Goldwork – A set of rules

The basis of Goldwork – a set of rules

  • the second stitch locks
  • keep the grain of the cloth from becoming distorted
  • decide the padded areas and complete padding before starting the rest of the work
  • decide the balance of the three methods of filling (couching, purl and skin)
  • when couching, tie down two parallel threads together if using jap or passing thread
  • when using couching to cover an area, start at the outside of the work and work towards the centre. This applies to circles, squares, triangles and irregular shapes, with angled or rounded corners
  • when cutting pieces of purl of equal size, cut four pieces and leave on cutting board as templates until you have completed the filling of an area
  • when using purl to cover an area, start in the centre and work to the edges, infilling with smaller pieces where necessary
  • when cutting skin, turn over the template and rest it on the wrong side to draw round it, otherwise a mirror image is achieved. Mark round in pencil and cut out on the outer edge of the graphite markKnow the rules and reasons for them, and then break them with understanding

Preparing a Slate Frame

The use of a frame is essential for metal thread work, as the technique requires both hands to be free to handle the threads correctly. Always use the best equipment and frame that you can afford or obtain, plus a well prepared piece of background fabric will be a good foundation for your work. The frame supports the fabric, and backing fabric is kept taut and firm.

A frame also keeps the fabric at the correct tension which is particularly important with this type of embroidery as it is never stretched afterwards.

If the cloth is not framed up with the grain straight, once it is released from the frame, the grain will in most circumstances be stronger than the stitched couching and therefore any straight stitching will become wavy.

Preparing a slate frame

  1. Choose a frame which has webbing and which is about 7.5cms (3 inches) longer than the width of the background material.
  2. Cut the backing fabric to about the same size of the frame. This must be larger than the backing fabric which will have the finished design.
  3. Make 1cm (½ inch) turnings on the top and bottom edges of the backing calico, sew the edges using a machine or back stitch, and mark the centres.
  4. On the other two edges, fold the turning over string and stitch into position, leaving good lengths of string on all four ends.
  5. Mark the centre of the webbing on both rollers.
  6. With right sides together and using small overcasting stitches, work from the centre outwards to attach the webbing on the rollers to the top and bottom of the backing calico.
  7. Tighten both rollers.
  8. Tie off the four ends of the string tight to the frame.
  9. Using a large eyed needle, lace the sides to the frame with string and knot the ends around the corners. The tension can then be adjusted as required.
  10. The background fabric is then tacked or over-stitched onto the backing calico, and the two are tightened up together to be the same tension.
  11. The tension of the frame should not be drum taut for metal thread, as this can result in puckering when the embroidery is taken off the frame. The tension should be firm, but not taut.

Couching across card (taken from Issue 12)

Used to create a raised surface, where the shapes stand out in relief from the couched ground; this technique is particularly useful for lettering and creating textured surfaces. It makes full use of the reflective qualities of metallic thread.

Traditionally, parchment or vellum were used; the modern alternative tends to be smooth card but other materials can be used, such as craft weight Vilene.

The card is cut to shape. Care must be taken to ensure that edges are smooth and it needs to be remembered that the finished shape will appear slightly larger than the card cut out. The card is applied to the background using tacking stitches that go over the shape not through it – the small holes made by a needle going through the card can sometimes affect the finished appearance.

Couching is worked back and forth across the surface of the embroidery, from the lower edge up. Two metallic threads are laid together – the rows need to be very close. When the metallic thread reaches a piece of card it continues over the card.

Holding stitches are usually in the same colour as the metallic thread. No stitches are made into the card. The couching pattern continues up to the shape, a stitch is worked close to the edge of the card, the next stitch is worked at the far edge of the card. All holding stitches continue to be made at right angles to the laid thread regardless of the shape of the card. A double stitch can be worked at either side of the card if desired; this can help to make the shape more defined.

A different approach to Plaited Braid Stitch                                      (taken from Issue 2)

An article written by Leon Conrad in ‘Finelines’, in 2003 sheds some light on an intriguing and often frustrating stitch. Anyone trying to work from Grace Christie’s ‘Sampler and stitches’ 1920, or Mary Thomas ‘Dictionary of embroidery stitches’ will have experienced the challenge that is plaited braid stitch. As is pointed out in Mr. Conrad’s article, it is likely that the reverse of the historical work was not available for study when the stitch was first recorded, this leading to a rather complicated interpretation of how the stitch may have been worked.

