This article first appeared in the WCoB Newsletter for 12th Night 2001. It was written by Mistress Bess Haddon of York, our Guildmaster at the time.
This article aims to present the information you will need if you want to enter competitions for the Worshipful Company of Embroiderers, or if you want to submit your embroidery to be ranked. It also aims to provide you with some tips to get you a higher score or ranking, and to give you the inside story on what the judges are looking for.
Firstly, competitions and ranking are quite similar, but not exactly the same in terms of what you are required to produce. Firstly, you do not have to submit a finished piece for a competition, but can submit a work in progress (although the amount of work you have done will affect your score) and you do not have to submit documentation with your competition entry (but again, you will not score as highly if you don’t document your piece). For ranking, on the other hand, you will have to submit a finished piece, accompanied by documentation. The reason for the difference is that for ranking you are required to demonstrate that you have mastered that particular style or technique and that you know the historical background for it. The ranking system is also based on the period practices of medieval guilds, and is designed to help move embroiderers to a more professional level, where they would be producing work for sale. The competitions are designed more for members to have fun producing embroidery, and to display their work so that they can get feedback on it.
In both the competitions and the ranking, the judges and masters of the Company will be looking for similar things – pieces of embroidery in medieval style and technique. The ideal piece of embroidery would be one which is closely based on period examples, but is not necessarily a copy – indeed the piece that would score highest is one that is an original design on period lines, or something that ‘could have been.’
To achieve this sort of piece, it is vitally important that you think about the design before you start the embroidery. Backwards documentation, where you try to show how something you have already made is like something made in period, is unlikely to be very successful. It is much easier to think about the issues at the time you are designing the piece.
Here are some questions you might find useful to ask yourself when you are planning your embroidery:
What is it for?
Embroidery in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was nearly always for a purpose (although sometimes we no longer know what the original purpose was). The idea of doing embroidery just to make a picture that you might frame and put on the wall is pretty much a modern one. Period embroidery was designed to be used – on costume, on bedding or household linens, for wall hangings, for religious purposes, for heraldic decoration etc. In such cases the purpose of the embroidery would have a major impact on the sort of embroidery that was done. For example, what materials were used, what the scale was, what the stitches were, how much it is necessary to worry about the back of the embroidery etc. could all be determined by what the piece was to be used for.
Are the materials appropriate for the style of embroidery?
Different sorts of threads and ground fabrics are used for different styles of embroidery in the Middle Ages. To produce a piece of period style embroidery, you will need to get the materials right. For example, it would not be appropriate to do a Bayeux Tapestry style of embroidery on a velvet background, or apply Elizabeth slips to plain linen. To get an understanding of the materials that were used in the style of work that you would like to do, it is best to look at as many period examples as you can. This will also help you to get a feel for the styles of different types of embroidery. You may sometimes need to make substitutions for materials on the basis of availability and expense, but if you keep in mind the need for the substitute to look as close to the original as possible, you will still be able to produce a piece which is close to a period look and feel.
Is the design appropriate for the style of embroidery?
It is particularly important to keep this question in mind when you are embroidering clothing. Blackwork is a period style of embroidery, but it is only appropriate for sixteenth century costume, and will look out of place on a 12th century garment. Similarly, there are many religious motifs in period embroideries, but almost all of these will appear on religious items. A crucifixion scene in beadwork may be period, but it would be inappropriate (not to mention tasteless) on the front of a bodice.
Are the techniques appropriate for the style of embroidery?
A period design will not look right if the stitches are not the ones that were used for that style of embroidery. I have a book at home which shows scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry rendered in counted-thread coloured cross-stitch. It’s worth keeping for amusement value, but it wouldn’t score highly in a WCOB competition!
Categories for judging
The WCOB competition form outlines the categories for which your embroidery will be judged. They are:
If no documentation is present, the work must score zero in this category. The documentation should provide the sources (books, original pieces, etc.) on which the piece was based, and may also provide a discussion of them. The documentation should also provide information on the date and place for the work (e.g. Elizabethan England), and on the materials used, including any substitutions made and the reasons for them (e.g. “I have used DMC cotton rather than the more period silk, because it was cheaper”).
Use of Sources
These points are for the way in which the embroiderer has used the period pieces and documentation in making the piece. If there is no documentation, this will need to rely on the knowledge that the judges have of this particular style. This category will cover the level of “authenticity” of the piece and points will be awarded for creative uses of sources in a period style.
These points will be awarded for the execution of the embroidery – i.e. how well the embroidery is done. The assessment of technique will depend on the style of the piece, and will include a judgement of how appropriate the technique is.
Use of Materials
These points will be given for the appropriate choice of materials for the style and purpose of the piece. This section will also take into account appropriateness of colour, weight of thread and type of ground fabric, both as they relate to period examples and to the overall style and consistency of the project.
This category enables the judges to award points for style Judges should also award more points to pieces which have a purpose, and which are finished, or include a substantial amount of work (especially with larger projects).
A similar range of considerations apply to ranking, although your work will not be awarded points, and the size and scope of your project will also be taken into account. For more information on how the ranking system works, see the Company’s ordinances.