Thursday 7 March 2019


There's an irony in the fact that I'm so enamoured of anything to do with embroidery. I am quite, quite useless at it. I know this because for the first few years of my time at boarding school we used to spend an hour every evening in our Housemistress's drawing room. She would read to us from wonderful books like Brother Dusty Feet by Rosemary Sutcliffe, and we would embroider tray cloths (yes!) printed with patterns of lupins and roses in silks bought from Liberty or perhaps Debenham and Freebody's. Now I have a thing about flowers and gardens, in life as in embroidery. I love them. I know in my head exactly what they should look like, but I find myself incapable  of doing anything practical to achieve my ideal. I have never gardened, and my satin stitch and cross stitch were likewise woeful and my tray cloth sadly grubby and untidy by the end of term and always unfinished. 

But I am fascinated by those who do it beautifully, so I was happy to go to Ely last month to see the exhibition by the Embroiderers' Guild.

Any display in Ely Cathedral has to compete with the surrounding space. The stone embroideries above my head while I walked around were almost enough to eclipse the work in the room below but that too was very impressive and often amusing.

Consider this figure of the Queen of Hearts. She's called Roxane in this panel by  Captain Geoffrey Edwards made in 1946. I'm not sure whether you can read the caption below but it says that Captain Edwards hated satin stitch because of the amount of thread it used up and this panel and another that was on display was made mainly from recycled materials.  I imagine Captain Edwards like Mr Mainwaring from Dad's Army and I realise that he might not have been like that at all, but it's an irresistible picture in my mind.

Below is a detail from a bigger embroidered panel displayed underneath.  I hope that readers can somehow enlarge the detail to see how intricate and careful it is. A real wonder. And the whole is enormous...fitting into the niche it's in most beautifully.

Below is a darning sampler. I knew that children learned to sew with samplers, trying out different stitches from a ridiculously young age. What I didn't know was, there were samplers of stitches particularly useful in darning. No one darns any more but I remember owning a mushroom shaped object and putting my socks over it and trying to darn. If I'm honest, I enjoyed it when I was a girl. You didn't, I thought, have to make the darn beautiful and that freed me up to make really quite reasonable efforts. But the stitches made in the 18th century and shown below are different.  They make up a truly beautiful composition. 

The deckchair shown below is amazing and I've included it because it's so tiny. You can't see the scale of the thing from the photograph but it's about the size of a normal paperback book.  Again, I hope readers can somehow enlarge my photograph to see the intricacy of the working.

We are, it seems, in a time when the work of people's (mostly women's) hands is being taken seriously again. I am looking forward to reading this book about emboidery, patchwork and tapestry by Clare Hunter, which has been widely reviewed. The papers are full of articles suddenly exhorting us to MEND our clothes instead of buying more disposable garments and sending them to the rubbish bins and the landfill sites.  This exhibition was full of examples of work from all over the world: elaborate Japanese kimonos, African headdresses encrusted with beads, and work from designers like William Morris, whose daughter May was an embroidering superstar. 

I like this quotation from the back of Clare Hunter's book. I'm not going to be taking up my embroidery needle again...heaven forfend... but I am thrilled that this art, (which is an art, in my opinion and not often recognised as one), is back in the public eye.


Ann Turnbull said...

What a fascinating post! Thank you, Adele. But what do you mean, no one darns any more? I do. If I love something, I'll darn it time and again. (I am, of course, of the Make Do and Mend generation.) That panel of darning stitches is absolutely beautiful, and I also love Roxane the Queen of Hearts.

Sue Purkiss said...