Silk does not appear to have been couched in the East in early days ; and, as it was the custom to couch gold thread in Europe at least as early as the twelfth century, it is to be presumed that the method was first used for gold, which, except in the form of thin wire or extraordinarily fine thread, is not quite the thing to stitch with. Besides, it was natural to wish to keep the precious metal on the surface, and to let none of it be hidden away at the back of the stuff.
A distinguishing feature about gold is that by common consent it is used double and sewn down two threads at a time. This is hot merely an economy of work ; but except in the case of thick cords or strips of gold, it has a more satisfactory effect - why it is not easy to say. Panels A, B, C, in the sampler, Illustration 56 (Couched Gold Sampler), are couched in double threads, D in single cords.
Gold couching is there used, as it mostly is, to cover a surface. In doing that, it is usual to sew the,threads firmly down at the edges of the forms and cut them very sharply off; but they may equally well be carried backwards and forwards across the face of the stuff. The slight swelling of the gold thread where it turns gives emphasis to the outline ; but the turning wants carefully doing, and the gold thread must not be too thick. If you use a large needle (to clear the way for the thread), the turning of the gold may take place on the back instead of on the face of the material, but only in the case of very fine thread.
Gold threads often want stroking into position. This may be done with what is called a " pierce " ; but a good stiletto, or even a very large needle, will answer the purpose. Sharply pointed scissors are indispensable.
In solid couching the stitches run almost inevitably into pattern; and it is customary, therefore, to start with the assumption that they will do so, and deliberately to make them into pattern - to work them, that is to say, in vertical, diagonal, or cross lines as at A, in zigzags as at B, or in some more complicated diaper pattern as at C. The stitching is there purposely in pronounced colour, that the pattern may be quite clearly seen; at D it has more its proper value, that the effect of it may be better appreciated. The pattern may, of course, be helped by the colour of the stitching. In making the necessary stitches into appropriate pattern there is scope for art.
In fact the ornamentist, being an ornamentist, naturally takes advantage of the necessity of stitching, to pattern his metallic surfaces with diaper,
using often, as in the scroll in Illustration 57 (Couched Silver), a diversity of pattern, which gives at once varied texture and fanciful interest to the surface. There is quite an epitome of little diapers in that fragment of needlework; and one can hardly doubt that the embroiderer found it great fun to contrive them. The flat strips of metal emphasising the backs of the curves are sometimes twisted as they are sewn.
Relief is given to the other diapers on the sampler, F, G, H, J, by underlying cords. They have been purposely left bare in parts to show the structure. These underlying cords must be firmly sewn on to the linen ground; and if the stitching follows the direction of the twist in them, the round surface is not so likely to be roughened by it. By rights, the cords should be laid farther apart than in the sampler, where the attempt to force the effect (for the purpose of demonstration) has not proved very successful. An infinity of basket patterns, as these may be called (basket stitches they are not), may be devised by varying the intervals at which the gold threads are sewn down, and the number of cords they cross at a time.
The central panel of the sampler (E) shows a combination of flat and raised gold. The outline of the heart is corded ; the centre of it is raised by stitching, first with crewel wool and then with gold-coloured floss across that (it is difficult to prevent white stuffing from showing through
gold). This gives only a hint of what may be done in the way of raised ornament upon a flat gold ground, and was done in mediaeval work. A single quite thick cord may be sewn down to make a pattern in relief - leafage, scrollwork, or what not - which when the surface is all worked over with gold, has very much the effect of gilt gesso. If, for any reason, it is necessary to do heavy work of this kind on silk or satin, that must first be backed with strong linen.
In mediaeval and church work generally the double threads are usually laid close together, forming, as in the diapers on sampler, a solid surface of gold; and that was largely done in Oriental embroidery too - in Chinese, for example, where, however, the threads, instead of being couched in straight lines, follow the outlines of the design, and are worked ring within ring until the space is filled, as in the dragon's face, A, Illustration 58 (Couched Gold Not Quite Solid). There is here, as in the working of the dragon's body, a certain economy of gold; a small amount of the ground is allowed to show between the lines of double gold thread - not enough to tell as ground, but enough to give a tint of the ground colour to the metal. Further, in this more open work the direction of the lines of couching goes for more than in solid embroidery. The pattern made by the gold thread is here not only ornamental but suggestive of the scaly body of the creature. It will be seen, too, how, in the working
of the legs, the relatively compact gold threads are kept well within the outline, by which means anything like harshness of silhouette is avoided.
