OPUS ANGLICANUM: DRAGONS REVISITED!

One of the many books in my possession is a facsimile of an early 16th century pattern book, published by Lacis in 1999. A few years ago one of the patterns caught my imagination. Its a depiction of St Margaret of Antioch, a young Christian woman who refused to marry the man her father had chosen, and was fed to a dragon. Apparently the cross she was carrying irritated the dragon's stomach, and after three days it split open and she was freed unharmed (and apparently not even stained by the dragon's bodily fluids!)

The image reminded me of my parent's dog, Benji, who was part Basset hound, and very fond of lying on his back with his legs waving. So I amused myself one holiday stitching a version of the image where Margaret was holding a bone, and the dragon was slavering for it! He has a lead around his neck, and his tail is wagging, or at least, I tried to show his tail wagging. The embroidery came out fairly well, and was a lot of fun, although I knew I hadn't got the saint's face right - not enough colour contrast. It's stitched in long-and-short stitch, mostly. It lives in the loo at home, along with several other smaller pieces I have stitched over the years. I call it "Good Boy, Benji!"

Late last year I was booked to do a couple of lectures during 2017 about Opus Anglicanum, the 13th/14th century style of English embroidery that was so important all over Europe. It was a new lecture for me, but a style of work I have been interested in for years. I made it to the (fantastic!) Exhibition at the V and A and spent a happy morning with my nose pressed to the glass of the cases, trying to see details of the stitching.

One thing that I felt would be important for the lecture was to have something the listeners could see, possibly handle, to show them what Opus Anglicanum was, perhaps better than images on the screen. So I decided to make a piece of OA-style embroidery, a sampler if you like, using the standard stitches that were so much a part of that style, Split Stitch, and Underside Couching. I decided to revisit Saint Margaret: she was featured in quite a lot of Opus Anglicanum work, as she was a popular saint in England during that period. The book of the V&A exhibition shows several different depictions of her, bursting out of an entertaining variety of dragons.

I started the embroidery before I got the V&A book, as I wasn't sure how long it would take, so I decided to use the 16th century image again, but more correctly this time! It's stitched on linen, using my favourite Silk Mill threads, split in half. I got some No 2 Passing thread from Benton and Johnson for the underside couching, and also used the No 2 Silver I had left over from the Cook Waistcoat. I wanted to include some Or Nue work as well, so I decided to use that for the halo, and the saint's name. Silver Nue, rather that 'Or': or I suppose that should be Argent Nue.

I've been working on it on and off since November, and today I finished all the split stitch silk work! It has taken 85 hours so far, with most of the underside couching still to complete, plus a little surface couching for the dragon's claws and teeth, and St Margaret's cross. When I started out, I marked out chevrons for the pattern of the underside couching, but I realised early on that there was a reason the medieval embroiderers often followed the weave in their couching work. It's much easier to do if you are working through the holes in the fabric! So I gave up on the markings and counted threads in the weave. That meant I had to unpick where I had started and start again in the centre of the embroidery, so the two sides would match. Ah, well.....

I'm rather pleased with it, I must admit. The face is much better this time, for a start. The dragon looks suitably dead, but it was interesting what a difference putting the pupil of the eye in made. I left that till quite late so I could use the same dark colour as the outlines of the face. With a pupil, suddenly he looks much more real!

Now I need to get him finished and framed. I didn't get him done for the first lecture a few weeks ago, but it some ways that was better because I could show people the stitching methods. But it will be finished for the next one. It's been a lot of fun trying out a newish technique, for myself at least. Now I'm looking for more excuses for OA stitching..........

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