On Saturday 9 January our little study group held a public but relaxed and conversational online meeting about the Bacton Altar Cloth as part of a lockdown-inspired series of more smaller, more accessible events hosted by the Medieval Dress and Textile Society. We shared our photos – ok, mostly my photos – of the Bacton Altar Cloth taken last winter when it was on display at Hampton Court Palace, answered queries from some of the nearly 120 people who joined the call, offered some of our unanswered questions and received many helpful suggestions from participants.

If you haven’t seen the Historic Royal Palaces video about conserving the altar cloth, I recommend taking a moment to watch it, as it provides an excellent summary of the history of the object and the people and places associated with the textile, shows some nice views of both the front and the back of the embroidery, and also explains much of the great excitement surrounding the Bacton Altar Cloth now.

During the MEDATS session we presented some of our observations about the materials and embroidery techniques with which the altar cloth was made, gave a summary of its history and its recent conservation, and hypothesised about which plant species each motif represents. We started with the motif that I numbered 1 (based on the map shared here) but only made it to motif 15 out of 80 because we spent so much time happily zooming in on details of the work, occasionally sharing images from herbals, jumping to other similar motifs on the altar cloth, debating the exact botanical features that define whatever species we were considering at that moment, and taking a wide variety of questions from the audience.

As we reluctantly concluded for lack of additional available time, the presenters (Christine Carnie, Jenny Worrall and myself, though we also dragged Natalie Bramwell-Booth into the discussion multiple times without warning and are immensely grateful that she was a good sport about the whole affair) suggested a second meeting two weekends following, which met with energetic approval.

Afterward we all noticed images from the talk, which had not been recorded, being shared online. Rather than attack people for taking screenshots without permission and sharing them without attribution, we discussed the problem and decided that, since I honestly don’t mind sharing the photographs I’ve taken, and since there is such great curiosity about the Bacton Altar Cloth and hunger for more images of it, I should begin posting photographs to my blog along with explanations of which plants we think might be portrayed in the motif.

Eighty motifs, though, it quite a lot of research and writing, and hours of time spent studying period herbals, illuminated manuscripts, and contemporary portraits. Let’s see how many patterns and plants we can name if we work together!