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.