A few days ago a fellow member of Mary Corbet’s Facebook group posted a link to the documentary Secrets of the Castle, in which historian Ruth Goodman attempts to make goldwork thread (having dyed her own silk threads earlier in the programme) for a small Opus Anglicanum project.
And this was proper gold thread! None of your .5% or even 2%, this is the stuff of Exodus 39: “They hammered out thin sheets of gold and cut strands to be worked into the blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen – the work of skilled hands”. True, Ruth and her daughter Eve did not do the actual hammering; they wisely started with gold foil that someone else had prepared earlier. But in the clip (the link above will take you to the start of the embroidery segment) you can see them do the cutting and “working into”. What I found fascinating was that what seemed the most obvious method (wrapping the gold around a silk core) actually produced an expensive and unusable bit of untidy tinsel; what was needed was to gently roll the thread across the gold strips, a bit, I suppose, like rolling a cigar.
That made me think. Ruth Goodman pointed out that the foil they were working with (which was apparently originally made by flattening gold coins between sheets of leather) was thicker than your usual gold leaf – but apart from that it’s the same thing. And I have some gold (and silver) leaf left over from the days when I did calligraphy and illuminated initials. And plenty of silk threads to use for the core.
Now gold leaf is incredibly fragile and very difficult to handle; at the slightest provocation (or none at all) it will stick to your fingers and disintegrate into a fine gold dust covering your finger tips and anything else it touches. Cutting it with a knife as shown in the clip would normally be out of the question, but fortunately I had the foresight to buy my gold leaf attached to backing paper, which means that you can actually cut it with scissors. Unfortunately it is taken off its backing by pressing it, together with its backing, on to the slightly sticky ground that you first apply to your paper (or vellum or parchment if your budget runs to it) – and there is no stickiness applied to the silk core. Even so, wouldn’t you agree that it’s impossible not to try, now that I’ve seen this documentary ? Watch this space!