In the comments on yesterday’s post, Heather linked to an interesting take on the “when is a tapestry not a tapestry” question from a tapestry weaver who strongly objects to the misappropriation of the term in reference to non-woven textiles. I am often struck by how textiles, more than other disciplines, seems prone to practices of woeful mis-naming, and the piece raises many moot points, particularly in relation to the gender associations of the terms “tapestry” and “embroidery.” I suppose this is what I was hinting towards yesterday in suggesting that the term “tapestry” has, in the popular imagination, a public, narrative dimension, that the word “embroidery” does not. It is certainly very sad that this is so, and the linguistic perceptions and politics of these terms in contemporary discourse seem to me quite difficult to unravel. But whether or not the nomenclature of the “Great Tapestry” has a masculine ring, one could certainly never criticise this project for its masculine bias. Women formed the majority of the talented stitchers, and not only are women represented everywhere in the tapestry, but individual panels are used to proudly celebrate the ordinary work of Scottish women in a way that is all too rarely seen in public contexts. A few weeks ago I climbed the Wallace Monument with my dad (who is a Wallace on his mother’s side, and is known by everyone as “Wal”). Half way up the tower we discovered the “hall of heroes” – a sterile space filled with the equally sterile busts of dead white men. While this room commemorates the achievements of Scotland’s philosophical, scientific, military, and literary blokes, there is not a single woman in sight. I scoured the information panels, and finally found Jane Carlyle, who received the briefest of mentions in relation to her husband. Jane and I were the only women in the room, and I wonder if she would have felt as irritated as I did. A wee girl, with a burgeoning interest in Scottish history, might find little in that room with which to identify, while her brother might be reinforced in his tacit belief that only men do important things. One of the many functions of the Great Tapestry of Scotland, it seems to me, is as an educational resource and thank goodness that the project exuberantly and thoughtfully celebrates the important work of Scotland’s women authors, political activists, washerwomen, fisher-lassies, and knitters, and places that work in a public context, alongside more familiar “masculine” achievements.
On with some highlights.
Panel 99: James Clerk Maxwell One of many occasions where I was struck by the wit and inventiveness of Andrew Crummy’s wonderful designs. The colourful waves of Maxwell’s beard capture his work on magnetism and electricity.
Panel 103: Shinty and Curling I was bowled over by the beauty and precision of the stitching on this panel, created by Susie Finlayson and Linda Jobson. Look at the tartan! The knitted hose! The herringbone woven jacket! The way the wrong side of the fabric is represented!
Panels 105 and 107: The Paisley pattern and Mill Working I found both of these panels incredibly beautiful and moving: the way the faces of the mill workers had been integrated into the famous Paisley pattern, the way the colours of the embroidery precisely echoed those of the Indian subcontinent in panel 92; the sense of energy and movement in the stitching and design . . . and, of course, the fact I was viewing these panels in a mill, in Paisley.
Panel 113: The Discovery sails from Dundee One of the many things I loved about this panel was that the trades involved with the expedition were depicted and celebrated: flesher, tailor, cordiner, weaver, dyer, hammerman, bonnet maker, baker, glover.
Panel 123: Women get the vote. This panel was stitched by the Edinburgh members of Soroptimist International
Some more details of the Great Tapestry of Scotland for you this morning. You’ll find the first post in the series here.
Panel 27: Haakon at Kyleankin. Signature of the South Skye stitchers who created this panel, which depicts twelfth century Norweigan / Scottish conflicts. The Orkney and Shetland islands remained in Norweigan / Danish hands until 1469.
Panel 36: Rosslyn Chapel The famous piping angel of Rosslyn Chapel
Panel 51: Droving One of many panels where Crummy’s drawings and the work of the stitchers inventively combine the human figure and the landscape. The figure of the drover emerges from and merges with the rolling hills and green fields.
More details tomorrow . . .
On Sunday I finally got to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland. I was completely blown away by the vision of Alistair Moffat (who produced the tapestry’s historical content and context), Andrew Crummy (the superb artist who designed these 160 panels) and perhaps especially by the skill and beauty of the work of the thousand Scottish women and men who stitched it. It was displayed in the singularly fitting surroundings of the Anchor Mill in Paisley. The atmosphere in this wonderful space was electric. There were people of all ages there, and everyone was completely transfixed by the tapestry, and were clearly enjoying it tremendously. I heard several exclamations of delight at particular details, as well as folk sharing personal recollections in front of individual panels. Some of the panels moved me to tears, others made me laugh out loud and viewing this terrific work was a truly incredible experience.
