The Cinderella of Manual Arts

Educational Needlecraft by Margaret Swanson and Ann Macbeth

Inspired by a beautiful post this morning from Arnold’s Attic, of a sampler book stitched in 1852-4, I went looking for my Educational Needlecraft book. This wasn’t easy as last year we had some work done to the house, and most of my books are still stacked along the wall behind our bed, and the smaller ones piled in triple rows on the remaining shelves. Fortunately this one is always within reach.

I’ve owned this book since 1977. When my brother was busy with his punk band, as were most sentient teenagers, I was busy listening to soundtracks from Busby Berkley musicals (complete with tap dancing) and heading back from Art Deco to Arts and Crafts. (I did wake up to punk later, but I’ve always a bit slow to catch on).

My parents were avid bookshoppers. They still are, but don’t get out so much (not at all these last few months) but even so, no bookshop en route, no reason to leave home. This one came from the Antiquarian Bookshop in Sheen, a very posh shop for us, rather expensive too. It was visited because it was a museum of a shop, and on the way to Richmond with its vast array of junk shops and second hand bookshops. It was always a pleasure to visit the Sheen shop, the book spines alone were works of art. I did acquire a few books from there as presents, as I had a habit of returning to favourite books and hunkering down to absorb as much as I could, against the day where someone else bought it and it was no longer ‘mine’. Occasionally, as happened with this volume, after a year or so, I had proved my loyalty to this book, and it was purchased for me – possibly even a discount taken into consideration by the shop owner for the same reason, and that of the fact that no-one else had purchased it. And no, I didn’t hide it, in case you were wondering. There were books at our local library which sometimes the librarian would gently suggest I might like to not renew this time, so someone else could have them. Often no one else did want them, so after a couple of weeks of the book being on the shelf, home they came again. I do own copies now of all of them, some bought new as they were reprinted, others unexpectedly turning up second hand. One large volume I lugged on Greyhound busses after finding in a vintage shop in San Francisco, and in reality it was one picture that always stayed in my memory. I can’t show it to you because I cannot reach it. Too far down the pile behind the bed. But I digress, as usual. Back to Educational Needlecraft.

It was the quality of the arts and crafts drawings and designs, and the full colour stitched panels that I was looking at. Ann Macbeth taught at the Glasgow School of art and was a friend of the Mackintoshes. She was also a suffragette.

I was stunned by the stitching, but never really thought of doing it. Obviously, I never have. But I still love the book, and it is never far from reach, and I do sew an awful lot, even if it is not exactly educational.
Rereading the introduction I was struck how the authors, Margaret Swanson and Ann Macbeth talk about art and needlework and the eye of the child.

“This book represents the first conscious and serious effort to take Needlecraft from its humble place as the Cinderella of Manual Arts, and to show how it may become a means of general and even of higher eduction.”

“In becoming good craftwomen girls may become something more. Their work itself leads them to look at last BEYOND their homes, and if they look to-day, what do they see? Much beauty and happiness, work and pleasure, but also beyond these vivid glimpses of widespread misery and darkness – a chaos which waits for creators to make of it a new world. That winged power in them, the unresting creative energy, must find a new field for its labour. It cannot be CONFINED to the home. What the educated woman of tomorrow will do we cannot foretell, for she will not longer be the slave of routine and tradition.”

Here we are a hundred and twenty years later with the Society For Embroidered Work being created to loudly shout ‘Stitched Art is Art’. If I were not a member, I don’t think I’d be able to look my book straight in the eye. As it is, I’m wondering quite what Ann Macbeth and Margaret Swanson and Margaret McMillan (pioneer in the education of children and provision of free school meals) would make of ‘the educated woman of tomorrow’.

Red Thorn, Black Thorn. Rose Red and Sloe

The sisters felt the first blow rather than heard it. Without thinking, each put a hand to their heart. The beating within echoing the thumps throbbing across the forest. The sisters exchanged a glance. “They’re back, Rose”.

Everything had been peaceful for so long now, living as they were so far away from the madding crowds. Away from misunderstanding. Rose and Sloe ventured out only when the carnival came to town, when spirits were high and colourful, and nothing seemed quite real. As they aged, it became easier to go unnoticed, to be the hunchback herbalist with reliable potions, to be the lonely old woman from the woods.

In their youth, life had been so very different. Rose was a beautiful as any bloom, pink and blushed with red red hair. Sloe, white of face, hair so black it shone blue. They had travelled with the circus, danced for kings – and princes. Ah yes, princes. Their mother, WhiteThorn Mae, had told the girls all the old stories, all the warnings. Still, true to form, along came a Prince, and the trouble began.

Any child of the Rose family has thorns. They will catch you and the poisoned tip will grip deep into your flesh. The poisoned tip will rot inside you, spreading through your veins until one day your heart just stops. To share a kiss with a child of the Rose family is a dangerous undertaking. To steal a kiss without asking is suicide.

Stories of the Prince killers spread far and wide. Embellished, untrue, believed.

The Sisters backed into the safety of the forest and let their family, black thorn, white thorn and red, grow and protect them, but stories persisted of a fair princess held captive by the dark witch. Of an old crone of woods, whose wicked ways were responsible for all ill that befell the town.