That this less solid manner was not confined to the far East is shown by the Venetian valance, B, on the lower part of page 137, which has very much the appearance of gold lace.
A good example of outline (single thread) in gold is given in Illustration 59 (Couched Outline Work), part of an Italian housing, which reminds one both in effect and in design of damascening, to which it is in some respects equivalent; only, instead of gold and silver wire beaten into black iron or steel we have gold and silver thread sewn on to dark velvet. The design recalls also the French bookbindings of the period of Henri II., in which the tooled ornament was precisely of this character. The resemblance is none the less that an occasional detail is worked more solidly; but in the main this is outline work, and a beautiful example of it. The art in work of that kind is, of course, largely in the design. Gold thread work in spiral forms has very much the effect of filigree in gold wire.
The next step is where the cords of gold enclose little touches of embroidery in coloured floss, as in Illustration 99 (Renaissance Ornament). These have the value of so many jewels or bits of bright enamel. In fact, just as outline work in simple gold thread resembles damascening or filigree, so this outlining of little spaces of coloured silk suggests enamel.
The cord of the embroiderer answers to the cloisons of the enameller, the surfaces of shining floss to the films of vitreous enamel.
Applique embroidery is constantly edged with gold or silver thread. An effective, if rather rude, example of this, the threads always double, is given in Illustration 60 (Applique - Satin On Velvet.).
In couching more than one thread at a time there is a difficulty in turning the angles. The threads give, of necessity, only gently rounded forms. To get anything like a sharp point, you must stop short with the inner thread before reaching the extreme turning point, and take it up again on your way back. What applies to two threads, applies of course still more forcibly to three.
The colour with which gold thread is sewn is a question of considerable importance. If the stitches are close enough together to make sound work, they give a flush of colour to the gold. Advantage is commonly taken of this both in mediaeval and Oriental work to warm the tint by sewing it down with red. The Chinese will even work with a deeper and a paler red to get two coppery shades. White stitching pales the gold, yellow modifies it least, green cools it, and blue makes it greener. The closer the stitches the deeper the tint of course.
You can get thus various shades of gold out of the same thread, and even gradation from one to another, as may be seen in a great deal of
Spanish work of the sixteenth century, in which the gold ornament is often quite delicately shaded from yellowish gold to ruddy copper on the one hand, and to bronzy green on the other. Similar use may be made of vari-coloured silks in couching white or other cord ; but gold reflects the colour as silk does not, and gives proportionately more subtle effects.
The Flemings and Italians of the early Renaissance went further. They had a way of laying threads of gold and sewing them so closely over with coloured silk that in many parts it quite hid the gold. Only in proportion as they wanted to lighten the colour of the draperies in their pictorial embroideries did they space the stitches farther and farther apart, and let the gold gleam through. Except in the high lights it did not pronounce itself positively. The effect is not unlike what is seen in paintings of the primitive school, where the high lights of the red and blue draperies are hatched with gold. The practice of the embroiderer may be reminiscent of that, or that may be the origin of the primitive painters' convention. It is much as if the embroiderer wanted to represent a precious tissue, a stuff shot with gold.
Illustration 80 (Sixteenth-Century Italian Figure Work,) gives part of a figure worked in this way, relieved against a more golden architectural background worked, as you can see, over the very same double threads of gold which run across the figures. In the architecture, however, they are couched in stitches which are never so near as to take away from the effect of the gold. The different degrees to which the gold may be obscured or clouded by oversewing are here shown in. most instructive contrast. The cords, as usual, are laid in horizontal courses. That was the convenient way of working. It resulted in a corded look, which has very much the appearance of tapestry; and there is no doubt that resemblance to tapestry was in the end consciously sought. That the method here employed was laborious needs so saying; but it gave most beautiful, if at times pictorial, results.