The Great Tapestry of Scotland has a monunmental name, and it is certainly a monumental thing – but importantly, it is not in the least pompous or in any way up itself. Rather than telling the story of a nation through a top-down celebratory narrative of kings and queens and battles, it tells that story from the bottom up, in pleasingly piecemeal fashion, allowing many different identities, and many regional and linguistic differences to be included and represented. Scotland here is the sum of many different parts, and historical change is an uneven, and often deeply conflicted process. And this is a history where the folk who worked to build a bridge might be celebrated in the same terms as the engineer who designed it; where a can of Irn Bru and the King James bible might both share status as national icons. The tapestry’s 160 panels are alive with the colours of the landscape, with cultural invention, with the power of the imagination, with the emotive movement of time, with joy, wit, terror and sadness. That the panels sing so is testament both to Andrew Crummy’s wonderful designs as well as the skill and creativity of the stitchers, and I was deeply moved by the beauty and energy of the embroidery. The story of the people who stitched it is stitched up in this incredible thing, and that is certainly part of what makes it so terrific. So I think it was the tapestry’s sheer sense of shared endeavour that killed me most: that this was the best kind of collective history, created collectively. Craft and design have, I think, a unique power to bring people together in the expression and sharing of their creativity and cultural identity. In all honesty, this tapestry is the best example I’ve ever seen of how this might be so.
This blog serves several functions, one of which is as my own diary. I have thought quite hard about how to represent the tapestry to you, and to myself as well, so that, in the future, I can remember what I felt when I first saw it. I decided that the best way was, over several posts, to show you some of the details that really struck me. If you are interested in finding out more about the Great Tapestry of Scotland, two super books have been published about it. The first, a paperback by Susan Mansfield and Alistair Moffat, tells the story of the tapestry’s creation, together with the stories of the thousand Scottish women and men who were involved in its creation. The second book is a handsome (yet very reasonably priced volume) which carefully illustrates each of the tapestry’s individual panels, alongside more detailed and thorough historical information. I heartily recommend both books. And if you’d just like to look at each of the tapestry’s panels, you’ll find a wee slideshow here.
So here are some of the details I enjoyed from panels 1 through 23
Panel 9: Pytheas the Greek visits Calanais. I was particularly struck by the way the Isle of Lewis stitchers had carefully rendered the colours and textures of the banded gneiss and lichen of the Calanais stones.
Panel 20: Macbeth. Each of the tapestry’s panels includes the ‘signature’ of the stitchers who created it at the bottom right. This one, a small sampler of every stitch and every colour used in the panel was particularly striking. The panel was stitched by Sandra and Glennie Leith, Ingrid McGown, Paddy McGruer and Rhea Scott.
More to come . . .
I often receive requests for copies of features and articles I’ve published. Hard copies of individual magazines can be hard to find, and many publishers don’t make back issues readily available in digital formats. So, in the spirit of open access, I’ve decided to “reprint” some of these pieces here, where everyone can find them. This piece, originally published in Selvedge in March 2008, is one I’m asked about quite frequently. The work of Tabitha Kyoko Moses is always thoughtful, and thought provoking and she probably remains my favourite artist working with textiles in any medium. I think it is her very particular combination of precision, beauty, and discomfort that I like so much. I was very happy that Tabitha also enjoyed my piece when it was published, and I urge you to explore more of her work on her website.
(Annies Room, the shrine under the streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town)
“We have naught for death but toys” W.B. Yeats
Several hundred feet beneath the streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town, a doll sits in a cold, dark room. The tattered plaid she wears is showing signs of age. Her limbs are dirty and her hair is white with dust. Gathered around her are hundreds of companions. There are Barbies and Beanie-Babies and several Raggedy-Anns. Stuffed animals jostle alongside plastic infants; painted wooden soldiers smile up at porcelain princesses. What are they, this dusty jumble of toys piled five feet high? What brought them here together? In 1992, Japanese psychic, Aiko Gibo, visited Edinburgh’s re-discovered city-beneath-the-city and reportedly felt the tugging hands of a girl abandoned there to die in a plague year. Gibo comforted the restless ghost with the tartan doll, leaving her a curiously nationalist playmate. Since then, numerous visitors to what is now known as Annie’s room in Mary King’s Close have done the same. What are we to make of this shrine, this spontaneous doll-memorial to the ghost of a girl no-one remembers? Are we moved or repelled by Annie’s room?
