a postcode in the Russian alphabet, but I managed.
I’ve seen you stitched an Iceland huge piece – how long did it take? Why this work? Have you gain more knowledge about their stitching traditions?
I came across it in the exhibition catalogue for the Magrede Kalmar union exhibition (I think it was in the late 90s) and I was struck by the similarities to the Bayeux tapestry, but also by how much more sophisticated it was in both design and execution. I did correspond with the museum director, who had very little information other than that the faces were silk, and the rest was wool laid and couched work. So a lot of it was educated guesses and reverse engineering from the images available. For instance, the small circles that join the main images have radial couching bars, which means that the laid work had to be circular, and if you look closely you can clearly see that outline couching is used extensively.
The one I did, the Antependium from Rejkjahlid, appealed because it was an interesting fusion of laid and couched work with Opus Anglicanum techniques, but the others considered to be from the same group are much plainer with wool faces. Iceland was an interesting backwater because they were not only remote geographically but were also ruled externally and weren’t allowed their own currency for a long time. The Antependium I did wasn’t the only interesting fusion project. The Holar Antependium not only uses the laid and couched work technique as late as the 16th century (when the rest of Europe had become absorbed into Elizabethan crewelwork) but combines it with gold threads and applied jewels. I think circumstances enforced a certain amount of creativity in Iceland.
The Antependium took me about a year and a half, which surprised me at the time because I’d expected it to be as quick as the other Bayeux pieces I’d done before, but I hadn’t taken into account things like the filling in of the whole background, and the sheer level of detail with double and sometimes triple outlines. When I’d finished it, I did a project almost the same size based on the Noah’s ark from Beatus of Liebanas apocalypse. The image was simple because it was from an earlier period, and I romped through it in a scant three months.
Antependium of Rejkjahlid © Opus Anglicanum
Where do you get your special material?
I’d been thinking about doing the replica of the Antependium for years before I started, and I decided with that I would naturally dye all of the threads for it, so I found a suitable wool and dyed it. Buying embroidery wool for dyeing is prohibitively expensive, because you really need to think in terms of kilos of yarn to make it worthwhile, so I looked to weaving and knitting suppliers. The wool yarn I’m currently using is a laceweight bluefaced Leicester knitting yarn, but it’s the same weight as Appleton crewel.
Blue siren © Opus Anglicanum
Embroidered replica of the Luttrell Psalter / from a series of hangings, wool on wool, laid and couched work, two foot by five © Opus Anglicanum
Embroidered replica of the Luttrell Psalter / from a series of hangings, wool on wool, laid and couched work, two foot by five © Opus Anglicanum
Do you listen to Medieval music while you stitch – to be in the « now and there »?
Not really, I’m more likely to be listening to an audiobook on ancient Rome. At the moment I’m sewing and watching The worst witch or listening to Natalie Haynes’ A thousand ships which tells the story of the Iliad from the women’s point of view. My degree is in classics and I always loved women’s history so I’m enjoying it. But I normally listen to non-fiction audiobooks. I do listen to medieval music sometimes, but my tastes are pretty diverse, so I listen to lots of other stuff too. I don’t really listen to music while I work because I like to get up and dance like a lunatic, badly, plus the Scientist has been working from home since Christmas and there is literally no overlap between our tastes in music, so anything I listen to will just irritate him.
Penis parade © Opus Anglicanum
The cure for mansplaining © Opus Anglicanum
How do you create your kits/patterns?
I just reproduce images that amuse me, and if other people want to buy them, they do. I don’t pick designs based on their commercial potential – the few times I tried doing it that way round it hasn’t worked, so I just please myself. Or occasionally, the Scientist will find something and insist I sew it and make it into a kit. It’s best to sew it or he nags… the Cure for Mansplaining* was his idea, he was very whiny until I sold one!
* From man + explanations – explanations given by a man in a paternalistic manner to a woman who actually knows more on the subject than him
What are your projects?
At the moment I’m filming the last few tutorials for an online Opus Anglicanum faces masterclass. I’ve just put the last few stitches to a cute little green man.
I have a bagpiper in mind from a sculpture at Beverly minster. I’ll do him as a standalone project for a kit when I feel like I need a break from bigger projects. I also need to crack on with a couple of other online projects for Leeds University International medieval congress (I normally do a class in person but it’s all online this year) and another for a smaller medieval symposium in May.
Purse horse © Opus Anglicanum
But to be honest, I’ve been having a week off and indulging in a personal project, which is an update of the allegory of the Three living and the Three dead for modern times. I’ve used three dead from an original manuscript and placed them under a grubby Victorian railway arch with three modern young men – one is merrily taking a selfie with the dead, one is graffitiing the wall behind, and another is on his laptop ignoring everyone. There are nearly fifty bricks in the arch, and I’m doing it as Opus Anglicanum, so each one has to be done individually. I’ve done about half in a week, and when I run out of steam, I’ll pick up the projects for the tutorials. Then once they’re out of the way I’ll combine the “three living and dead” project with my fourth Luttrell fantasy, the peasant one, which I left off two years ago to start writing the book. It is sitting on the frame waiting to be re-tensioned and played with – I have to finish the oxen and then I can have fun giving the ploughman’s boy a Burberry plaid tunic and Nike trainers because I like hiding little modern things in my big hangings.
I’ve already done beasts, dragons, and music. Five and six in the series will be princes (to balance the peasants) and saints and sinners. Princes will definitely be next after peasants because I know what the modern things will be, but I’m struggling to find the modern thing to hide in the saints, so I need more thinking time on that one.
I have a long-term plan that I’d like to make a replica of the Syon cope but replace all the saints with rock icons. It would take years, but I think it would definitely work. I’m not an Elvis fan, but I think I could have bags of fun embroidering an Opus Anglicanum fat Las Vegas Elvis…
Blog – https://opusanglicanum.wordpress.com/
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Noah’s ark from Beatus of Liebanas apocalypse © Opus Anglicanum
The content of this site is free and is not damaged by un-welcomed publicity. I do this work with love and passion but it requires a lot of time. I would like to continue to offer a wider market to our artists, to show how embroidery is a wonderful art. But I do need a little bit of help. If you feel like it, you can participate with a little donation to help me continue. I will be so grateful! Thank you! Claire