Embroidery using metal threads of any color is often generally referred to as goldwork. Popular colors for this type of needlework are gold, silver and sometimes copper.
Goldwork is a type of surface embroidery in which metal threads of different types are laid or attached to the surface of the fabric using couching stitches. It reached its height of popularity during the Middle Ages and was commonly used on church embroideries, particularly vestments and wall hangings. Goldwork was also used on royal vestements, robes or clothing of the elite and nobility.
The metal threads used in goldwork are not your craft store or sewing center variety of metallic embroidery threads like metallic pearl or rayon varieties. Instead, these are threads made from metal - either metal wrapped around a fiber core, or completely metal. In most cases, the gold and silver varieties are plated onto a base metal, and most expensive threads are plated with actual gold or silver, while less expensive varieties have imitation gold and silver plating.
Metal threads used in this type of embroidery are very specific and include a twisted thread called Japanese or jap gold, passing (a metallic thread wrapped around a strong, cotton core), rococco or crinkle cordonnet (which have a kinked look), buillion or pearl purl (a spring-like thread that can be pulled or stretched), frieze and faconnee (which has a faceted, jewel-like look to it), Jaceron or Pearl (which looks like a fine string of beads) and others.
Each type of metal thread is a different weight, type or texture. If you look carefully at the example shown here, the textures of the metal threads range from matte and smooth, like those in the sunburst area at the lower right side of the bag, to richly textures, like those in the flower centers.
Notice too that the ends of the metal threads are tucked to the back side of the fabric. The thread ends are not visible on the surface.
To work the design, the artist cuts the metal threads into small pieces and appliqued them to the surface of the embroidery fabric using a very fine - nearly invisible - thread, usually made from silk. Some of the pieces of metal thread used in the example shown here are less than 1/2-inch in length and look more like beads than thread - but it is indeed metal thread.
The metal threads can be couched directly onto the surface of the embroidery fabric (in this example the fabric is velvet), or padded to raise the stitches from the surface, producing a highly textured or detailed effect. The padding types used include acid-free cardboard, leather or suede, as well as wool or cotton batting.
Good quality metal threads can be expensive and goldwork is is considered an advanced technique requiring hours of practice. Mary Corbet has featured several excellent tutorials of goldwork techniques, as well as a brief history and information on materials for those interested in exploring goldwork further.I've been collecting beautiful pieces of vintage needlework for over 30 years, and have used several of the pieces as examples of Embroidery Types here on the site.
I found this silverwork evening purse an estate sale in Seattle and appears to be from the 1930's and was probably worked in India. Although tarnished where it's been handled by use and improper storage, it's in excellent condition.
In spite of the tarnish, I will not clean this bag, as this could damage it. Instead,I will carefully buff the metal threads, being careful not to break them or crush and of the details, and then wrap the piece in acid-free, archival tissue for storage.
This little evening bag is beautiful to look at. I've placed a larger photo of this pretty little bag here, so you can see the embroidery more clearly. I've also created a layout of the purse front, which makes it easier to see the amount of detail, and can also serve as a pattern if you wish to try and recreate the piece.
The evening bag shown here may not be the rarest or the best quality, but I can finally check goldwork off my collection wish-list!