Archive: gilded cloth

One of the most fascinating topics of the medieval painted world is that of textile painting, or staining as it was called. In England Stainers were a sub-branch of the Painters’ Guild, the latter had free reign to use the best colours and work on any substrate, including cloth, the Stainers however, were only allowed to use the cheapest stains (thin washes) of paint on cloth. Given the low intrinsic value of these items and the easily decayed nature of the cloths it is no surprise that few examples survive in the archaeological record. The surviving pieces are almost all fragments with unknown primary use. There are some notable painted or printed textiles that survive more or less intact but this is testimony to the actual social or religious importance of the final piece  rather than the resilience of the substrates.

What seems to be clear is that the prevalence of painted textiles was widespread and of moderate cost available to a range of social strata. Probate inventories of the late middle ages contain frequent references to painted or stained cloths, sometimes described in terms of colour or design. The methods of producing the painted cloths are well recorded across Europe, in some cases they reference other nations’ practises, implying a ready transfer of skills and knowledge. It could also be that there are only so many ways to achieve the same end, resulting in similarities.

Previous entries have shown work on silk, this entry will show a sampler of gilded medium weight bleached linen.

A heavy parchment stencil of the Firestriker of Burgundy was made to enable replication of the pattern.

The outline was drawn in charcoal, very lightly using the stencil, then strengthened with ink – iron gall. This was done to show the placement of the device.

The ground for the gold was made using gelatine size, gilder’s whiting and red bole, a reddish clay used for gilding. This produced a pink under layer on which to place the gold leaf. A coloured ground allows small faults in the gilding to be less noticable and in some cases enhances the colour of the leaf. The ground was allowed to dry then scraped back to fill the interstices of the weave giving as flat a surface as possible. I then burnished the ground to smooth it further and to enhance the shine of the gold when later laid.

For the gilding I used a gelatine size (water gilding), this allows the gold to be burnished when dry enough.

Gold leaf rectangles were cut slightly larger than the strikers and laid on the dampened strikers and allowed to dry.

The same was done for the flints – the cloud like blobs – but using silver leaf instead.

The sparks were applied free hand and polished and gilded.

Once dry enough the devices were burnished with an agate burnishing tool, even though the weave is still visible on the ground, the overall effect is successful with the gold and the silver leaf shining. Ideally the ground should be strong enough and deep enough in the weave to allow bending of the cloth without cracking off the gilded layer, this is less successful, although moderately resilient there is noticeable cracking. When I gild on silk I use half chalk/whiting to half titanium white, this allows for a much finer filling in the weave and complete flexibility, I cannot recall if I had done the same with this sample.

Notes: Silver leaf is prone to tarnishing, I did not glaze or varnish the leaf as is sometimes recommended and a blueish layer is clearly present.

The details were then modelled using lamp black and egg yolk, a medieval medium to paint over polished leaf.

Method sources: various late medieval painters’ treatises including; Cennino de Cennini – Book of Art –
ISBN-10: 048620054X
ISBN-13: 978-0486200545

Strasbourg manuscript –  V and R Borradaile

Material sources:
Cloth – Herts Fabrics
Gold and silver leaf – A S Handover

More fun with lakes

Over the years I have enjoyed pottering with lakes, organic colours precipitated out of the acidic solution (often alum) by adding an alkali base, such as chalk, lye, marble dust, egg shells.

I also used a later recipe for making brasil lakes which uses bicarbonate of soda. You soak or cook up the shaved brasil in an alum solution then allow to settle and strain off, then add your bicarb. Not surprisingly you quickly see a purplish pinky red foam, this will stop when the reaction is complete either completely balanced or simply because there is no more bicarb to react with. The more alkali you add the more the colour veers to the blue part of the spectrum, so a true red as we know it at best a bluish scarlet. In time the precipitated solids fall to the bottom of the vessel and you can sometimes get a completely clear liquid left over, presumably from a complete chemical reaction, my latest batch still had slightly tinted liquid over the solids. Pour through a filter paper and dry. I notice no colour difference using bicarb than I have with using egg shells, except the reaction time is much quicker with bicarb.

