Detours in Button Hole Stitch

A journey to determine what is Needle Looping?

On the way back from a big event I brainstormed some projects I wanted to work on. After finishing a LONG counted project, I very much want to explore something less counted. Buttonhole is the first stitch I learned in the SCA, and the first one I fell head over heals in love with, so it seems to be a good place to begin. And it also shows up in a myriad of strange places, like this white work piece I am obsessed with in Cleveland.

Often, when I am bored, I will just click through the museum collections and explore what they have, and I made my way to this piece, from 1300s china (contemporaneous with the white work piece above).

Fragment of Lotus Flower surrounded by Leaves, 1300s Cleveland Museum of Art

The description includes “Embroidery and Needlelooping”. What is needlelooping? I have to know! I took to google, and discovered Chinese knot stitch, which is lovely and creates little loops (in a kind of reverse French knot) that was popular in medieval Chinese embroideries, but it is different from this one. This stitch is often confused with a Pekinese stitch, which also uses loops, which go through a back stitch. Piecework magazine did an excellent piece teaching both of these stitches.

Vase Embroidery, Chinese, Aukland Museum via Wikipedia creative Commons

I could not find anything about this “needlelooping” but I did discover that a sister piece to this one in Cleveland was in a bigger embroidery textile show in 1993.

Phoenix and Tree Peony, 1300s Cleveland Museum of Art

Sadly, this picture is dark and difficult to see. The Met has a copy of the exhibition book online, When Silk Was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles, which I downloaded for free and took to reading. I highly recommend this book to any medieval enthusiast as it describes complex textile techniques that pre-date similar techniques in Europe including complex demask textiles.

No. 56 is the Pheonix and Tree Peony from the CMA. The Technical Analysis describes the stitches as “Detached looping, S slant of closure, buttonhole, open chain and knot.”. Sadly this picture was not detailed enough for me to get a better idea. However, another piece from the Met called Peonies and Butterfly, (no. 54 in the exhibition catalogue) included higher definition photos:

Panel with Peonies and Butterfly, 1300s China, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The commentary on this piece noted the stitches were “Detached looping, s slant of closure, buttonhole, open chain, knot, and running (connecting the knots on the body of the butterfly).” It goes on to say, “The Needleloop embroidery is composed of rows of detached buttonhole stitches worked over gilded paper. The tiny holes that form the diaper patterns were created by skipping stitches. Along the contours and details of the design, open chain stitches are worked over strips of gilded paper. The first row of detached loops along one side of the open chain stitches incorporates gold thread. Rows of loops overlap where one portion of the design borders another.” (pg 184). Images of this piece are in the public domain so we can zoom in and magnify these stitches:

Close up of Panel with Peonies and Butterfly, 1300s China, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By looking closely, we can see how the artist used rows of button hole stitches to create gradients on the Peony flowers. They also skipped stitches in order to create a lacy open work structure. Behind each “leaf” of the Peony flower is a gilded paper which shines through the openwork holes.

The stems of the Peonies are made using an open chain stitch worked over more gilded paper.

The Met piece is in remarkably good condition, which is wonderful, but by looking at the less well preserved piece at Cleveland we can see more about how the piece was made:

Close up of Fragment of Lotus Flower surrounded by Leaves, 1300s Cleveland Museum of Art

By looking closely we can see that the edges of the leaves of the Lotus flower were made by covering a much thicker silk cord and working outward from there toward the center. This thicker silk cord, was covered in a gilded paper, which has been picked away (and explains the damage to this piece).

However, one of the other cleveland pieces has sticks poking out from its edges:

Nothing “stick like” is listed on the website as a possible material, therefore I can only guess what these are. The coloring of the white ones, makes me think of some kind of quill or feather, but the darker ones look to be very thin reed. Its likely the darker ones are simply colored versions of the lighter ones. If you have any ideas, please let me know.

Connecting Silk near and Far

I find it difficult to believe that such a difficult and elaborate technique grew simultaneously in both China and Europe. This points to an intersection of either artisan or end product.

