Through previous research I knew about the embroidered treasure of St Faith’s, but I had not yet had an opportunity to travel to Bacton. As soon as I knew the altar cloth had been moved to Hampton Court Palace for conservation, I just had to have a close-up look.
In October 2018, I was granted access to the cloth to take images for study. I was not prepared for what I saw. As one who has spent quite some time at an embroidery frame, I instantly recognized the amount of effort that had gone into creating it, and it was staggering.
Although the cloth was smaller than I had anticipated, the embroidery filling almost every square inch was unlike any I’d seen before. Everywhere I looked, there was something new, not only to see, but to investigate. As an embroiderer, I was immediately drawn to the intricacy of stitch that was used in the large botanical motifs. The sheer volume was overwhelming and on closer inspection the skill required to create the realistic depiction of the individual motifs was awe-inspiring.
The embroiderer, or embroiderers, had used a blended needle technique to enhance the colouring and effect shading. To add depth, the density of the stitching changed, packing even more tiny two-tone stitches into the designated area. This main stitch appeared at first glance to be a simple seed stitch, but there is actually nothing simple about any of the embroidery on the cloth.
When I left Hampton Court that day, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I had seen. I had taken over 300 pictures of every inch of the cloth. I had noted the additional series of smaller more solidly embroidered motifs and taken detailed images of them. I had recognized textured stitches for some of the elements, like the use of woven wheels to depict the individual grapes. I even had a small glimpse of the underside where it was evident that the silk and gold threads on the front no longer held their original vitality.
But even then, I underestimated the full extent of the embroidery. To this day, I continue to see details that have been overlooked.
BAC Stitch’s approach to the study of this amazing fragment of history has underscored the importance of investigating such an object from an interdisciplinary perspective. Questioning the conventions and accepted positions that often influence our studies opens the door for new connections and a broader understanding of what we think we already know. Continuing our investigation will undoubtedly enhance our awareness of the world as it was in the late 16th century.