As plaited braid stitch was used extensively in the 16th and 17th Centuries, it stood to reason that the stitch must be relatively easy to work. The clue, he found, was in looking at the back of the work- there a neat line of stitches (like the rungs on a ladder) is visible. Interestingly, he noticed that the metal thread used was started off with a knot.

Leon Conrad’s method of working the stitch is methodical and reliable. I have tried this method and after a couple of goes to establish correct tension and spacing, find it very easy to work. It is easiest to work in the hand rather than in a frame. I found that the best thread to practice with is 3 ply twisted metallic thread, it is big enough to see clearly and behaves itself well.

A large eyed needle is required. A fabric with a distinct weave or lines marked out as a guide is essential until you have practised.

To set up the plaited braid stitch, follow the diagrams 1-4. There after, the moves a) b) and c) are repeated. Note that a) and b) do not pass through the fabric.

Setting up the plaited braid stitch: Come up at 1, down at 2, up at 3, down at 4 etc.

Repeat stages a), b) and c)

 An example of 16th Century plaited braid stitch


Guipure and Rapport (taken from Issue 3)

Guipure refers to the method where a vellum shape is applied and then gold threads worked over the shape, to form a solid area of gold. The gold threads pass back and forth being couched with holding stitches at the outline (edge of the vellum). The holding stitches are not very apparent as they lay in the shadow of the edge of the vellum. The Art of the embroiderer describes how repeated shapes can be cut out in stacks – one on top of the other – to ensure perfect copies and also to save time.

Also how complicated patterns that have loose design parts (such as leaves that extend beyond the main design areas) can be included by adding narrow bridges that are later cut away. This allows the relative location of different parts of the design to be maintained. Both of these suggestions are useful and time efficient.

Part of a border (Art of the embroiderer). It shows the use of vellum; tiny bridges hold the lower leaves to the whole design, it also indicates the stitches to be used.

The vellum was dyed yellow with saffron to make it less apparent beneath the Goldwork.

When a shape was wide and too great a distance to pass gold thread over without a holding stitch, then narrow slits were cut to allow for a holding stitch to be added within the slit. The slit could be suitably placed to resemble, for instance, a vein on a leaf.

 Leaf, in copper passing thread over Vilene with slit for extra holding stitches

The use of vellum or its equivalent allows for better definition in a design, it can reduce the number of guidelines necessary before starting the embroidery and provides support for the threads that pass over it. Whilst working there is a defined edge, so the results should be crisp and neat. As well as applying Jap or passing thread, plate can be used to stunning effect. Using plate gives a very different texture and is well used to provide contrast with areas of more brilliant threads.

Rapport – refers to all embroidery made up in small parts on small frames, to be reassembled on a base fabric. It is essentially a cheaper and quicker method of producing motifs ready to be later selected and applied to a garment. The customer could choose embroidery from the tailors stock and return for his completed garments the next day, whereas embroidery worked directly onto a garment might take three months to complete. It has a less refined appearance to that of metal embroidery worked directly onto a fabric but does not seem to have been considered as inferior decoration. It was particularly used on men’s waistcoats and jackets but is also to be found on the skirts and along the front edges of women’s clothing.

Its manufacture employs methods more associated with stumpwork and needlelace. A design is drawn onto paper or fine silk.  A narrow chain or pratique is stitched to the paper with small holding stitches following the outline. All subsequent embroidery is attached to the chain stitches but not through the paper, making removal of the paper and then the attachment of the piece to a garment relatively easy. These rapport pieces could also later be detached and reused on other garments.

There is a predominance of netting in this form of embroidery. The netting could be worked on a special tool called a boisseau then attached to the chain outline or it was made by passing a thread back and forth, across the design, catching into the pratique, then weaving at right angles to the these lines to form the net fabric. Individual parts, such as petals for a flower, are made, and then reassembled on the design.

