Most modern embroiderers are familiar with the technique known as ‘couching’ where the embroiderer will lay a thread on a base material and secure it in place from the reverse with a series of small stitches. Many, however, don’t know about its close relative ‘Underside couching’ where the smaller stitch returns through the same hole in the base material and pulls the thread through to the other side. Just as the name suggests the underside of the base material is where the couching takes place, leaving the surface free of excessive threads or unwanted details.
Throughout the middle ages Opus Anglicanum embroiderers would use gold-coloured passing threads on the surface, creating a luxurious metallic lustre that contrasted well with the split stitch silk threads used in the detail. Underside couching works best when creating a repeating interlocking pattern or lattice. Recognisable patterns can include brickwork, herringbone or chevrons but a skilled embroiderer would also be able to create organic designs such as florals or flowing hair.The benefit of the underside couching over couching is that each stitch creates a hinge in the surface thread which allows the overall garment to move, flow and drape. Couching with metallic threads acts to stiffen the material making it unsuitable for garments. For this reason, underside couching was the preferred technique for more ornamental pieces such as copes.
Today only a handful of ecclesiastical embroiderers still use underside couching, but mostly it is recognised as just one of the skills within the wider technique of goldwork. In recent times this once popular medieval skill has mostly been seen on the intricate costumes of matadors, the vestments of priests at major occasions or on the catwalk of a few haute couture designers’ shows.
This is an extract from Sasha Danker's article in the Decorative issue of Selvedge.
Learn the art of underside couching and gold work with Hand & Lock on Saturday 14 February, 11-5pm, £120.
There are 12 places available, for this beginners course.
Hand & Lock, 86 Margaret Street, London, W1W 8TE