Embroideries from Exeter, UK

Exeter cathedral, the western facade, June 2019. Photograph Willem Vogelsang.

Exeter cathedral, the western facade, June 2019. Photograph Willem Vogelsang.

On Sunday, 30th June, Gillian Vogelsang wrote:

Willem and I have spent the last few days in the southern English town of Exeter. He was at a Central Asian conference at the University, while I was working, following up on an earlier visit in February this year, on various textiles housed in Exeter Cathedral. The origins of this magnificent building date back for some one thousand years and it is well worth a visit in itself.

In fact, I wanted to go back to Exeter because of my work on Volume Three of the Encyclopedia of Embroidery series, about Scandinavian and Western European forms. I am studying and gathering ideas for various entries, namely one on the use of hand embroidery for military and civilian uniforms and related items, on the use of embroidery within an ecclesiastical setting and finally an entry on medieval embroidery forms. In particular, I was at Exeter to see some examples of Opus Anglicanum (OA), which is a medieval form of English embroidery that was famous throughout Europe in the 12th-15th centuries.

The first two entries being researched will include items from within the Cathedral itself, such as the flags from various regiments that have been laid up there.They include various types of metal thread embroidery and applique techniques.

I was also looking at various medieval effigies of bishops to make notes about the embroidery depicted on their vestments, episcopal slippers, and associated cushions.

Regimental flags laid up in Exeter Cathedral, June 2019. Photograph Willem Vogelsang.

Regimental flags laid up in Exeter Cathedral, June 2019. Photograph Willem Vogelsang.

But most importantly, there are various examples of OA in Exeter, notably the St. Petrock Pall (in the Cathedral) and the pall from St. Mary's Arches Church, now on display in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. In both cases the cloths are correctly called palls, but in the sense of an altar covering (altar pall), rather than a cloth covering a coffin (funeral pall).

Having the chance to see OA in detail was a treat and my appreciation for the skill of these unknown embroiderers so many centuries ago has increased considerably. The visit also left me with many more questions (as normal). Such as where did the St. Petrock Pall's silk come from, who made the background cloth, did the embroiderers use more than one type of couching, which is regarded as particular to OA, namely underside couching, and how was the final object used.

The indignation of what had happened to the Cathedral’s treasures (including its vestments) during the Reformation in the 16th century is still very much alive among the people working there!

I would like to thank all at the Exeter Cathedral Archives for their kindness, help and interest during my all to brief visit. We hope to come back soon!

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