We know there existed an expansive trade network via the silk road that connected China and Europe in the 1300s. Many of the pieces which survive in this technique in style from China have links to Buddhism. A recent lecture I watched on textiles of the silk road, noted that Buddhist temples along the silk road, despite being provincial and financially struggling, often had highly decorated silks in their temples.

These “needle looped” pieces only appear to have been produced in China for about 100 years. It is unclear based on the scholarship available to me, why they discontinued this practice. Possible reasons include patrons wishing for more painterly silk shading of satin stitch which was also popular during this period. Additionally, while the needle looped pieces absolutely intrigue me, they are less life like, and much more fragile than satin stitch embroidery. Costs of materials, lack of interest in learning the technique by artisans, and other factors may have influenced the change. The Cleveland/Met exhibition on the subject has one piece from the early 1600s which they say uses a detached needle looping technique, however the images available are not clear enough to confirm that it is the same stitch. It is certainly possible that more pieces using this stitch were made throughout the period but suffered an iconoclasm similar to embroideries in England during the reformation.

A further exploration into the political and socio-economic changes in China during this time would add further research to this discussion.

When I started this journey, I started with a 1300s white work piece made of linen on line. The Chinese piece is silk on silk, and indeed is much more similar to pieces made in Europe in the late 1500s such as this pillow cover in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a close up shown below:

The colored shading on the leaf, transitioning from gold to dark green, is very similar to the work of the Peonies and Lotus flowers found in the Chinese pieces. Notably, this leaf is done using a corded buttonhole rather than the simple buttonhole of the Chinese pieces.

Buttonhole stitch also shows up in a myriad of other places in Europe in the 1500s such as Italian needle lace.

There are further connections between European and Chinese pieces in the catalogue. Including one of my other favorite stitches, interlaced herringbone:

My research on the history of the interlaced herringbone had pointed me to modern practices in India, however I think the Pillow Cover above, points to an origin in China.

Another piece, the last one in the Exhibition catalogue, pulled on my German brick stitch loving heart strings. (Please remember that the Swastica had a different meaning in 1400s China than it did in 1940s Germany).

While this is not quite German brick stitch as we know it, it is very very close. And, certainly captures the idea of German Brick Stitch in both the contrasting bright colors and geometric shapes.

Where to Next?

This deep dive and close examination of embroideries, researching, and exploration has taught me one important thing, and that is employing geographic bounds when researching medieval technology are limiting. My exploration into Sprang, and the realization that the art developed simultaneously in both Coptic Egypt and Peru has led me to one answer: Aliens.

More research, and more embroidery, is the more likely answer.

Bibliography and Further Research

James C.Y. Watt and Anne E. Wardewell, When Silk was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1998).

Diana Collins, Case Studies: Mounting and Display of Textiles and Dress (excerpts) November 13-23, 2017 Beijing China. This article has some great photos of a needleloop embroidery of 1000 Buddhas that was being conserved (as well as some other up close silk embroideries). Each needleloop buddha was different!

“1993 Annual Report.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 81, no. 6 (1994): 143-218. Reproduced: p. 214; Mentioned: p. 167

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin New Series, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Winter, 1995-1996), pp. 18+72-80 (12 pages)

Detached Buttonhole Stitch — Textile Research Center

Chinese pieces featuring Needlelooping:

Ritual Diadem, China, Ming Dynasty Ca. 1450-1500 M.01.116 LACMA

Panel with Peonies and Butterfly, China, Late 14th Century to 15th Century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Needleloop embroidery with Tree Peonies, Chinese, Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) Francesca Galloway.

Embroidery from a Cloud Collar, China, Yuan Dynasty/Early Ming Dynasty, 1300s. Cleveland Museum of Art.

Fragment of Lotus Flower Surrounded by Leaves, China, 14th Century. Cleveland Museum of Art.

Pendant, 1300s, China. Cleveland Museum of Art.

Fragment of Lutus Flower Surrounded by Leaves, 1300s, China, Cleveland Museum of Art.

Fragment of Lutus Flower, 1300s, China, Cleveland Museum of Art.

Fragment with Buddhist Jar supported by a Lotus, 1300s, China, Cleveland Museum of Art.

Pheonix and Tree Peony, 1300s, China, Cleveland Museum of Art.


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