Early Medieval Embroidery, Women and Creativity.

By Alexandra Makin.

I’m a textile archaeologist specialising in early medieval embroidery but I’m also a professional embroiderer, having trained on the Royal School of Needlework’s three-year apprenticeship. I’m particularly interested in early medieval embroidery because it offers so many opportunities to explore not only the technical attributes of fibres and stitching, or designs and their place in art history, but how they came about, how they were made and the processes, skills and interactions between the maker and their work. The wider interterritorial and intercultural links of embroidery are also really exciting. They show quite clearly how connected northern societies were with the rest of the world.

Embroidery of a peacock taken from the peacocks depicted in the border of the Bayeux Tapestry. By Alexandra Makin

I’m also extremely interested in how early medieval societies perceived and integrated embroidery into their material culture. In early medieval England for example, this may be elites wearing silk and gold embroidery because they were showing they could afford elaborate decorative clothing and were aligning themselves with the Christian elites of Byzantium. But there were also more elusive meanings linked to metaphorical understandings of the world, protective or dangerous religious and spiritual elements, that are harder to decipher but are still there to be understood, if we know how to read the stitchwork. 

All the evidence for embroidery production in early medieval England points to it being a female occupation, with these women being highly regarded by society. Elite women throughout the period embroidered as a worthy occupation and used their creations to create and cement religious and political alliances. During the early part of the period women stitched for their extended families and local communities. As larger estates developed some women stitched in workshops run by estate managers. By the time of the Norman conquest other women had set up independent concerns, creating embroidery for patrons and teaching the next generation to stitch. 

Although there has been little research into embroidery production in Ireland, it appears that society was more stratified and regulated. Evidence points to only certain communities having permission to weave textiles and only women of certain rank could embroidery them. Law codes such as the Bretha im Fhuillema Gell tell us that embroiders were highly thought of, ‘íadach mná ríg; is mo do thorbu dosli cach ben bes druinech olldaite cid rigna’, ‘the work bag of the wife of a king’ is set at a rate of six sét, and it is said that ‘it is more profit each woman who is an embroideress deserves than even queens’, and Sechtae tells us that embroideresses were classed alongside kings and high-ranking men for whom sick-maintenance is difficult to cover.

While we have surviving embroidery from both Norse and Sámi communities, there has been little research investigating bigger questions about its production and use within these cultures during the Iron and Viking Ages, nor the interactions between these communities and the wider world in relation to textiles and embroidery.  This could be a really exciting area of future research. 


The second aspect to my work is creative. By recreating embroideries using experimental archaeology and sensory archaeology, I hope to gain a deeper insight into the thought processes, and working methods of embroiderers. 

At the moment I am working on a recreation of a maniple that was rediscovered in the tomb of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral, England, in 1827. The project’s original aims were to investigate working methods, how long it to stitch and extrapolate the ‘costs’ of creating the maniple. These are still part of the work but now it also integrates a sensory archaeological approach.

A maniple is a strip of cloth that a bishop or priest drapes over his wrist of forearm. Originally it was a piece of folded cloth that probably carried as a sign of office. By the 9th and 10th centuries, it had evolved into a decorative strip. The Durham maniple is important because it is the earliest surviving embroidered example from early medieval England. It is probably the earliest maniple to incorporate embroidered figures and it is the only embroidery from this period in England for which we can identify a commissioner and receiver. On the reverse of the end tabs of both the maniple and stole are stitched inscriptions telling us that Queen Ælfflæd commissioned the vestments for Bishop Frithestan, bishop of Winchester. Because these are identifiable individuals, we can date the pieces to between AD 910 and 916. We do not know if Frithestan ever received the gifts but we do know they were donated to the shrine of St Cuthbert by King Athelstan, when he visited it on his way to fight the Picts in AD 934. 

Due to its fragile state it is not possible to technically study the maniple, although I have been able to study a section of the matching stole that is now owned by Ushaw College. A detailed analysis of the embroideries was undertaken by Elizabeth Plenderleith when they were sent to the British Museum for cleaning in the 1950s and her work was published in 1956. Plenderleith’s work builds on a detailed analysis previously undertaken by Grace Christie in 1913. Some of Christie’s observations were inaccurate and Plenderleith corrected them while adding to the earlier body of work. 

When you read Plenderleith’s chapter you are struck by the amount of technical data she gathered and the further detail she was able to extrapolate from it. However, when you try to use this data to understand how the embroideries were created, it becomes apparent that the information is lacking. Therefore, if you want to investigate larger questions about production; materials; workers’ skills, knowledge and understanding of materials and design; their sensory engagement with the work, and how this influenced their progress, an experimental approach, recreating at least part of the embroidery is the best option. 

The experimental approach means I am working with hand-made equipment and materials that are as close to the originals as it is possible to purchase today. This is exciting because it means I am working as close to the original embroidery methods as it is possible to do in the modern world. As a result, I can begin to look at the work and investigate how the original workers interacted with it on many levels.

Sensory archaeology developed to help archaeologists studying artefacts, landscapes, architecture-scapes, and noise- and smell-scapes through the senses. It is believed that we can better understand past societies when we immerse ourselves as fully as possible within their material culture.  While this sounds great, it does have its problems. Some societies may not have followed the five Aristotelian senses that now dominate western society. Also, it is not possible for people today to completely discard their own sensory understanding of the world and their positive and negative sensory engagements. Therefore, we cannot fully understand the sensory worlds of the past. All this is true but the approach does give us a partial understanding of how past societies comprehended their worlds; something that cannot be accessed through technical analysis alone. 