The nature of such lakes is a transparent solid version of the dye colour albeit colour changed, this was the method medievals used to tint over metal leaf or other colours as glazes where a simple solution of the colour would have no adhesion power at all.

Helmet Pincel

Finally, another post.
Long time, I hear you, assuming anyone still reads this, my apologies, but it was always going to be erratic, career changes are time consuming, but apologies nevertheless.

A year or so ago I was asked by a museum curator to design and make a helmet pincel, or long thin triangular flag.  He wanted to honour his brothers at arms in his 15th century jousting group. The client is well versed in medieval military matters and has high standards in his own armour and training and the project process was treated as any other design project. Initial meetings to establish requirements, preliminary sketches and ideas, project commencement and completion.

This has been my most complex project to date, in that the flag is made of many elements, each had to be agreed with the client and allowing for the inevitable corrections and amendments. It is also one of the most rewarding as I had to focus and immerse myself in the project.

Sadly I lost many of the final piece photos, but here are some late work in progress shots, poor quality, but they give you an idea, once I get time with the client, I shall take some shots of it in situ, on the helmet.

The composition;
St Mauritius (The Patron Saint of the Order) at the hoist, in gold harness and blue and red clothing.
Six crescents – one large one signifying the Order of the Crescent (the modern version of the medieval order that existed) – five smaller crescents representing four current members and one that has left the order, the latter symbolised by the connecting vine having been severed.

The crescents are unified by a trailing rose vine, spines along the base, offshoots with silver leaf ‘buds’ signify possible future members and growth, void areas are filled with green tracery, to fill space but to also join the elements, I judged there to be too much black space between the elements, it is also in keeping with such pattern seen in medieval images of flags and backgrounds.

The basic specification is as follows:
Silk – lightweight habotai
Oak gall black dye
Silver leaf for the crescents
Gold leaf for St Mauritius’ harness.
Pigments: titanium white, yellow ochre, red ochre, lamp black, synthetic vermilion, genuine ultramarine, synthetic indigo, synthetic lead yellow.
Binders – size, gum arabic.
Modern agents – conservation grade clear varnish sealer for paint and silver areas.
Fraystop for the cut edges.

Length – 3 feet, tapering right angled triangle, bifurcated last 9 inches or so.



Tools of the Trade pt 2: pens

Firstly a sorry, a long since my last post. I have been rather distracted with applying for training for a career change, so all the fun stuff has taken a distant second, third and possibly tenth place.
But, here is my next offering, pens and penknives, a brief overview of some of the kit I use for writing.

No would-be painter should be without his main tool of work, not the brush, but the humble pen. Mainly goose quill, but other feathers could employed, such as buzzard, crow and swan. These are the pens most familiar to us, but other forms of pens did exist; tubular brass/copper alloy, reed (antiquated by the late middle ages) and capillary pens such as this one.

Before a painter can paint, he must be able to draw, or so thought Cennini, the writer of a well-known artist’s treatise at the end of the fourteenth century. His opening chapters focus on the acquisition of drawing skills, using not just pens, but charcoal and lead or metal point.

There are a few ways in which pens can be cut, they generally tend to follow the same method, with a few variations.

I tend to use this method, with the exception that to make the slit, I lay the pen down, cut side up as Jenn does, but I rock my curved penknife blade on to the nib to make the slit, I found from personal experience that this results in a very clean cut. As Jenn rightly says, a sharp penknife is what is needed.

As Jenn and I both ‘do it medieval’ we tend to use the tools they did, more modern methods will invariably use modelling knives.

Some advocate tempering the quill by immersion in hot sand, I have not been shown any clear evidence that the medievals did, however, one manuscript image of a stationer’s stall, Italy, shows feather hanging up, presumably to dry. I know that older, drier feathers are harder, I end to gather mine during the summer from local reservoirs when the water fowl are shedding their feathers.

Featured below are a selection of pens and associated tools, all owned and used by me.

From left to right, goose, tubular brass, capillary pen.
The writing on the paper was done with a goose pen.

A set of well used pens

A pen case with pens and knife.

