Friday, 18 December 2015


Recently I have been lucky enough to attend a short but very interesting course of writing articles and blogs.   We each had to prepare something for the other members of the class to critic, very scary but most useful. This happened the day after I posted my latest on India and the tutor said that my comment ‘’Even the spinning wheel became a weapon in the struggle for women’s freedom’’ was most interesting and should be explored further.

The tutor also said that I should write more about the opening up of trade between Europe, England in particular, and India and this I promise to do at a later date, however her comment about weaving, stitching and embroidery helping largely in women’s flight for both financial and social freedom intrigued me and made me want to follow it further.
Nothing is new, as early as the 13th century in England, Opus Anglicanum  as English Medieval embroidery was called, was without doubt some of the finest examples of English needlework for all times.

Fortunately I was able to attend a day seminar on Opus Anglicanum just a few days ago.  Until then I (wrongly) had believed that it was worked almost entirely for the Church but there was also many items of secular embroidery.    Items of clothing of for well-to-do people as well as the clergy, horse-trappings and furnishings were commissioned – these were more commonly used and thus did not survive as the ecclesiastical pieces did. 

I even found out there were women named; by the late 13 century it had become a highly lucrative industry and a number of workshops flourished financed with City money and employing both men and women. Famous among them were Mabel of Bury St. Edmunds and Rose, wife of John de Burford who was a merchant in the City of London.   From records it would appear that frequently it was a man, the owner of the workshop, who received the payment but I suspect that there were women employed in the stitching.
Famous examples such as the Syon Cope and the Steeple Aston Cope, named after the area they were designed for or the family who commissioned them, are in the Victoria and Albert Museum.  But I believe that at the time of the Reformation there was a danger of Church vestments being confiscated so many items were sold abroad hence the excellent examples in foreign museums and collections.

Fast forward to the 19th century when Berlin Wool Work became the international rage.  These patterns to be stitched with worsted wools were originally drawn and painted on graph paper (then called point paper).    These charts were imported in their thousands to Britain and the USA.   I have read that while L. W. Wttich the Berlin print seller has always been credited with starting this craze, it was his wife, an enthusiast who drew her own designs and encouraged him.

Originally these patterns were hand-coloured by an army of women in Germany, the wool too was produced there and generally speaking the designs were useful and tastefully coloured.  Later on with the advent of aniline dyestuffs in the 1850’s (strong magentas and spinach green to give examples of the more lurid colours!).

 As a result of the insatiable demand from the emerging leisured classes, the patterns were printed in colour and any item that fancy could believe would add to the overstuffed Victorian house.  Images of animals, particularly dogs and birds were popular and I believe ‘sleeves’ for piano legs and covers to keep the key board dust free were available.

This subject of women gaining status, independent and some form of financial security is vast and worthy of much more research.    I have skated over the Elizabethan period when leisured women stitched many types of needlework the most famous of whom was Mary Queen of Scots.   She  is recorded to have passed many hours of her imprisonment stitching.    However furniture of the period was heavy and so table carpets and wall-hangings particularly for beds were both popular and needed.  While men frequently designed and prepared canvases women were engaged in the stitching.

Dame schools in the States taught basic sewing and the Finishing Schools on the East Coast taught many more sophisticated types of needlework. No doubt the basic needlework enabled the poorer girls to continue in the professional field while the more leisured girls bought and commissioned needlework for their own use.  This was similar in Britain and many establishments offered music, drawing and needlework ahead of anything more academic.

A vast range of monthly magazines offering the latest ideas and how-to projects were published in the 19th and early 20th century, first in the USA and then the UK.  The first in America was Godey’s Ladies Book which was the first to actually pay the contributors for their work.  Being strong on the latest embroidery, handwork and recipes one can only believe these authors were women.

As I have already said, this topic is vast, well worthy of serious and extensive research.  I haven’t even touched on the India women’s independence though I do hope I shall find out more while reading about the international trade that was established many centuries ago. 

However women in many parts for the world, through many forms of embroidery, weaving, spinning patchwork writing about the craft or even preparing and painting designs among others gained a type of independence important to them.    It could have been producing or helping to produce something extremely beautiful, it could have been being in the company of fellow workers,   It could even have been, though not necessarily, making some money of their own.

Similar activities continue to this day,   I also have more than one version of a design stitched to check quantities and instructions, Knitters check patterns and knit finished garments for photography, help can be given if a client wants a custom piece but is not prepared to do it themselves.

I should apprieciate your comments, contributions or details of how you or members of your family gained social or financial independence from active participation in hand crafts.  Perhaps they were left with young children and little support or they had to live abroad, joinging their husband in a country were driving or venturing out unaccompanied was not safe.  I should love to hear your stories.

Related information:

                                                                My favourite reference books
                       The Needleworker’s Dicationary               Pamela Clabburn
       Needlework, an illustrated history           Edited by Harriet Bridgeman & Elizabeth Drury

                                                                    Upcoming exhibition
             Victoria & Albert Museum                           Opus Anglicanum Oct 2016 – Feb. 2017

Friday, 4 December 2015


India mania has hit!

We both see and hear a great deal about India; their politics, culture and history.  Their Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just been on a State visit to England resulting in excellent trade agreements – the first visit by an Indian PM for more than a decade. 
In addition the Victoria & Albert Museum here in London has also catered to our long term interest in all decorative crafts with the current exhibition Textiles of India and the Bejewelled Treasures, the collection of Al Thani which opened last week.

The Textile exhibition is so comprehensive and beautifully displayed, for once I visited it twice – there was so much to enjoy.  Every stage of existence, birth, betrothal, marriage and death is marked in lndia with gifts of cloth. The exhibits show the love of colour and texture all augmenting life’s rich pageant.    Even the spinning wheel became a weapon in the struggle for women’s freedom.
I have been lucky enough to visit the Northern areas of India and on my last visit I was intrigued by a stone grille window frame (open to allow the cool air to circulate – my design ‘India’ shown here worked on 18 mesh canvas with floss was the result

Textiles for centuries have also been central to opening up India to the world and their far reaching presence today both inside the subcontinent and outside is a testimony to their continued importance.  They have a live quality due to the skill and dexterity with which they are manipulated – a simple length of fabric, a sari becomes animated when wrapped around a woman, another length can become a turban, a dramatic form which I would dearly like to master.

Textiles have always been prized in India for clothes and furnishings.  One of the most exciting display in the current exhibition is a ‘palace room’ completely hung tent-like with beautiful embroidered fabrics.  Even their elephants had lavish gold and silver encrusted embroideries at royal ceremonies.   One year, our stitching theme on the Italian trip was ‘Elephants’ a great subject for canvas work and here are some of the results just showing how colour and stitching can be so individual.

Fabrics opened India to the world, and their far reaching presence today both within the subcontinent and outside is a testimony to their continued importance.

It was the late 17/ early 18th century when England became involved in the trade, particularly of chintz, a glazed fabric, which became so popular and still are to this day.

In the 19th Century with the industrialisation of cloth manufacture in England, India was compelled to concentrate on beautiful hand-woven and embroidered fabrics.  Today many internationally known designers use the skills of Indian craftsmen for beadwork and embroidery and for a taste of sumptuous and vibrant textiles one can glimpse an impressive array in Green Street, Southall, Wembley  or Belgrade Road in Leicester.

I am biased, the Victoria and Albert Museum is my favourite museum in all of London and I do think that the membership of the Friends, even of one seldom gets to London is worthwhile just for the beautiful V&A Magazine and free priority entry to all exhibitions when in the capital. 

Textiles of India Finishes on the 10th of January
Bejewelled Treasures Finishes on the 28th of March