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Metal thread couching (goldwork) icon
Metal thread couching (goldwork)

Metal thread couching is the technique of laying down metal threads and using a finer thread to secure them.

The couching threads can be stitched in specific patterns or colours to create particular effects.

The origins of metal thread couching are hard to ascertain as early literary references are frequently unclear whether the metal threads are being woven or couched: Exodus 39:3 references making gold threads but their use is not described.  We can, however, be certain that by the end of the first millennium metal thread couching was being skilfully employed in both the UK (from St Cuthbert’s tomb) and Chinese Tang embroidery.

Underside couching subsequently took precedence in England for quite some time but by the 1430s the use of metal thread couching had regained popularity.  Across the world, it has been used for religious, military, ceremonial and other garments; for military dress this has been credited to European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries but countries including Turkey, Iran, Yemen, China and Sumatra have long traditions of using metal thread couching for a range of garments.

Metal thread couching (goldwork) is generously sponsored by Sanchia Groves

Method

Metal thread is stitched down in pairs - this helps to keep the thread smooth along the design line. Either use two reels and leave the threads on the reel, or cut off an approximate length of thread and fold it in half.

When couching adjacent rows of metal threads, always work from the outer to the inner edge, and angle the needle underneath the previous row to help pull the two rows of metal threads together neatly.

For the couching thread, a waxed machine sewing thread is normally used.

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1

Lay down a pair metal threads and couch into position using a single waxed thread. The couching thread should lay at 90º to the metal threads, it should be tight enough to hold the metal threads securely but not so tight that it dents the metalthreads.

2

Bring the needle to the surface approximately 3-4mm from the last stitch and repeat

3

Continue to stitch along the metal thread, ensuring the stitches are evenly spaced and all lie at 90 degrees to the threads. Ensure the metal threads lie flat and parallel without crossing and try not to over-tighten the stitches.
Turn the gold thread back on itself by bending around your needle.

4

Secure in place by couching directly below the last stitch. Bringing the needle up on the outer side of the threads will help to avoid puncturing the metal threads.

5

Take the needle down through the hole at the end of the last stitch.

6

Tighten the stitch, making sure the two pairs of metal threads are still lying parallel, and make the next stitch halfway between the last two stitches of the previous row.

7

Continue working along the metal threads, placing the stitches in between those of the previous row, in a brickwork pattern. When you have completed the area to be filled, plunge the metal threads separately and secure on the reverse with a curved needle.

Common uses

Embroidery Techniques

Related Stitches

References

  • Various Authors, The Royal School of Needlework Book of Embroidery (2018) , p.228
  • Sheila Paine, Embroidered Textiles - Traditional Patterns from Five Continents (1990) , p.27, p38, p30, p155
  • Clare Browne, English Medieval Embroidery - Opus Anglicanum (2016) , p.15, p18
  • Schuyler Cammann. (1962) 'Embroidery Techniques in Old China', Archives of the Chinese Art Society of America pp.16-40. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20067040
  • John Gillow, Bryan Sentence, World Textiles - a visual guide to traditional techniques (1999) , p.185

Examples of Metal thread couching (goldwork) from the RSN Collection

RSN Training School Sampler, RSN Collection No. 96

RSN Training School Sampler, RSN Collection No. 96

Antependium – Sandalphon, RSN Collection No. 101