Pen knife

Bronze stylus
Used for drawing on prepared paper or for scoring lines in paper or parchment for margins and text lines.

Tools of the trade pt 1 brushes

A significant part of the fun of investigating medieval painting techniques is the tools themselves. From my very first forays into this, circa 1991, I have tried to source the proper tools for the job of a would be medieval painter. It has not been easy, some things do not survive in the archaeological record from which to copy despite being well documented in manuscripts and paintings, a prime example is paint brushes. Images of paintbrushes are common enough, the many paintings of St Luke painting the Virgin Mary show brushes amongst other tools. Cennini in his Libro d’ell Arte describes how to make two sorts of brushes, miniver and bristle.

Miniver brushes are made by gathering the tip hairs of the miniver tails into small bundles, they are wetted and shaped and leveled off, ie the cut bases of the hair are set at the same level. Each bundles is then add to another, shaped in the same way etc. Once graded they are assembled in bunches suitable for all manner of quills, goose right down to dove. The bundles are tied off with a waxen thread of linen or silk using two knots. The quill is cleaned and cut tubular part of the lower feather, the hollow end, the brush ends are then pushed gently down the quill until it sits snugly and does not fall out. A stick is then set into the other end to form the handle, approximately 9 inches long.
I tried this method, but my skills were lacking so I sought another solution, I found a traditional brush maker who was happy to supply me with just the brush tips, gathered and tied. I simply set them into the quills I had acquired. I found that if the quills were soaked in water first, they became pliable and made insertion of the finer brushes easier and when the quills dried made for a snugger fit. I added some whittled sticks, using any hardwoods appropriate to England at the time, eg oak, walnut. See top image.

Hog’s bristle
These are much simple to make than than the above, the initial process is much the same, the bristles are gathered and leveled, but are tied up in small bundles, a number of bundles are then gathered as required and tied to a tapered stick. He describes making rather large brushes, large enough for whitewashing, or laying down lime on wall, this made the brushes more supple and the abrasion tapered the bristles. When supple enough he took them apart and made them into smaller brushes, tied onto the stick as described above.

Note that the bottom brush is caked in a white substance, this is not a dirty or neglected brush, but one that has  been covered in wet chalk dust to prevent insect damage.

I made mine after sourcing some commercially available Chinese hog bristles, I had had no luck with local pig farmers, of which there are many, the main reason being the pigs were dehaired at the abbatoir. I also made brushes up out of old house paint brushes.


In certain reenactment circles, mainly those concerned with reproducing artefacts from long ago using as true to era methods and materials as possible, the subject of dyeing bone comes up. Bone was used for a wide variety of tools; lucet,  knife handles (middle), needles, smoothing tools etc, a whole plethora. There are extant recipes for dyeing bone in a variety of ways, the palette may seem a little limited to us today, given the sheer range of chemicals that represent almost any colour that we could wish for. Coloured bone could be used for artefacts such as jewellery, inlay work and things such as knife handles.

The colours include:
Brazil wood, Caesalpina Sappanensis and C. Echinata, the former is the brasil wood of medieval times, the latter is the New World alternative that was discovered by early Portuguese and Spanish colonists. C. Sappanensis occurs naturally in places such as Southern India and Sri Lanka and had a long history of being exported to Europe as a very bright red dye stuff. The discovery of the C. Echinata meant an alternative source and a reduced monopoly on trade from the East.
Madder, Rubia Tinctora, the root is used, either pulverised or in small pieces, this was a common dyeing plant used across Europe for many hundreds of years. It yields colours ranging from orange tawnies to reds and browns, depending on the location of dying and mordants. There is evidence that madder was also used as a paint for woodblock prints, but its primary use was to dye cloth.

In both red dyes the mordant is alum, this enhances the colouring and binds the colour to the substrate, I used commonly available dyeing recipes, ie an amount of either brazil or madder and an amount of alum, in this case a handful of madder with two tablespoons of alum, brazil a small handful and the same amount of alum, this was rule of thumb given the quantities of bone I was dyeing.

