Arlon – The Enigma of Lost Threads

Serendipitous Time Travel

Many fortunate circumstances were at work to bring the stole and maniple in almost perfect condition to St. Donat at Arlon in Belgium. In general, the two tablet woven bands were attributed to St. Bernard of Clairveaux (1090–1153). According to Victor Dendal, he is said to have visited the young Abbey of Cambron. The textiles that he wore while celebrating the mass, Bernard
allegedly entrusted to the abbot of Cambron’s custody. Whether these items actually arrived at Cambron in this way has not been ascertained, and perhaps it is only a lovely fable.

Image 1: (A) Maniple detail. You can see the light weft thread. (B) Maniple 1, front and (C) Maniple 1, back. Here you can see very clearly the woven area which is not woven in pure 3/1 twill.

At the time of the French Revolution, the Abbeys of Clairveaux and Cambron were closed by the decree of September 1, 1796. In order to save the stole and maniple from destruction, all the vestments owned by the abbeys were distributed among the remaining padres. That is how Father Placide Collignon brought the stole and the maniple, including the chasuble (a liturgical vestment) to his hometown of Arlon. There, he hid it initially in his home. In his Last Will, he finally put it into the care of the church of St. Donat (in 1825), and there the items simply fell into oblivion. The art historian and Jesuit Joseph Brown SJ, an outstanding expert in the areas of liturgy and paraments, traveled extensively and gave a first-hand account. He described the stole and maniple of St. Donat in his “Handbuch der Paramentik” 1912 (Handbook of Vestments), which is still held as the standard authoritative work in textile restoration.

As I learned from Otfried Staudigel, the Swiss textile specialist Noémi Speiser was probably led by this book in the late 1970s to the tablet woven liturgical insignia and traveled to Arlon in order to find the bands. She did find them in the vestry in a cabinet attached to the wall with thumbtacks, where they would in all likelihood continue to lead a forgotten existence. Abbé Gengler, the
abbot of the time who opened the door for her, did not have a clue that he was harboring a true treasure. The photographs that Noémi Speiser was permitted to take she sent to Peter Collingwood, who published a number of them in his book The Techniques of Tablet Weaving (1982). This gave great attention to the bands and probably caused a stream of pilgrims to travel to Arlon.
In the end, this contributed to the salvage of the bands and the chasuble, according to Sébastien Pierre,
director of the Musée en Piconrue in Bastogne Belgium, where they have been securely
kept in the museum’s archive since May 2001.

Image 2: Maniple 12 (centaur), front and back. The beginning of the area between the motifs
which is not woven in pure 3/1 twill is marked by arrows. For the red marked areas see details in images 3

Survived to the Present Day

When I visited the museum in October 2014, I met among others the director of the museum Sébastien Pierre and an art historian of the museum. I was permitted to examine the bands extensively and to photograph them, even the back and details that could never be seen in such detail. For instance, the area where the maniple was sewn together so that one could slip the arm through it, also the areas, where ribbons were attached to the back of the stole that could be tied in front of the chest, so that the stole would stay in place, and the (in all likelihood more recently attached) trapezoid ends of the bands.

Lastly, I was able to make high-resolution images of the edges and the areas between the design motifs, which could be seen on the monitor in great detail when enlarged.

Since an examination applying scientific methods is still in the future, these photographs offer the only possibility to clarify some of the questions. There are some head-scratchers that I could not get into in my book Die fabelhafte Welt … (The Wonderful World …) This concerns, among other things, the color of the weft thread, the areas between the designs and the patched edges.

What Color Was the Weft?

It is very easy to see the color of the weft—it is light, or rather natural, just as the light warp threads, which make the design motif appear on the surface (see Image 1-A). Presumably, the weft is of the same quality and not another fiber. The weft is visible at the turning points at the edges as a small light dot—visible only under magnification. To dye it would probably have been rather expensive and would have involved quite an effort. Why then should the weft be dyed blue (just as the outer warp threads), if it wasn’t very visible anyhow?

How Were the Areas Between the Designs Woven?

In my book Die fabelhafte Welt… I wove the areas between the designs all in twill. The weaving patterns always begin and end with a Z-twill (i.e. the diagonal structure of the twill moves from the lower left to the upper right) so that the pattern designs and the background repeat can be readily combined and woven.

On the images of the originals you can clearly see that the areas between the designs were not woven in the twill technique (see Image 1-B/C and Image 2). However, a cursory look would indicate that another usual tablet weaving technique is not immediately apparent. The solution is an “in-between” of double face and twill.

