It’s thought that goldwork embroidery originated in China many years ago and the craft was brought from Asia, via Beirut, Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia to the Mediterranean by silk merchants. It subsequently spread to North Africa, through Spain into Italy, and on to Western Europe, the British Isles, Scandinavia and North America.
It could be found on vestments and clothes in ancient Egypt, in the tombs of the pharaohs, Italy, Babylon, Greece, India, and Persia. It can also be seen in the beautiful garments of Japan and China, where the emperor’s gowns were richly embroidered in gold. Here the gold threads were couched in coiling patterns to embroider five-clawed dragons, birds and beasts, or laid in pairs of fine lines to mimic stylised clouds or to enhance silk embroidery.
References to a cloth of gold are found in the bible, linking goldwork embroidery to Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian cultures. One such cloth of gold (which was woven rather than embroidered) was found in the tomb of Empress Honorius, who died in 400AD. It was melted down to 36 lbs. of pure metal.
One of the earliest known surviving examples of embroidered goldwork is the St. Cuthbert maniple from the 10th century. On this maniple the metallic fibres were added on to the surface of the fabric rather than woven into it. In fact, in subsequent years, they often used two layers of fabric to strength and support the stitches—generally linen for underneath with a richer silk on the surface.
The first metallic threads were pure beaten gold cut into strips. These strips were later wrapped around materials such as silk, parchment, animal gut or paper. More surprising is that in the 13th century, English ladies actually prepared their own gold thread before working it, and from descriptions, it appears to be the same kind of thread used today—gold that was twisted around a core of flax or silk. Because pure gold was so brittle, most gold threads eventually were gold over silver to help maintain its strength.