Opus Anglicanum


Image: Detail of English Altar Frontal, 1315-35

Detail of English Altar Frontal, 1315-35


Term used in medieval continental inventories to describe English embroidery. It was famed for its fine goldwork and skilful use of the techniques of underside couching and split stitch. Such embroidery was used for both ecclesiastical and secular textiles, although very few of the latter have survived.

English embroiderers used specific techniques when stitching the face and hair. To complete the head, they would often use two contrasting colours to denote natural curl. Embroidery was viewed as an art form, on a par with silver-gilt metalwork, stained glass, sculpture and architecture.

As such, expensive embroidered textiles became something of a status symbol for royalty and religious leaders. In 1317, Queen Isabella, wife of Edward III, paid 100 marks - about £40,000 today - to “Rose, the wife of John de Bureford, citizen and merchant of London, for an embroidered cope for the choir, lately purchased from her to make a present to the Lord High Pontiff from the Queen.”

This high quality English embroidery was made of expensive imported materials and was very labour intensive. Nuns and noblewomen did a great deal of embroidery as one would expect, but large embroideries like the Syon Cope were made by highly trained professionals, both men and women. They were employed in workshops which were funded by merchants and noble patrons. It was the merchants who took the profits, not the embroiderers who received only modest payments for their work. Most workshops were in London where the necessary capital was available and which was the principal port through which the imported materials arrived.

Stitches and Techniques

Gold was used in large expanses as background for figures that were embroidered in coloured silks. Another characteristic of Opus Anglicanum was the general vivacity of expression and pose in the figure modeling of features — the use of split stitches worked spirally, for example, to suggest rounded cheeks and black, popping eyes. Minutely observed birds and animals, clearly based on contemporary animal drawings, figured largely in the decorative schemes.

Extent Examples of Opus Anglicanum