Figurative polychrome embroidery with counted stitches


Bénédicte Meffre continues her analysis of German embroidery. After the definition of Opus Teutonicum, here are the colorful figurative embroidery. Do they fall under this definition or do they come from a completely different tradition?

First article – The Opus Teutonicum Embroidery, an attempt at definition
Third article – German counted stitch embroidery: polychromes works in a grid

Research and writing Bénédicte Meffre
Translation by Claire de Pourtalès

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

Embroidered Hanging, late 14th century 160 x 159 cm / Accession Number 69.106 © MET

Second part of my overview of medieval Germanic embroidery with counted stitches. If you haven’t already done so, you can read the first part, devoted to the Opus Teutonicum.

Today I suggest that we take an interest in Germanic embroidery with counted stitches where color has a predominant place.

In books on the history of embroidery, there is often little distinction made between these two sets. If we come back to Kay Staniland’s definition, we could deduce that polychrome embroidery is only an evolution of white embroidery to which we would have added color little by little. We have however seen that the Opus Teutonicum cannot be reduced to the definition of white embroidery and that color seems to have always been part of this type of work.

Is polychrome embroidery just a logical evolution from predominantly white embroidery or has it coexisted?

There is a large body of polychrome embroidery, contemporary with the Opus Teutonicum, which does not meet its definition. The problem remains their heterogeneity. If the observation of embroidery and the work of several historians have enabled us to propose a definition of the Opus Teutonicum, how do we define the other embroideries with counted stitches? In negative?

Dalmatic (detail), Göss Monastery, Austria, 1260. Linen and silk, 122 x 140 cm. T 6905-1 © MAK / Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna
Altar hangings, The legend of Saint Nicolas. Germany 1360 – 1370 ©Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Fotograffin: Hans-Joachim Bartsch

Evolution of the Opus Teutonicum?

Some works are difficult to classify.

Indeed, they present some characteristics of the Opus Teutonicum such as the background fabric which remains visible but do not respond to the other elements which define it as the use of linen thread or the dominating white color.

On this hanging, the background fabric, a linen canvas, is visible. The figures and the decorations are embroidered with many colors. The embroidery in white is more present on the floral decorative bands at the edges and is reminiscent of the Opus Teutonicum. The variety of stitches used is not very large. It is the color that allows us a fine reading of the scene and not the different embroidered textures. You can find more examples with detailed photos on this blog: Marienberg Abbey Treasure (Helmstedt).

These examples are probably representative of what could be an evolution of the Opus Teutonicum in which more room would be given to color. But we can see that this is accompanied by an impoverishment of the variety of the techniques.

However, it is not the majority of polychrome pieces that meet this criterion. Especially since some of these fully embroidered pieces are contemporary with the golden age of the Opus Teutonicum. We will therefore focus on fully embroidered full color counted stitch embroidery. [1]

[1] Once again, it is through the description of some examples that I suggest you explore this corpus and try to draw its main characteristics. I only choose a few pieces for this article, but you will be able to find others, recorded on my Pinterest board.

The differences

No visible background – The majority of polychrome embroidery is fully embroidered (we can no longer see the background fabric). In addition, white is scarcely use or is completely absent.

An impressive example is the set of Göss clothes that I have mentioned several times [2]. Dating from the middle of the 13th century, this set is contemporary with the golden age of the Opus Teutonicum. It is a set of liturgical vestments (cape, chasuble, dalmatic) entirely embroidered with polychrome silk threads.

Let us first observe the dalmatic. We see patterns of animals, real or fantastic. The dalmatic is not symmetrical: a large geometric frieze decorates an entire side. Some embroidered boxes are even cut. Its construction seems to be a re-use of an older embroidery or vestment. The figures are embroidered in colored silk in variations of slanted overlapping Goblin stitches worked to give different effects of diagonals or herringbone. The outline of the figures is stitched in contrasting color.

[2] You can find references to these clothes in different articles (in French): The embroidery stitches used in the Middle Ages or On the use of medieval embroidery.

Dalmatic, Monastery Göss, Austria, 1260, linen and silk, 122 x 140 cm, T 6905-1 © MAK / Austrian Museum of Applied Art, Vienna
Dalmatic (detail), Monastery Göss, Austria, 1260, linen and silk, 122 x 140 cm, T 6905-1 © Bénédicte Meffre / MAK Austrian Museum of Applied Art, Vienna

The squares are framed by geometric friezes embroidered in long-arm cross stitch.

Chasuble, Monastery Göss, Austria, 1260, linen and silk, 123 x 76 cm, T 6904-1 © MAK / Austrian Museum of Applied Art, Vienna

On the chasuble, the patterns and techniques are significantly different. The set represents real characters (Christ, apostles, evangelists…).

Here, the background is also worked in slanted Gobelin stitch, and the figures are worked with different satin stitch and brick stitch patterns. Note the spiral embroidered cheek reminiscent of the Opus Anglicanum.

