Goldwork Explored Part 1: History

goldwork calligraphy on a red fabric
Picture of Natasha Searls-Punter

Natasha Searls-Punter

Step into a world of shimmering splendour and timeless elegance as we embark on a journey into the captivating realm of goldwork embroidery. From its rich history dating back centuries to its modern-day resurgence, goldwork embroidery continues to bewitch us with its lustrous threads and exquisite craftsmanship. In this blog, we will explore the enchanting art of goldwork embroidery, its origins, techniques, and the awe-inspiring beauty it brings to the world of textile art.

Cutwork monogram of rough purl and Pearle purl over string onto a slipper upper (fabric to become a shoe) by Hawthorne & Heaney

Step into the depths of time as we unravel the fascinating history of goldwork embroidery, tracing its origins and tracing the threads that connect ancient civilizations to the present-day allure of this captivating art form.

Goldwork crown photographed from above
Detailed photo Kings crown patch made with machine embroidery and hand embroidered goldwork from kit

The Birth of Opulence Goldwork embroidery finds its roots in the mists of antiquity, where civilizations across the globe discovered the captivating allure of golden threads. From the splendour of ancient Egypt to the majestic court of Persia, and the refined aesthetics of imperial China, goldwork embroidery emerged as a way to adorn garments, textiles, and ceremonial objects with unparalleled opulence.

Gilded Wooden Statue of Ptah c. 1336-1326 BC Image taken at the Saatchi Museum Tutankhamun Exhibition

In ancient Egypt, golden threads were meticulously woven into fabrics, adorning the garments of pharaohs and high-ranking officials. These precious textiles were symbols of wealth and power, reflecting the grandeur of the ruling elite. Unsurprising, as textiles from this period are very rare to have survived this long so we do not have many good examples of this but statue depictions of textiles would indicate the presence of such textiles.

Guardian Statue of the Ka c. 1336-1326 BC Image taken at the Saatchi Museum Tutankhamun Exhibition

A little later, the advent of the Silk Road, the ancient trade network connecting East and West, played a significant role in the spread of goldwork embroidery techniques and designs. As merchants traversed vast distances, they carried with them not only precious fabrics and spices but also the artistry and craftsmanship of goldwork embroidery. This was an important trade route from 130 B.C.E. until 1453 C.E.

During this time, China renowned for its silk production, became a central hub of goldwork embroidery. The Chinese mastered the technique of couching, skillfully attaching gold threads to fabric with fine silk or metallic threads. These luxurious textiles adorned the robes of emperors, courtiers, and religious figures, bestowing upon them an aura of divine majesty.

During the medieval period in Europe, goldwork embroidery gained prominence as an art form intertwined with religious devotion. Monastic communities painstakingly crafted ecclesiastical vestments, altar cloths, and sacred textiles embellished with gold threads. The radiance of goldwork embroidery was believed to reflect the divine light and elevate the spiritual experience.

Lions on Horse Trapper c. 1330-40 Opus Anglicanum Exhibition at the V&A Museum 2016
Lions Goldwork Embroidery with gold and silver rough purl cutwork over padding, with red applique details by Hawthorne & Heaney

The opulent textiles created during this era often showcased intricate religious motifs such as saints, angels, and religious symbols. Goldwork embroidery became a testament to the wealth and influence of the Church, with its shimmering threads adorning the grand cathedrals and abbeys of Europe.

Ecclesiastical Embroidery with Japanese Thread and Pearle Purl Edge by Hawthorne & Heaney

Fashion and Artistic Expression As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages and embraced the Renaissance, goldwork embroidery transcended its religious associations and became an expression of fashion and luxury. The wealthy aristocracy sought to adorn themselves with garments and accessories adorned with intricate goldwork designs.

Ceremonial Cutwork Goldwork for Henry Poole By Hawthorne & Heaney with spangles and essing 

The Italian city-states of Florence and Venice became epicentres of goldwork embroidery during this period. Elaborate gold and silver threads embellished the garments of nobles, highlighting their status and refinement. The motifs evolved to incorporate natural elements like flowers, fruits, and animals, reflecting the growing influence of classical art and the rediscovery of ancient civilizations.

Bespoke Hand embroidered Goldwork in Black, Gold and Purple check By Hawthorne & Heaney

During this time Goldwork continued to be used resplendently in Asia as well as the west- developing slightly different styles informed by the separation of the cultures. This is particularly seen in Japanese embroidery as the country was closed to the West until 1853

Elaborate c. 18th Century Kimono Detail from the Theatre. Image taken at the V&A Museum Kyoto to Catwalk Exhibition 2020
Silk Crepe Kimono c. 1800-50 Kyoto owned by Elizabeth Smith shown as part of the Kyoto to Catwalk Exhibition at the V&A Museum 2020

This kimono is a hitoe (summer kimono for a women) which has been hand painted in ink known as ‘kaki-e’ with stencil imitation tie dyeing, a technique called surihitta. This has then been highlighted with silk and gold wrapped threads , couched into place with a series of small parallel stitches across the gold thread in a silk thread of similar colour.

Detail of Silk Crepe Kimono c. 1800-50 Kyoto owned by Elizabeth Smith shown as part of the Kyoto to Catwalk Exhibition at the V&A Museum 2020

After experiencing a decline in popularity during the Industrial Revolution, goldwork embroidery experienced a renaissance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Art movements such as the Arts and Crafts movement and the Art Nouveau movement revitalized interest in traditional crafts, including goldwork embroidery. Artisans and designers sought to preserve and revive the techniques and motifs of this ancient art form much like we strive to do today.

Intermediate Goldwork Jungle Online Class Kit from London Embroidery School

In recent years, goldwork embroidery has once again captured the imagination of contemporary artists and designers. Its timeless appeal, combined with modern aesthetics, has led to the incorporation of goldwork techniques in high fashion, costume design, and even contemporary art installations. Today, goldwork embroidery continues to inspire awe and admiration, reflecting our enduring fascination with the opulence of the past.

Goldwork cutwork Honey comb sample from the Alexander McQueen archives
Goldwork and beading gown from the Alexander McQueen archives


1950’s Dior Gown with Goldwork details Designer of Dreams Exhibition at the Musee des Arts Decoratif Paris 2017
Goldwork embroidered panel detail with semi precious stones- Designer of Dreams Exhibition at the Musee des Arts Decoratif Paris 2017
Three Patches from the Art collection featuring Goldwork techniques from the London Embroidery School


For more information to or to try your hand at goldwork for yourself, check out our kit and class offering and see what takes your fancy.

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