In all likelihood, these areas were woven just as double face, without changing the direction or slant of the individual tablets. That means that only the tablet starting position was changed after every design in order to move the whole stack of tablets twice forward and twice backward. Of course, you can weave this background very much faster than twill.

At arm’s length, this fine difference can no longer be perceived, and would not be visible to a congregation that sees the priest behind the altar or on the pulpit. Is this reason for this careless type of weaving an indication of a commercial character of the workshop?

Why are the Bands Stitched Along Both Edges?

This is the most suspenseful question which is at the center of it all. Apparently, the bands disintegrated along this whole area. Why would they have done this stitching otherwise? And what damaged the border area?

The border tablets were woven in a simple threaded-in pattern, i.e. they were continuously turned forward and show the typical turning points, where the tablets must have been flipped. These turning points on both the left and the right edges are not always at exactly the same height. One cannot ascertain the material that was used to stitch the area between the border tablets and the
design area. It almost looks like hemp, but it could also be silk. The thread is very thin. The whipstitches are very messy and done in an unskilled fashion. They seem to cross over a number of warp threads that no longer exist or to close the damaged area. It is reminiscent of a poorly-darned hole in a sock.

The edges were definitely not cut off and reattached. This would have resulted in the weft threads being cut and there would have been many fuzzy ends at the edges of the center part and the borders. It would have been impossible to rejoin. And there is not one single fuzzy culprit thread end in the bands.

The next theory is that the bands wore out along the borders, just as fabric that has been folded in the same place repeatedly. But why did both bands have these abraded areas along both lengths? And why should one fold 4 cm (1.57”) bands along both edges? I am sure an overzealous housekeeper was not the cause for this damage.

An Unfortunate Deadly Blend

Image 3: Maniple 12 (centaur) details,
front and back.

As in criminal cases, it is not enough to view the predicament at the scene of the crime, but to contemplate what was there before and why it disappeared. And what is the cause of the crime?

In my search for the missing warp threads, a friend suggested that I should contact the textile specialist Edward Maeder (Greenfield, MA, USA). Mr. Maeder had worked at the Abegg-Stiftung in the ConservationRestoration department. For a long time, he was in curatorial and administrative positions at Museums in Los Angeles and Canada. He is extremely well-versed in all aspects of textile history from the early Middle Ages to today.

I showed Mr. Maeder the high-resolution digital images and asked him for advice. His suspicions immediately fell to a destructive dye bath. It was probably intended for the outer warp threads to be a bit darker than the other blue area—which would have enhanced the contrast and the effect of the designs to a higher degree—and they were dyed darker, perhaps even black. In order to achieve a darker color, one added iron oxide to the mordant. Of course, one was not aware that an overly generous donation of this gift would equal an eventual death sentence.

Comparing the same area on the back and front of one band is somewhat perplexing. If you count the light warp threads in the background on the reverse, and the dark warp threads on the front, it appears that the reverse has more threads than the front (see Image 3).

This discovery turns out to be amazing! The deadly cause of destruction, the iron oxide, was surely the weapon of choice. And the paucity of chemical knowledge had tragic consequences. Mr. Maeder thought that with the examination of a special microscope, one might perhaps discern the tiniest remnants of the original threads. Since the other dyes (blue/woad, red/madder, natural) were subjected to another mordant, or left natural, they survived intact.

How Many Warp Threads were Destroyed?

Image 4: Some of the designs look as if they were cut at the sides. Details (examples) of stole 7 (A), stole 10 (B), stole 13 (C), stole 14 (D), maniple 2
(E), and maniple 11 (F)

We are sure that the bands were woven with more than the visible 79 tablets (see Image 4). The question is, however, how many were there originally. Some of the designs look as if they were cut at the sides. This, for instance, concerns the diamonds and also small animal designs (dogs, birds) and ornaments. With 79 tablets there is no need or reason not to design the complete shapes. A diamond could have been woven in a smaller version and would look much nicer than the incomplete larger diamond. After all, we are dealing here with liturgical vestments for a bishop. We may assume that much care went into the original design.

In my book Die fabelhafte Welt…, I therefore, added four tablets on both sides. Most designs would have appeared rather incomplete without that.

The practice of restoring missing parts to a damaged textile was a usual technique in archaeology. It did not make any sense to me to simply copy the original in its present condition. We are interested in how the damaged remains looked originally and what effect it would have had on the observer.

When you look at the lateral diamonds in the thirteenth design of the stole and second design of the maniple (figures in my book), it is clear that these would have required two more tablets on each side. I assume that 91 design tablets were really required. Six tablets in a blackish or dark blue shade makes more sense than only two, if they were to produce a darker area and enhance the drama seen in the bands.


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Copyright © Claudia Wollny

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