Diaper couching (goldwork)
Diaper couching is the method of stitching coloured thread over laid metal threads to create a patterned effect. Originally diaper patterns used a diamond motif but over time the term has changed to include other simple repeating patterns (see the diagram at the end of this stitch entry for other examples).
Originally, diaper patterns were woven into fabric rather than embroidered - many Egyptian examples survive from the 5th century CE and some fabrics are still produced in this way. This explains the origin of the term ‘diaper’ in North America for babies’ nappies – it describes the pattern in the weave of the original fabric.
Threads couched in diaper patterns feature in many opus Anglicanum pieces from the 12th to 14th centuries, although most of these are worked in underside couching so, unlike our examples, there is no visible couching thread.
It is not until the late 1800s that the modern version of diaper couching is documented. Caulfeild and Saward in their 1882 Dictionary of Needlework describe it is as ‘worked so as to form zigzag lines, diamonds, and crosses’ although they are anchoring silk threads, rather than metal thread passing. Most authors use metal or silk threads, although some suggest “cords, ribbons or coarse wools”.
The term diapering or diaper patterns can also be used to describe any textured background with a small repeating pattern in textiles or in many other craft disciplines.
Begin by drawing evenly spaced lines on to the background fabric. The lines represent where the couching stitches are to be placed.
Thread two needles - one with a single strand of self-coloured thread (matching the metal thread) and the other with a single strand of a coloured thread of your choice.
Take two strands of metal thread and lay them down at 90 degrees to the drawn lines.
In line with the evenly spaced drawn lines, couch over the pair of metal threads with the two different colours of threads. Use the colours to create a pattern.
Continue to couch over the next pair of metal threads offsetting the stitch position with those on the previous row. Continue to use the different colours to build up a diamond pattern.
Structure of stitch
Identifying Diaper couching (goldwork)
Diaper couching can be identified as a couching method that uses coloured thread to couch metal thread so that the coloured thread creates a pattern.
Letitia Higgin, RSN Handbook of Embroidery (1880) , p.42
Various Authors, The Royal School of Needlework Book of Embroidery (2018) , p.248
Ella Rodman Church, Artistic embroidery; containing practical instructions in the ornamental branches of needlework (1830) , p.103-4
S. F. A. Caulfeild, Blanche C. Saward, The Dictionary of Needlework (1882) , p.92
W.G. Paulson Townsend, Louisa F. Pesel, Walter Crane, Embroidery or the Craft of the Needle (1907) , p.291, 294
Examples of Diaper couching (goldwork)
Various designs for gold diapering
Illustration from Art Needlework by L. Higgin The Art Amateur, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Sep., 1885), pp. 82-84 https://www.jstor.org/stable/25628410