Kempston Embroidery


By Peter C Horn

Faemne aet hyre bordan geriseth
(A Woman’s place is at her embroidery)

A woman’s grave at Kempston, Bedfordshire, dated to either the 6th or the 7th century, during the Anglo-Saxon period, yielded the earliest piece, so far, of Anglo-Saxon (Early English) wool embroidery (see Crowfoot 1990). This is the same grave that yielded the Kempston Beaker, situated in an Anglo-Saxon burial site now occupied by the Saxon Centre in Kempston.
The embroidery that was found is a small fragment of fine lichen purple worsted wool textile in a broken lozenge twill weave embroidered with fine 2-ply wool thread. The design is a scrolling vegetative border, outlined in one red line and filled with double lines of stem stitch. Stem stitch is primarily an outlining stitch.
Another view is “The design is in red, blue and yellow worked on a lozenge twill fabric, which may have been dark brown (rather than purple). (Owen-Crocker 1986). The embroidery was found in a relic box, which may have hung from the woman’s girdle. It has been suggested that the fragment of embroidery was a Christian relic, cut from the garment of a saint, but this does not accord with the presence of grave goods invariably associated with a pagan burial.
Anglo-Saxon embroidery was famous throughout Europe and the known world during the 8th to the 14th century. Work done by embroideresses reached a high level of skill never surpassed; such work was known as Opus Anglicanum (English Work). (Norton, 1991)


Crowfoot Elizabeth, Textile fragments from relic boxes in Anglo-Saxon graves” In Textiles in Northern Archaeology, ed. Penelope Walton & Peter Wild pp 47-56 North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles, Monograph 3 London Archetype Publications 1990.
Owen-Crocker Gale, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, 1986.
Norton Elizabeth, Opus Anglicanum, 1991.