Clothes · Projects

White Work Apron

A secret project for John Marshall.

The day I became an Apprentice, John Marshall, husband of Elizabet, my Laurel, received his Writ to join the Order of the Laurel for his excellence in historic food, including cheese making (Mmm Cheese).

To this, I volunteered to make the cook an apron trimmed with Laurel leaves for his elevation. Now, medieval aprons, especially of the earlier periods were not nearly as exciting as those today. Often they were scraps of rectangular linen tied at the waist. Some included straps that went around the neck to give some protection to the chest from the splattering of cooking oils.

White apron depicted in the Labors of the month, June from the Book of Hours of Agnes le Dieu, from Bourges France in the 16th century.

My first design was one that was very modern in pattern and shape.

Initial design sent to Elizabet for her thoughts

Ultimately, I chose to go with a simple long rectangle shape for the apron that was more historically accurate to those used in medieval Europe. It will have ties at the neck and waist to attach it to his person. As for the embroidery, we decided to go with a white on white embroidery so that he may wear it in stealth.

White Work

Over the past few years I have seen a hand full of fully white work Embroideries that have just taken my breath away. The first is a 14th century altar cloth from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

14th Century Altar Cloth in the Cleveland Museum of Art

Should you have an hour or two, I encourage you to get up close and personal with this piece. Zoom in on the stitches! There are a large variety of types including chain stitch and variations, interlaced herringbone, detached buttonhole, ladder stitch, even a brick stitch! The other interesting thing, is that the linen thread used as the stitching thread is not nearly so fine as the thread of the cloth. Indeed it is thick and bulky and creates a beautiful texture on the surface.

Detail of the 14th century altar cloth at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

But, this is not the only piece of its kind. There is another piece in the Victoria and Albert Museum that uses very similar stitches, technique and thread counts.

14th Century Embroidered lectern cover from Westphalia region of modern day Germany, Victoria and Albert Museum

This piece also uses chain stitch, variations on the same and detached button hole stitch as well as interlaced herringbone stitch in the decorative boarder patterns. Another example of a beautified textured white work design.

Detail of 14th Century Embroidered lectern cover from Westphalia region of modern day Germany, Victoria and Albert Museum

These pieces are just mesmerizing and incredibly inspiring.


For John Marshall’s apron I chose to embroider the laurel leaves in chain stitch and I made a small sample using thread from my stash:

Ultimately, while the silk thread was pretty and soft, I loved the way the linen thread was defined and raised on the fabric.

I then transferred the design to the apron cloth. I used L20 linen from Fabric-Store and my favorite water soluble marking pen to mark the design.

Then I began stitching. I stitched the laurel leaves using chain stitch.

I washed some of the water soluble ink out to see how the embroidery leaves looked without it.

And I stitched the little squirrel and utensils in stem stitch, as chain stitch just seemed to be “too much”.

The edges were hemmed, the apron was ironed, and it was packed away and sent off for added straps.

Then on the 24th day of September, after many days of waiting and an entire day of secrecy, it was unveiled and given to the East Kingdom’s Newest Laurel.

Learning and Thoughts

As you can see the apron brought much joy. Of course, aprons in medieval times were utilitarian and not decorated in white work like altar cloths. For this project, I largely used the materials I had on hand, but if I did another similar project I would use a finer ground linen and a thicker linen thread for the stitches to give them even more dimension and oomph.

I sincerely thank Dame Elizabet Marshall for asking me to work on this project. It was a JOY to work on, and the joy on John Marshall’s face when gifted his apron, was truly magical.


Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture — Aprons

Chain Stitch and links to other stitches in the chain stitch family — Textile Research Center

Detached buttonhole stitch — Textile Research Center

Historical Pieces featuring raised whitework:

14th Century Embroidered lectern cover from Westphalia region of modern day Germany, Victoria and Albert Museum

14th Century Altar Cloth in the Cleveland Museum of Art

Linen Altar Cloth from Altenberg, now in Stadel Museum

An article by Stefani Seeberg, Women as Makers of Church Decoration: Illustrated Textiles at the Monasteries of Altenberg/Lahn, Ruppertsberg, and Heiningen (13th-14th. C.) discusses and shows black and white photos of several extant pieces that I have been unable to find online.


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