a day at Gawthorpe

Some days I wake up and I feel massively, incredibly lucky to have somehow landed here, in this curious new life, as a designer of hand-knits. Last Thursday was one of those days. Because I had been invited — along with Debbie Bliss , Jane Ellison, Claire Montgomerie, and Emma Varnam — to visit Gawthorpe Textiles Collection.

Gawthorpe Hall. Left to right Emma Varnam, Claire Montgomerie, Jennie Pitceathly and Debbie Bliss.

Originally built for Lancashire’s prominent Shuttleworth family in the early 1600s, with a Victorian redesign by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, Gawthorpe Hall itself is extremely impressive. But the building wasn’t what we had come to see.


Gawthorpe is home to an important textile collection, ammassed by Rachel Kay Shuttleworth. Born in 1886, and heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement, Rachel Kay Shuttleworth used her means and her position to gather textiles from all over the world, and to disseminate information about the traditions and skills that were involved in their production. By the age of 26, she had gathered over 1000 items, and began organising, cataloguing, and sharing her collection with interested visitors. Today the collection that Rachel Kay Shuttleworth began over a century ago now comprises more than 30,000 amazing textiles, showcasing a diverse array of needle crafts from elaborately embroidered Chinese Emperor’s robes, to Mechlin Laces; from Bolivian chullos to Indian shawls; from embroidered maps to soldier’s quilts.


We designers had been invited to take part in an exciting project. We’d been commissioned by Gawthorpe (with funding from the Arts Council) to produce an accessory inspired by an item (or items) from Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s collection. We began the day with a tour of the part of the collection that’s on public display.


I particularly liked the display of Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s desk and work boxes, complete with blotting paper, original haberdashery and notions, and projects in various states of completion. You could imagine her having just left the room, to take a break from her lace work.


One of the most appealing things about this collection is the way that the hand and mind of its creator is so apparent in it. Reading Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s annotations and catalogue cards give a great sense of the extent of her vast knowledge about textiles and textile history . . .


. . . as well as a flavour of her personality through her idiosyncratic – and strongly held – views.


Rachel Kay Shuttleworth was also an incredibly skilled needlewoman herself, and the collection includes many examples of her work. I was particularly taken with this beautiful crewel work bedspread that she embroidered for herself.


Begun in 1905, work on this bedspread and its accompanying accessories took Rachel thirteen years. She completed the project with a palm-tree flourish on Armistice day 1918.

After tea and cake (cake!) we adjourned to the library where Rachel Terry, the collection’s curator, had gathered an incredible range of objects for us to examine and be inspired by.

There were beautiful and intriguing knitted items . . .


. . . and work involving other media and skills.


One of the real highlights of the day for me was getting to examine some eighteenth-century pockets – of which the collection has several examples. You know I dearly love a pocket.

Here, Debbie and I . . .


. . are checking out these beauties . . .


. . .which date from the early eighteenth century and whose neat chain-stitch is still beautifully fresh and bright.


Here, Rachel is showing us a tiny pocket . . .


. . . which had been fashioned for an infant.


And I was gobsmacked by the detail of the beautiful corded quilting on this pocket . . .


. . . which had clearly been cut from an earlier garment. The fabric was certainly too glorious to waste!


Can you think of anything better than hanging out in a library with great company, getting to examine beautiful historic textiles, and being able to learn about those textiles from their curators? Well, I certainly can’t. It was an amazing day. Now Debbie, Jane, Claire, Emma and I have to go away and have a think about the design we intend to create. The idea is that we all produce patterns for our designs, which will be available as part of a kit from Gawthorpe this coming Spring. I will keep you updated as to my progress with the project as time goes on. I also imagine it may be hard to keep me away from Gawthorpe . . . I definitely intend to be back.

I was deeply impressed by the collections at Gawthorpe, which really are superb, and are a definite must-see if you have a chance to visit this lovely part of Pennine Lancashire. It was also fantastic to spend time with my comrade-designers, all of whom were tremendous fun and none of whom I’d met before. But more than this, I was blown away by the dedication, knowledge and generosity of Jennie Pitceathly, Rachel Terry and their small team at Gawthorpe. “I have a vision,” wrote Rachel Kay Shuttleworth in 1912, “of a place of meeting where neighbours will come for many reasons to seek stimulating thought by meeting other active minds, to find refreshment and inspiration and a joy in beauty”. This truly is what Jennie and Rachel are creating at Gawthorpe, and I feel honoured to be involved.

