As many of you know I have been painting silk for years and mostly selling painted silk scarves, but that was until Covid.
When the pandemic arrived and with it, eventually, the wearing of masks in crowded spaces and on public transport and during a lockdown or not, there was an explosion of homemade masks of every shape and colour. And, as some of you know, I started painting and making silk versions. All that was until the arrival of working vaccines and the gradual reduction of mask wearing.
Now, anybody who knows me in real life knows that I view sewing, by hand or machine, as a means to an end. Getting my old sewing machine out to make masks was an interesting experience for me. In the end sewing and making joined painting as part of my everyday work.
All this prattle brings me to the point that for some bizarre reason at the beginning of this year I decided to embark on a large painting and machine embroidered piece of work. Yes, I did just write ‘at the beginning of this year’, because this has turned out to be a very long drawn out endeavour. And, I am now at the stage where I have picked it up and started and stopped so many times I am wondering whether it will ever get finished. The working day routine of sewing masks pretty much ceased back around last Easter and in between periods of scarf painting, this long, involved project began to take more and more time. Now, as we move into autumn my patience for machine embroidery on this scale is seriously running out of steam.
Anyway I thought I’d share my progress so far and I will blog about it again if it ever gets finished.
The Suffolk county town of Ipswich was granted a Royal Charter by King John in the year 1200. Back at the end of the last century to mark and celebrate this 800 year anniversary a discussion at the Ipswich Arts Association suggested some kind of tapestry in the tradition of the Bayeux Tapestry might be created.
The project was a community endeavour under the direction of Isabel Clover, a lecturer and tutor at Suffolk College at the time. She is known nationally for her ecclesiastical designs and embroidery and it was she who researched and designed the eight panels that make up the finished Ipswich Charter Hangings.
This commemorative work was an extensive collaborative project that took three years to complete and involved embroiderers, local historians, sponsors and finally a craftsman to make the presentation frames.
The team of volunteer embroiderers (at the time past and present City & Guild students at Suffolk College) worked at creating the eight panels that each represented 100 years of Ipswich history.
It is over 20 years since the Charter Hangings were commissioned and created and during the intervening time they have been displayed not only in Suffolk, but also in Arras, France (twinned with Ipswich) and Ipswich, Massachusetts, USA.
Now they are back in Ipswich on display at St Peter’s by the Waterfront and just before the Covid pandemic closed public sites, I went to take a look at the eight panels.
At this point I must just apologise for the quality of the whole panel photographs. When I visited the full sequence of the eight panels they were lined up in a single row opposite the south-facing church windows and each panel was individually spotlit.
Unfortunately, as the hangings were behind glass for their conservation, this arrangement and lighting resulted in photographs with unwanted reflections and additional points of bright light reflecting off the protective glass.
Of course protecting these textile hangings behind glass is important, but the introduction of a hard although transparent layer over the textiles and stitching also alters the visual experience and you can see less of the surface quality of the fabrics and embroidery.
And, just to make capturing the quality of the work doubly awkward there was also a table, chairs and a grand piano directly in front of the display restricting any direct front-facing shots and entirely eliminating any chance of a photograph showing the entire work in sequence.
For those interested there’s further information in this newspaper article and below is a short sequence of close-up photographs showing stitching, fabrics and a variety of braided, woven and gimp trims.
In Part I of ‘Update on upcycled silk scraps’ I wrote about my research in preparation for making a wall hanging to be considered for the exhibition ‘Norwich Shawls: Past Glory, Present Inspiration’.
Ruminating on the harsh and often poorly paid lot of the Norwich weavers, I didn’t want my work to focus purely on the beauty of the Norwich shawls nor particularly draw attention to their privileged owners.
With this in mind, I decided to work in the ‘folk’ medium of rag rug, hooked textiles. Rag rug making was a domestic craft, a necessity practiced in Victorian Britain by the poor, working class. Cloth was never wasted. Clothing was restyled, mended, patched, let down and taken up, and cloth was reused and recycled until unwearable when the ‘rag’ was prodded or hooked into rugs.
Having chosen the medium I had to decide on the design. I could have simply worked up a design based around the famous boteh – tear drop or Paisley shape (known in Norwich as pines) or used the traditional shawl colours, particularly the rich madder red, in an abstract piece. However, this felt like a more remote and detached response to the weavers’ and dyers’ skills, and offered no hint as to the conditions of theirs and others’ lives associated with the making of the shawls.
After much thought I chose to illustrate an almost faceless, maid servant holding out a shawl for her mistress. I hoped that by choosing to depict a lady’s maid, emerging ghost-like from the background, the viewer would feel the contrast between the luxury shawl and the grey life of Victorian working folk and be less interested in the wearer of the shawl. After all, it would have been one of a lady’s maid’s duties to care for the shawl.
I think it is difficult to be inspired by beautifully crafted work and not think about the people who made it. In the 21st century it is natural to consider the makers as well as the patrons. Here is my finished work.
