Our Research Group
An Unexpected Collaboration Formed in Isolation
During the 2020 pandemic lockdown, the Medieval Dress and Textiles Society, unable to hold in-person conferences and study days at museums, began offering short talks and sharing photos of exhibitions online. Christine suggested that MEDATS offer a chat about the Bacton Altar Cloth and recruited Challe to share her photos and Jenny to provide commentary about both plants and embroidery techniques. Multiple questions about the meaning of the plants arose during the chat, and the presenters directed those to Natalie, who had written her Master’s Thesis about the symbolism of the altar cloth and the Rainbow Portrait. Cindy had already undertaken an extensive study of the altar cloth and had recreated multiple motifs, and after watching the MEDATS Chat she first offered to share her research, then accepted an invitation to join the group.
Together we are attempting to identify the species represented by the embroidered motifs, understand the meanings contemporary viewers would have interpreted in these patterns, locate potential sources for the designs, identify the materials and methods used to create the embroideries, understand the many uses to which this cloth has been put, and learn as much as possible about the people who created, commissioned, used and re-used the fabric throughout its lifetime. We began by studying our images of the cloth, then examining contemporary printed sources that the embroiderers might have used for their designs such as pattern books, herbals, and bestiaries. We are attempting to independently categorise and interpret the motifs rather than relying on published descriptions.