Applique Notebook Cover

The design was adapted from a 16th century embroidery (Digby, plate 37) by Mistress Dorren of Ashwell to be used in making notebook covers for the prizes in an embroidery competition. The materials and type of embroidery were left to the discretion of the individual. For a number of years I had admired a 16th century Scottish bed-curtain (Swain, plate 6a and 6b) done in black velvet applied to red wool with additional embroidery in yellow silk, using herringbone, satin and couching stitches. This approach seemed well-suited to the prize design, so I decided to do the cover using this combination of materials and colors.

Appliqué is one of the oldest forms of embroidery – there are Siberian pieces surviving from the 4th -3rd century B.C.E. (Schuette and Mueller-Christensen, p. ), and it continued to be done throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods. It consists of cutting decorative shapes out of fabric and then attaching those pieces to a ground fabric. It could be produced relatively quickly, so it was well-adapted for use in large pieces such as wall hangings, although it could also be used for objects as small as seal bags. Documentary evidence makes it clear that appliqué was one of the most common medieval embroidery techniques, due to its rapid production and relatively low cost, and later it became an easy way in which the rich velvets and brocades then being produced could be used in a decorative fashion. Part of the speed was due to the edges not being turned under and neatly hemmed as is normally done today. At first, this was because materials were used which did not fray because of the partial felting that occurs when wool is fulled. In the case of more fragile fabrics such as silk brocades or velvets, close examination of early pieces has revealed traces of wax around the edges (Staniland, p. 33), and by the 16th and 17th centuries, paste or glue was being used (Arnold, p. and Arthur, p. 22). The raw edges were then covered with threads, cords, or gilded leather strips that were couched down, which provided both protection and a neat finish. This method was so successful that it continued to be used through the 19th century (Dillmont, chapter VIII). Further finishing was often done by embellishment with additional embroidery, both in couching and other stitches.

In the 16th century, books were valuable and treated as special objects, thus, embroidered book bindings were fairly common, although I’ve never seen a removable cover like this. They were often done by professionals, using elaborate metal thread embroidery and pearls on a velvet ground (see Digby, p. 96-97). Other types of bindings include canvaswork and silk embroidery worked on satin, which became fairly popular in the 17th century even even though it is a relatively weak ground fabric. Unfortunately, appliqué on wool is not a very likely choice—the materials are just not rich enough.

The pattern was traced onto a piece of organdy which was then glued to some black velvet. Some people prefer to use a cotton velvet, since it is easier to work with, and may possibly have been available in period. I chose a synthetic (rayon, which in fact has been sold as 'artificial silk'), since I feel that its appearance is closer to that of the silk velvets most commonly used. After drying, the pieces were cut out and glued onto a red wool ground cloth, and again left to dry. Two strands of yellow silk buttonhole thread were couched down along the outline of the pattern, using a matching silk sewing thread. Herringbone stitch with a single strand of buttonhole thread was used to fill the bars connecting the fleurs-de-lys. Additional embroidery was done in satin stitch. The finished piece was lined with red linen, made into the notebook cover, and then the edges were finished with Portuguese stem stitch. This is not a period stitch as far as I know, although by the end of the 16th century a number of elaborately braided and knotted stitches were being used.


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