Great Tapestry of Scotland 124-160

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Panel 140: Cumbernauld

Well, this is my final post on the Great Tapestry of Scotland! I have really enjoyed revisiting my photographs, and thinking more about the tapestry, and your comments have also provided much food for thought. These photographs are, of course only snippets, and you’ll find much more thorough information in the two books I mentioned in my first post about the project. But honestly, no books or photographs can reproduce the experience of seeing this incredible thing for yourself and, if you ever have the opportunity, I really recommend you do so!

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Detail of Panel 140: Cumbernauld

I can’t say I have a favourite panel, though I do love Fairisle (126) the Isbister Sisters (115) and the Hutton panel (74) but as I went through my photos this morning, I found myself thinking about how much I loved the Cumbernauld panel (140) and how it seemed to sum up for me what this project is all about.

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Detail of Panel 140: Cumbernauld

Like many panels, this one celebrates the texture of ordinary people’s lives, and the ordinary spaces in which they live them. Andrew Crummy’s design – with the new town’s familiar roads and architecture – is incredibly witty and creative, and just like his Pictish or his Georgian panels, the style of the design has shifted in an inventive fashion here to suit the moment it represents. Cumbernauld’s local reputation is not unambiguous, but in this panel the urban environment appears beautiful and utopian simply because it is an everyday space of homes, and folk, and families. My favourite scene from Gregory’s Girl is referenced in the top left, and perhaps one of the reasons I like this panel so much is that so much of what it represents seems familiar to me from my own childhood and youth. Finally, the stitching on the panel is absolutely exquisite, and because of this the whole piece absolutely sings. Last Sunday, I spent some time admiring this panel, and I then read the information board which told me that just two Cumbernauld women had worked on the stitching, Elizabeth Boulton and Helen Conley. Conley and Boulton had depicted themselves as children in their signature at the bottom right of the panel, in a scene that seemed to be taken from an old photograph of the pair. I was suddenly struck by the sheer power of the Great Tapestry project – that these two childhood friends were quite literally making history, and with their needles stitching themselves into the story of their home, their town, their nation. What a wonderful thing to do.

So, some final highlights.

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Panel 125: The General Strike stitched by June McEwan, Karen Philpot and Gil Tulloch in Pitlochry

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Panel 126: Fair Isle Love this panel inordinately.

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Panel 129: The Great Depression The lone figure of Chris Guthrie defines the 1930s

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Panel 130: Tenement Life I loved everything about this wonderfully vibrant celebration of Scotland’s tenement communities

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Panel 132: The Clydebank Blitz I found this panel deeply affecting

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Panel 134: D-Day, 1944 Bill Millin defiantly pipes through the Normandy landings

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Panel 143: Linwood and the Hillman Imp I was particularly pleased to see a yoked jumper, appropriately appearing here in its early 1960s heyday!

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Panel 148: The rise of the SNP It amused me that Irn Bru and Tunnocks Tea Cakes appeared in this panel as 1970s nationalist icons.

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Panel 149: Scotland at the Movies. Whisky Galore! “No son of mine will be eating human flesh.”

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Panel 152: Gaelic Resurgent stitched by Christine Haynes and Pauline Elwell

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Panel 154: Dolly the Sheep Tom’s favourite panel, for its inventive depiction of science in stitch.

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Panel 155: The Scottish Parliament reconvenes, 1999. Incredibly beautiful stitching on this panel

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Panels 156 and 157: Parliament of the Ancestors, Parliament for the Future An appropriately vast and varied tapestry of Scottish identities, from Joanna Baillie to Oor Wullie.

Thanks for bearing with me through this photographic tour! And if you’d like to see all of my posts about the Great Scottish Tapestry together, you can do so here.

Great Tapestry of Scotland 93-123

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Panel 94: Hill and Adamson The silver herrings and striped petticoats of the Newhaven fisherwoman.

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.

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Panel 96: A Caithness School I am alawys drawn to the neeps. By the 1850s, through pioneering rural education practices, Caithness (and Berwickshire) literacy rates were the highest in Great Britain.

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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.

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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!

