Stitching a motif inspired by the Bacton altar cloth

For a birthday treat last year I was lucky enough to join one of the Royal School of Needlework’s special Bacton altar cloth classes. Our day began with a private view of the cloth and its exhibition. Then we spent the rest of the day stitching a motif inspired by the altar cloth.

Check out my previous post to read about the fascinating insights we got during our private view with the exhibition curator, Eleri Lynn. I loved hearing about the discovery of the cloth and its identification as one of Elizabeth I dresses.

In this post, I’m going to share with you some of the details from stitching a Bacton altar cloth inspired motif.

Bacton altar cloth motifs

For the exhibition, some of the RSN studio stitchers recreated 3 of the original motifs. Unusually, you were encouraged to touch these in the exhibition! You could also turn them around to see the back of the stitching. Each of the replicas took the embroiderers around 12-14 hours to stitch. Which I think shows just how speedy the professionals are!

Embroidery daffodil motif. A replica of a motif from the Bacton altar cloth, stitched by the RSN studio team.
The RSN studio’s replica.
Original daffodil motif on the Bacton altar cloth.
The original motif.

In our class, we were stitching a smaller version of the daffodil motif. Some of the colours included in our kits seemed a bit on the bright side. Until our tutor showed us photos of the reverse of the altar cloth. Sure enough, the Tudors had used some pretty vibrant colours!

The back of the Bacton altar cloth daffodil motif, showing the brightness of the original colours.

A lot of the large motifs on the cloth are predominantly filled with seeding stitch, so that was how we stitched ours. This experience has certainly given me a new appreciation of seeding stitch!

Learning about historic stitching

As we stitched, our tutor filled us in on some of the interesting discoveries from close up inspection of the cloth. There were a few surprises in the stitches used.

They noticed that some of the seeding stitches looked a bit different. Since the only way to be sure about how it’s stitched is to unpick it (obviously a big no-no!), they had to make a best guess. The conclusion was that some of the stitches are “double seeding” in that you work exactly over your stitch a second time.

Our daffodil motifs used this double seeding stitch in the flower head. It is actually quite effective at making the stitches stand out more than the regular seeding stitch in the petals.

Work in progress photo of my daffodil motif. As it was at the end of the class.
The stitching completed in class.

Another talking point was the use of multiple colours of thread in your needle at once. Apparently this was thought to be a relatively modern thing to do. But the altar cloth shows that the Tudors used to do this, so we did too in our motifs.

One type of stitch seen in the altar cloth that we didn’t use in our daffodils was gold thread woven wheels. It sounded like these were quite a surprise as it’s not something really done today. I think finances play a part here. From listening to Eleri, we quickly got a sense that money was no object in the creation of the dress! I wonder what delights embroiderers would stitch these days under similar conditions…

My daffodil

We did, however, get to incorporate a little bit of goldwork in our motifs. This was actually my first time doing any goldwork. I can tell I’m going to need more practice at plunging the threads before my certificate goldwork module. But other than that I enjoyed adding a bit of bling to my stitching!

I liked that our tutor kept reminding us that the instruction booklet was a suggestion – our motifs are ours, so we should feel free to do something different if we wanted. With the rigour that the certificate training is instilling in me, I wasn’t happy that some of the black design lines were still visible after stitching over them in 3 strand yellow stem stitch. So after chatting with the tutor, I added in some additional rows of 1 strand stem stitch in green. I think this helps give the pale shapes much better definition, especially from afar. So a happy accident that I’m likely to repeat!

My completed embroidery of a daffodil and caterpillar.

I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the Bacton altar cloth through stitching this motif and our private view. So I’ll be keeping an eye out for further opportunities to immerse myself in historic embroidery.

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