I am guessing that most of the lucky Victorian owners of these shawls never gave a second thought to the people that wove them, but hopefully they were at least kind to their own maids.
As I mentioned in Part I, photographs were not permitted at the exhibition, but I did manage to sneak a few shots, apologies, not all in focus.
Last year I entered a competition ‘Norwich Shawls: Past Glory, Present Inspiration’. It was to feature both exhibits of original shawls and new textile work inspired by the shawls. At the time I blogged about the initial re-dyeing and reusing of my silk scraps in preparation for working into a hooked textile wall hanging. My work wasn’t accepted, but it was an interesting experience and gave me the opportunity to find out about the weavers and wearers of Norwich Shawls and consider how to interpret their legacy.
Now as I write, with my Art Historian’s hat on, I know that the production of a creative work and the audiences’ reception of a creative piece, is not without context. As far as the original, very expensive (then and now) Norwich Shawls are concerned, there is plenty of context. The Norwich Shawl was popular in one form or another across the nineteenth century with at it’s height, a royal wearer. The Great Exhibition of 1851 had provided the weavers of Norwich the chance to exhibit their shawls. When Queen Victoria visited the exhibition she saw some of their work and was duly impressed with the beautiful shawls and later ordered two.
Originally Norwich Shawls were produced by weavers working from home and many of the weavers and their families had a hard and precarious existence as recounted in the following extract.
REPORT OF VISITS TO HANDLOOM WEAVERS, 1850 (Extracts from the Morning Chronicle, 29 Jan 1850, Letter XVII)
As usual the loom was in the upper room, which was used as a workroom, bedroom, and in winter, to save a second fire, as a sitting-room. A diminutive little woman – all Norwich weavers are so – was busily engaged at the loom, and during the intervals of putting the fresh bobbins on the shuttle, I obtained the following information from her:- ‘I do the best kind of barege work. If I commence work at light, and keep on till eleven at night, without being called off to do anything else, I can weave eleven dozen in a week, and I should get 11s. 11d. for that – that is, 13d. a dozen. I pay a girl, who does the winding, 2s a week and her dinner; then ‘beaming on,’ candles, and other expenses would be about 10d.- so that would leave me 9s. 1d. for my week’s work. I am rather a privileged person, and if there is any work to be got, I usually have the preference, but I am often obliged to ‘play’… I suppose for the last twelve months I have played four at least. I am married and have four children; they are all at school. My husband sometimes works the other loom. When I do not have this girl to wind for me I can get it done for a penny a dozen.’ A person unacquainted with the process of winding could scarcely form an idea of the quantity of manual labour thus performed for a penny. The ‘dozen’ referred to is a dozen skeins, each containing 560 yards, or 6,720 in the dozen; and this quantity has to be transferred from the hank or skeins to small bobbins for the shuttle, by means of a small wheel, turned by the hand of the winder. A great loss of time constantly takes place in consequence of the threads of silk breaking, and of the constant change of bobbins required when full. At the winding it is physically impossible to earn more than from 2s. to 3s. per week. Of course, the great proportion of this kind of work is done by young 8 children or old persons; but that is not always the case. The person employed as winder in the above instance was a young woman of eighteen years of age, and she received 2s. a week and her dinner; but in addition to winding she was expected to assist in the household duties, in taking care of the children, and other matters, while the woman was at work.”
During my research I read about the advancements in weaving technology through the nineteenth century and, in particular, the ability to weave complex patterns with the invention of the Jacquard loom. Specifically in Norwich the industrialisation of weaving was a slow process. The first power-looms introduced by Henry Willett in 1828 were met with a negative response from the city’s hand-loom weavers who smashed the windows of the Willett & Nephew factory premises viewing the new technology as a threat to their livelihoods. Nevertheless, modernity advanced, albeit slowly, and towards the later half of the nineteenth century the larger, more complicated, all-silk Norwich shawls were mostly made on Jacquard looms either in large workrooms or factories. The Jacquard looms were usually too big for domestic houses and so factory life became the norm for most Norwich shawl weavers.
This is a short video showing the Jacquard loom (pictured above right) in action.
Despite, the industrialisation of the weaving process throughout the 19th century the employment of children in the weaving business was routine both in a domestic and industrial setting. The more I read and learned, the less I felt like ‘celebrating’ the ‘Norwich Shawl’ as simply beautifully woven pieces. The context of their production was as significant as their history of being exemplary textiles prized and owned by a few lucky ladies.
In Part II, I will discuss my creative response to these contexts and the final work I submitted to ‘Norwich Shawls: Past Glory, Present Inspiration’ as well as photographs of other textile artists’ contributions that were exhibited. (Sadly, for some reason which couldn’t be explained, photos weren’t allowed at the Exhibition and it was firmly policed by the volunteers, but I did capture a few snaps on my phone. I would just comment that some of the contemporary artists’ work featured in the Exhibition was/is displayed on the artists’ own websites.)
