It is customary to draw a distinction between church or ecclesiastical, as it is called, and other embroidery; but it is a distinction without much difference. Certain kinds of work are doubtless best suited to the dignity of church ceremonial and to the breadth of architectural decoration ; accordingly, certain processes of work have been adopted for church purposes, and are taken as a matter of course - too much as a matter of course. The fact is, work precisely like that employed on vestments and the like (Illustration 86 (Renaissance Church Work)) was used also for the caparison of horses and other equally profane purposes.
Practical considerations, alike of ceremonial and decoration, make it imperative that church work should be effective: religious sentiment insists that it should be of the best and richest, unsparingly and even lavishly given ; common-sense dictates that the loving labour spent upon it should not be lost. And these and other such considerations involve methods of work which, by constant use for church purposes, have come to be classed as ecclesiastical embroidery. But there is no
consecrated stitch, no stitch exclusively belonging to the church, none probably invented by it. For embroidery is a primitive art - clothes were stitched before ever churches were furnished - and European methods of embroidery are all derived from Oriental work, which found its way westwards at a very early date. Phrygia (sometimes credited with the invention of embroidery) passed it on to Greece, and Greece to Italy, the gate of European art.
Christianity produced new forms of design, but not new ways of work. The methods adopted in the nunneries of the West were those which had already been perfected in the harems of the East.
Embroidery for the church must naturally take count of the church, both as a building and as a place of worship; but, as apart from all other needlework, there is no such thing as church embroidery; and the branding of one very dull kind of thing with that name is in the interest neither of art nor of the church, but only of business. "Ecclesiastical art" is just a trade-term, covering a vast amount of soulless work. There is in the nature of things no reason why art should be reserved for secular purposes, and only manufacture be encouraged by the clergy. The test of fitness for religious service is religious feeling; but that is hardly more likely to be found in the output of the church furnisher (trade patterns overladen with stock symbols), than in the stitching of the devout needlewoman, working for the glory of God, in whose service of old the best work was done.
Many of the examples of old work given on these pages are from church vestments, altar furniture, and the like ; information on that point will be found in the descriptive index of illustrations at the beginning of the book ; but they are here discussed from the point of view of workmanship, with as little reference as possible to religious or other use : that is a question apart from art.
The distinguishing features of church work should be, in the first place, its devotional spirit, and, in the second, its consummate workmanship. In it, indeed, we might expect to find work beyond the rivalry of trade, controlled as that is by conditions of time and money. Even then it would be but the more perfect expression of the same art which in its degree ennobled things of civic and domestic use.
Church embroidery, as usually practised in these days, is not only the most rigid and frigid in design, but the hardest and most mechanical in execution. The defect of hardness arises in great part from the way it is done. It is not embroidered straight upon the silk or velvet which forms the groundwork of the design, but separately on linen. The pattern thus worked is cut out, and either pasted straight on to the ground-stuff, or, if the linen is at all loose, first mounted on thin paper and then cut out and pasted on to the velvet, where it is kept under pressure until it is dry. In either case the edges have eventually to be worked over.
This habit of working on linen or canvas and applying the embroidery ready worked on to the richer stuff, though early used on occasion, does not seem to have been common until a period when manufacture generally usurped the place of art. The work in Illustration 87 (Gothic Church Work) was done directly on to the silk. But at a comparatively early date there was already a regular trade in embroidery ready to sew on, by means of which purveyors could turn out in a day or two what would have taken months to embroider directly on to the stuff.
Even if it had been the invariable mediaeval practice to work sprays or what not upon canvas and apply them bodily to the velvet, that would not make it the more workmanlike or straightforward way of working. If needle stitches are the ostensible means of getting an effect upon a stuff, it seems only right they should be stitched upon that stuff. To work the details apart and then clap them on to it, stands to embroidery very much in the relation of applied fretwork to wood carving. Nor is it usually happy in result. Occasionally, as in the case of Miss Shrewsbury's vine-leaf pattern (Illustration 88 (Modern Church Work By Miss Shrewsbury)), it disarms criticism. More often it looks stuck-on. A way of avoiding that look is to add judicious after-stitching on the stuff itself. This must not be confined to the sewing
on or outlining merely, but should be allowed to wander playfully over the field, so as to draw your eye away from the margin of the applied patch, and lead you to infer that, some of the needlework being obviously done on the velvet, all of it is. But to disguise in this way the line of demarcation, even if you succeed in doing it, is at best the art of prevarication.
No doubt it is difficult to work upon velvet. The stuff is not very sympathetic, and the stitching has a way of sinking into the pile, and being, as it were, drowned in it. But the trailing spirals of split-stitch which play about the applied spots in many a mediaeval altar cloth (Illustration 89 (Gothic Sprig Applique)) hold their own quite well enough to show that silk can be worked straight on to the velvet.
That gold may be equally well worked straight on to velvet may be seen in any Indian saddle cloth. Heavy work of this kind may be rather man's work than woman's; but that is not the point. The question is, how to get the best results; and the answer is, by working on the stuff.
It may be argued that in this way you cannot get very high relief; but the occasions for high relief are, at the best, rare. If you want actual modelling, as in the Spanish work referred to in a previous chapter, that must, of course, be worked separately, built up, as it were, upon the canvas and worked over. And there is no reason why it
should not, for in no case does it appear to be stitching. In fact, it aims deliberately at the effect of chased and beaten metal.
Heavy applique of any kind affects, of course, not only the thickness but the flexibility of the material thus enriched - an important consideration if it is meant to hang in folds.