You may remember that, a couple of years ago, I was involved with a project to create a design inspired by the wonderful textile collections at Gawthorpe Hall. I designed the Richard the Roundhead tam, inspired by a crewel-work coverlet that Rachel Kay Shuttleworth had embroidered over several decades, in memory of her parliamentarian ancestor, Richard Shuttleworth.
(The pattern is available on Ravelry, and all proceeds from each sale go directly to Gawthorpe)
Since my visit, I’ve often found myself musing on this or that object or lovely textile that I encountered during my time at Gawthorpe. Most particularly of late, I found myself recalling a beautiful striped Kashmir shawl, that was apparently one of Miss Rachel’s favourite pieces in her extensive collection, and which was on display the first time I visited.
I had retained a poor snapshot of the shawl on my phone. From the snapshot I could recall just how beautiful it was – with soft-hued stripes and tiny patterns not printed onto the fabric, but woven, twill fashion. I had been thinking about shawls a lot as I formulated ideas for our haps book – about how versatile shawls were, the many different functions they once fulfilled in women’s cultural and domestic lives; how they were once a key element of every woman’s wardrobe and how (for knitters at least) they are central to wardrobes again today. I had a sudden desire to knit something inspired by Miss Rachel’s striped shawl, so I wrote to Gawthorpe’s curator, Rachel Terry to raise the idea (Gawthorpe spookily abounds with wonderful Rachels). Rachel liked my plan, so a few weeks ago, I travelled down to Gawthorpe to see the shawl again.
I was blown away. It was an incredible textile, and far more beautiful than I’d remembered. A length of finely hand-woven cashmere, more than 2 metres in length, the shawl was in any context a luxury item. Such garments were first worn by elite and royal Asian men, and were later adopted by women all over western Europe during the famous craze for Kashmir shawls.
Joshua Reynolds, Mrs Horton (1770) Met Museum
The English word shawl derives from the Sanskrit shāl, which in turn describes the oblong sashes worn by Iranian and Indian men about their waist and shoulders. Finely woven, richly decorated, and incorporating luxury elements like gold thread, such textiles were status symbols, worn prominently to project the prestige of the wearer. By the 1770s, when Joshua Reynolds painted this portrait of Mrs Horton, such “shawls” had become similar status symbols for western women, for whom they were often acquired by relatives with trade and naval connections, and by whom they were very much prized. The long narrow shawl with its pink and green border is very prominent in Reynold’s portrait, and Mrs Horton has draped it it in a manner which, while it conveys a broadly generic sense of the ‘exotic’, also recalls the specific way that elite Asian men wore such textiles.
Mrs Horton’s Kashmir shawl is just how I imagine the “soft, white Indian shawl with a narrow border all around” that Peter sends to his mother, from India in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford “just such a shawl she wished for when she was married, but her mother did not give it her.” (I can never read that chapter of Cranford without weeping, and its emotional power is completely bound up in that shawl as an object of desire and loss.)
By the turn of the Nineteenth Century, in response to fashionable demand, the plain white central rectangle that had been characteristic of most Kashmir shawls began to be replaced with bold woven stripes and patterns, whose rich colours provided dramatic contrast with the fine white empire-line dresses of the early 1800s.
The Gawthorpe shawl dates from this period – the moment when the craze for Kashmir shawls was rising to its height in western Europe. Josephine Bonaparte’s obsession with the Kashmir shawl is well documented. She reputedly owned over fifty expensive examples, and this is often cited both as an example of the shawl’s early nineteenth-century popularity as well as perhaps her own imperial excess.
The particular beauty of the Gawthorpe shawl is the result of the exceptionally skilled and time consuming method of twill tapestry weaving that was used to produce it. In her own catalogue entry for the shawl at Gawthorpe, Rachel Kay Shuttleworth describes the method thus.
Rachel Kay Shuttleworth did not just enjoy the aesthetic aspects of her collection, but held abiding interests in the detailed technical aspects used to create and produce the items she gathered at Gawthorpe. Her notebooks detail her discussions with experts in embroidery and lace as well as visits to local mills and factories, to investigate this or that spinning or weaving method, and explore its history. The entry for the shawl is typical of her, in unravelling the construction and production of a particular item, before making general remarks on a range of similar items in her collection, and their significance. She draws attention to the difference between twill woven and embroidered Kashmir shawls (Kani and Amli), deconstructs the breathtakingly laborious weaving method that was used to produce this item, and points toward the later combination of Kashmir patterns with industrial weaving in the shawls of Paisley and Norwich. The provenance of the shawl (Mrs Rex Young was one of Rachel’s relatives) suggests it came to the women of the family very much in Cranford fashion, purchased by a travelling male relative with East India associations.
There are so many things I enjoy about this beautiful shawl, not least its thought-provoking history. But it was pattern that drew me back to it – its tiny undulating patterns on a background of rich but muted colours. So deceptively simple, and yet technically so involved. While I could never hope to approach this textile’s incredible technical complexity, I did feel that its small simple patterns, its bold stripes, would look absolutely wonderful in stranded colourwork.
I was also keen to produce a Gawthorpe-inspired design for another reason. The UK Government’s savage cuts in public spending have had a dramatic impact on the ability of councils all over the country to support the institutions that form the heart of their landscape and culture — and Lancashire has been no exception. I was born and raised in Lancashire, and was so sad and so angry to hear of the proposed closure of Helmshore and Queen Street Mills, as well as the cuts to local library services (Rochdale’s fantastic libraries were where my love of literature was fostered). Gawthorpe’s contract with the council means it does not face closure, but it is under increasing pressure (in an already pressurised financial climate) to cover its costs and raise income to continue to care for Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s important collection. I wanted to design something to celebrate the collection, and in a small way, support it.
So this design, inspired by Gawthorpe’s beautiful striped Kashmir shawl, is a yoke for Miss Rachel.
20% of each sale will be donated to Gawthorpe Textile collection. I’ll say more about the design itself in the next post.
Thanks to Rachel Terry and Rachel Midgely at Gawthorpe for their assistance.