The terms "De opere Anglicano," "de l'ouvrage," or "à la façon d'Angleterre," "de obra Anglaterra," "opus anglicanum" — "English work" — appear repeatedly in medieval continental inventories to describe an English style of embroidery famed for its fine goldwork and skilful use of the techniques of underside couching and split stitch. Though such embroidery was employed in both ecclesiastical and secular textiles, most surviving examples were for church use. These exquisite and expensive embroidery pieces were often copes but could be other types of church furnishings and vestments. They were usually embroidered on linen or, later, velvet, in split stitch and couching with silk and gold or silver-gilt thread. Gold-wound thread, pearls, and jewels figured in inventory descriptions.
This English needlework was renowned across Europe even during the Anglo-Saxon period. A Vatican inventory of 1295 lists over 113 pieces from England, more than from any other country. The Benedictine chronicler Matthew Paris of St. Albans relates this story of Pope Innocent IV's admiration for the Opus Anglicanum.
About the same time  my Lord Pope, having noticed that the ecclesiastical ornaments of certain English priests, such as choral copes and mitres, were embroidered in gold thread after a most desirable fashion, asked whence came this work? From England, they told him. Then exclaimed the pope, "England is for us surely a garden of delights, truly an inexhaustible well."
Opus Anglicanum embroidery usually covers the whole of the cloth on which it is worked, leaving only small areas of the background visible. Embroiderers in professional urban workshops produced most of the highest quality embroidery. Workshops were mostly in London and were usually run by men and employed both men and women. The embroiderer's work was regulated by informal guilds, to ensure the highest standard of work. Apprentices had to serve a minium of eight years service under a guild member and a member could take on only one apprentice at a time.
Detail of English altar frontal, c. 1315-1335.
* * *
Be sure to follow our Moderator at Eccentric Bliss
, his personal blog!