Analyzing embroideries at St Catherine’s Church in Maaseik, Belgium.

So, for the maniple recreation project a sensory approach can help us understand tactile, visual, auditory and olfactory engagements with equipment, materials and the embroidering process, both physical and mental. It can do something more as well. It can also help us understand the sense of movement the workers engaged with. The repetitive motions of stitching, the movement of the body as it bent over the work or stretched, the aches and pains of muscles forced to take up one, possibly awkward position for long periods of time. Maybe these data can help us look for wear and tear of the body which can then be used to examine bones of early medieval women, helping us unlock the lives of actual people. 

Once mentally absorbed in the work the sensorial engagement of the unconscious, the mind automatically telling the hand where to place the needle and how tight to pull the thread, can be examined. Can this be used to extrapolate the mental processes the original workers engaged with? Can it help us understand the decisions workers made and why? Does it give us greater access to the people behind the object, behind the embroidery? These are the exciting, creative processes and questions that I as an embroiderer and a textile archaeologist hope to access. To tell the stories of not only beautiful and technically advanced embroidery but also, the stories of the women who made them and the societies in which they lived, worked and used the embroidery they created. The stories that are often left in the dark but once uncovered, could shed so much light.

Website and Contact:


Twitter and Instagram:

@alexandra_makin                 @alexandramakin2

Bibliography / Further Reading

Baldwin Brown, G. and Archibald Christie, ‘S. Cuthbert’s Stile and Maniple at Durham’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 23 (1913), 2-7, 9-11, 17.

Clegg Hyer, Maren and Gale R. Owen-Crocker (eds), Sense and Feeling in Daily Living in the Early Medieval English World (Liverpool University Press, 2020).

Day, Jo, ‘Introduction: making senses of the past’, in Jo Day (ed), Making Senses of the Past: toward a sensory archaeology (Southern Illinois University, 2013), pp.1-31.

Díaz-Vera, Javier E., ‘Coming to Past Senses: vision, touch and their metaphors in Anglo-Saxon language and culture, in Annette Kern-Stähler, Beatrix Busse and Wietse de Boer (eds), The Five Senses in Medieval and Early Modern England(Brill, 2016), pp.36-66.

Freyhan, R., ‘The Stole and Maniples (c) the place of the stole and maniple in Anglo-Saxon art of the tenth century’, in C.F. Battiscombe (ed) The Relics of St Cuthbert (Oxford University Press, 1956), pp.375–396.

Ghrádaigh, Jenifer Ní, ‘Mere Embroiderers? Women and Art in Early Medieval Ireland’, in Reassessing the Role of Women as ‘Makers’ of Medieval Art and Architecture, ed. by Therese Martin, vol. 2 (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2012), pp. 93–128

Gosden, Chris, ‘Making Sense: Archaeology and Aesthetics’, World Archaeology 33:2 (2001), 163-167, DOI: 10.1080/00438240120079226

Hamilakis, Yannis, Archaeology and the Senses: human experience, memory, and affect (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Harris, Susanna, ‘The Sensory Archaeology of Textiles’, in Robin Skeates and Jo Day (eds) The Routledge Handbook of Sensory Archaeology (Routledge, 2019), pp.210-232.

Johnstone, Pauline, High Fashion in the Church (Maney, 2002).

Lester-Makin, Alexandra, The Lost Art of the Anglo-Saxon World: the sacred and secular power of embroidery, Ancient Textiles Series 35 (Oxbow Press, 2019).

Lester-Makin, Alexandra, ‘Embroidery and its early medieval audience: a case study of sensory engagement’, World Archaeology (forthcoming).

Lester-Makin, A., ‘The Bayeux Tapestry as an Artefact of Cultural Transfer’, in Pierre Bauduin, Luc Bourgeois and Simon Lebouteiller (eds.) Cultural transfers in the Norman Medieval Worlds (8-12th Cent.): Objects, actors and mediators (Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming).

Miller, Maureen C., Clothing the Clergy: virture and power in Medieval Europe c. 800-1200 (Cornell University Press, 2014).

O’Keeffe, Katherine O’Brien, ‘Hands and Eyes, Sight and Touch: appraising the senses in Anglo-Saxon England’, Anglo-Saxon England, 45 (2016), 105-140, DOI: 10.1017/S0263675100080248.

Oxenham, Helen, Perceptions of Femininity in Early Irish Society (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2017).

Owen-Crocker, Gale R., ‘Smelly Sheep, Shimmering Silk: the sensual and emotional experience of textiles’, in Maren Clegg Hyer and Gale R. Owen-Crocker (eds), Sense and Feeling in Daily Living in the Early Medieval English World(Liverpool University Press, 2020), pp.197-218. 

Raine, J., Remarks on the ‘Saint Cuthbert’of the Rev. James Raine, M.A. (Preston &

Heaton, 1828).

Skeates, Robin, An Archaeology of the Senses: prehistoric Malta (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Skeates, Robin, and Jo Day, ‘Sensory Archaeology: key concepts and debates’, in Robin Skeates and Jo Day (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Sensory Archaeology (Routledge, 2019), pp.1-17.

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