12 Little Needle Cases

June: Free Embroidery or My Opus Anglicanum

This needlework piece is part of my ongoing exploration of different medieval embroidery styles. A full explanation of the project can be found here.

Free embroidery is often thought of as that type of embroidery that doesn’t fit into any of the other categories. The one that comes to my mind first and foremost is Opus Anglicanum (Latin for English Work). This type of embroidery was made in England in the 12th to mid 14th centuries. It is a style of embroidery done using several different stitches but always includes tiny split stitches and often goldwork accents.

For our exemplar piece I was immediately struck by the Butler-Bowden Cope. It is a piece that we have great descriptions and information about, but also amazing pictures.

The Butler-Bowden Cope (before restoration)

The piece was made in the early 1300s in England on Italian red velvet. It is made up of three rows of figures with vine trellises that form architectural elements. The composition is beautiful, but it has nothing on the quality of the needlework. Thousands of tiny stitches in silk undulate across the surface giving the figures an amazing three dimensional and life like effect.

Like most medieval textiles, this cope underwent a chop at some point in its lifetime. The pieces were cut into smaller parts and remade into a set of vestments. It was then put back together with a backing of red velvet at some point in its lifetime. Some pieces do not survive to present and have been replaced by painted paper drawings approximating what the missing pieces would have looked like. This piece is very similar to a Chasuble in the Met which uses the same techniques.

I put together this composite image of photos of the same portion of embroidery on the website. It appears that the piece has underwent further restoration including the replacement of missing silks, silver gilt threads, and pearls giving a good idea of what the piece might have looked like in its youth. Though, I can find no information online about this restoration. A panorama of the work is available here.

A composite image made up of images from the Victoria and Albert Museum of this piece. More photos available here: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O93441/cope-unknown/butler-bowdon-cope-cope-unknown/

Regardless of the restoration, through study of this piece we can learn copious amounts from the extant stitches. The Victoria and Albert Museum describes the needlework thusly:

The body of the cope is made of red silk velvet embroidered with gold, silver and silk thread, pearls, beads and small metal rings. The needlework is stitched through the velvet ground, not worked separately and then applied. Before working, the surface of the velvet was overlaid with thin fabric which shows through where the embroidery has worn away. The stitches used are underside couching (for most of the metal threads), surface couching (on the Infant Christ’s gold robe in the central scene and the drapery of the lectern in the Annunciation group) and for tying down laid silk, split stitch (for silk embroidery), French knots and satin stitch. The draperies, in gold with silk borders and linings, have the folds marked by narrow bands of gold laid in contrary direction to the rest of the surface. Features of the faces are outlined in black silk and cheeks are stitched in loop-shaped spirals, slightly indented at the centre. Many accessories such as crowns and caskets show a surface of loosely-stitched white silk, the preparatory ground work for pearl fillings (the pearls are now missing in most cases).

Victoria and Albert Museum, Butler Boden Cope

The very idea of embroidering on velvet is terrifying. However, if the analysis proposed by the V&A is correct, the medieval stitches understood that embroidering directly on the velvet was simply not going to be a good idea, and thus covered the ground with a thin (probably silk or linen) fabric where the outlines of the figures would have been drawn. Thus, the impossible task of covering every hairy pile of velvet, made easier. Later, pieces would be stitched directly onto the fabric and then applied to the velvet through applique techniques.

Therefore, I think one of the hardest parts of this project will be cutting away this fabric to reveal the velvet beneath. I shall sharpen my finest scissors for this endeavor!


For this project we will need the following:

  • Velvet in red or burgundy (small scrap)
  • Thin linen
  • Silks in various colors including flesh tones, hair colors, white, black, and blue for accent
  • Gold passing thread for underside couching work and gold silk thread to do the passing
  • Optional white glass seed beads for a pearly crown.

The Pattern

Of all the pretty ladies on this cope I chose Saint Catherine of Alexandria to for my pattern. (She is my mundane namesake after all). I love the way her hair curls over her shoulder. She also has a halo and crown which will allow for some excellent experimentation in goldwork!

To make my pattern I printed out a photo of Saint Catherine and traced the outline. I then scanned it into microsoft paint and worked some magic to turn her into this:

A line drawing of Saint Catherine from the Butler Bowdon Cope

Now, if you want to make a 2 by 3 inch needle case, you can print out the pattern below and print her out. She should print at the correct size.

Now, if you don’t want to include her wheel, it would be easy to cut out. You could easily make her clothing out of silk threads rather than gold underside couching.


Split Stitch

Split stitch is similar to an outline stitch, but when your stitch comes up from below, you split the fiber of the stitch worked previously. This stitch is very textured and with silk creates a lustrous and solid finish. When stitching Opus work its very important to work with the curves of your figure. By stitching around the contours of the face and hair, you can create a three dimensional effect with only one color.

Underside Couching

The gold work on Catherine is created by using an underside couching technique. For this technique, you couch down the gold thread, but instead of just going up and over the gold as you normally would with couching, you pull the gold to the backside of the work. This technique was used on Opus work during this period to add gold to the piece while preserving flexibility of the fabric. It creates a dimensional and lustrous gold finish that is a site to behold. In this later period example of underside couching, areas of drapery are sectioned and couched in chevron shapes or brick stitch patterns to give further dimension to the fabric folds.

This technique can be seen in greater detail in the closeup photos of the Chausuble at the Met.


The crowns on opus pieces are often made using surface couching, but on this piece, they are decorated instead with little pearls.

I sincerely hope you join me this month in creating this needle case. I think it will be the most beautiful one yet.


For more information I direct you first toward Amalia Von Hohensee terrific YouTube class on the subject here.

Historic Needlework Resources Stitch Diagrams

Victoria and Albert Museum Panorama of the Butler Bowdon Cope

Victoria and Albert Museum Catalog Entry for the Butler Bowdon Cope

Textile Research Center Butler Bowdon Cope

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Chausuble 1330-50


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3 thoughts on “June: Free Embroidery or My Opus Anglicanum

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