This embroidered set is very distinct from the Opus Teutonicum. You might think that using slight variations in the stitches can create textural effects. This is because silk reflects light differently depending on the angle at which the stitch is embroidered. These variations may have created effects in the light of candles or oil lamps, but we are far from the great variety seen on Opus Teutonicum. It seems obvious that the use of bright colors makes these kinds of subtleties less necessary.

Chasuble (front), Monastery Göss, Austria, 1260, linen and silk, 123 x 76 cm, T 6904-1 © MAK / Austrian Museum of Applied Art, Vienna
Dormition, 1320. Germany © Dr Jessica Grimm
You can find other photos of medieval embroidery on her blog

The use of gold and silk

One of the main characteristics of these embroideries, unlike the Opus Teutonicum, is the massive use of silk thread. We could see it in the previous example. But there are pieces that incorporate gold threads as well, in a very different way from what we know at the same time with the Opus Anglicanum.

Antependium: scenes from the life of saints. Germanic area, beginning of the 14th century (linen, silk, metallic threads – satin and stem stitch) / 82.5 x 186.5 cm ©Bénédicte Meffre / Musée de Cluny Cl. 11995

On these 2 examples (Dormition and Antependium), the embroidery is mainly carried out with polychrome silk threads in satin stitch or in long and short Gobelin stitch. We can still read the scenes thanks to the polychromy although the color is a little faded.

Metallic threads [3] are only used to enhance particularly important elements, such as halos and sacred objects. Here, the use of gold thread is somewhat reminiscent of that of textures and colors in the Opus Teutonicum.

[3] The color of metallic threads is essentially linked to oxidation. In fact threads made from alloys and not pure gold oxidize and change color instead of simply tarnishing.

Antependium (Detail): scenes from the life of saints. Germanic area, beginning of the 14th century (linen, silk, metallic threads – satin and stem stitch) / 82.5 x 186.5 cm ©Bénédicte Meffre / Musée de Cluny Cl. 11995
Stole (detail), Germanic countries, 14th century (linen, silk / straight tapestry stitch © Saint-Jean cathedral, Lyon (in the Historical collections since 21.10.1903) /Bénédicte Meffre

Little variety of embroidery techniques and stitches

As we can see, the techniques and stitches used can vary from one piece to another but are few in a single piece. For example, on this stole, only the brick stitch is used. The regularity of the brick stitch, always worked in the same direction, gives a very uniform texture to this piece. We can guess, on the damaged areas, that the pattern was drawn on the linen canvas.

Embroidery with drawn patterns

This piece is entirely embroidered with polychrome silks using only one stitch: long-arm cross stitch worked in vertical bands. Nevertheless a few stem stitches were added here and there to enhance the design.

Altar cushion cover, Germany; 1400-1430, linen, silk and cord / Accession number 1324-1864 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Altar cushion cover (detail), Germany; 1400-1430, linen, silk and cord / Accession number 1324-1864 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One might think that this technique, embroidered in vertical bands next to each other, responds to a so-called “grid” pattern [4] but the pattern is well traced on the fabric.
In the angel’s wings (bottom left), we can observe the ink lines [5], the areas of different colors are therefore filled by following the line directly on the fabric. Another clue is in the feathers of the same wings where the long-arm cross stitches are distorted to match the layout rather than sticking to the usual count used on the rest of the piece.

[4] ie a pattern drawn on a separate model (cardboard, parchment, sample) and reproduced by counting the threads as you go.

[5] To learn more about drawing techniques for embroidery, see my articles (in French): Ending Penelope Syndrome and On your marks, get set, embroider!


The embroideries that I have shown in this article do not form a very homogeneous ensemble. The main common characteristics, apart from the counted stitch techniques are:

  • Fully embroidered fabric, background not visible
  • Use of colored silk threads (little or no gold thread)
  • A low variety of stitches in the same work
  • The patterns are drawn on the fabric.

It is therefore impossible to designate them by a specific stitch of embroidery, even less to attach them to the Opus Teutonicum. All of these embroideries would probably deserve to be further studied with a magnifying glass so as to detect, if necessary, very distinct styles. This is the reason why I called them under the generic term of “figurative counted polychrome embroidery”.

Housse pour coussin d’autel (détail de la bande florale), Allemagne, 1400-1430. Lin et soie/ Numéro d’accès 1324-1864 © Victoria and Albert Museum, Londres

Why “figurative”?

Because this set differs from another type of counted stitch embroidery from the same period and the same area: “grid” embroidery. On the last example we saw, it is necessary to dwell a little on the flower border of the piece.

Indeed, this border is made according to a pattern that is repeated closely unlike the rest of the embroidery. And in areas where this border is damaged, no ink line can be seen. Although in this case it is only the border that is worked this way, there is a whole set of embroideries from this same period which can be defined by this characteristic: a simplified pattern to adapt to the stitch of embroidery and repeatable indefinitely.

I will study them in an upcoming article.