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The Bullfighter’s Jacket

This post is pure eye candy! I just wanted to share one of the most splendid garments I own, this “Suit-of-lights” from Madrid. It’s a stellar example of the embroidery known as gold bullion work.

Here’s the maker’s label, which I find wonderful–so we all know who made this dazzling piece.

Here’s the back view. This jacket is heavy–around 20 pounds–and is like a piece of armor. The bodice of the piece is like a cardboard box, stiff to offer the bullfighter protection. The princess seams you see on the back, are hand-sewn–the panels were made individually from stiffened fabric (probably several layers of buckram), the fabric was then upholstered over the shaped panels, and they are sewn edge to edge.

When you see bullfighters getting ready for the fight, you see someone helping them into their clothes. This is not for show–I wore this to a Mardi Gras party this year–I had to wrestle my way into it, and got stuck in it for about an hour when I returned home. The piece is stiff, like armor.

The sleeve is joined to the body at the cap, so the underarm is completely open, to ensure adequate movement. The join between the sleeve and body is covered by heavily-embroidered epaulettes.

On the lower portion of the bodice front, you can see some rust–which I think indicates some sheet metal included in the construction! Here’s a detail shot of the epaulettes. Even though the jacket was well-worn, you can see the staggering amount of work, and how durable it is. Here’s a closer view of the sleeve and cuff. I was talking with the people from Hand and Locke in London recently, and they told me that these suits now cost around…

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  1. smockerlady | | #1

    Hi there Kenneth,

    I have always wanted to wear a bullfighters style jacket since being a young girl, fab jacket with beautiful trousers to show off a small waist..................

    No teenager anymore, but would still wear one!!

    How fantastic to own such a beautiful item, it must be so amazing to own and wear such a piece.

    Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful eye candy with us all.

  2. Skymom | | #2

    That's pretty fantastic! Usually, heavily embellished pieces are meant for ballrooms or courts or something--not for armor, so it's really amazing that this has stood up to so much use.

    Oh, I guess ballet/dance costumes get a lot of wear and tear, although not so much with the horns of a 2-ton beast!

  3. bebrown | | #3

    Kenneth, the jacket is amazing but what is the fabric itself? It looks like silk but wouldn't that be to fragile to hold the weight of all that bling?

  4. hollykw | | #4

    Thank you for this post. I have always wanted to make a matador Jacket and have collected photos for years. However, I have never seen one in person or found any explanation regarding their construction. I too would like to know what the outside blue fabric is and are the arms tied on.

  5. davidsonstudios | | #5

    Thank you for sharing such an exquisite garment with us; we appreciate your explanations and close up views of the detail.

  6. FairyTailsCo | | #6

    What an amazing piece of work! As a seamstress, I can only dream that one day I might have the skill and patience to achieve something so beautiful and detailed. Thank you for sharing it!

  7. threadqueen | | #7

    I am amazed at how much work has gone into the jacket and that it has held up so well. Would like to try copying some of the embroidery.

    Thanks for sharing

  8. whoneedlesthis | | #8

    Kenneth, thanks so much for sharing this wonderful work of art with us. It is interesting that the jacket sleeves are attached only at the sleeve cap area. As to the rust, I would not be at all surpised to find there is sheet metal in the fronts, at least, as armour plating for protection from the bull's horns. It is a gorgeous piece of artwork, and worth every penny!

  9. Lizothelake | | #9

    Is the Bullion actually made of Gold?
    Gold is, after all, fairly unique amongst metals in that it does not oxidise, rust, or tarnish under normal circumstances, hence it's being used to this day for Military Badges, Liturgical Decorative Work, and so on.
    I remember being at Goldsmith's College in London during the summer of 1967 on a course for Hand and Machine Embroiderers. One class was in Gold and Bullion Embroidery. Those of us taking the class went to a small shop to buy our threads, gilded leather, silk floss and bullion. We all spent, quite literally, a small fortune on supplies. By the following week we all needed "More" but due to the Israeli-Arab "6 Day War" the price of Gold Bullion had skyrocketted. Most was, back then, still hand made by one-person workshops in Jerusalem, and with the uncertain political circumstances supplies became impossible to get.
    In England, must have been around the time of the early Georges and so on, there was a craze amongst 'Ladies of the Court' to unravel Bullion Embroidery off the coats, jackets, epaulets, badges, and trim of their "swain's" clothing. A gentleman would give the lady of his affections either the trimming off an actual garment, or a garment purchased soley for the trim put on it. She would then spend her time unpicking the threads, removing the Gold, and then selling the precious metal for cash. Ladies and Gentlemen were in the habit of gambling away small fortunes and large ones, so such a source of income was often welcome. There is a technical term for this handwork, but I am totally unable to remember it.
    Finally, attending Boarding School in England many fellow pupils only returned 'home' during the Summer Vacation. Christmas and Easter they stayed with friends or relatives in England since their parents were employed in remote and exotic places. One pair of sisters went back each summer to Afghanistan, where their parents were involved with some NGO organisation. One September Shauna and Elise returned with the most exquisite "Pashmina's" woven from Cashmere Goat Hair and Gold Thread and further embellished with hand worked embroidery. Shauna, my particular friend, explained that the highly placed official who had presented them with these treasures had told them that if, at some point in the distant future, they tired of the colour of the yarn, or of the design, they could be returned to the village where they were woven and the artisans would retrieve the Gold, re-work it, then weave a new and different scarf using the same gold again.
    Liz, now in Northern Ontario, where we have Gold Mines!