Sequins or spangles were attached in strings between the outline or pratique. On completion, and after cleaning and gluing the underside, all of the base material is cut away and the motif is stored in blue paper until it was required.The motif is then attached to the garment by small stitches catching the pratique to the background fabric.

 Illustration from Art of the Embroiderer showing the chain that is made then sewn down along the outline of the design.

The netting is worked, later the flowers are added. The leaves are strings of sequins

For these techniques take a look at Art of the embroiderer by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin, designer to the King, 1770. It is a fascinating and comprehensive textbook of embroidery and is the ultimate reference book. All aspects of embroidery are included with excellent illustrations. It takes a bit of perseverance to become familiar with, as there is an English translation before a copy of the original text followed by illustration plates but is well worth the effort. Those of us practicing embroidery will find most of the book very familiar; particularly those working with metal threads where there is a necessity to work in a frame, with the correct materials, following some tried and tested methods. You are at a distinct advantage if you can follow the original text in French as the translation into American English can be confusing at times.

Or Nué

Or Nué is a form of goldwork embroidery where different coloured threads are stitched over a metallic base of gold threads to form designs. Coloured silks and stitch spacings are used to give light, shade and depth to the design.

The technique was developed in Europe in the fourteenth century for use on ecclesiastical vestments.

Or Nué can be worked with the gold threads laid in straight parallel rows, or following the contours of a design.

To work Or Nué in straight parallel rows

General instructions for working in a single colour:

The background will be completely covered, so use a firm fabric, such as calico.

Transfer a design onto calico (figure 1). Include the square outline, and make marks at ¼” (5mm) intervals up the sides. These guidelines are used to keep the gold thread straight – a very important consideration (see note below).


Figure 1 (actual size 2 ½” x 2 ¼”; 6cm x 5.5cm)

Mount the fabric on a square frame.

Thread two needles with silk, wax the thread, and fasten one onto each end of the bottom line. Cut a length of gold jap, enough to work several rows, and fold it in half to form a loop.

First row:

Following figure 2, bring the needle up on the left hand side, one width of jap up from the bottom line. Take this thread down horizontally over the loop of jap to hold (stitch 1).

Figure 2

For stitches 2-5, bring the needle up on the bottom line, and down over the jap at right-angles, at intervals of 1/8” (3mm). The needle must re-enter the fabric vertically, just two jap-widths up from where it emerged (figure 3).

Figure 3

Having worked these first few stitches, hold the double jap across to the right hand side. Bring the second needle up on the bottom line at the right hand edge, and make a stitch over the jap as before. Work a few more stitches towards the left to secure.

Continue stitching across to complete the row. This holds the jap firmly against the bottom line.

It is easier to leave a needle at either end for starting and finishing each row, and use a third needle to work across.

Second row:

Following figure 4, bring the needle up on the right hand side, level with the top of the jap. Fold the double jap back towards the left, and make a horizontal stitch over it to secure.

Figure 4

Bring the needle back up about ½” (1cm) along, and the width of two jap threads up from the previous row. Take the needle back down at right angles to the jap, but this time slope the needle slightly under the previous row, to hold the jap snuggly against it (figure 5).

Figure 5

Work a few stitches back towards the right hand end.

At the left hand end, bring the needle up two jap-thread widths up from the previous row. Hold the jap across and make a vertical stitch over it, again sloping the needle under the previous row. Complete stitching across the row.

Third row:

Fold the jap back towards the right, making a horizontal stitch to hold, then a few stitches at each end to secure (as on the second row), then complete the row. Continue back and forth in this way (remembering to slope the needle under the previous row) until you reach the pattern.

N.B. The heavier stitching in parts of the pattern will force the jap further apart than in the lighter areas (figure 6), so use the distance markers at the sides of the design to help to keep the rows parallel. Work the solid areas as close together as possible, but slight gaps can be left in the less solid areas; providing these are minimal, they will not show as gaps. Do not let the rows get too far out of true before correcting.

Figure 6

Work each part of the design using different stitch spacing. If the stitches are more than 1/8” (3mm) apart, use a gold thread between them to secure the jap.

The vertical edges are easy to define, but sloping edges may take some trial and error to get right. Keep viewing the work from a short distance, to check the effect.

