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Goldwork is a general term for embroidery that uses metal thread as part of the design. The most common metal used is gold but the term “goldwork” includes work with any metallic thread. Some goldwork has the metallic thread pulled through the fabric in the normal fashion, but more commonly it is couched onto the fabric, which means it is held to the fabric by stitches of fabric thread. Goldwork was among the earliest of needlework techniques and because of the cost of materials and difficult techniques was traditionally done by professionals. A revival of interest in goldwork in the late 20th century made the techniques, materials and tools available to any interested stitcher.
Most gold thread is very fine silver or copper wire coated with gold, then beaten flat and wound around a fiber thread. It can be made in colors other than plain gold, and in varying thicknesses. In addition to a normal thread shape, different kinds of threads are made including flat, kinked in various patterns, wavy, braided, coiled, and with a beaded appearance. The same types are frequently made in varying thicknesses and are often available in silver or copper as well as gold. Thread cut into short pieces may be sewn on as beads or accent pieces called chips.
Stitchers working on goldwork may use special tools. The threads are best cut with scissors with ridged blades. Couched thread must be flat against the fabric; a laying tool is used to position the thread and hold it in place. A mellore is a special tool for goldwork used for laying the thread and to bend it where necessary.
Or nue, which means "shaded gold" or "nuanced gold" in Old French, is a particularly famous type of goldwork. Most or nue work was produced for royal or church use in Europe between about the 12th and 17th centuries. In or nue, gold threads are couched with colored silk threads. The designs are representational pictures built up by subtle colored shading controlled by how far apart the colored thread stitches are.
Where the colors are darker or more vivid, the gold is often almost completely covered by the silk threads, but as the fabric is turned or viewed from different angles the gold shows through in even the most heavily covered areas. This combination of silk color and underlying gold gives a piece of or nue work a unique depth and sheen. or nue requires precise, delicate work and some historic pieces took decades to complete.