Of course, the outstanding exhibit at Oxburgh Hall is the needlework hangings embroidered by Mary Queen of Scots, Bess Hardwick (Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury) and their ladies-in-waiting between 1569 and 1584. These hangings were NOT actually sewn at Oxburgh Hall, but arrived some time in the 18th century along with Mary Browne of Cowdray Park, a wife for the 4th Baronet, Sir Richard Bedingfeld.
These embroidered panels are a visual and cultural expression of Mary’s time spent during her imprisonment by Queen Elizabeth 1. As such these embroideries are of a wider historical interest and significance than any part of the fabric of Oxburgh Hall or any other content of the hall, but, sadly, sewing is not such a crowd puller as a moat!
In March 1569, three months into Mary’s stay/incarceration with the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife, Shrewsbury wrote of Mary
‘This Queen continueth daily to resort to my wife’s chamber where with the Lady Lewiston (Livingston) and the Mrs (Mary) Seton she useth to sit working with the needle in which she much delighteth and in devisisng works.’
From this we learn that both Mary and Bess worked together in the design as well as the execution of the embroideries. Many of the designs have motifs and Latin mottos taken from emblem books that were popular across Europe during the middle of the 16th century. It appears inspiration was taken from woodcuts printed in a selection of natural history books including ‘Icones Animalium’ by Conrad Gessner (1560), ‘Devises héroïques’ by Claud Paradin (1557) and ‘La Nature et Diversité des Poissons’ by Pierre Belon (1555).
Designs were drawn onto linen canvas and then embroidered. Coloured silks, silver thread and silver-gilt thread were used, employing both cross-stitch and tent-stitch, to create the finished pieces.
The present arrangement of embroideries at Oxburgh, mounted on green velvet, is believed to have been made sometime in the 18th century to create the three hangings. They are called the Marian Hanging (after Mary, Queen of Scots), the Shrewsbury Hanging (after Bess Hardwick) and the Cavendish Hanging (after Mary Cavendish, Bess’s youngest daughter). Individually, each embroidered panel may originally have been used for cushions and were sometimes given as gifts.
Some of the designs have hidden meanings for the imprisoned Queen, such as the despair of the yellow rose eaten by ‘canker’ (bottom right-hand corner of the Marian hanging but, sadly, it was too dark for me to get a photo in focus without a tripod!). Quite a few different birds are featured. They make interesting shapes to embroider, but, also, of course, a bird can always take to the sky, fly away, escape.
Not all the designs featured birds and animals from the wild. A few panels show domesticated animals and farm activities.
Whilst one or two panels depict mythical beasts in all their intricate glamour such as this cockatrice.
This is only a small selection of all the beautifully embroidered panels. The hangings are in a small room with restricted lighting, but they do look so much better in real life than in photos. Well worth a visit.
Note – for any Art Historians who stumble across this post. There are currently two books available on the Oxburgh Hangings, ‘Emblems for a Queen: The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots’ by Michael Bath (2008) and ‘The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots’ by Margaret Swain (1973). For detailed technical information the V&A Museum is a great resource.
I’m just embarking on another longer term project with the aim of making use of the silk offcuts that I’ve collected over the years. Not all the scraps are the colours I want for this new textile hanging, so I’ve been busy re-dyeing batches using a stovetop dye bath.
I suppose it’s not surprising that the colours I’ve been putting together are reflecting the fresh yellows, bright greens and varying pinks brightening up my back garden, and that’s despite the recent unseasonal hail.
Once I’ve re-dyed enough silk I will cut long strips ready for hooking. Then whenever I need a break from standing at the computer or standing at my painting frame, I’ll sit, dip into my box of silk strips, and hook a few more inches. It’s a time consuming process, but a few inches each day will eventually, eventually . . . . . result in a finished wall hanging.
There was no doubt about it, most of the people that stopped to talk to me at the Parallax Art Fair last weekend were curious about my slightly unusual wall hanging. Older visitors remembered their grandmothers hooking or progging rag rugs during World War Two and recognised the technique, but were not used to seeing luxurious fabrics in rich colours to make such textiles.
Interestingly, several overseas visitors, particularly from North America, paused to chat explaining about their tradition within folk art for hooked rugs and hooked wall art that is still popular.
Design for Hilarion wall hanging is drawn out onto hessian.
Gradually more and more of the silk, velvet and wool is hooked into the hessian.
For my work it felt quite natural to start using all the painted silk off-cuts I’ve kept over the years. I suppose I could have made sewn, patched pictures, but I was more interested in achieving a deep, tactile surface. And, having said that, most people did ask if they could touch this wall hanging.
More than one visitor enquired whether it could be used as a rug. Technically it could, but I don’t think the silk areas would wear very well as the fabric is quite fine. Of course, if I had made it entirely of wool and cotton it could be a rug. I still use my recycled blanket wool rag rug my late mother prodded (or progged in some regions) for me – 11 years on my kitchen floor and still going strong! But this piece made with velvets, silk taffeta and my painted silk remnants has really been designed to hang on a wall.
Curiously, I have found it very difficult to photograph and for once it really does look better in real life.