Gawthorpe Hall – including the Rachel Kay Shuttleworth Textile Collection – is open to the public 12 noon-5pm, Wednesday – Sunday until 3 November 2013. The hall will re-open in the Spring of 2014, when our patterns and kits inspired by the collection will go on sale!

For more information and updates see the Gawthorpe Textiles website. You can also follow them on twitter: @RBKS_textiles

All images in this post are reproduced courtesy of Gawthorpe Textile Collection, and are not to be reproduced without permission.

Sometimes . . .


. . . only occasionally . . .


. . . it is very good to make things just for the sake of making them.


Tom was out with work last night, and, after enjoying making a couple of tiny pompoms for my new mittens, I got out my box of Appleton’s crewel wools and decided to make some more.


I thought about colour . . .


. . . I thought about palettes . . .

And I thought an awful lot about some work I had seen by Donna Smith at the Bonhoga Gallery during Shetland Wool Week.


Donna’s piece deserves a lot of thinking about, and I’ll perhaps say more about it another time.

I have no idea what I am going to do with these wee pompoms: probably nothing, but that really doesn’t matter. The point is that I enjoyed both the thinking and the making, and, though it has been several years since I’ve done any crewel embroidery, the beautiful muted hues of those Appleton’s skeins have really made me want to stitch something up again.

Now I really am off for a few days! See you shortly.


Over the past month or so I have been embroidering this:


A crewel-work cover for my parents’ old piano stool. The flowers that to me say thrift and yarrow have their origins in two different Katherine Shaughnessy designs. I combined them, added extra grassy stems and a wee bee.


the fabric is a linen mix with something slightly stretchy in it — good for upholstery. All of the stitches are very simple: chain, stem, running, split, seed, french knots for the yarrow and a little bit of satin stitch for the bee. I was very pleased with the end result — and the recipients like their new stool cover just as much as I enjoyed making it.


Other things I’ve made and given include this bag for my sister:


The fabric is from Amy Butler’s recent upholstery range and the pattern comes, of course, from the lovely Amy Karol. I squared up the bottom of the bag with some very stiff lining fabric and added a magnetic snap fastener to the inside lining. Sweeeet!

Then there was this:

and another pic:


A cosy wrap for my mum in a simple lace repeat and Rowan cocoon knitted on 8mm needles. The pattern, “Haven,” is from Kim Hargreaves super new collection. A very pleasing winter knit.

Also in cocoon we have this:


This intriguing looking item has been named The Wal-piece. My dad dislikes fussing around with a scarf, but still requires something to keep his neck warm when he’s out in the chilly winter garden. This was the answer — part polar neck, part scarf . . . indeed, part balaclava. I had a look at similar items designed for a similar purpose by Elizabeth Zimmermann in Knitting Around and came up with my own version, which accommodates the back of the neck as well as the front (unlike those made by EZ). It was knit from the top on one 6.5mm circular needle with increases between the ribs every second round to the desired width and length. When worn, it recalls those chain-mail thingies worn by knights underneath their helmets, viz:


Thankfully, my Dad does not look *quite* like that, either in or out of his functional and cosy Wal-piece.

As well as his sweater, Mr B received a scarf inspired by this one, sported with style byThe Wire’s evil and charismatic Stringer Bell.


his version came in lovely, soft, undyed shetland aran from Shilasdair:


Made in garter stitch with a slip-stitch edging, this was probably the most mindless knitting I’ve done since I was 7.

Finally, my niece and nephew each received a pair of target wave mittens in shetland aran:


I love Norah Gaughan and this is a super little pattern — I did make some mods, though — shortening the thumbs by about four rounds and knitting tighter than the recommended gauge, having read that the pattern tended to come out rather large for small hands. These ones turned out great.

I’ll post about things received shortly. Meantime, Happy 2008!

for the women of Juarez

I was very affected by Floresita’s tribute to the lost women of Juarez. For those of you who do not know or have forgotten, over 500 women — most of them poor factory workers — have been horifically raped and killed in Ciudad Juarez over the past decade and a half. Because of Mexico’s fourteen year statute of limitations on murders, many of these crimes will now remain unsolved. This injustice adds yet another appalling burden to the families of these women, who, as well as grieving for loved ones who died in such terrible circumstances, have also had to deal with the insensitve investigations and official negligence of the Mexican police and judicial systems. After reading Florestia’s Dia de las Muertas post, I was moved, as she suggested, to follow her example.


