Learning Medieval Embroidery at the Ashmolean


I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that there were several things I wanted to blog about: drawing armour at the Wallace Collection, and drawing zentangles,  then there was the Kevin Coates exhibition and the workshop I did at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford on medieval embroidery with Tanya Bentham.  I’ve done the zentangles and the armour  and now it’s the workshop.

The workshop was held in conjunction with the exhibition which was of a bestiary of jewels associating animals with certain people such as Flaubert’s parrot and Montaigne’s cat and so on.  So in the workshop we were invited to take a fantastical animal from our imaginations or a manuscript and combine it with a person we would like to make it for.  We were also learning to do laid and couched work, which was the embroidery technique used on the Bayeux Tapestry.

I did the course because it was taught by Tanya Bentham.  We have been in touch for a couple of years via our blogs but we had not met, so I was in a bit of trepidation in case we did not get on.  But, Tanya turned out to be fantastic.  She is a very good and well-prepared teacher, and the workshop was an absolute bargain as we not only got the tuition but a generous supply of all the materials, and the frame, and the most delicious biscuits imaginable, including some raspberry macarons that will live long in the memory.  Plus she gave me a big bag of beads.  Fantastic.

Anyway, I decided against one of the bestiary animals as I was totally enchanted by a lovely unicorn jewel that Coates had made for his wife.  I made a sketch of it:


It was a very beautiful piece set with various precious stones.  I decided I wanted to do a unicorn because  I had done some work on the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in Paris for a scholarly piece of work.  Although unicorns now seem to be viewed as horses with a horn, I know from the Medieval Historian, that originally they were as much like goats as horses and often had beards and a lion’s tail, like the one in the following zentangle:


This is a technique in a second book on zentangling that I bought, in which you define an outline using the patterns and the  silhouette is a sort of negative space.  Here’s a detail:


I decided to combine the unicorn with my dog, Harry’s ludicrously fluffy tale.  Here’s the working sketch:


And here’s the shocking zentangle of a unicorn I did while waiting for my tutorial with Tanya:


My problem as with the first drawing is that the unicorn is white, and the wool fabric we were embroidering onto was also white.  I decided to do my couching in blue and also to have a blue tale and blue outline so that the white creature would stand out:


I  thought it gave a sort of fairytale or heraldic flavour to the piece, like the books of hours rather than the Bayeux Tapestry or Lutrell Psalter, which were our main inspirations:


It is a very rough piece of work and not up to Tanya’s standards but I really enjoyed doing it.  The outline is in split stitch, as is the beard, and all the wools are dyed with natural dyes and so are authentic.  I quite liked the discipline of a small colour range, and I forced myself not to add a bead or a gold thread, even though I was desperate to put some sparkle in his eye.  He is probably about four or five inches high.

I also enjoyed doing some sketches.  This one, which reflects my current interest in armour, is a rescue on a terrible drawing:



I found them quite compelling to draw:


And enjoyed working with the head as a design like the original inspiration:


I think a bit of watercolour wash really lifts these drawings.

So this was a fantastic workshop and I really learned a lot.  The technique is easy in theory, but it takes a lot of practice, I expect, to get to the point where you can do it as evenly and accurately as Tanya.  If you want to see how it should be done, check her website Opus Anglicanum

11 thoughts on “Learning Medieval Embroidery at the Ashmolean

    1. I have to say it was great when the other participants just assumed I was an artist when they saw my sketchbook, And someone had definitely been looking through it over lunch! But it is just practice.

  1. Oh, he’s lovely! I shall link to him on my blog next time I post, as long as you don’t mind? You seem to be the first to finish as well. (It’s making me feel a bit guilty that I haven’t yet got round to finishing the unicorn from the ark that I started a year ago)

    If you don’t want to go sparkly with his eye, what about the old artists trick of a tiny dot of white in the pupil to lift it?

  2. Lovely job on the unicorn. I was intrigued by all your sketches etc, have you ever read PC Hodgell’s fantasy series – they have carnivorous unicorns that slowly cover themselves in external bone armour – they are called rathorns and one takes up a role with the heroine about halfway thru the series.

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