Focus on… goldwork

01 October 2020
Queen-Bee-goldwork-design 'Queen Bee' by Hattie McGill from Stitch issue 126.
Learn about the goldwork, a stunning embroidery technique, as we explore its history, the method of goldwork and the variety of materials and their beautiful finishes. 

What is goldwork?

Goldwork is an ancient form of embroidery that uses metal threads and dates back thousands of years. As the name suggests, there’s often an element of gold present, although this can be imitation gold. In fact, goldwork threads have never been entirely gold and instead have been gold-coated silver. You can also get metal threads made from copper and silver without the coating and, in more recent times, available in a range of colours. 

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History of goldwork

Goldwork embroidery originated in Asia at least 2000 years ago. First used to embellish Chinese emperor robes, it moved to Japan and spread across Southeast Asia, becoming somewhat less extravagant and instead worked as folk embroidery on silk or cotton. 

Goldwork’s popularity began to spread westward, through the Middle East to North Africa, then up through Western Europe. Its arrival in Europe transformed the use of goldwork from on decorative clothing back to more extravagant workings, particularly for ecclesiastical embroidery. 

In the Middle Ages, a particularly fine style of goldwork known as Opus Anglicanim was developed in England by extremely skilled goldworkers and used extensively in church vestments and hangings. From this period onwards, goldwork embroidery adorned much of the clothing and furnishing of European nobility and royalty, as well as military clothing in later times. 

'Let It Snow' by Maggie Gee from Stitch issue 121

'Let It Snow' by Maggie Gee from Stitch issue 121.

Modern goldwork

In modern times, goldwork embroidery is considered a highly skilled technique in hand embroidery and more commonly used either within high fashion or as decorative art. While considered a traditional technique, it can be utilised to create some truly gorgeous contemporary designs, as you can see!

Mesmerised by the beauty of embroidery? Stitch magazine is for you – packed with exquisite, step-by-step projects covering a wide variety of techniques, not to mention expert features and the latest news from the world of stitching!

'Forever Frosty' by Ilke Cochrane from Stitch issue 127

'Forever Frosty' by Ilke Cochrane from Stitch issue 127.

The method of goldwork

An unusual method of working embroidery, goldwork is always worked on the surface, meaning the vast majority is worked as laid work or couching, whereby goldwork threads are held to the surface of the fabric by a much finer cotton or silk thread. 

Unlike other traditional methods such as blackwork and hardanger, goldwork does not involve counted stitches, which makes it a form of free embroidery. The goldwork threads are generally finished by either simply cutting the ends off once couched down, or pulled through to the back of the embroidered piece and secured carefully with the fine couching thread mentioned above. 

Goldwork tools

There are several tools that can help with this placement – a more traditional one being a mellore or stiletto, a sharp instrument to help widen holes in fabric to better pass a metal thread through to the back of the embroidery. 

Many goldworkers recommend using a pair of tweezers or sharp pair of scissors (or the best of both worlds: squissors!) to help position threads as you couch them down to create sharp bends in the piece of work. 

It’s important to note the delicacy of goldwork threads however, thus for softer bends or if you’re unsure on the hardiness of the threads you are using, it’s safer to shape wires with your fingers.

'A Tropical Touch' by Sara Rickards from Stitch issue 118

'A Tropical Touch' by Sara Rickards from Stitch issue 118.

Goldwork threads

Goldwork threads come in all different shapes, sizes and textures, with each type having a very specific function in creating a particular pattern when stitched down.

Bullion/Purl Structured like a tightly coiled spring, this wire is designed to be stretched slightly, creating spaces to couch it down and keeping the couching thread virtually undetectable. 
Check purl/Frieze: Similar in structure to pearl purl and bullion threads, check is shaped slightly different to produce a sparkling, faceted look. 

Japan thread  A cheaper version of passing, it looks virtually identical but is made up of a silk or cotton core with a strip of foil paper instead of metal around the outside. 
Milliary wide: This is a stretched pearl purl that has been laced to a base created from passing thread. 

Passing  A very basic and commonly used goldwork thread, it is made up of a cotton or silk core that is encased in a thin strip of metal, generally a yellow metal, although it can be white as well. This thread is attached using couching that is pulled through to the back of the fabric to secure it. 

Pearl purl/Jaceron – Similar to bullion, this piece of metal is much wider and has been shaped prior to finishing. This more rounded thread looks like a string of pearly beads when couched down. 

Roccoco  This thread has a cotton core with wire tightly wrapped around the outside and has a kinked, wavy appearance. 

Spangles/Paillettes  These are sequins of real metal that are stitched down like beads as embellishments and to create texture. 

Twists/Torsade  These threads are made up of multiple strands of metal twisted together, often using different coloured and non-coloured threads. These threads can either be couched with the couching thread visible or angled within the twists to render it invisible.

Next, explore another embroidery technique steeped in history with our focus on traditional kantha!

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