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Turning metal thread couching icon
Turning metal thread couching

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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.

Turning metal thread couching 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 metal.

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. The metal threads should lie flat and parallel without crossing, and try not to over-tighten the stitches.

4

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.

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.

Turning metal thread couching

Embroidery Techniques

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
  • Mildred Budny , Dominic Tweddle, 'The Maaseik embroideries', JSTOR. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/44510789 (Accessed: 25 November 2021)

Examples of Turning metal thread couching

RSN Training School Sampler, RSN Collection No. 96

RSN Training School Sampler, RSN Collection No. 96

Antependium – Sandalphon, RSN Collection No. 101

Triptych 2, RSN Collection No. 587

Triptych 2, RSN Collection No. 587

Triptych 2, RSN Collection No. 587