Additional hints when working in several colours of silk:

Or Nué is very time consuming, so choose a small piece, up to 6” (15cm) square. Bear in mind that, on this scale, you will not be able to show much detail.

Figure 7

If working from a photograph (figure 7), draw out your design and colour it with crayons – it makes you look more closely (figure 8) – a red area might consist of several shades; a black area may have a green or purple sheen. Use the photograph and/or your coloured drawing as a reference when working, and mix colours when stitching to add depth to the design.

Figure 8

Figure 9 (actual size 3” x 3 ¼”; 7.5cm x 8cm)

To work Or Nué following the contours of the design

In this method, only the design is worked, not the background, so larger pieces can be tackled (figure 10). Much of the background will be visible, so work on silk, velvet, or similar, with a backing fabric.

Figure 10 (5 ½” x 7 ½”; 13.5cm x 18.5cm)

You can use different threads for different areas of the design, and parts can be padded to give more varied effects.

The first row is worked as before, but instead of being straight, the jap is couched around the outline of the shape to be worked, the needle coming up and back as in figure 3. The jap is then couched spiralling towards the centre of the shape, keeping the rows close together by slanting the needle under the previous row as in figure 5.

If you have very narrow areas to be filled, you can take a single thread of jap into the space and back, as in figure 11.

Figure 11

Woven effect: String Padding (Taken from Issue 13)

This goldwork technique is seen often in ceremonial and ecclesiastical embroidery; both the need to be seen by the public from a distance and this three-dimensional filling pattern offers distinct and varied texture.

The diagram above shows the working method. To the right we see string applied in parallel lines. Several stitches are worked over the ends of the string, binding them. The stitches holding the string in place are worked from the outside into the centre of the string and from alternating sides; this is to prevent the string from shifting.

Over the string padding, rows of gold threads are applied in pairs; the couching stitches rest between the rows of string. Notice that the couching stitches skip alternate gaps between the strings; when the following row is worked the stitches fall in the missed gaps. This changing of position of spacing produces the basketwork effect.

An example of the basic woven effect as described. The direction of the pattern is slightly askew in this view, as described below.

Many other patterns can be created by varying the spacing of the couching stitches or of the string. The string can be applied as radial lines or the gold can be applied obliquely rather than at right angles each resulting in a different effect.

In the previous image, the gold thread jumps across several strings to create a pattern that appears as indentations.

The previous detail shows string applied in parallel lines of equal spacing on all parts of the flower. Different threads have been used to create interest; ‘plate’ is used on the second and fourth petal (some of the plate has fallen away with wear), the other petals have gold passing thread. The whole of the flower was padded with felt before the string was applied to produce a very heavily three-dimensional motif.

This example has the woven effect worked in the direction of the line of the leaf to make it seem more natural or realistic.

Couching – lines and space

Coming Soon!

The Use of Plate

Plate is a flat strip of metal, made from a very fine sheet of gold or other metal that has been cut into long, narrow lengths. It has been and is used in many parts of the world both incorporated with other Goldwork embroidery and in its own right. It is seen in embroidery from Turkey, Germany, India, Egypt and Uzbekistan among others places and is often used with purl in ecclesiastical embroidery. It is used on uniforms for fighting services around the world as well as formal servant’s wear.

Plate is used for filling an area by zig-zagging it back and forth in a specific way. It can also be used over string for striking reflective results. It can be used flat, as it comes, or can be crimped using a crimping device or even by pressing over the threads of a large screw. Plate can be used as a wandering line, perhaps zig-zagging in a free way. It is found in darned cloth as in Indian, Turkish and Egyptian work. A common place that plate is found on ceremonial textiles is as the nut of an acorn, the cup being worked in purl.

Plate is today available in silver and copper as well as gold and in different sizes. It usually is sold around a cylinder to help keep the plate as flat as possible; once bent it won’t become flat again.

How to work Plate

Plate has very sharp edges and should be handled with care.