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Panel 104: Scots in North America I love the figure of John Muir here – the very embodiment of the ideal of the national park.

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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.

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Panel 109: Workshop of the Empire I love the way that industry, labour, and the human figure are represented in this panel.

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Panel 111: Kier Hardie who campaigned for women’s suffrage as well as worker’s rights.

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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.

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Panel 115: The Isbister sisters Shetland knitters! Hurrah! One of my favourite panels.

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Panel 123: Women get the vote. This panel was stitched by the Edinburgh members of Soroptimist International

Great Tapestry of Scotland 60 – 92

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There have been some interesting questions in the comments on my previous posts about the Great Scottish Tapestry. Elaine and Deborah asked what materials had been used in the creation of the tapestry – well, the stitchers used Peter Grieg linen and Appletons crewel wool throughout. Terry asked why it was called a tapestry at all, given that strictly speaking it isn’t, which is an interesting question. I couldn’t find a direct answer to this, but speaking personally, my sense of it is that for the majority of folk who are not involved in craft, design, or the fibre arts, the word tapestry immediately suggests the Bayeux Tapestry, which is not woven either, but is similarly embroidered, from similar materials, in a similarly collaborative fashion. Perhaps its the public, narrative connotations of the word “tapestry”, derived from its associations with Bayeux, that have lead the project to be so described? Those who have been directly involved might like to add their thoughts in the comments below. And yes, I am aware of the Prestonpans and Diaspora projects, and am very much looking forward to seeing them both.

As I continue through my photographs of the tapestry, I find myself vaguely frustrated that there are things that I missed, or failed to record with a photograph, particularly in the eighteenth-century sections. . . but I suppose the tapestry’s richness, its inexhaustive nature, is one of the most wonderful things about it. Plus, I fully intend to spend time with it again when it comes to New Lanark in October. Regarding panel 64, which you can see at the top of this post, one of my academic interests many moons ago was the development of what we now know as sign language out of the “natural” philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. I was particularly pleased to see a panel recording the pioneering work of Thomas Braidwood, who established the first school for signing in Edinburgh in 1760.

So here are some more tapestry highlights . . from my favourite period in Scottish history.

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Panel 65: James Small and the invention of the swing plough. Love the neeps and kale. “The swing plough changed cultivation radically and by doing that it changed the world”

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Panel 67: Edinburgh’s New Town. Auld Reekie’s familiar Enlightenment geography

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Panel 70: Adam Smith Delighted to see Smith’s invisible hand . . . made visible!

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Panel 73: Weaving and Spinning Loved this panel, stitched by Frances Gardner and Jacqueline Walters. The details of the lace shawl particularly killed me.

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Panel 74: James Hutton’s theory of the earth the birth of modern geology.

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Panel 75: Smoked fish I love how the figure of the fisher lass merges in with the landscape in this panel – that’s her striped skirt you can see in the photo. Finnan Haddies, Arbroath Smokies . . . nom.

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Panel 77: Scotland and the drive for Empire I liked how this panel carefully represented the Atlantic Triangle as a commercial, profit-driven enterprise, with hideous human costs.

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Panel 78: New Lanark Loved the Falls of Clyde, the silent monitor (I have one on my desk) and the way the figures of the dancing children echo their depiction in contemporary prints of the period. (In the eighteenth-century panels, I often noticed Crummy’s designs directly referencing contemporary prints and paintings.)

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Panel 87: The Growth of Glasgow A truly wonderful panel, stitched by the Glasgow Society of Women Artists

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Panel 90: Kirkpatrick Macmillan celebrating the modern bicycle’s 1839 wooden prototype

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Panel 92: The Scots in India this richly coloured and beautifully detailed panel, stitched by Edinburgh’s Wardie Church stitchers, is truly a work of art.

Great Tapestry of Scotland 24-59

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Some more details of the Great Tapestry of Scotland for you this morning. You’ll find the first post in the series here.

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Panel 25: Duns Scotus. The feet of Duns Scotus, the medieval philosopher for whom we have to thank for the concept of Haecceity

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Panel 26: Somerled, first Lord of the Isles A beautiful panel, stitched in Lochaber.

