A Brocaded Belt with Pewter Buckle and Point
This was my entry in my shire's 2005 Arts & Science competition.
NO IMAGES are included at present! They'll come, some day... :)
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This item is a brocaded tabletwoven belt with a buckle and endpiece cast in pewter and set with cabochons of carnelian, following Anglo-Saxon decorative styles and patterns.
Tabletweaving in General
Tabletweaving is an ancient method of weaving narrow strips of strong fabric which can be used for a wide variety of purposes ranging from the decorative (such as trim for clothing) to the utilitarian (such as straps and lacings)(1). Early examples of tabletweaving date to the iron age(2) and significant number of Anglo-Saxons burials(3) with the remains of tabletwoven bands have been found. The technique was in constant use throughout the middle ages but gradually fell out of favour during the 16th century.
The basic concept of tabletweaving is fairly straightforward. The weave is set up by threading four lengths of yarn through four holes in the corners of a square tablet. Multiple tablets are placed side-by-side and the ends of the yarns are tied off, resulting in a warp setup as shown to the right.
A separate weft thread is passed through the gap between the upper and lower threads, the tablets are turned 90 degrees, and the warp is beaten down to tighten it. Then the weft is passed through again, the tablets are turned etc. At its simplest level this will produce a plain single-coloured band of quite surprising strength. Motifs can be introduced by using threads of different colour and by changing the direction and sequence in which tablets are turned(4).
A number of tabletweaving techniques were used in period, but the further back we go the harder it is to tell for certain which ones were used because fabric does not tend to survive that long. In the Anglo-Saxon burials it was mostly the metallic remains of brocaded bands that survived while the underlying yarn disintegrated.
The distinguishing feature of brocaded tabletweaving is that the patterns are made by one or more additional decorative wefts which rise above the fabric in some places and are hidden in others. The vast majority of surviving brocaded bands used gold metallic thread or flat gold strips, though silver thread and silk were also used(5). Since these materials were very expensive and the method itself quite time-consuming, brocaded bands were a definite sign of wealth and status.
Usually the underlying band was a single colour plain weave, but we have a variety of period pieces where the backgrounds was patterned using more complicated tabletweaving techniques(6). I chose to use a plain ground weave varied only by subtle texture-patterned lengthwise stripes(7).
The majority of period brocaded bands used a single brocade weft but there are examples where several different wefts were used. In those cases it was generally a metallic weft plus a coloured silk weft, or just two or three coloured silk wefts. Using multiple wefts increases the weaving time quite significantly!
I based the pattern on the style of decoration common amongst Anglo-Saxons. Interlaces and zoomorphs based on both natural and imaginary creatures can be seen in almost any Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscript(8), and the same motifs carried over into other forms of art such as carving and metalwork(9) as well as weaving. Animal motifs appear on the bands decorating the vestments of St Cuthbert, which are dated to the early 10th century, and patterns of interlacing lines and cross-like shapes can be found on most remains of Anglo-Saxon bands(10).
A critical aspect in designing a brocade pattern is to make sure that the brocade wefts - in this case the gold and red threads on the surface of the band - are woven into the fabric frequently enough so that no loose loops on which the band might snag will appear. The challenge is to create the design so that the tie-down points (the places where the brocade wefts disappears into the band) actually form part of the pattern rather than disrupting it. Thus the spots on the body of the dragon are not only a decoration, they are also a necessity to prevent long floats of gold thread on the surface.
Virtually all period brocaded bands used silk, linen, or wool for the ground weave. In most of these bands the thread used was quite fine, approximately the thickness of sewing thread (wool was usually slightly thicker, but not by much). Bands with 40 or more picks(11) per centimetre or more were not unusual, resulting in a very finely woven final product.
The primary brocade weft in Anglo-Saxon weaving was metallic thread, which was made by coiling a thin strip of gold around a core of silk or other fibre. Flat strips of finely beaten gold were also used for brocading(12). The metallic threads recovered from Anglo-Saxon graves were often very fine, and usually similar in thickness to the yarn used for the ground weave.
