Some time ago I finally got the book that accompanied the V&A Opus Anglicanum exhibition which I was lucky enough to visit in 2016. I’ve been dipping into it off and on (it’s not really a book you read from cover to cover in one sitting!) and last night I got to the final exhibit, the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers’ Pall. This is a beautifully embroidered coffin cover which was used at Guild members’ funerals. It features several depictions of St Peter, who was their patron saint, and of their coat of arms which is supported by an armour-clad merman and a mermaid holding a mirror. I’m afraid for reasons of copyright I can’t post pictures here, but you can see the pall and several other pieces in this V&A article. Have a particular look at the mermaid.
The Opus Anglicanum book shows her in a full-page close-up, which shows some wonderful details. For example, the mirror she is holding shows her reflection – how is that for attention to detail! But what really drew and held my attention was her hair. Let me post a close-up of a small segment of it, which I think is allowable for illustrative purposes:
Can you see how the hair is stitched? I can’t be be absolutely sure just from the picture, but it looks to me as though the embroiderer worked a background of yellow silk (probably in split stitch, as that is the stitch most commonly used in Opus Anglicanum) and then couched gold threads on top in wavy curls. The result is wonderfully effective and 3D and tactile!
I was reading this and studying the picture at about 10.30pm, so setting up a bit of a doodle cloth and having a play was not really practical, although I was sorely tempted. And today unfortunately Bruce the kangaroo’s felt-padded leg took priority, and tomorrow her tail needs doing in time for Saturday’s class. But I definitely want to have a go at stitching hair like that, and for a very particular reason: Mechthild.
Remember Mechthild? She is going to be (when I get round to her…) the royal companion to Ethelnute the medieval king. She also has long flowing locks with just the sort of wave that the mermaid’s hair has.
There are a few things to consider. Challenges, possibly even snags. The least of which is the fact that Mechthild is a brunette, and gold couching is going to show up to rather more startling effect than I really intend. Nowadays some goldwork threads come in many colours, but I don’t think smooth passing (which is the obvious choice of thread for this) does; and even if it did, it would not be in keeping with the period at all. Silver would, and copper possibly, but neither would really solve the problem. She may just have to have a peroxide bleach. More problematic, however, is her size.
Working from a picture taken at an angle and some not very helpful measurements, my best guess is that the mermaid is at least 15cm from the top of her head to the bottom of her tummy (where her tail begins), and that her head (top to chin) is about 6cm. Mechthild is about 7cm high from crown to bosom, and 3cm from the top of her head to her chin. It would take some very fine passing to create the same effect.
And you know what? About a week ago I just happened to order some fine passing from America, among which there is a lovely rose gold, and which according to Royal Mail’s tracking information is at the moment in Langley (near Slough, my husband informs me). Once I’ve got Bruce’s padding out of the way, I feel a bit of goldwork hairdressing coming up!