All cultures mark the boundary between life and death with imitative rituals. Dolls are familiar figures in funerals across time. The tombs of the ancient dead are filled with effigies whose assumed purpose ranges from the talismanic to the admonitory. Children use dolls to play at death, mimicking grief and burial. Dolls, indeed, look like death. It is not just that in them we find an appropriate figure for our mourning, but, in their cold imperturbability, they seem like corpses themselves. This doll-corpse association is explored in Andrew Kötting’s playful and serious project, The Wake of a DeaDad (2006). Intrigued by his reaction to his father’s corpse and memory, Kötting reinvented several imitative rituals, which included inviting responses to photographs of his dad in stages of life and death; laying himself out as mock-corpse and paternal offrendas in the Mexican Day-of-the-Dead; and creating an enormous inflatable DeaDad doll with which he lived and travelled for several months.
(Andrew Kötting The Wake of a DeaDad (2006)
With a different sort of wit and tenderness, Tabitha Kyoko Moses also explores the humanity and deathliness of dolls. Over the past few years, Moses has amassed an eclectic assortment of doll-objects from charity shops and jumble sales “I wasn’t interested in a particular genre of doll,” she says, “or in creating a collection or a history. But suddenly I discovered I had a lot of them. It was almost as if they found me.” The dolls that “found” Moses are those that are most “lost”: blemished or dismembered, loved or tortured to the point of collapse. Inspired by a mummified girl she encountered during a residence at Bolton Museum, Moses initially began to re-fashion the dolls as consolatory gifts for this long-dead and lonely child. But, perhaps like the toys in Annie’s room—gathering dust and becoming, together, something more than themselves—her dolls began to take on a material life of their own. In a process of wrapping and nurturing she compares to “laying out a dead body” Moses swaddles her dolls in lagging, plastic, printed cotton lawn, stiff leather, string, and human hair. A doll whose jolly bonnet and rosy cheeks form a startling contrast to her eye’s bald sockets is fondly adorned with a manx-cat brooch, suggesting both completion and absence. Some of the dolls have the cosy air of children sleeping. Others appear to be slightly disgruntled, uselessly struggling against the fabric bundles in which they find themselves enclosed.
The fabric wrappings are crucial to the new life that Moses lends her dolls. These textiles are both ornament and container: the dolls’ soft coffin and their decorative memorial. Moses binds a startled bride wearing full wedding regalia in dark linen.
(Tabitha Kyoko Moses, “The Dolls” (2004) dolls, fabric, plastic, thread, human hair, bits and bobs. Photography by Ben Blackall)
In her black shroud she becomes a figure of arrested potential, conveying the ritual proximity of marriage and death. Moses further excavates the deathliness of her dolls with the use of x-ray photography.
. . . A light-box image of the bride reveals her to be pierced with several pins. She now resonates with murderous curiosity, internal anguish, guilt, and fascination. For who, in moments of dark childhood fantasy, has not killed their dolls?
In their lovely, yet deeply disturbing ordinariness, Moses’ dolls and textiles recall the partially-covered corpse in Wallace Stevens’ poem The Emperor of Ice-Cream:
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
(Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”. Harmonium (1922) )
Stevens’ corpse is an object of the everyday. In her cold immobility she reminds us of death’s easy finality. Yet, like Moses’ cared-for dolls, she also suggests the mute compassion of the world of things. We feel the careless weight of her hands on the well-worn dresser; her fingers’ quick movement through the stitches of the modest cloth that now decorates her countenance. The dead woman cannot speak, and yet the meanings of her selfhood are silently carried to us in that fantail-embroidered sheet.
(Tabitha Kyoko Moses, Untitled (2006). cotton fabric, sawdust, human humerus bone, various threads, hand embroidery. Photography Ben Blackall.)
In Untitled (2006) Moses uses stitch as a communicative medium between life and death. These dismembered limbs, with their immaculate embroidery, are textiles of breathtaking beauty. Yet out of the gorgeous doll-things protrude human bones. Doll and corpse become one in objects that are both compelling and repellent. Moses’ embroidered calico, fashioned with such skill and care, lends respect and tenderness to the bone, and the bone in turn enhances the meanings of the fabric with its own brand of the grotesque. In complete contrast to Cindy Sherman’s doll-art which, in the public glare of her camera, strives unsuccessfully to be poignant as well as disgusting, Moses’s dolls achieve this by expressing themselves intimately, stitching their audience up with whispers.
