Metal Thread Embroidery

Purse, mid-18th century, French, Embroidered linen with metal purl, silver and gold thread and coloured, plain woven silk Purse, mid-18th century, French, Embroidered linen with metal purl, silver and gold thread and coloured, plain woven silk Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London, acc. no. T.44-1970

Metal thread embroidery is a form of decorative needlework that uses one or more different types of metal thread. This type of work is much more expensive than using ‘normal’ threads, such as linen, silk or wool, and as a result is associated with status and wealth, whether it is secular or religious in nature.

The origin of metal thread embroidery is unknown, and it is likely to have developed independently in many parts of the world where gold and other metals were being worked for fine jewellery and metal objects, such as drinking vessels and boxes.

In the West there are Classical references, for example, to metal thread embroidery having been developed by the Phyrgians (modern western Turkey), but there is no physical evidence to support this suggestion. Based again on early written sources, it would appear that many of the Roman emperors wore gold embroidered garments, but sadly none have survived. Some of the oldest known examples of metal thread embroidery date to the Byzantine period (4th century AD onwards) and this form had a profound influence on Orthodox Christian communities, such as the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches.

China, India and Japan are also famous for metal thread embroidery, and it would appear that it was a popular form of embroidery for at least two thousand years and probably much longer. The range and styles of this type of embroidery vary considerable among these three countries. Gold work embroidery can also be found in Indonesia (Sumatran embroidery), but it is not as well known as that produced in other Asian countries.

Metal threads can be used for many styles of embroidery and is not always confined to the surface or free-style forms as often stated, although these are the most commonly encountered. In some countries, for example India, Turkey and Tunisia, the metal thread is often used as a normal thread and passed between the front and back of the ground material. Different effects are created using padding, templates, a variety of metal threads, sometimes alone and sometimes in combination with other threads, and colour. A common metal thread embroidery technique is where the threads are laid on the surface of the ground cloth and are couched down. This style of work can be found in many countries around the world.

See also: brodeur (gold thread embroidery)Hans Holbein the Younger and gold thread embroidery; Japanese threadmellor; Opus Anglicanumor nué.


  • GARSIDE, Paul (2012). 'Gold and silver metal thread', in: Gale Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth Coatsworth and Maria Hayward (eds.). Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles, c. 450-1450, Brill: Leiden, pp. 237-239. 
  • MARSH, Gail (2006). 18th Century Embroidery Techniques, Lewes: Guild of Master Craftsman Publications. Paperback edition 2012, pp. 38-69.

V&A online catalogue (retrieved 8 July 2016).


Last modified on Wednesday, 04 January 2017 17:39
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