Turning metal thread couching
Metal thread couching is the technique of laying down metal threads and using a finer thread to secure them; this entry demonstrates how to turn the couching thread at the end of a line.
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 towards the end of the first millennium, metal thread couching was being skilfully employed in both the UK and China. The Maaseik Embroideries (found in Belgium, but credited with being made in England towards the end of the 8th century/beginning of the 9th) are considered a pre-cursor to Opus Anglicanum. Analysis of the passing thread indicates that the core is made of cattle tail hair wrapped with gold foil (approximately 0.5mm wide) mostly made of pure gold with an occasional trace of silver. From a century later, artefacts from St Cuthbert’s tomb and Chinese Tang embroideries both also feature couched metal threads, the latter referred to as ‘flat gold’.
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.
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 metal.
Bring the needle to the surface approximately 3-4mm from the last stitch and repeat.
Continue to stitch along the metal thread, ensuring the stitches are evenly spaced and all lie at 90 degrees to the threads. The metal threads should lie flat and parallel without crossing, and try not to over-tighten the stitches.
Turn the metal thread back on itself and 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.
Take the needle down through the hole at the end of the last stitch.
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.
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.
Structure of stitch
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
Mildred Budny , Dominic Tweddle, 'The Maaseik embroideries', JSTOR. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/44510789 (Accessed: 25 November 2021)