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Tapestry is more than its seams

15 Nov 2012

A University of Manchester researcher has thrown new light on how the world famous Bayeux Tapestry was made over 900 years ago.

New understanding of how Bayheux Tapestry was made
New understanding of how Bayheux Tapestry was made

Alex Makin –a professional embroiderer who was trained at one the country’s most prestigious institutions – says the same group of people were likely to have worked on the 70-metre-long masterpiece under the same manager or managers.

Her conclusion casts doubt on the widely accepted theory that nuns based in different locations across England made the tapestry in nine sections which were then stitched together.

However, questions still remain over how many embroiderers worked on the Bayeux Tapestry, which is on permanent display at a museum in Normandy, France, who they were and where their ‘workshop’ or ‘workshops’ were located.

From observing the way the stitches overlap on the back of the tapestry, Mrs Makin is also able to say in what order its different parts were sewn.

The outlines for individual sections were worked first, and then filled in with colours in a set order.

The PhD researcher based in the University’s English and American studies department, said: “It’s clear from my analysis of the Bayeux Tapestry that the style of work is consistent throughout.

“Some people argue that the style of some figures are so different they must have been embroidered by different people.

“But my view is it’s not the embroidery which is different – but the way the characters were drawn.”

The Tapestry depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England culminating in the Battle of Hastings.

It consists of fifty scenes with Latin captions, embroidered on linen with coloured woollen yarns. Its origins have been the subject of much controversy.

The skills of the embroiderers were, according to Mrs Makin, on a par with professional embroiderers of today.

The embroidered cloth was not woven and so is not technically a tapestry.

The couch, stem, split and chain stitches found in the tapestry can still be used by embroiderers today, though according to the researcher, the level of accuracy of the medieval craftsmen and women achieved is an amazing feat.

Nine linen panels, between fourteen and three metres in length, were sewn together after each was embroidered and the joins were disguised with subsequent embroidery.

Mrs Makin added: “The achievement of these people is quite remarkable when you consider the conditions they worked in.

“They would have almost certainly worked in daylight hours only, using basic equipment - such as shears to cut the cloth - with little formal training as we know it today, on what was a massive project even by today’s standards.

“But they would have been well regarded by society: in one example from the Doomsday book, the Sheriff of Buckingham gave land to an embroiderer, as long as she taught his daughter her skills.”

Sylvette Lemagnen, Curator of the Bayeux Tapestry, said: “I am delighted with this study, which I believe to be fundamental to the understanding of the Bayeux Tapestry.

“I have always been convinced that historians would benefit from establishing a dialogue with specialist embroiderers and Alexandra Makin has that rare quality of being expert in both fields.

“Her detailed, impartial analysis of the back of the tapestry has helped to correct misunderstandings of how the Bayeux Tapestry was made.”

Notes for editors

Alexandra Makin’s PhD is entitled: Embroidery and its context in the British Isles during the early medieval period (AD 450 to 1100). She is available for interview.

Images of Mrs Makin at work are available

Images of the embroidery 'Cross, Saint and Animal', which Alex Makin worked during the second year of her apprenticeship at the Royal School of Needlework, are available:

  • The Cross is made of painted silk fabric stitched in free work surrounded by cut gold-work.
  • The rosary is made of pearl beads strung onto a thread of Elizabethan Gold and couched gold-work.
  • The Unicorn is worked in Long and Short Stitch. The horn is couched gold-work. It is all worked on an even weave linen.

The Virgin Mary character in Mrs Makin’s work is worked in Long and Short Stitch, with couched gold-work and cut gold-work roses on her feet. The techniques are the same as those used on the Cuthbert Embroideries and others from the Anglo-Saxon period. Craftsmen and women are known to have had similar skills in working long and short stitch and gold-work, as seen on the Virgin Mary. There are three embroideries found in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert which date to the early tenth century and now on display at Durham Cathedral, which use these techniques; but whether the workers of the Bayeux Tapestry used them unknown.

For media enquires contact:

Mike Addelman
Press Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567
Michael.addelman@manchester.ac.uk