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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.

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Panel 29: William Wallace and Andrew Moray. English soldiers drown in the river beneath Stirling bridge.

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Panel 30: Bannockburn The stitching on this panel, created by Caroline M Buchanan and Margaret Martin, is incredible.

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Panel 32: The Black Death Many affecting details on this panel, as the land is emptied of people.

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Panel 36: Rosslyn Chapel The famous piping angel of Rosslyn Chapel

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Panel 39: Waulking Love the strong arms and blithe faces of the women singing as they waulk the cloth.

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Panel 44: Mary Queen of Scots dreaming and stitching through her captivity.

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Panel 45: The Border Reivers One of the tapestry’s many pleasing representations of Scottish sheep.

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Panel 47: King James Bible The stitching of James IV’s jacket is incredibly beautiful, so minute, so precise – a perfect representation, in all respects, of seventeenth-century crewel work.

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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.

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Panel 54: The massacre at Glencoe. The stitching here absolutely kills me. The way the weave of the plaid, and the folds of the cloth have been rendered is amazing.

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Panel 59: The Kilt Celebrating the invention of the ‘wee’ kilt in 1723. The wearing of kilts and tartans was shortly thereafter prohibited by the British government under the dress act of 1746.

More details tomorrow . . .

Great Tapestry of Scotland 1-23

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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.

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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

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Panels 3a and 3b The formation of Scotland / The collision. “Geology formed Scotland and the land and the sea formed the character of the people”

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Panel 4 Scotland emerges from the ice. Love the figures of the fisherfolk, the detail of the currach, the graded colours of the stitching.

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Panel 5: The wildwood Hare and Red Squirrel.

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Panel 7: The First Farmers Wonderful textures on this panel.

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Panel 8: Brochs, Crannogs and Cairns. Scotland’s early vernacular architecture.

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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.

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Panel 10: The coming of the legions. I love how the curls of Julius Agricola tell the story.

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Panel 11: Ninian at Whithorn. Beautiful stitching, the work of a single Dumfries needlewoman, Shirley McKeand.

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Panel 15: Dunnichen. Love the bold way that Andrew Crummy and the stitchers have here rendered the details of the famous Pictish stone.

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Panel 17: Dumbarton Rock One of many examples of how the geology represented in the tapestry afforded the stitchers an opportunity to really show off their skills. Astounding.

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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.

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Panel 22: The Flowers of the Borders. Anyone familiar with the architecture of the great Border abbeys will find the subtle pinks and greys of these stitched columns immediately evocative.

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Panel 23: the medieval wool trade. One of many panels illustrating the importance of textiles and their production to Scotland’s culture and economy.

More to come . . .

finishing a steek

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I have recently been designing and knitting a thing with steeks, which required finishing. This project is part of an exciting collaboration, and I’ll be able to tell you (and show you) more about it in a couple of weeks. When working on the steeks, it occurred to me how many different ways there are to finish them, so I thought I’d describe exactly what I did with this project, and show you some different finishes I’ve seen, in different contexts.

I generally swatch in the round, and this project was no different. When working a swatch, I always add a few extra steek stitches to enable me to cut the swatch open, and block it flat, before measuring my gauge. Because I’d tested the yarn in this way, I knew from my swatch that the fabric was “sticky” enough to bear cutting without reinforcement so – shock horror – that is what I did when cutting the steeks on this project. I then picked up ribbing around the steeked edges, and washed and blocked the project to the required dimensions.

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When the project was blocked, I returned to the steeks and trimmed them right back so that only a narrow raw edge remained.

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I then cut a length of narrow grosgrain ribbon, and positioned it over the top of the raw yarn edges. I pinned it down, easing the binding around the project’s curves, in the same way you’d do when preparing to machine sew.

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. . . I then hand-stitched the ribbon down, securing the raw edges with my stitches, again taking care to ease the binding around the curve. The end result is very stable, and gives a neat, bulk-free finish to the inside of the project. It should also mean that this project will stand up to wear for quite a while.