  10. fotofashion | | #10

    Kenneth: Do you have any idea as to the approximate age of the garment? The embroidery reminds me of the type the Lesage does.

  11. kittycat | | #11

    This jacket represents a brutal cruel form of blood sport.
    The torture of a bull based on a cultural idealism of macho
    posturing. It is art, maybe, death by torture is its symbolism.
    Other types of clothing also represent repression not just the Matador's jacket. Bullfighting has been glorified for too long. Many years ago I did meet a woman who fought to abolish this blood sport. She was gored to death during the running of the bulls in Spain. She was there to photograph how terrible it was and lost her life.
    Anyway clothing represents may aspects of our reality, from birth to death. Yes it can be beautiful but deadly.
    Sewing, fabric, history, its always much more than eye candy.

  12. User avater
    triangles | | #12

    I can imagine you wearing it - bet you looked great! Thanks for sharing this wonderful treat with us! Linda S in MD

  13. woodruff | | #13

    The jacket is an amazing piece of work, and I love being able to get up close and personal with the stitches, which would be impossible in a museum, so thank you, Kenneth.

    It is amazing to think that the garment could be so stiff and unyielding, yet the bullfighter might have to go through some pretty vigorous activity in the course of plying his trade! Though, come to think of it, I guess the perfect style and best form (regardless of what you think of the activity) actually is rather stately. You're not supposed to scramble around ungracefully, climb the barriers, or run from the bull.

  14. User avater
    SilkyGirl | | #14

    Kenneth, thank you for sharing this exquisit work of art and craftmanship with us. Some of the 19th century originals I have in my collection are embroidered with bullion, tassels, bead and such, but not to the extreme skill or heaviness your jacket seems to have. Do you have an age on the garment? Would love to see it in person.

  15. User avater
    Merilyn | | #15

    I wish there were some instructions on how the metal work was done. It would be interesting to try, maybe not to that detail on the jacket but would be nice to know how it is done. Does anyone know how to do metal work? ? ? ?

  16. beadseast | | #16

    I especially loved the twisted cord effect in sewing the sequins in place. I think these twists might be French knots, a standard thread embroidery stitch. Very easy, there's a video tutorial on the beadseast.com website. They can also be used in clusters, but French knots are great for sewing disk-type beads or sequins in place when you don't want to use a small bead for anchoring.

  17. beadseast | | #17

    Thanks for presenting this thought-provoking piece!!!! Maybe in the overlapping rows of sequins the stitch is, amazingly, "bullion stitch" where the needle is brought partially out of the surface and the thread is coiled around the needle, then condensed before running the needle back down again. If so, it's probably a finer thread, since an inch or more of thread goes into each stitch. I'm guessing that each individual segment of the twisted cord is one buillion stitch, and that the sequin is caught in the stitch before running the needle back through.

  18. User avater
    Jetmuis | | #18

    woooow this is awesome, and soooo beautiful thank you for sharing the pictures of the embroidery and the details of them.
    i have seen a ring made of carton that was created by an artist that was inspirated on this kind of embroidery.
    so i'm glad i can see it now more closely then ever.;-D
    On the old bishops coats are reall 3d gold embroidery as well, i live here in Holland and in a museon of religion there are some antique coats to watch soooo beautiful too, looks a little bit the same.
    hey have an nice day and lot of thanks for the sharing;-D

  19. Posy | | #19

    The gold 'bullion' thread is actually a spring of gold alloy called purl, which the embroiderer then cuts to length and stitches down like a (flexible)bead. Therefore the 'cord' stitching down the sequins is actually stem stitch with a short length of bullion or purl picked up on every stitch. The basket weave pattern is also couched down, with the solid 'flower' underneath probably couched over something like card.

