Stitching it Together – The Lost Art of the Anglo-Saxon World: The Sacred and Secular Power of Embroidery

How does a book on a “Lost Art” come into being? DR. ALEXANDRA LESTER-MAKIN shares how her research into medieval embroidery began, and evolved into the book The Lost Art of the Anglo-Saxon World: The Sacred and Secular Power of Embroidery.

This project was my academic baby. Its been with me for over 18 years, from when I was completing my undergraduate degree in Archaeology. But how did I become so obsessed?

Its a bit of a story really. After finishing my A-levels I went to the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace.  I spent three years as an embroidery apprentice working in this amazing building. After a rewarding but intense three years, I decided I never wanted to look at, let alone stitch, another embroidery and I made the decision to head in a completely different direction, focussing on my other interest, archaeology. I also wanted a change from London so I headed up north to the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It was fantastic and just down the road was my brother, studying history at Durham. On a visit to see him, we went to Durham Cathedral and that’s when I first saw the 10th-century embroidered stole, maniple and probable ribbons that had been re-discovered in the tomb of St Cuthbert in 1827. I remember standing in front of the dimly lit case stunned. The delicacy, precision and finesse of the embroideries was astounding, and they were archaeological! That was it. I wanted to know everything about what I called Anglo-Saxon embroidery. It became the focus of my undergraduate dissertation. I bored anyone who would listen and I started to embroider again, making samples of the basic stitches for my project.

Alexandra examining the Bayeux Tapestry. The Bayeux Tapestry belongs to the French State.

While researching my dissertation I contacted Dr Elizabeth (Betty) Coatsworth, who was working at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). She was the only person who had looked at and written about early medieval embroidery as a scholarly topic in its own right. After I finished my degree, I was going to stay on at Newcastle but during the holiday I changed my mind. I emailed Betty asking if I could move to MMU to research early medieval embroidery and textiles with her. After getting over the shock of my request she said yes and within two months I had applied, been accepted at MMU and moved to Manchester. I started my PhD with Betty and Professor Gale Owen-Crocker (University of Manchester) as my supervisors. Frances Pritchard (then at The Whitworth, Manchester) was also an advisor. Unfortunately, funding opportunities fell through and after a year of self-funding it became obvious that I couldn’t carry on. I left, heartbroken, thinking that was the end.

A few years later, after gaining a PGCE, I moved to Stockport to work as a school teacher and head of Design Technology. I got back in touch with Betty and Gale and started to attend evening talks at the University of Manchester. It was on the way from pre-talk drinks to one of these meetings that Betty and Gale cornered me on a flight of stairs in the Christie Building. They told me they felt it was important that I go back to the PhD and that I didn’t have much time. Betty had retired and Gale was thinking about retirement. They told me to go away, think hard and then go for it! Quickly! At home I discussed the options with my husband. He agreed and I applied to Manchester.

In 2010 I re-started the PhD on a part-time basis. Gale was my main supervisor; Betty my external and Dr Melanie Giles my Archaeology supervisor. I continued to teach full-time for two years but with the workloads and stress it couldn’t continue, so I went part-time. After a further two years it became obvious that I had to make a decision about my future career and with a heavy heart I left my teaching post. Now I could focus full time on the PhD.

Alex Lester-Makin and a conservator studying the Maaseik Embroideries

During the research process I travelled to museums, conservation studios, churches and cathedrals in England, Wales, France and Belgium. I sat in awe of the minute archaeological fragments and huge monumental artworks. I was given permission to take photographs, microscopic images, look at restricted photographs and archives, take measurements and technically decipher these beautiful but fragile pieces. I made friends and contacts who have enabled me to continue my research in detail on pieces such as the Bayeux Tapestry. I’ve continued to present and teach to a wide range of audiences in different countries, spreading the joy and awe that early medieval embroidery, some of which is little known, can inspire. It wasn’t all practical with quite a bit of research undertaken in the library. Because the project also placed the embroideries in their social context, I investigated early medieval society, its evolution, the role of embroideries within in it, and the role of women in creating and using them. This added another exciting dimension to the research.

In December 2016 I had my viva with Melanie Giles, who had swapped roles part way through my PhD, and Professor Martin Biddle, that great archaeologist who I am now fortunate to count as a friend. I passed! It wasn’t as traumatic as I had anticipated but it was exhausting. I had minor corrections which I completed by the end of that month. During the viva both Martin and Melanie had urged me to publish the thesis and this became the next goal. Over the following three years my friend and editor Anna Henderson and I re-worked the thesis into book format. Oxbow Books agreed to publish it in their Ancient Textiles series and in September 2019 the book was released.

Since the book’s publication people have contacted me to tell me how much they have enjoyed reading it and what they have learnt from it. This is fantastic! This is what I wanted, to spread joy, knowledge and enthusiasm for early medieval embroidery, its creators and their places in early medieval society. Finally, my baby has flown the nest. I feel bereft, but early medieval embroidery has now taken its rightful place in early medieval and embroidery scholarship. It is a lost art no longer.

About the Author:

Alexandra Lester-Makin is a textile archaeologist specialising in early medieval embroidery. She undertakes funded research, investigating the technical attributes of early medieval embroidery, its material culture, and its place in society. She is also interested in women’s roles in creating and using embroidery. Alexandra has appeared in documentaries and various news outlets discussing the Bayeux Tapestry and she is a technical consultant to a number of museums and heritage projects. Alexandra also teaches workshops and lectures about the subject.

Find out more:

The Lost Art of the Anglo-Saxon World: The Sacred and Secular Power of Embroidery
By Alexandra Lester-Makin

Presents the first detailed analyses of all 43 known embroideries believed to have been made in Britain in the early medieval period.

9781789251449 | Oxbow Books | Paperback | £40.00