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Goldwork , Spain, 20th century
Goldwork , 19th century
Old pattern of a traditional Nordic Sami peoples metal embroidery collar, Åsele in Sweden. Silver or Pewter tread is most commonly used for the Folk Costume embroidery
Applied gold cord and embroidery. Portrait of Henry VIII by Holbein c. 1540

Goldwork is the art of embroidery using metal threads. It is particularly prized for the way light plays on it. The term "goldwork" is used even when the threads are imitation gold, silver, or copper. The metal wires used to make the threads have never been entirely gold; they have always been gold-coated silver (silver-gilt) or cheaper metals, and even then the "gold" often contains a very low percent of real gold. Most metal threads are available in silver and sometimes copper as well as gold; some are available in colors as well.

Goldwork is always surface embroidery and free embroidery; the vast majority is a form of laid work or couching; that is, the gold threads are held onto the surface of the fabric by a second thread, usually of fine silk. The ends of the thread, depending on type, are simply cut off, or are pulled through to the back of the embroidery and carefully secured with the couching thread. A tool called a mellore or a stilleto is used to help position the threads and create the holes needed to pull them through.



Goldwork was originally developed in Asia, and has been used for at least 2000 years. Its use reached a remarkable level of skill in the Middle Ages, when a style called Opus Anglicanum was developed in England and used extensively in church vestments and hangings.[1] After this period it was also used frequently in the clothing and furnishings of the royalty and nobility throughout Europe, and still later on military and other regalia.[2] Goldwork is currently a fairly uncommon skill, even among embroiderers who work in other free embroidery styles; it is now most commonly used for the highest-quality church vestments and art embroidery. It has always been reserved for occasional and special use only, due to both the expense of the materials and the time to create the embroidery, and because the threads - no matter how expertly applied - will not hold up to frequent laundering of any kind.

Types of metal thread

A variety of threads exists, in order to create differing textures.

Passing is the most basic and common thread used in goldwork; it consists of a thin strip of metal wound around a core of cotton or silk. For gold thread this is typically yellow, or in older examples orange; for silver, white or gray. This is always attached by couching, either one or two threads at a time, and pulled through to the back to secure it. When multiple threads must be laid next to each other, a technique called bricking is used: the position of the couching stitches is offset between rows, producing an appearance similar to a brick wall. This same type of thread is used in making cloth of gold.

Japan thread, sometimes called jap, is a cheaper replacement for passing, and is far more commonly used in modern goldwork. It appears nearly identical, but rather than a strip of metal, a strip of foil paper is wrapped around the core.

Detail of embroidered antependium, Ghent, 1660.

Buillion or Purl is structurally a very long spring, hollow at the core; it can be stretched apart slightly and couched between the wraps of wire, or cut into short lengths and applied like beads. This thread comes in both shiny and matte versions.

Jaceron or Pearl purl is similar to buillion, but with a much wider piece of metal used in making it, such that it looks like a string of pearl-like beads when couched down between the wraps of metal. Lizerine is a very similar thread.

Freize or Check purl is again similar, but the metal used is shaped differently, producing a faceted, sparkly look.

Faconnee or Crimped purl is almost identical to buillion, but has been crimped at intervals.

Rococco and the similar Crinkle cordonnet are made of wire tightly wrapped around a cotton core, with a wavy or kinked appearance.

Milliary wire is a wire core wrapped with finer wire.

Plate is a strip of metal a few millimeters (1/8") wide; often this is used to fill small shapes by folding it back and forth, hiding the couching stitches under the folds.

Flat Worm or simply Oval thread is a thin plate wrapped around a yarn core and flattened slightly. This is used like plate, but is considerably easier to work with.

Twists or Torsade, threads made of multiple strands of metal twisted together are also sometimes used, some of which, such as Soutache, sometimes have different colored metals or colored non-metal threads twisted together. These are either couched like passing, with the couching thread visible, or with the thread angled with the twist to make it invisible.

In addition, paillettes or spangles (sequins of real metal), small pieces of appliqued rich fabric or kid leather, pearls, and real or imitation gems are commonly used as accents, and felt or string padding may be used to create raised areas or texture. Silk thread work in satin stitch or other stitches is often combined with goldwork, and in some periods goldwork was combined with blackwork embroidery as well.

Or nué

Hood of a cope worked in the or nué technique

Or nué is a special technique invented in the 15th century, wherein many threads of passing or Japan thread are laid down parallel and touching. By varying the spacing and color of the couching stitches, elaborate, gleaming images can be created. This is not uncommonly used to depict the garments of saints in church embroidery.

See also


  1. ^ Levey, S. M. and D. King, The Victoria and Albert Museum's Textile Collection Vol. 3: Embroidery in Britain from 1200 to 1750, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1993, ISBN 1851771263
  2. ^ Lemon, Jane, Metal Thread Embroidery, Sterling, 2004, ISBN 071348926X


  • Sally Saunders, Royal School of Needlework Embroidery Techniques, Batsford, 2006 ISBN 978-0713488173 (paperback edition; hardcover editions were published previously but are now out of print)
  • Krenik[1] - a major supplier of goldwork threads; see the real metal threads category, and Japan thread under the metallic threads category
  • Berlin Embroidery[2] - a supplier of goldwork threads, kits, and lessons, with extensive informational pages and many images
  • Lemon, Jane, Metal Thread Embroidery, Sterling, 2004, ISBN 071348926X
  • Levey, S. M. and D. King, The Victoria and Albert Museum's Textile Collection Vol. 3: Embroidery in Britain from 1200 to 1750, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1993, ISBN 1851771263
  • Practical articles on basic goldwork techniques and couching with colour are available from textile artist Ruth O'Leary[3]


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