It is a small thing, but I wanted to state my solidarity with Floresita, and opposition to all violence against women, in stitch. Please visit her blog to see her beautifully embroidered act of memory. You can learn more about the Juarez murders from Theresa Rodriguez’s book or Amnesty International.

cloth and paper

I promised an account of the Whitworth, where we spent a lovely afternoon last week. I had really gone for the textile galleries, but we were distracted by a fabulous wallpaper exhibition. This showcased a wide range of examples from the Whitworth’s decorative arts collection, and you really got a sense of the range of ways in which wallpaper might define and transform an interior over four centuries. The displays paid careful attention to the history of technique, innovations in production, and the exhibition was very thoughtfully and intuitively set out.

Wallpaper often had surprising or unexpected functions and designs—for me this aspect of the exhibition was highlighted in the elaborate decorative schemes of the 1930s, in which ordinary middle-class parlours were transformed by being bedecked with paper vines and flowers hanging from ceilings and picture rails. But my favourite examples were the miraculously preserved wallpapers from the 1770s to the early 1800s:


I really think that the Jane Austen industry has left us with a version of the eighteenth century that is misleading in its pale muslin and Wedgwood-muted pastels. This anodyne, relentlessly tasteful, and terribly washed-out aesthetic is frankly more Nigella Lawson (aigh!) than Austen. This was an era of gaudy exuberance, when classical statues were enhanced with bright coats of paint, and interior decoration embraced colourful excesses. The busy patterns of this French paper seem completely alien to many popular conceptions of Georgian style:


but this is what the bourgeois Eighteenth Century looked like.

We also spent some time in the textile galleries, which were excellent. The Whitworth has one of the best collections of textiles in the UK, only a small fraction of which can be on show at any one time. What *was* displayed was arranged really judiciously. Rather than presenting a historical narrative, or separating the textiles by culture or locale, the curator had chosen several examples from different eras, places and moments to illustrate a particular function, theme, or idea. This approach worked well, allowing the viewer to get a sense of, for example the imperial aesthetics of British textiles by displaying Victorian shawls alongside the much earlier Indian designs on which they were based. The case displaying the original Japanese influences of familiar modern textiles (such as Morris & Co’s now ubiquitous willow bough) was particularly good.

I was blown away by the beauty of the embroidered textiles–those of the Middle East particularly. There were some wonderfully elaborate Iranian and Turkish examples from the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries. But, loving crewel work as I do, I have to say that the best thing I saw all day was this:


A crewel sampler worked by Doris “AR” (acquisition details of this marvellous panel can be found here). I think this is the most superb take on the traditional Anglo-American tree of life that I’ve ever seen. I just love the spirit and audacity of it – her bold modern take on traditional embroidery techniques; the way that every flower head and leaf explores a different stitch; the vibrant blues and greens of the wool against the linen, and the overall sense that this is the work of an accomplished needlewoman showing off her talent. The whole thing is a sort of crewel fanfare, a big “ta-da!” It says “look at me”, “look what I can do.” And yet, because of the nature of the art (a decorative panel for private or social display) and its small scale (appreciated by women who might observe or handle it close to) Doris AR is speaking the language of an aesthetic community rather than her individual ego. It is really quite exceptional. I may take inspiration from this for the panel I am planning to produce for Christmas but feel at the moment, rather too in awe of the original to attempt a design.

Rowan exchange

Now Morag has received her gifts I can safely post some pics of what I made for her in the Rowan exchange. The theme was ‘all the seasons’ and Morag had listed autumn as her favourite.

First I knitted an autumnal rust-coloured cushion, in Rowan Yorkshire Tweed Chunky on 6.5mm needles, using the ‘sand cables’ pattern in vol. 3 of Vogue Knitting Stitchionary:


The cables – and the yarn – softened up considerably when blocked. I finished it off with some brown buttons from Duttons for Buttons in York.

Then I drew a simple design to be embroidered onto the cover of a nice blank book (for pattern notes etc)


It is (in case you’re asking) meant to suggest an autumnal tree in the wind. I really enjoyed the crewel work, but finishing up the book cover on the sewing machine was a little more tricky. Despite flattering myself that I have become an adept sempstress since being given the gadget at Christmas, the machine and I are clearly not yet AS ONE. I hope Morag does not examine the seams too closely….


Finally, I finished off the package with a couple of skeins of Debbie Bliss pure silk in a deep brown, with which to create a seasonal treat, when Morag has time and inclination:



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