Author: Anna Rose Keefe

In celebration of the fourth annual New York Textile Month, members of the Textile Society of America will author Object of the Day for the month of September. A non-profit professional organization of scholars, educators, and artists in the field of textiles, TSA provides an international forum for the exchange and dissemination of information about textiles worldwide.

Artists from Klimt to Caravaggio have used the biblical scene of Judith slaying Holofernes to explore themes of power, gender, virtue, and rage. Assisted by her maid, Judith dons her most beautiful garments to entice and slay Holofernes, granting the artist liberty to depict her in either elaborate finery or a seductive state of semi-undress.

Here Judith is elaborately dressed, tranquil and unstained in the face of lust and violence. The dark detailing on her overskirt, bodice, and hennin, or conical headdress, were once metallic silver, now oxidized to black. When this piece was first stitched, the silk-core filé, silver purl, and spangles on Judith’s garments, and Holofernes’ armor, would have sparkled brightly.

The techniques used to create metallic threads in the seventeenth century produced an array of different effects. To make filé yarns, silk threads were wrapped in thin strips of metal. The yarn’s final appearance was dictated by the color, density, and twist of the silk core; the diameter and shape of the metal strip; and the tension and angle of the wrapping. Thus the white-cored filé yarns of Judith’s veil look far more diaphanous than the gold-cored filé embellishing her overskirt. To create the coils on the bodice and tent opening, metal wires were wrapped tightly around a rod, making a spiraled trim known as ‘purl’, while circular flat spangles like those at Judith’s waist could be stamped from sheets of metal or hammered flat from coiled wires.[1]

Though these materials were not new, seventeenth-century embroiderers manipulated and combined them in ambitious and dynamic ways.[2] Despite the relative luxury of the silk ground material, the surface of the textile is completely obscured by knotted stitches, with smaller knots, stem, and satin stitches accenting the faces. Biblical scenes like this one were copied from illustrations in religious texts, and their intricacy served to display both the piety and the skill of the needleworker.[3] Though an exact match for this image is elusive, the arrangement of the figures and the towers of Bethulia combine elements from sixteenth-century German woodcuts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Wellcome Collection.[4]

Anna Rose Keefe is a Costume and Textile Conservation Assistant at the RISD Museum in Providence, RI. She holds degrees from Mount Holyoke College and the University of Rhode Island, and is currently researching metal-wrapped threads.

[1] Carr, Christina. “Materials and Techniques of Secular Embroideries.” English Embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700: ‘Twixt Art and Nature, by Andrew Morrall et al., Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, 2008, pp. 99-108.

[2] Cavallo, Adolph S. Needlework., Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Smithsonian, 1979. The Smithsonian Illustrated Library of Antiques, edited by Brenda Gilchrist.

[3] Geuter, Ruth. “Embroidered Biblical Narratives and Their Social Context.” English Embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700: ‘Twixt Art and Nature, by Andrew Morrall et al., Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, 2008, pp. 57–78.

[4] Unknown German Artist, after Jost Amman. Judith and Holofernes, from Biblia, Frankfurt. 1564. Woodcut. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY. Accessed online August 1, 2019: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/399014. Unknown Artists. The xiii Chapter – Judith and her maid hide Holofernes’ head. No date. Woodcut. The Wellcome Collection. Accessed online August 1, 2019: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/vtdfyncy

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