    I hope this helps to answer some of the queries about the embroidery

    Two suppliers in UK are http://www.goldenthreads.co.uk and http://www.bentonandjohnson.com

    Wearing the jacket is probably no worse (probably better actually)then wearing plate armour for fighting in - go talk to a friendly SCAdian knight for his take on the uncomfortableness or not of such items

  20. User avater
    MissPat | | #20

    Kenneth, Thank you for allowing us to get up close and personal with a piece of art that we would not ordinarily get to examine. The jacket is beautiful and you are so very fortunate to own it. Many, many thanks for sharing.

  21. User avater
    racu | | #21

    Do you know if the bullfighters reuse their jackets? I mean all this beautiful work cannot go to the trash after every corrida. How can you clean a jacket like this?
    Thank you for this post!

  22. User avater
    kennethdking | | #22

    To answer questions about the jacket:

    As for fabric, it looks like a taffeta, as it is rather thin. The understructure is what gives it body. There are some scuffs on the surface of the fabric, but no tearing, so the fabric is remarkably durable.

    As for age, my sense is that this is 20-30 years old, but I have no hard proof of that. My assumption is drawn from the pearlescent white faceted beads on the epaulettes--those I don't remember seeing until the late 70's or early -80's--but again, I don't have hard information.

    I believe the jackets are used over and over again, as they are really built like tanks. This one, I assume, saw many fights before it was retired. As for cleaning, that I can't answer, but I assume that some form of spot cleaning is what is done.

    AS for the sleeve, it is sewn at the cap tot he armhole, and connected for 4-5" at most. The armhole itself is rather high, and the bodice fits very closely, so the piece is easy to move around in--once you get into it.

    Getting in, and out, is a wrestle, and assistance is recommended. I actually got stuck in this jacket for about an hour, and had these absurd visions of my dead body being found, stuck in the jacket. But, alas, I got out!

    Thanks to Lizothelake, for the history lesson--I'm always glad to read more information about his subject.

    And, full disclosure: I don't condone bullfighting. I just like the jacket.

  23. User avater
    kennethdking | | #23

    Oh, and for the record, yes--I looked (and look) fabulous in it!

  24. smockerlady | | #24

    Hi again Kenneth,

    I am sure you looked absolutely amazing and carried off this exquisite piece perfectly.

    Here, here..................I dont like the idea of bull fighting, but LOVE the jacket! I hope you have many happy years more wearing it.......

  25. SewSkate | | #25

    In reply to Lizothelake, some of the highest quality goldwork "threads" (purls, pearl purls etc)contain gold. They are sometimes referred to as "Admiralty Metal", as they were used for the bullion on naval officers' jackets, which had to withstand tarnishing when exposed to the sea air. They contain 2% gold. Because of the gold content, they are instantly identifiable on websites like Benton & Johnson, by their price being "POA". The other "gold" threads tend to be described as "gilt".

    The embroidery would have been worked on the taffeta with a layer of strong cotton to back it. Regarding the card / metal lining, I wondered if it was not intended as extra support for the weight of the embroidery. Neither card, padding nor metal would do anything to stop a bull's horn, but it would hold the pieces in shape.

    (If you are interested in goldwork, there is a lot of useful information on the Berlin Embroidery website.(http://www.berlinembroidery.com/index.htm))

  26. appliquegirl | | #26

    The goldwork on that jacket is amazing. Are these jackets still being made by hand today? I do all kinds of embroidery but have never tried anything with the real gold threads.

  27. numerouno | | #27

    Dear Kenneth. I have admire your work for a long time. I had the fortune to see the hole outfits first hand when I was about 8 or nine years old, my cousin was a torero in Mexico and my mother had to repair his jackests a few times. I was in love with a Emerald one that I still remember. Love,, love your work.

  28. User avater
    Sewista | | #28

    Mind boggling beauty and craftsmanship. Thank you ever so much for sharing this with the sewing public. It is such a treat to "eye ponder". I bet you looked fabulous in it. Wear a cape with it?????

  29. sbailey | | #29

    I have been given a vest with the same embroidery work and label as the jacket you feature in this article. I need to research the history and possible value of this vest. Can you give me some direction where I can look for this information?
    Thank you,

  30. User avater
    kennethdking | | #30

    to sbailey,

    I really don't know how to go about it, but would love some information on the maker if you come across any. I googled them but came away with nothing. Having a vest by them--wow, what a treasure, and something one could wear a lot more than this piece. Just as a guide, I paid US$100.00 for it at a flea market here in New York. A deal, I know, but it isn't i pristine condition.

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