Saturday 22 August 2009

My Mother and the Varangian Guards

The Varangian Guards were sometimes referred to as Beserkers and so you might wonder what they had to do with a gentle and excellent needlewoman from Yorkshire. The most obvious link is that they both laid claim to Scandinavian descent, my mother through her red-haired (Rus/Viking) relatives in Ireland, and the Varangians whose name was synonymous with Swedes until the late 16th century. The Varangians were Scandinavian mercenaries usually employed as bodyguards in the Byzantine Empire, in Constantinople and, perversely, in the 11th century they fought the Norman (Norseman) Monarchy which had captured the Island of Sicily in the Mediterranean. Both Constantinople and Sicily were centres of silk-weaving which produced fantastic damascene silk court and sacred robes. (Damascene weaving allows for the carrying of weft across a number of warp threads, the effect of which is to create a pattern which reflects light and glitters against the more matt background of a twill weave.) It is no surprise that the Varangians did a bit of sacking and pillaging in the course of their careers and some of these precious silks were taken back North. Not having the technology or the crafting skill at the time, workers in Scandinavia found that it was possible to emulate similar effects by 'darning' a pattern upon a plain linen ground. Opus Teutonicum - white on white pattern darned embroidery - is probably a descendent of this technique and it was certainly carried to Thule (Iceland). Here you can see an Icelandic altar front which is pattern darned - though the darning is nothing to do with mending; it is like a fly caught in Baltic amber, a memory of the desire for patterned damascene silk. My mother? I nearly forgot; she belonged to a group of textile workers called Burlers and Menders who were in great demand to 'fix' bolts of cloth which came off the loom with numerous knots and snags and had to be repaired by carefully mending warp and woof to match the weave of the cloth. Darning in other words, but with a great knowledge of all the various weaves. Demand for this skill dates back to the introduction of the New Draperies in the late middle-ages. Before their arrival from the Low Countries, woollen textiles were felted and showed no weaving pattern. If you were a young girl in the textile centres of Norfolk or Yorkshire, this was a way of earning a crust, either working in a factory, or as an outworker if you also had children to care for. It is worthwhile to bear in mind the distinction between 'pattern-darning' which is a form of textile creation and 'darning' as a means of mending - it is so easy to confuse them - like my mother with the Varangian Guards.

Thank you Ine from the Netherlands for telling us that stitching diagrams exist for this altar piece just click here.

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