For dyeing bone, one recipe uses what is in effect black ink, made from a source of tannin and iron salts, often oak galls and ferrous sulphate, respectively. For my black bone I simply let the bone soak in an ink batch I had lying around.

One recipe mentions the use of verdigris, or copper acetate for the colouring agent, this chemical is made by exposing copper to acid fumes, the green is then gathered from the surface and is used variously as a pigment, ink and a dye for bone and wood. The bone or wood is laid into a solution of verdigris, then over time this takes on the green colour. At the time of writing this I have a piece of bone lying in a solution, when it it is ready I shall update this entry.

The image shows four goose bones, from left to right; black (oak gall/iron), red (brazilwood), red(madder) and undyed for control. You will note the difference in colour of the two reds, the brazil is a cooler red with a blue register and the madder is a warmer red erring to the orange, also of interest the madder specimen was a deep orange rather than a red when first removed from the solution, but overnight turned more red, I regret not taking a photo of this, next time perhaps.
Close up of end of goose bone in brazil.
Close up of goose bone in madder.
Close up of goose bone in iron gall solution (ink).

Sun helmet orb

I recently worked at the Hampton Court Tudor joust on the August Bank Holiday, 29-31, part of the display was to show not just jousting but how some of the more ephemeral items were made.

The image below is of a helmet orb.

The specification is as follows:

Turned hardwood ball
Gesso ground
Bole and gold leaf
Vermillion and lead tin yellow
Binding medium egg yolk.

This item was produced very quickly, as can be seen by the coarseness of the brush strokes up close.

The actual method is the interesting feature IMHO, that using sgraffito, this is the laying on of colour on gold or silver leaf using the egg yolk as the binder. When dry a sharp wooden stylus is used to scrape away the paint revealing the metal leaf underneath. In this case the theme of the joust was a contest between the Knight of the Sun (Henry VIII) and the Knight of the Moon (George Boleyn). The emblems used were suns for the king, in red and crescents for Boleyn, silver on black. With that in mind I reversed the idea, and used the gold as a highlight and the red as a background where the sun shone through.

You can see the rough hatching out on the upper part, what is also visible is evidence of an earlier attempt, the hatching that is underneath the red ground, luckily this method means you can redo such things.

Why not go to greater lengths in terms of detail? yes it is eminently possible, but given that this orb could have been used by the retinue of the knight of the moon and by implication produced in some quantity and the fact that such things are not observed close up so extra detail is a waste of time. Convenient use of a very few tones to achieve depth of colour was very common so an eye for boldness is needed.

Ecranche Shield

As a gift for a client I have decorated an ecranche shield in theory for parading around, however there is the possibility that he may well try to use it, his call I guess.

Plywood shield, client supplied
Linen canvas covering – client supplied
Gesso – whiting and gelatine size.
Silver leaf
Synthetic vermillion
Synthetic lead tin yellow
The client’s emblem is a a crescent argent on a red (gules) background.
His motto “los en Croissant” I do not know what that means yet, but will find out soon I expect.
The crescent is raised gesso, ie layers of gesso applied in the rough shape then scraped back to the requisite profile. I will try another method where I lay on a thicker paste like gesso then sculpt it to see if there is any difference in strength, I will also use gesso grosso – plaster of paris with size, this gives a much stronger gesso, but has a short shelf life when wet as it sets, normal gesso (sottile in cenninni’s world) can be kept wet using a bain marie.
I then laid bole upon the crescent, this is a red clay foundation often used under metal leaf, this allows for breaks in the leaf, faults, to be less visible, ie less contrast between the gold and the uncoloured ground, the red is more sympathetic with gold, but it does work with silver.
The area was burnished then I had to plan the layout for his motto.
As a burnished metal is quite smooth it needs a medium that will not run off the surface and Cenninni recommends using egg yolk as the binder, this not only lays on well, but is very tough when eventually chemically dry. I have tried gum arabic in the past but even if thick enough it will crack off, I have some egg laid in modelling on some gold from many years back and it is as tough as old boots.
After the text I added the figuring over the red, this was done a lot, I suspect it made a flat painted surface a bit more interesting closer up and at a distance did not interfere with the overall background colour.
First image is the silver and red background, the second is the figuring.