For this piece I used 30/2 spun silk for the ground weave and weft, and a #5 gold passing thread as brocade weft. Since this band was intended as a belt, I used silk which is somewhat thicker than the norm. I averaged around 10 picks/cm, while the average for period bands is 20-30 picks/cm, but there are some examples which have as low or lower a pick count than mine.
The metallic thread is the closest modern equivalent I could find to medieval metallic threads - like the period ones, this thread consists of a fine strip of metal wound around a central core(13). According to my supplier the metal strip actually contains a certain amount of gold, though she was unable to say exactly how much.
Buckle and Point
A true Saxon belt of this kind would have had a gold (or at least gold-plated) buckle, but lacking the werewithal for such I cast the buckle and point in pewter(14). Although I do not know of any Anglo-Saxon buckles in pewter, we do have later period examples of such(15), and pewter and tin were used by the Saxons(16).
In keeping with the style of Anglo-Saxon decoration and to mirror the brocade pattern, I repeated the dragon head motif on the buckle and point. The cabochons(17) are surrounded by maze-like line decorations which can be found in a number of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts(18), and like period gems the stones are polished but not faceted. Garnet would have been my preferred stone since it was widely used, but I was unable to find them as cabochons so I used carnelian instead, which was also used in period(19).
A period method for casting a buckle was the so-called lost wax method: first a wax carving of the item is made, which is then encased in clay or fine sand. This is heated until the wax has melted out, then the metal is cast into the mould. After the metal has cooled the mould is broken (or if carefully constructed, taken apart to be re-used) and the piece is finished off by filing and polishing (of which a great deal is usually required).
I used the same basic approach except that I made the mould of heat-resistant silicon, which allowed me to cut out the wax carving without destroying it. I first made a mould for the point, then added the buckle loop to the wax carving and made a second mould for the buckle.
Both pieces are attached to the belt by rivets; this was the usual method of attachment(20). Some buckles had separate rivets while others had integral ones, and I decided to use the latter so as not to affect the pattern on the front of the plate. While most if not all period buckles had tongues, I decided to do without one because that would have required holes in the belt itself, which would have disrupted the pattern more than I would have liked.
The belt is worn by passing the end though the loop, then knotting it around itself. The same manner of wearing belts scan be seen in a variety of later period manuscripts (earlier period ones were more stylised and rarely showed that kind of detail) as well as on tomb effigies(21).
A.1. 9th/10th century Band from Augsburg, textured in twist-patterned warp twining.
Source: The Techniques of Tabletweaving.
A.2. Anglo-Saxon Illumination
Corner of a page from the Canterbury Psalter, showing knotwork and simple maze decorations in the base. c. 730/40 AD.
Corner of a page from the Trier Gospels, showing knotwork and creatures (dogs?) of some sort. 1st half of 8th century.
Corner of a page from the Gospels of Saint Chad, showing knotwork and maze decorations. Early 8th century.
Source: Celtic & Anglo-Saxon Painting
A.3. The so-called Alfred Jewel, 9th century.
Source: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.
A.4. Brocade Threads
Electron microscope photograph of a 13th century metallic thread. Spies p61.
The gold #5 passing thread which I used, showing the metal strip unravelling from the core.
A.5. A two-part clay period mould from Finland and the brooch cast using it.
Photo taken in the National Museum, Helsinki.
A.6. English Tomb Effigies, showing how a belt was knotted around the buckle.
Photos taken in Salisbury Cathedral.
A.7. A Merovingian buckle (5th-8th century), very similar in style to Anglo-Saxon work.
Photo taken in the V&A Museum, London.
B.1. Sketch of brocaded band with bird and snake (?) pattern, from the vestments
of St Cuthbert. Early 10th century.