So, to return to where we began, perhaps Tabitha Moses’ dolls tell us something abut how to feel in Annie’s room. What’s interesting when one begins to look closely at the piled-up array of gifts in that dark tenement is their different associations. Some have been left with evident care (a pricey bébé) others with apparent thoughtlessness (a screen wipe). So many of Annie’s toys seem just misplaced or random: plastic binoculars, a Westlife CD, an enormous grinning bear. Together, though, these things have transformed a space that is supposed to be terribly spooky and lent it a spectacular ordinariness. Annie’s room has a stark materiality in which there is a pathos that exceeds, or defies, the uncanny. Like Tabitha Moses’ dolls, Annie’s too are part of the kindly world of things.
Grateful thanks to Tabitha Kyoko Moses, and to Lisa Helsby of Mary Kings Close.
Originally published in Selvedge March 2008. Revised February 2014.
We designers had been commissioned to produce designs inspired by items in the collection . . . we worked on them over the Winter . . . and today, our patterns were released!
The piece I chose as the basis of my design was an incredible coverlet embroidered by the collection’s founder, Rachel Kay Shuttleworth. Miss Rachel designed the coverlet in honour of the memory of her seventeenth-century ancestor, Richard “the Roundhead” Shuttleworth, and embroidered it during the the last years of her life at Gawthorpe.
(If you are interested to read more about the history of the coverlet, and my inspiration, I have written about it here)
So this is what I came up with: meet the Richard the Roundhead Tam!
Rachel’s coverlet combined her own Arts and Crafts aesthetic with her ancestor’s Tudor heritage, and I have tried to speak to this in my design with structured motifs that echo those of her embroidery. The colour scheme is the same teal-on-white that Rachel chose, with a pop of Lancastrian rose-red for the brim lining and button. The brim combines a turned hem with picots and corrugated ribbing, and those of you who have made my Scatness Tunic will recognise the technique used to create the button:
They are very easy to make, and I will post a tutorial here over the next few days so that everyone can have a go.
From start to finish, this has been such a lovely design to produce. It was wonderful to visit Gawthorpe, to have access to its world-class collection of historic textiles, and to meet and work with the fabulously dedicated women who curate and care for it. The research involved in a project like this is meat and drink to me: it was fantastic to spend some time researching the history and context of Rachel Shuttleworth’s coverlet, and I particularly enjoyed finding out about Richard Shuttleworth’s role in the Civil War. Finally, as a Lancastrian myself, the design really does mean something to me, and I confess to feeling a modicum of local pride when I finally finished the knitting, and popped the red rose of Lancashire on the top of that tam.
The pattern for the Richard The Roundhead Tam is now available to download here!
I am sure you will hear more from the other designers about their patterns in the coming days, but I thought I would give them a quick mention too.
Debbie has designed a beautiful needle case inspired by one of Gawthorpe’s ticking samplers (a genre of sampler I find particularly appealing. Those stripes!).
Jane has designed a lovely hat and mitt set, inspired by historic swatches in the stitch and sample books held in Gawthorpe’s textile archives.
Gawthorpe’s collections are particularly rich in lace, and Claire Montgomerie drew on this for her exceptionally pretty capelet, whose crocheted motifs echo those of several lace fragments.
And Emma produced this wonderful cushion cover, inspired by what is surely one of the most moving items in Gawthorpe’s collection: a military quilt, stitched from uniform scraps by a convalescing solider.
All proceeds from the sales of these designs will go to Gawthorpe, to help care for this important historic collection for future generations to enjoy and be inspired by. You’ll find the whole collection available to peruse over here on Ravelry.
I have of late been developing an obsession with Swedish textiles, and, it now appears, with all things Swedish. This began at the end of last Summer, when I discovered that several Swedish Etsy sellers had some interesting vintage embroidery on offer . . .
. . . I had to limit my exposure to these wares, as the imperative to fill my house with table runners and cloths and cushions and curtains was just too bloody tempting.
Then I started picking up books about Swedish embroidery, and other crafts . . .
The Eivor Fisher book (which was published in Paisley) is particularly beautiful and inspiring. (Thankyou, Natalie, for alerting me to its existence).
