An unsuccessful attempt at alchemy

Earlier this month I wrote about historian Ruth Goodman making gold thread in Secrets of the Castle, and how it inspired me to have a go, using gold leaf (which I have in stock) instead of gold foil (which I haven’t), even though it is much thinner and can’t ordinarily be picked up to be cut into strips. Well, the time has come to reveal whether Ethelnute, my medieval king, will have his gold collar enhanced with home-made gold passing thread!

No.

Oh all right then, I’ll give you the longer version. The first thing was to choose my materials. I have both gold and silver leaf at my disposal, but the original project made gold thread and moreover only my gold leaf comes on a tissue paper backing – the silver leaf is just that: very very thin silver that flutters at the slightest breath. No need to make things unnecessarily complicated for myself, so the choice for gold leaf was quickly made. Because of the tissue backing, you can cut this with scissors, and the pictures shows a thin strip cut ready for applying to a silk core.

Gold leaf on backing paper, with one strip cut

For that silk core I chose Kreinik’s yellow silk couching thread. It is a good idea to have a core that is similar in colour to the metal surrounding it for the same reason that it is a good idea to use padding felt of a similar colour when doing chipwork: if there are any inadvertent gaps, they won’t show up so badly!

Golden yellow silk couching thread

Now to detach the gold from its tissue paper and attach it to the silk thread. The first part turned out to be much easier than the second… I tried rolling it as shown in the documentary; it clung only to my fingers. I tried wrapping it around the core; this produced the same result as for Ruth and Eve Goodman – untidy tinsel.

Silk thread and gold leaf, detaching itself from the paper

I had one trick left: heavy breathing. When applying gold leaf in calligraphy, on illuminated initials etc. you first apply a ground, both to provide something for the gold to stick to and to give it lift – like felt padding for gold leaf. Traditionally this is done with gesso but very good results can be obtained with common white PVC glue. The point is that the ground is allowed to dry completely, going non-sticky (this bit is rather counter-intuitive). You then huff on it to make it slightly sticky again with the condensing moisture from your breath. Now I wasn’t going to coat my silk in PVC glue (although by this time I was sorely tempted) but I had a vague hope that even without a coating my breath might produce just that little bit of moisture that would coax the gold leaf off its backing and onto the silk, and that once it was on the silk it would stay there. So I huffed and I puffed and it didn’t.

By the end of the experiment the gold leaf had attached itself to my fingers, to the dining table, and (in a much smaller proportion and rather untidily) to the silk thread. It soon became clear that the attachment was much more successful in the first two cases than in the last one – whereas the fingers took quite some scrubbing, and the table needed a judicially applied fingernail to dislodge every last bit of 23-and-a-half carat glitter (there is still some left several days after the event), the gold precariously clinging to the silk thread needed a mere puff of breath to fall off (and attach itself much more firmly to the table).

Gold leaf on table, finger and thread

So was it a wasted afternoon? A needless squandering of time and precious metal? No, I don’t think so. For one thing, I tried, and so now I know for a fact that gold leaf is too thin for making gold thread. For another, it was rather fun to try! It used about 1/16 of one sheet of gold leaf from a 25-sheet pack which I bought well over two decades ago for 80 guilders (less than £30); a considerable expense back then, but given that I still have about half of it left after all that time, using some of it for an enjoyable learning experience seems a sound plan. And finally, think of the strain on my self-control if, having seen the documentary and having these materials in the house, I hadn’t tried – I’m sure it was much better for my health and happiness to allow myself this indulgence smiley.

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