Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Enchantment of The Bayeux Tapestry

by Carol McGrath

The Bayeux Tapestry has retained its enchantment and its vivid colour almost a thousand years after it was embroidered. It tells the story of The Norman Conquest through beautifully framed vignettes and long-shot depictions made in embroidery from Harold Godwinson's departure on a mysterious mission to Normandy in 1064 until his death at Hastings in October 1066.  I have often wondered about the fabric and the natural dyes used for the embroidery wools in the Tapestry's construction.

Scene from The Bayeux Tapestry

Carola Hicks wrote in her wonderful book The Bayeux Tapestry, The Life Story of a Masterpiece, "Made from the workaday fabrics of linen and wool, the Tapestry has often been described as an uncharacteristically humble artifact when compared to other works of the period, even an example of quaint folk art."

It is true that the Tapestry is not sewn with valuable gold, silver, and gems, or silk embroidery threads. It is by Anglo-Saxon standards a modest work, and yet it is a glorious feat of craftsmanship and artistry. The Tapestry is constructed in the everyday fabrics of linen and wool. Even so, its fabrics were designed and executed as the result of practice by extremely talented craftsmen.

Woodland Scene from the Tapestry

Here in Tapestry the dramatic story of the Norman invasion of England is stitched out and embroidered on strips of linen. It is seventy meters in length and half a meter wide. The fact that these homely though durable fabrics, linen and wool, were used are the reason for its preservation despite its great age and fragility. Most of what we see today is original. Even where the Tapestry has been repaired we can still see the original stitch marks.

Spinning

Linen and The Tapestry

Linen has a long history. The ancient Egyptians found linen's sweat-absorbent and cooling properties divine. They attributed the invention of linen to the goddess Isis. With the advent of Christianity linen was used for priestly garments. It actually had a high status. It comes from the flax plant which was sown after Easter and harvested three months later. In the Middle-Ages the young plants were pulled by hand and never cut. Cutting might damage the stems. Plant stalks were soaked till they were decomposing, dried out, then smashed with mallets to separate the outer bark from the inner fibres. These were spun into thread on a hand spindle. Medieval women spun constantly. They attached a bundle of flax fibres to the cone-shaped top of a pole , the distaff. Then the other end was tucked under the spinner's arm. A spinner drew the fibres out from the top, twisted them onto a weighted whorl, then spun them tightly into a thread.

Retting (cleaning) the flax

The Bayeux Tapestry consists of nine separate panels sewn together after they were embroidered. The two longest strips measure nearly 14 meters. This suggests a long warp or length setting. Other Tapestry sections are shorter. The original lengths were woven a meter wide and then cut to make strips that would be comfortable to embroider. A loom is used to weave the threads into lengths of fabric.  Carola Hicks thought that professional weavers made the linen on a horizontal treadle loom, a more advanced machine than an upright warp-weighted loom that was used to make woollen cloth.

Upright weaving frame

When the linen was woven it was a natural brown in colour. The linen was bleached by boiling it in a solution of water alkalized by the addition of wood ash, fern or seaweed. It was stretched out on frames for exposure to the light. It was still kept damp. After a period of three weeks or so the linen was soaked in a solution of sour milk fermented by rye or bran. The fabric was pounded with a piece of marble or glass to create a smooth silky texture.

Wool Embroidery on The Tapestry

It is considered by most Tapestry historians that there was a common cartoon source  for the Tapestry design. There is a similarity between the images, especially those of figures, emblems, plants, and animals, and those depicted on Canterbury manuscripts of the period. This suggests Canterbury as the location for the Tapestry's overall design. However, between three and eight workshops are suggested for the linen's weaving. There were probably several embroidery workshops involved as well. Likely contenders were Canterbury and Wilton.

Queen Edith, the widow of Edward the Confessor, was one of the most notable embroiderers of the era, and after her husband's death she retired to Wilton Abbey which had a school for embroiderers. She may have had a hand in the execution of the Bayeux Tapestry. It is recorded in The Vita Edwardi Regis, completed around 1066-69, a few years after Edward's death, that several people were with Edward just before his death.  There were Harold Godwin and Archbishop Stigund. Edith, one of three women depicted on the Tapestry, who warmed his feet in her lap can be seen kneeling at the bottom of his bed. According to the Vita, Edward gave a prophetic vision and then said a few words to comfort Edith. Interestingly, Edward's death scene as depicted in embroidery on the Tapestry corresponds to that described in the Vita which was commissioned by Queen Edith. Wilton Abbey is, I suggest, one of the locations for the Tapestry's construction. Queen Edith may even contributed to which scenes should be included and their depiction.
 
King Edward's Death Scene

The embroidery is stitched in strands of worsted wool, the end product of an old and complicated process. An enormous amount of wool was dyed. Carola Hicks states more than 45 kilograms was used for the embroidery. The original wools remain vivid. They are also more resistant to moth than chemically dyed wools. Winchester was one of the cities that monitored the practice of dyers within its jurisdiction since dyes produced noxious waste products and hideous odours. Alum which was valuable was the favoured mordant. Dye ingredients came from animal, vegetable or mineral products acquired locally. Sometimes ingredients were imported from further afield to be smashed, boiled, and simmered, concentrated to extract the essence of a hue.

There are ten main tones on the Tapestry. They came from only three plants, woad, madder and weld. The dyes were blended into two reds, a yellow and a beige, three tones of blue and three tones of green.

Weld

Beige and yellow came from the flowers and leaves of weld.

Green also came from weld but it was mixed with the leaves of woad.

Woad produced the blues.

Woad

The reds came from madder. The roots of madder were ground into a powder, heated and simmered with added chalk or lime at a constant temperature for not more than two hours. Once a whole fleece was dyed to the required colours, a hand held spindle was used to turn the fibres into bales of worsted.

A friend of mine, Charles Jones, has had spinners and embroiderers working on a tapestry to tell the story of The Battle of Fulford September 1066. Here are a few of the dying recipes he has used to reproduce authentically the colours which his embroiderers used. Be careful if you try them out.

Weld

Chop lengths to boil for one and a half hours
Add wool and pinch of tartar
simmer for one hour
one hank of woad dyed wool added to light green will produce dark yellow.

Walnuts

5lbs of walnuts smashed and put to soak for twenty four hours
Tap water and a half cup of vinegar

Soak the wool for two days and then simmer for half an hour will produce a nut brown shade

Oak Gall Powder

20 gm of oak gall powder
boil for 30 minutes
teaspoon of salt
alum mordanted wool added
cook for twenty minutes
fix with salt and vinegar

Produces a light green-brown

These are just a few of the recipes used for dying wool used in embroidering a latter-day tapestry replica. I wonder if EHFA readers have had experience of creating dyes for wool using similar methods.

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Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife (2013) published by Accent Press and inspired by The Bayeux Tapestry.

The Swan-Daughter published by Accent Press (2014) is available now from Amazon.co.uk and from Amazon.com.



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