Couching: A Simple way to
decorate by Lady Katerina da
Notes from the Innilgard
Winter Collegium, XXXVII (2002)
Being an impatient person at heart,
I learnt to sew in preference to knitting, as a child; it
was much faster. So when faced with a method of decoration
for my garb, I decided that embroidery was too slow. It was
then I discovered couching.
Couching is a method of laying down
threads or cord, and sewing it in place - usually for
decorative purposes. It was the best way to use expensive
materials to good value as most, or all, of the cord is
It can be used for almost anytime
period in the SCA. In 1250-1350 underside couching was more
common but, by the middle of the 14th century, surface
couching had taken over.
Underside couching involves taking
the couching ribbon (often metallic strips, silk or linen
cord) through the material, at stages, and sewing it on the
underside (wrong side) of the material. Thus making the
anchoring stitches invisible. This is technically more
accurate for earlier garb. (If you want to be that accurate)
I prefer surface couching as it is easier and I find that it
is less likely to damage the material of your garb or
project ( I also do more Renaissance garb). Surface couching
is the best way to lay thick threads or elaborate cording
which is difficult to pass through material.
Some projects/garb are best couched
before any sewing is done. Others, such as doublets are best
done after the outside layer is sewn, but before the lining
is sewn to it. The lining will hide the end bits inside
(more on this later).
The most difficult part of couching
is transferring a pattern to your material as you don't
really want to draw on the outside (front side) of the
material; this is very difficult when working with velvet.
There are several methods to do this:
1. Couch freehand without a pattern
on the actual material. I would only recommend this if you
are experienced in couching, embroidery or artistic. It is
also easier if your project is small.
2. Draw on the underside (wrong
side) and carefully try to match this to the front
stitching. This is very fiddly.
3. Draw the pattern on thin tissue
paper. Sew over this and remove at the end of the project.
This is a quick method but can damage stitching, when
removing the paper, and can make the final decoration
4. Use either method 2 or 3 then
tack-stitch, in a contrasting thread, over the outline of
the pattern. (remove paper if you used method 3). Lay cord
along the stitched pattern and remove tack-stitching as you
go. I use this. Though it is time consuming (yes, I know I
said I was impatient), it won't rub off and you are less
likely to damage the decorative cord or material than
removing a paper pattern. Also, as I often do bits of work,
then leave it for a considerable time while I finish a more
urgent project, it is less likely to cause staining of the
material (if ink was used on the paper pattern, or to rub
off as I work. In the end, for me, it saves me time.
Couching is so simple- you can't
lose your count and can always see where you are up to! I
choose a finer, matching coloured thread that will not be
obvious against the couching cord. An embroidery hoop is a
good idea, particularly if working on velvet or work with a
loose weave that may be distorted out of shape. Stretch the
fabric so it is even in the hoop. Simply choose a decorative
cord, lay it along the pattern, on the outside of the garb
so it can be seen. With you matching thread, start on the
back (wrong side) of your work.
To start with, the thicker,
couching cord or ribbon is pulled through to the inside
(wrong side) of your material or garb, in the place where
your pattern starts, to the front. This can be done with a
large needle or crochet hook. (I use a large needle). It is
then sewn in place with the thinner thread.
Pass the thinner thread through to
the front and make a simple, neat stitch over the couching
cord and back to the underside, in approximately the same
spot the thread came through from the back (follow me?).
Work along the couching thread with small, even stitches, a
few millimeters apart (the exact spacing will depend on the
complexity of the pattern and what you want it to look like)
until you have finished the design.
To finish, pull the thick couching
cord back through to the underside. When cutting the cord,
leave a generous amount extra so it is less likely to pull
through to the front. Stitch the end to hold it in place,
with the thinner thread. If the cord is likely to unravel, I
usually tie a knot in it as well. Be warned though, a knot
will be obvious with reasonably thick cord or thinner
materials. Another method is recommended in this
Really, couching is so simple that
even an impatient person, such as myself, can be motivated
to decorate my garb! If you can do simple hand-stitching
(and are neat) you can couch!!! (And no couching is not
named for the fact that you can do it while sitting
on your couch in front of the TV. I
believe it is from the French, coucher, meaning to
For examples of really nice
Anglo-saxon techniques and different forms of couching,
and take a good look at the Bayeux
tapestry some time, it is worked in laid and couched
stitching of wool, on linen.