I am very fond of using ribbon, in both a decorative and a functional way, for finishing a steek edge. Here is the inside of the front button band of my Ursula cardigan. In this instance, the steek edges were reinforced with a crocheted chain, which was then carefully unpicked, before being stitched down.

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I didn’t trim the steeks back in this instance, but I think it makes a kind of sense to do so when reduction of bulk is crucial to the line and structure of a garment, such as around an armhole edge.

You can see how, in this vintage cardigan in my collection, the steek has been trimmed right back and the edges stitched down to the inside.

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. . . and here, in this garment in the collection of the Shetland Museum and Archives, the steek edges have been trimmed back and blanket-stitched in quite an attractive way.

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I recall, when I handled the following garment, that I was very impressed with the method that had been used to finish its buttonband steeks . . .

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It is a 1930s Fairisle cardigan in the collections of the Shetland Museum and Archives. The grosgrain ribbon has been machine stitched to the buttonband, then buttonholes have been cut through both band and ribbon, and reinforced with hand-stitching. . .

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On the inside, the steek edges have not been trimmed, or even stitched down, but have simply been allowed to wear and felt-in to the inside of the garment. The result is very neat, and very strong – even 80 years later!

Finally, here is my steek sandwich – in which two separate layers of stockinette conceal and contain the raw steek edges.

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Finished with i-cord buttonholes, the steek sandwich is a self-contained and neat way to finish the opening of cardigans like my Bláithín design. I would say, though, that because it creates a raised corded edge, it is not a finish that would work on a garment where a sleeker, more tailored look is required. (I seem to be having a buttonband thing at the moment, and really want to try double-knitting one with integral buttonholes. If anyone knows of a good book or web tutorial for me to have a look at please do let me know!)

I hope these different steek finishes have inspired you to chop up and stitch down your knitting without fear!

sew what?

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I have been getting to know my new sewing machine. I have to say that I really, really love it: my old machine was rather basic, but this one has several different feet, a fancy buttonhole thingy, and a multitude of decorative stitch patterns. Plus, it is so smooth! So intuitively simple to operate! The threads do not get caught and the bobbin winder actually winds the bobbin!

This is the speed adjuster, which I find incredibly pleasing.

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Surely the first thing anyone does is to make a sampler of stitches?

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Some of these really kill me, and off course set me off thinking about the structure of various knitterly motifs.

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But my lettering definitely needs some work . . .

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Should I be cutting the threads between each letter? Experienced machinists: advice please!

I’ve really missed sewing of late: I sewed a lot of clothes prior to my stroke, but afterwards found it too difficult / tiring (even getting out the machine, and setting it up was tiring!) and it has now been almost four years since I whipped myself up a skirt or dress. Sheesh! But I am now going to set aside a few hours a week to spend with my lovely new machine and am already looking forward to redeveloping my stitching skills.

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my handmade childhood

Various things have been prompting me to think a lot recently about the role that sewing and knitting and other handmade things can play in the shape of ones life. Like many crafty folk in the UK, I enjoyed watching the Great British Sewing Bee. Unlike so many of these competitive TV formats, this programme seemed to me to celebrate genuine amateur skill, and although one might take issue with some of the judging decisions, the nature of some of the tasks, and particularly the time allotted to said tasks, I thought the series was largely really inspiring. I also found it both interesting and moving to see the levels of meaning that were invested in hand-made garments by the competitors themselves, and particularly by their family members, who were so incredibly appreciative of the things that had been created especially for them. It made me think about the fact that there is hardly a single photograph of myself or my sister from our childhoods where we are not wearing something hand-made.

Here we are, enacting a decorative and singularly jolly protest against the privatisation of some green public spaces at Castleton carnival, probably, I think, in 1980. My mum fashioned these gigantic floral costumes from tissue paper that was one of the waste products in the factory where my dad worked. Our headgear was attached around our chins with a pair of tights.

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You could easily narrate the story of mine and Helen’s childhoods through the marvelous matching cardigans we wore. My grandma was knitting constantly, and had a particular penchant for the kids’ Aran patterns she found in Woman’s Weekly. These wee hoodies might well be my favourites. . .

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(Helen looks very cool on that Lambretta)

. . . though I also love these sleeveless cardis.