  1. Turn over the end of the plate.
  2. Make a stitch at right angles to the plate, slightly wider than the metal.
  3. Before tightening the stitch, hook the fold, created by turning the end of the plate, on to the stitch.
  4. Tighten the stitch then manipulate a second stitch beside it – second stitch locks.
  5. If working an area – perhaps a leaf shape, position the stitch so that it lies at right angles to the plate, although the stitch will not lie exactly in the fold. The rows of plate cannot, by the nature of the work, be quite parallel, as the motif is all worked from one length of plate.
  6. This method can be used to cover large areas.

Using purl as a setting for a jewel (Taken from Issue 12)

This method is seen often in historical costume, it is a good way to conceal the edges of an applied three dimensional shape. Useful as often the stone may have unsightly holes, glue or metal claws.

First get good at cutting purl to the same length! I always line my pieces up side by side like soldiers tallest to the left shortest to the right; this tends to even out their differences to a degree. However, in this case, the purl is to be applied around a circle so care has to be taken not to end up with the shortest next to the tallest. What length purl? I hear you ask. Well, it depends on the circumstances, but longer than you might expect; my pieces were about 5/16 inch or 0.7cm, larger sized purl would need to be longer.

The needle is brought up through the fabric at a point on an imaginary line that surrounds the jewel. Thread on a piece of purl then go down into the fabric close to the jewel, there should be a loop in the purl (the purl stands away from the surface).

For the next stitch, the needle is brought up at a point on the imaginary line; one third of the distance along the previous stitch, it goes down close to the jewel the same distance past the first stitch. Continue in this way, proceeding in a similar fashion to that of stem stitch. The final two stitches will be inserted behind the first stitch.

Examples of jewel stones; 6 polished semi precious stones with holes like beads, a number of rhinestones some plastic and some glass in various shapes, polished stones and mother of pearl jewels with flat backs that could be glued.

If you would like to submit an article on a particular Goldwork technique then please contact us.

Using Passing Thread in the Needle – taken from Issue 12 (A4)

Passing thread can be used as a couched thread but has the distinct advantage that it can also be used in the needle and therefore be taken through the fabric – just like any other embroidery thread. Passing thread is offered in different sizes, the larger the number, the thicker the thread.  Commonly available sizes are 4, 5 and 6 in gilt (gold coloured), silver plated and copper.

Passing thread is a supported thread, that is, a wire wound round a centre core of yarn, originally silk, but today could be cotton or a man-made thread. Passing wire was originally silver gilt or silver; and is an embroidery thread that is more than a thousand years old. One famous example of work using passing thread (where it is couched) is the maniple and stole of Saint Cuthbert, which was worked between 909 and 916 AD.

The name ‘passing’ is thought to be because the thread was suitable to be passed through the cloth. It is more durable than jap thread as it was made originally with silver gilt, unlike jap which was a membrane or paper wound round the core. Jap can be passed through cloth, the Japanese sizes 1 and 2 are manufactured for that purpose. There is a particular technique that should be employed for using passing thread when stitching with it in the needle.

Use a short length of passing thread, choosing a needle that is a size larger than would seem necessary, making sure that the thread passes through the needle comfortably. Leaving only a short length through the eye of the needle, tie a single knot over the eye of the needle and shred the metal from the core, leaving only the core to pass, with the rest of the thread, through the cloth. The passing thread can be secured underneath with a knot.

After bringing the needle straight up through the cloth (from underneath), when taking the needle back down through the cloth, support the thread over the finger of your free hand, using your other hand to pull the thread through the fabric. Repeat the thread support on the underside, so that the thread is always drawn at right angles to the background fabric.

Using #1 Metallic Thread – taken from Issue 12 (A5)

Those familiar with jap gold are aware that it is offered in different sizes, the larger the number, the thicker the thread.  A size that is not used as regularly as it might be is #1, the finest of them all. We suspect the reasons are straightforward; perceived as more time consuming, requiring more stitching if being used as a couched thread, and more difficult to see. It has however one very distinct advantage, it is fine enough to be used in the needle and therefore to be taken through the fabric – just like any other embroidery thread.

One of the rules in Japanese embroidery is to always use #1 as a double thread, and when used in this way, it behaves perfectly reasonably for French knots, satin stitch and when couched.