Above is a quick and dirty work on some red silk, the silk is dyed with brazil and weld, brazil givomg the red and the weld gives a good foundation for the red, even though it is yellow it is not orangey but slightly warmer than the cool red of brazil. Not a period mix as far as I know but an experiment from me.

For technical reasons I ended up making quite a few blodges on the work, also my three year old daughter decided to spray some plants as I was in the garden snapping my work, hence the blotchiness. The Lion/Leopard’s club feet are down to me mixing the ground badly and it spread.
The idea is that this is a putative cloth badge, late medievalk, possibly worn by a town dignitary for special occasions or by an officer. Instructions on cloth gilding are well recorded, so the actual technique is no mystery, just in some cases best guesses for actual uses.
This will be stitched to a stiffer canvas backing to give it some body, then it will be stitched to a garment.
The metal is gold leaf, triple weight antique, the modelling is black paint with an egg yolk medium, egg is a good medium for painting on metal leaf, there is an addition of gum arabic.
I used a modern acrylic varnish to protect it as I have not yet managed to make a decent medieval clear varnish, due to time and safety constraints, my only varnish is the brownish sort, whilst ok for gold would not serve for silver unless I was faking gold.

Of writing and paper

Below is a selection of images of a wrap book for an American client.

He wanted a commonplace book, a book of sorts, it may contain prayers, notes, accounts, recipes, basically anything of use or potentially of use to the owner.
The soft binding seems common enough, certainly the binding in this case is strongly based on the Greenhaulgh account book, Greenhaulgh was a Bailiff to a local landowner in the middle of the 15th century and his account book survives. This style of book appears to have been used for sketch books also. It makes economic sense, you have a soft binding which can be done cheaply ad easily at home, you add in the sections as required and if you need it hard bound at some point then you can, if not then no cost incurred on the binding.
The Greenhaulgh book shows evidence of expansion inasmuch as there are two distinct sets of binding thread, one blue and one white, they also are at different heights on the spine, suggesting a possible update at a later time.
What the book below does not have what the Greenhaulgh book does is a late 14thc music sheet pasted into the wrapper to provide stiffness, that alone in the original is interesting as it still has the clear remains of the azurite or ultramarine lettering and vermillion/red lead rubrics.
I do not have permission to show the book so you will have to bear with me.
Back to the client’s book.
The client had a clear idea of the contents:
A device drawn into the front page, his device being three sheaves of corn with a bend and a crescent – forgive me I do not know the heraldic form for that. I added the floral arrangement, this was based on a late 15th design with just such an escutcheon within it.
A list of ordinance, cannons.
Some metal point drawings of ordinance
A tract on fencing, early 15thc
Some useful recipes, including a corrosive liquid to clean wounds, very useful for a soldier I imagine.
The book itself is calf leather, approx 1mm, I dyed it with brazil wood.
Brazil is a dye yielding tree from the caesalpina family the name predates the country by some hundreds of years. It would appear that the discovery of similar colour yielding trees in Latin America in the early 16thc gave rise to the name of the country. The Caesalpina of the medieval world was C. sappanensis, and that of the New was C. Echinata. It would appear that most of the Brazil wood today does indeed come from Brazil. For the purposes of my work that is fine as the colour yield appears to be the same. If at such time I acquire C. Sappanensis I will conduct some trials for comparison.
The dye was prepared as per medieval recipes, the wood was shaved small and soaked in water, an amount of alum was added to the bath and boiled until the water was as red as it was going to be, allowed to settle and strained off.
In this case the leather was dyed both sides, some historic mentions say to only apply dye to the visible surface, in one particular case, the uppers of shoes, again a sensible economy, why dye the inside of something that will not be seen and most likely be corrupted by sweat?
Finally, as with all my medieval and Tudor paperwork I only use GriffenMill archive papers, these have been especially made to resemble early laid papers and they are a joy to use.
The ink is oak gall and the pens used goose quill, standard materials and tools for me.