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Grandma had a ‘Tyrolean’ phase later in the ’80s. . .

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. . I recall that she knitted my mum a similar garment, too.

In this photo, I am wearing a sort of snood-y balaclava thing knitted by Grandma, and a quilted coat sewn by my mum.

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My mum is a whizz with the sewing machine. I couldn’t find a picture of the most memorable garment she made for me — a chocolate-brown dress with white polka dots, full skirt, and sweetheart neckline that I wore for my first grown-up party (a sort of prom equivalent, I suppose), but I did locate a photograph of me in my First Communion dress that she made from a Vogue pattern. I remember many details of this dress so clearly: it was lined, with a top layer of light cotton voile with teeny tiny pin-dots. There was a beautiful floral trim around the cuffs and bodice that my mum got from the market, and I remember that the whole thing hung really beautifully, and swished in a very pleasing fashion as I walked. I am the one sitting in the middle, without the red carnation.

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Thanks, Mum.

Modern Embroidery

A few weeks ago, I discovered a craft / design book that really blew me away. This hasn’t happened for a while, and I love this book so much that I’ve been itching to mention it. Here’s how I came across it: back in April, I decided I would design a tea cosy for Woolfest. I knew that, if I was going to design a tea cosy it had to be an all-out kitschy novelty item, and I also knew that I wanted the design to have a Woolfest-appropriate sheepy theme. After a few days of thinking about sheep; of the generic shape and design of tea cosies; and just letting things mill about and brew in my head (my general way of working), I had a mild eureka moment: a Sheep Carousel! Yes! This idea seemed a good one, and I felt excited about designing and knitting it. But had anyone thought of it before? Tea cosies (which are often striped) seemed to lend themselves so well to representing a circus tent or merry go round: perhaps another designer had previously had the same idea? This does occasionally happen, and I find it is generally worthwhile checking such things out before one embarks upon a design, so I spent a morning poking around the interwebs, searching for sheep carousels, and carousel tea cosies. During my search I discovered that Jade Starmore had designed a marvelous carousel-themed baby blanket called Widdicome Fair; that Kathleen Sperling had designed an intarsia merry-go-round child’s hat; and that a JC Penney carousel sweater had recently generated some interest when it featured on Glee last year:


(“Glee” carousel sweater, JC Penney)

So there were a few knitted carousel designs, but none featured sheep, and none were tea cosies. But then, on one of my searches I came across a discussion of a “Merry go Round” tea cosy in a book by Ike Rosen called Modern Embroidery. Like most carousels, this one apparently featured horses rather than sheep, and it was a stitched rather than a knitted design, but I was nonetheless intrigued and wanted to check it out. So I tracked the book down on ABE. Here is the tea cosy in question:

It was indeed a carousel, but happily quite different in inception to the stripey marquee and bouncing sheep that had popped into my brain. . .

. . . and, as it turned out, Rosen’s merry-go-round was, for me perhaps one of the least interesting designs in a book which was packed full of TOTALLY AMAZING THINGS.

Rosen’s book was first published in Germany in 1970, and translated into English in 1972. Rosen addresses herself to women with “two left hands” who assumed that embroidery had to be fiddly, complicated, and difficult to execute. She clearly wanted Modern Embroidery to be an enabling beginner’s book, and so the stitches featured in her designs are very simple – most use a combination of stem stitch and chain stitch. But the variety of results Rosen achieves with this limited range of stitches is pretty incredible, as well as really beautiful.


(“Summer Souvenir”)

This is a book very much of its moment – pitching its use of colour and simple ornament as definitively “modern”: “Sensitive people of taste,” writes Rosen:

” . . . at the beginning of this century, were no longer able to put up with the overpowering ornamentation of the last century, and consequently the reaction against it was a rigorous cut-back of all artificial adornments. A new objectivity asserted itself, and strove under the leadership of prominent architects and artists for a pure clean-cut form. We have been profiting from it up to the present time and we are still gaining from it, for it is a style which was carefully thought out from many angles and deliberately fought for.”

But, among the clean modernist lines that then dominated design, Rosen detects “a longing for pattern,” and a yearning for bright colours that might “harmoniously unify various articles in a room.”

