If you love fast techniques for creating designs on fabric, appliqué has to be one of the best options. At its most simple, appliqué is the layering of one fabric on top of another to create a design. Today you can make appliqué ridiculously fast using fusible backing and machine embroidery on top, but for me, antique that I am, that is kind of cheating. Hand-worked appliqué is as meditative as embroidery and the effects can be equally stunning. In times past, appliqué was much faster (and therefore cheaper) than embroidery or weaving so was used to create hangings and decorative textiles to imitate more expensive tapestry. Appliqué is most commonly used in combination with embroidery or stitching, with the appliqué layers creating a bold decoration and stitch creating the detail.
In this first post I’ll be looking at some examples of early Western-European appliqué.
This rare wool appliqué panel depicts the legend of Tristan. The fabrics appear to be the fine, fulled (or felted) wool which was commonly used for clothing, and the motifs are edged with gilded leather.
Later in the 15th century, it became common to embroider motifs onto evenweave linen, then cut the small pieces out and appliqué them onto expensive silks and velvets for altarcloths and church vestments. Once velvets and decorated silk became available, it was cheaper to produce appliqué than all-over embroidery. This also allowed the lovely velvets and patterned silk damask fabrics to show.
Detail of fragment of altar cloth showing slips applied to velvet background. The couple shown are the donors, who paid for the altar cloth to be made.
By the 16th century, the technique was used to create bed hangings and cushions. The embroidered motifs were known as slips. Before this time, interior textiles were not heavily-decorated and embroidery was generally reserved for church textiles. In the 16th century, the fashion for appliquéd decoration really took off and the homes of the wealthy must have been stunning.
Cushion from around 1600, brown velvet decorated with embroidered slips.
Some of the finest early appliqué work is on display at the National Trust house Hardwick Hall; huge narrative panels made by (or under the instruction of) Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury in the 16th century. These huge-scale appliqué hangings are highly unusual, but may well have been more common in their time. Bess was a collector of fine textiles, including embroidery and decommissioned church vestments, altar cloths and other fabrics deemed unsuitable for the more austere Protestant church, following the Reformation. It appears that she followed a long tradition of recycling of scraps of expensive and luxurious textiles, many vestments were made of vaguely-matching, oddly-shaped pieces put together. She took it a stage further and used large pieces of now-unwanted church textiles to create her own domestic textiles, using these luxurious silks and velvets in ways they had never been used before. Read more about Hardwick’s collections here, and if you can get hold of it, read this beautiful book about the many textile treasures at Hardwick.
There is a fascinating blog by National Trust textile conservators about these hangings which describes some of the techniques, materials and construction in detail.
In next month’s post I’ll be looking at appliqué in dress decoration and in modern embroidery.
Late edit: The Penelope hanging has just left the conservation studio and is looking magnificent! I can’t wait to go and see it again.
She also writes books on textiles and sewing and teaches in her own studio as well as freelance.