. . .before I knew where I was, I was following the Gävlebocken on Instagram . . .
. . . and sourcing dvd box-sets of Swedish historical dramas
Well, there is nothing for it. I have to go to Sweden. I am perfectly serious, and I would really appreciate any suggestions from readers in that part of the world for must-see textile collections or museums.
Tack så mycket.
In between developing kits and other designs, I’ve been working on my Gawthorpe project (which you may remember is a commission to produce a pattern inspired by the wonderful textile collections of Rachel Kay Shuttleworth). The piece on which I’ve decided to base my design is a large coverlet, featuring deep teal-coloured woollen embroidery on a plain linen background. I knew that this beautiful piece had been stitched by Rachel Kay Shuttleworth herself, but I had only seen it behind glass on my first visit, as it was part of the collection on display. So I decided, a couple of weeks ago, to pop back to Gawthorpe to take a closer look, and do a little research.
I had assumed, when I first saw the coverlet, that the motifs were ferns, or fern-inspired, but this turned out not to be the case. In her notes about it, Rachel Kay Shuttleworth describes the motifs as “big feathers” and gives two sources of inspiration for the pattern she’d used. The first is another piece in her collection, which had been embroidered by Rachel’s contemporary, Hilda Ashworth . . .
. . . which had in turn been inspired by an original Tudor piece, purportedly embroidered by Amy Robsart (the wife of Robert Dudley, whose death in mysterious circumstances made her something of a sentimental cause célèbre at the turn of the twentieth century). Robsart’s original crewel-work, featuring the “big feathers” was part of the collection of Rachel’s friend, and champion of the Arts and Crafts movement, Lewis F. Day, and Rachel had borrowed it when drawing up her own design.
Rachel’s coverlet features a total of 100 feathers, each of which features a different embroidery stitch.
Rachel described the coverlet as “a sampler of line stitches.”
The embroidery is made with a lovely teal-coloured wool, which due to its provenance from different sources and dye-lots, has faded over time into several different deep blues and greens. I find this uneven fading both attractive and intriguing, because of the way it writes the time and process of Rachel’s stitching into her finished piece.
The colour Rachel chose for her stitches is a similar shade as the ink she familiarly used to write with. The annotations to many pieces in her collection are written in her hand, in a shade of ink, which has also faded over time in an uneven way, to a series of greens and blues that echo the varied hues of her stitching on the coverlet.
And just like her handwriting, Rachel’s signature is evident in the coverlet she embroidered, which is a showcase of the varied possibilities of crewel embroidery, and the skill of a truly talented needlewoman. It is a piece in which Rachel’s deep knowledge, and love of, stitch is immediately apparent. But it is a piece with a family story as well.
Around the border of the coverlet, Rachel stitched a Latin inscription in Lancastrian red. Translated, the inscription reads:
“He who would have ordained that his children should acknowledge the supreme Lord has survived by family descent a great many generations. His granddaughter of the tenth generation fashioned this work of devotion with her needle.”
Rachel had designed the coverlet to commemorate her ancestor Richard Shuttleworth, also known as Richard the Roundhead, or “Old Smoot”. A prominent parliamentarian, Richard had led the Lancashire forces against the King during the civil war, served as a magistrate during the commonwealth period, and, having reconciled himself to monarchy under Charles II, was the parliamentary member for Preston for a total of eleven terms.
Using motifs inspired by Tudor embroidery, the coverlet speaks to Rachel’s heritage in a prominent Lancashire family (a heritage of which she was clearly very proud), and perhaps quietly celebrates the commonwealth politics of her famous ancestor.
Rachel completed her work by stitching her own initials around a crest of her own devising depicting weaving shuttles, thereby connecting her heritage and family name to her own profound love of textiles.
Rachel stitched away on her huge “Richard the Roundhead” bedspread for several decades. Though she embroidered the finished date of the piece as 1966, she was actually still working on it at the time of her death in 1967. Her niece, Rosemary Kay Shuttleworth, completed her aunt’s work, and it is now a key piece in the Gawthorpe collection.
The coverlet has such a wonderfully rich context, which I’m glad I took the time to find out about, and which I hope I’ll be able to speak to a little in my own design. There will be feather-y motifs, shades of wool inspired by Rachel’s stitches and handwriting, and a nod to Rachel’s (and my own) Lancastrian heritage.
All images in this post are the copyrighted property of Gawthorpe Textile Collection, and are reproduced here with their permission.