NOTE: A word of warning about one design element common in medieval design including embroidery - the fylfot or more commonly, the swastika. This form of broken cross is a very common cross design used throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. It had religious, not political meaning and you might come across it while looking at examples of medieval embroidery.
Opus Teutonicum (or German work) is the name given to the style of whitework embroidery popular in German lands, especially Lower Saxony produced during the 12th, 13th and 14th Centuries. This style of plain, whitework embroidery stood in contrast to the golds and silks of Opus Anglicanum. It has been theorised that Opus Teutonicum developed because of the cost associated working with silks and gold thread. However, these simpler materials do not detract from the artistry and impact of the whitework embroidery.
The production of this type of embroidery is often associated with the convents and other religious houses of the period. Many fine examples of Opus Teutonicum survive today. One of the best collections is at the Kloster Lüne. Opus Teutonicum items were used in churchs as altar cloths, Lenten veils, frontals and hangings for lecterns.
In the 13th Century, linen was a popular ground for much embroidery work and was used in conjunction with white linen thread to produce the works. There was small use of light coloured silks to make highlights on figures. By the second half of the century, the use of coloured silks increased. There were exceptions to this, with the work produced at Kloster Lüne worked entirely in linen with no use of silk.
By the 14th Century, there was also an increase in the inclusion of secular motifs in the works. These included non-religious human figures and animals and birds, as well as increasing use of heraldic elements.
Although most numerous in Lower Saxony other areas also produced Opus Teutonicum works, including Hesse and Westphalia. Those in Westphalia were almost exclusively for lectern hangings, which produced embroideries of up to 4 m (13ft).
A variety of techniques were used in German whitework, one involved filling figural or abstract designs with complex geometric patterns created in satin or brick stitches. This added texture to the overall design. Another stylistic stream found in Opus Teutonicum is where robust stitches such as buttonhole stitch are used to outline a design. The interior is left plain but the areas outside the outlining stitch are made into a net like design using pulled thread techniques.
Some further images of Opus Teutonicum:
- Altercloth at the Met in New York (a really nice photos, gives best idea of what this technique looks like)
- West Kingdom Needleworkers Guild - Whitework Article