The styling of Rosen’s embroidery in “modern” 1970s interiors speaks to this idea of harmony — decor, objects, and designs speak to each other in a most extraordinary matchy-matchy way . . .

. . . these purple and orange plates with their nifty built-in egg-cups and even the eggs themselves are carefully styled to tone in with Rosen’s table runner . . .

. . . and the forms of cakes and biscuits echo Rosen’s abstract designs.

Despite the overwhelming 1970s vibe of this book (and it is overwhelming – shades of brown, orange and purple dominate; cigarettes nestle daintily among the pretzels) as one flicks through it, it is difficult not to find something contemporary and familiar about Rosen’s designs; hard not to think that Orla Kiely has somehow been inspired by these chained-stitched stems and pears. . .

And there are many knitting design-echoes too: these oven mitts immediately reminded me of Heidi Mork’s lovely Vinterblomster mittens.

But perhaps it is less a question of direct influence: rather, Rosen, (much like Orla Kiely and the inimitable Spillyjane) has a feel for a combining the folksy and the abstract in bold, simple and colourful design.

Rosen’s design referents are vast and eclectic, ranging from the Bauhaus through to Tiny Tim. The text of the book is extraordinarily eclectic too: there are occasions where Rosen seems to be setting out an entire design manifesto, while at other times she becomes philosophic and reflective with observations about the gendered division of labour or the tastes and habits of modern teenagers. In fact, I would say that the book is worth getting hold of not just for the designs (which I absolutely love) but for Rosen’s text, which is often weirdly engaging, even in translation. For example, this is how Rosen introduces my favourite design in the book:

“The more people there are, the scarcer mushrooms and edible fungi become. The case is similar to that in the adage: where we set foot, no more mushrooms grow. Moroever, at the present time, with more free time and a lot of cars to take us out into the open, we would have a lot of fun looking for mushrooms. Let us hope that some professor or other will find an opportunity of making these mushrooms grow in increased numbers everywhere. Since we are accustomed to the fact that scientists make everything possible, and in double-quick time as well, we will console you with this prospect, and in the meantime we have embroidered a dish of mushrooms which at least you can feast your eyes upon.”

Personally, I think there is only one appropriate reaction to “The Dish of Mushrooms” which is to hail it as a work of pure stitched genius.

I’ve not been able to find out about much about Ike Rosen herself – – perhaps because my German is so poor. I wonder whether any German readers might know more about Rosen and her influence? In the meantime, if any English speakers would like to track down a second-hand copy of the 1972 edition of Modern Embroidery, here are the details:

Ike Rosen, Modern Embroidery (London: B.T. Batsford, 1972) ISBN 0 7134 2655 1

In case you were in any doubt at all: I love this book!

another feature

The new Rowan Magazine has just come out, and I have a feature in it, exploring the history of mending, darning, and ‘plain work’. I really enjoyed researching and writing this piece, and working on it became quite important to me during some difficult times over the Summer. In many respects, it is a very “me” sort of piece, and I feel rather happy to see it published. Reading my words, and remembering the ideas behind the writing, reminds me that I stayed me even when I did not feel like me at all (if you see what I mean). I can perhaps give you a quick taste of the feature with a few of the images that Rowan did not use:


Margaret Boxall’s darning sampler (1799). © Ackworth School Estates. You can read more about these beautiful samplers in Carol Humphrey’s super book).


“Two women set up a make do and mend exhibition” (1943) (D14646) ©Imperial War Museum (grateful thanks to Eleanor Farrell at the IWM)


Liz kindly agreed to be my darning model. Here are her hands mending a lovely Hopscotch sock (of her own design) using Felix’s darning egg.

I am also very happy that the wonderful and talented Mandy, and her mother-in-law, Noreen, feature in the feature. And, quite apart from anything else, I reckon that this is a sterling issue of the magazine. I was particularly struck by the ‘Illusion’ story, which showcases some beautiful, airy pieces, set off with Rowan’s characteristically gorgeous photography and Marie Wallin’s great styling. Just the thing to brighten up a dreich January day.

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