Source: The Tablet-woven Braids from the Vestments of St. Cuthbert at Durham
B.2. Sketch of brocaded band with interlacing lines, from a burial in Lyminge, Kent.
5th - 8th century.
Source: Early Anglo-Saxon Gold Braids.
B.3. My patterns.
Crowfoot et al. See chapter 'Narrow Wares' in Textiles and Clothing.
(2) Collingwood p12.
(3) Biddle describes the finds from a 9th century Anglo-Saxon burial, and Crowfoot cites more than half a dozen 6th century burials.
(4) Please note that this is a very abbreviated description of the wide variety of patterns that can be created with tabletweaving! (5) See my documentation for last year's A&S entry, which sums up my analysis of period brocaded wefts.
(6) For example the 10th century Maniple of St. Ulrich (Collingwood Plates 167/8) and the 12th century belt of Philip of Swabia (Collingwood Plate 75). (7) A 9th/10th century band from Augsburg was woven with letters in this technique (Kubach & Haas, items 1594/5). See Appendix A.1.
(8) In fact, the challenge would be to find a manuscript which isn't illuminated in that style. See Appendix A.2.
(9) See Appendix A.3.
(10) See Appendix B for some examples.
(11) Pick = one pass of the weft and turn of the tablets. The more picks/cm, the finer and more detailed the pattern.
(12) See Biddle as well as Crowfoot & Hawkes.
(13) See Appendix A.4.
(14) Modern lead-free pewter, of course.
(15) Egan & Pritchard, pp21.
(16) Milne & Richards p61 list fragments of moulds with traces of Zn, Pb, and Cu.
(17) A cabochon is a polished but not faceted gem, usually round or oval.
(18) Nordfalk Plate 24, Gospels of Saint Chad.
(19) Cariadoc's Miscellany.
(20) The only one I am aware of, in fact. All tabletwoven belts and straps with buckles which I have seen were riveted, without exception.
(21) See Appendix A.6.
Biddle, Martin. Object and Economy in Medieval Winchester. Oxford 1990.
Coatsworth, Elizabeth; Fitzgerald, Mary; Leahy, Kevin; and Owen-Crocker, Gale. 'Anglo-Saxon Textiles from Cleatham, Humberside' in Textile History. Volume 22 Number 1. 1996.
Crowfoot, Elisabeth; Pritchard, Frances; and Staniland, Kay. Textiles and Clothing c. 1150-c. 1450. Medieval Finds from Excavations in London, 4. Boydell, London 1992.
Crowfoot, Elizabeth; Hawkes, Sonia Chadwick. 'Early Anglo-Saxon Gold Braids' in Medieval Archaeology XI. 1967.
Crowfoot, Grace. 'The Tablet-woven Braids from the Vestments of St. Cuthbert at Durham' in The Antiquaries Journal. (issue unknown)
Egan, Geoff; and Pritchard, Frances. Dress Accessories 1150 - 1450. Boydell, London 2002.
Flury-Lemberg, Mechthild. Textilkonservierung im Namen der Forschung. Abegg Stiftung, 1988.
Friedman, David. 'Concerning Gemstones' in Cariadoc's Miscellany. 1978.
Gartz, Eckhard. A Practical Examination of Wefts used in Medieval Brocaded Tabletweaving.
Geijer, Agnes. Birka III: Die Textilfunde aus den Gräbern. Uppsala 1938.
Kubach, Hans Erich; & Haas, Walter. Die Kunstdenkmäler von Rheinland-Pfalz: Der Dom zu Speyer. Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1972.
Milne, Gustav; and Richards, Julian. Two Anglo-Saxon Buildings and Associated Finds. York University Archaeological Publications 9. 1992.
Nordenfalk, Carl. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Painting. New York 1977.
Savage, Anne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. 1995.
Spies, Nancy. Ecclesiastical Pomp & Aristocratic Circumstance: A Thousand Years of Brocaded Tabletwoven Bands. Arelate Studio, Jarrettsville 2000.