The main advantage is that the thread can be passed easily and at will to the reverse of the work, and subsequently back to the right side again, avoiding the need to cut and restart with a new thread. Think how much easier a series of lines radiating from a point is, to work with this thread rather than with thicker threads, all requiring to be individually taken through to the back of the work.

Examples of French knots and satin stitch. The radiating lines have been laid ready to be held down with silk.

Examples of French knots and satin stitch. The radiating lines have been laid ready to be held down with silk.


Threading the needle

Threading the needle

The thread is put into the needle by folding a double length in half, then threading the two cut ends through the needle. These ends are then passed through the loop (at the other end of the thread). When pulled gently tight, it forms a knot at the place where it touches the eye of the needle. It is best to use a needle with a relatively large eye; this helps to allow the thread to comfortably pass through the silk fabric when stitching. Do not be alarmed at having a tiny knot next to the needle, it passes through the fabric very easily. Keeping the thread under control is achieved by passing it between your thumb and first finger.  This applies when threading the needle and whilst stitching. Hint: Use a mellor to avoid so much contact with the thread.

A French knot being worked with the double metallic thread.

A French knot being worked with the double metallic thread.

If you purchase a full skein of thread there is a neat way to hold and store your thread: unfold the skein of metallic thread, leaving the ties in place and being sure to keep a hand in the centre of the skein. Take a piece of A3 paper, make an inch diameter fold lengthwise, then place the skein in under the fold, fold the paper again twice, wrapping the first side of the skein with paper then place the remaining side of the skein in. Continue to fold around until all the paper is used. The wrapped paper must then be fastened so that it does not undo itself.  Use tape or tie a thread around the folds. The result is a container for the thread; it keeps it straight and stops it from tangling. I always cut through the loops at one end so that I have pre-cut lengths of thread that can be easily pulled out, one at a time, to use (pull out from the looped end).

The only potential problem when using a double thread in the needle is that the individual threads have a habit of trying to twist around each other, they must always be kept parallel. The easiest way to achieve this is to use a mellor (or failing this a larger pointed needle as a tool), to guide the thread whilst stitching. The needle or mellor can be placed under the stitch and stroked in the direction of the stitch, encouraging the threads to lie side by side. The mellor can also be used to straighten threads that have already been worked and have decided to cross over each other.


Japanese coloured metallic thread #1 is available in many colours, in addition to gold and silver.

How to make Gilt Wrapped Silk (taken from Issue 16)

Gilt Wrapped Silk (Gilt Sylke Twist) is now commercially manufactured and is a reproduction thread based on wire or strip wrapped silk used in the 17th century. This thread is made using a flat filament silk and fine gilt wire twisted together.

However, it can be made in shorter lengths, by hand, and with a little patience. The thread, once made, is only suitable for couching on the surface, however it can manage a few stitches when using a large eyed needle. The method of how to stitch with this thread also matters, so using the needle going down vertically into the fabric (straight down, rather than having the needle at an angle) and guiding the thread gently with your free hand, will also help (and likewise on the return journey).

To make, take a single strand from a length of stranded silk (which can be reserved for couching the finished thread) and using the remaining five strands (suggested length of no more than 60cm) thread them into a #10 crewel needle. Then thread on 2cm of Smooth Gilt Purl #4.

It might be a challenge getting the purl onto the needle and gently sliding it down the needle onto the thread. You won’t need a long thread tail so keep the tail end as close to the eye of the needle as possible.

Once you have the purl thread on the needle, slide the purl down onto the thread and remove the needle. Holding the top end of the purl with your fingernail, use your other hand (index finger and thumb) and gently smooth the purl down the length of thread.  

Once you have the purl thread on the needle, slide the purl down onto the thread and remove the needle. Holding the top end of the purl with your fingernail, use your other hand (index finger and thumb) and gently smooth the purl down the length of thread.  

Do avoid the temptation of running your thumb and index finger down the thread again, afterwards, as this may introduce a slight crinkling, which can make the thread look more like a check thread.

Give it a try and experiment! It is in some way quite satisfying to do (and addictive) and looks great, giving a different dimension when stitched with or couched.

Images for demonstration purposes were using Gilt Purl #6.