Anglo-Saxon embroidery

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The first mention of embroidery in Anglo-Saxon England refers to St. Etheldreda, abbess of Ely (died in 679), to St Cuthbert Maniple and Stole. This set of vestments were made in the style known as Opus Anglicanum.

We do have, however, examples from the 9th and 10th Centuries. These include the Maaseik Embroidery, a ninth century vestment associated with Sts. Harlinde and Renlindis and a maniple, stole and girdle from the grave of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathederal (dated by inscription to between 909-916).

There are many references to embroidery in literature and also to those who produced it. In the 10th C, there is reference to St. Dunstan working on designs for Queen Aedgytha, wife of Edward the Confessor. There is also Queen Margaret of Scotland, wife of Malcolm III, who decorated copes, chasubles, stoles and altar cloths.

Gifts of textiles to the Church formed an important part of late Anglo-Saxon society. Vestments, made up of many marks worth of gold, were given to various religious communities during this period. These vestments often the most valuable items in the treasuries of the communities.

Because of the intrinsic worth of these items (a cope and two chasubles burnt in the 14th century recoverd over two hundred and fifty pounds worth of gold), many were destroyed to recover the gold. This explains why so few of these items survive, despite their acknowledged beauty.

Materials Used

Stitches and Techniques


Anglo-Saxon designs in embroidery reflected design in other mediums such as carving and illumination. There was extensive use of interlaced patterns, figural and animal designs as well as architecturally inspired structure within the needlework design.

As would be expected, ecclesiastical embroideries drew heavily from Biblical and religious themes for depictions on vestements and other church decorations.

Extant Pieces


Sources for Further Information

  • Bridgeman, Harriet and Elizabeth Drury, eds. Needlework: an illustrated history, New York: Paddington Press (1978). ISBN 0448220660
  • Budny, Mildred and Dominic Tweddle. "The Maaseik Embroideries," in Anglo-Saxon England vol. 13, ed. Peter Clemoes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 65-97. ISBN 0521038359
  • Crowfoot, Elisabeth. "Textile fragments from relic boxes in Anglo-Saxon graves," in Textiles in Northern Archaeology, pp. 47-56. London: Archetype Publications, 1990. ISBN 1873132050
  • Morris, Barbara J. The History of English Embroidery. His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1951.
  • Stevens, Helen M. "Maaseik Reconstructed: A Practical Investigation and Interpretation of Eighth-Century Embroidery Techniques," in Textiles in Northern Archaeology, pp. 57-60. London: Archetype Publications, 1990. ISBN 1873132050
  • Wardle, Patricia. Guide to English Embroidery. Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1970. ISBN 0112900305