‘Burn the Witch’ would seem like a good idea once in a generation. The old people who remembered would try and talk sense to the young, but no one ever listened. Fanciful tales from the frightened old. A forest that killed, that left deep scars should you be fortunate enough to escape? Tell that to the children, they said, and gathered their high spirits and axes, and headed to adventure.

Rose sighed, and looked at her sister’s face, clouded now with worry and foreboding. “We could go and meet them – tell them”.

“They’ll not listen, they never do.”

The sisters stood a moment or two longer, listening. The hunt was yet miles away, hacking at the almost impenetrable wall of nature. Baying dogs, excited voices, trumpets to call order. These sounds travelled on the cool morning air, travelling easily where nothing with more substance than a ghost could pass. The sisters were old now, and did not welcome the intrusion, the dredging up of the past. They turned and headed for their cottage, using the branches on either side for balance, their hands automatically missing the thorns. They knew how the day would end, and felt great sorrow.

At Winter’s end, when the blackthorn flowers first appear like little stars of hope, and at September time, when the hedgerows at Prospect Field turn blue with sloe and red with rosehip, watch for Rose Red and Black Thorn, Red Thorn and Sloe. Stay on the path, pick only what you need, and leave the rest in peace.

City of Love

City of Love

Here’s something I’m very chuffed about! You may well be aware that I am one of Ma Polaines Great Decline’s biggest fans ; not in that stalkerish worrying sort of way, mind you – just in that staggering up to them and going ‘I really love your stuff’ in that arm waving boozy Sunday afternoon in the Dukes sort of a way. Which happens a lot in Whitstable.

Anyway, last year, when they were working on their new album, they asked if I would like to have a think about some artwork for it. Would I??? well, what do you think? So, they sent me the work in progress, and I listened, and sketched, and then listened and stitched.

The tracks illustrated are Volcano – which was mostly hand stitched on trains and in Nobby van, Paris is Burning (which I always think of as Dead Man in the Closet) and Morphine – both of which are machine stitched on Nina the Bernina, reusing fabric from my recycle pile, and painted with a watercolour wash.

This album has become rather a Whitstable project, with local artists and musicians adding their skills to the beautifully composed music and lyrics.

Produced by John Gallen, photography by Phil Miller (exhibition currently showing at The Sportsman, additional bass playing from Martin Elliott… this is a band that the Bubble has really taken to heart.

Give them a listen – or even better, go see them, and buy the cd!

Time Flies When You Are Having Fun

Hand painted and stitched textile art doll, made by Annie Taylor of Whitstable Tail
Sweet Fanny Adams, a recently completed commission

They say.

“They” say a lot of things.  For time can also fly when you are not particularly having fun – as in Good Lord we are already in February and I have only just actually had some much needed fun. Nor have I engaged in any worthwhile displacement activity.  I wonder what ‘they’ would have to say about that!

So my lack of updating this blog is not due to conscious displacement activity – it is due to a month or more of lurgies various, and life the universe and everything (but not displacement) taking precedence.

Having caught up – almost – on orders, and dug out the sketchbook from a teetering pile of stuff, it is time to take stock of what indeed I ought to be displacing from.

The Profanity Embroidery Group exhibition opens in the wonderful Walpole Bay Hotel on 7th March as part of POW!Thanet‘s IWD celebrations.  “The Private Life of Mrs Winchester” is an installation based on our fictional character and inspiration, and we have all been stitching like mad to make her belongings and treasures. When the exhibition closes at the Walpole, it transfers at the Fishslab Gallery in Whitstable from 14th to 18th March.

The Big Dolls (and hopefully some new friends) will be toddling off to Margate in May to celebrate the Spring Bank Holiday in style at the Pie Factory from 3rd to 8th May.  Neon Blue Tales is an eclectic mix of installation, paintings, prints and words.  Four creative women – Bev Sage, Clair Meyrick, Meg Wroe and myself shall be transforming this beautiful space.

And then in July, it is the Whitstable Oyster Festival, and once again I shall be Opening the House for the MiW Arts Craft & Vintage Trail. That is, trusting we have a floor and all that, which we don’t at the moment, but that is another story.

This is all looking like rather a lot of work, and I really think the best thing to do now is go back to bed and think about it all. Quietly. With the Cat That Isnt Ours and a large mug of tea. Looks like displacement needs to start in earnest.

I could in fact make a doll named Earnest to top the displacement activity list.




A Russian Doll, who was probably Greek

two vintage fabric dolls heads on a tiled background. They are felt heads, with immaculate hair and hats, very French looking

For those who know me, or my work, I am quite sure it shall come as no surprise that there always was a Doll.  Not just any old doll.  Dolls of great importance.  Lately I have been thinking about The Russian Doll, as my family called her, but was not strictly accurate. Like many of my family’s naming and explaining, there was always more to it than fact. By which I am not saying things were total untruths, just detours for the sake of a story, and to link to a time and a place.

The Russian Doll wasn’t a doll.  By which I mean I was not allowed to play with her. From when I can remember, she stood on my bedroom window sill, until later when I had a dressing table, and she stood on there, leaning against the mirror.  Tall, elegant, a little haughty.  On top of her head, she balanced a basket.  She had one hand up as though to steady it, I think, but her gaze made it clear that she didn’t need to hold it.  She just looked good that way.

Dressed in faded rose silks, full long skirt in layers, shawls and aprons, everything was edged with tiny silver coins. She was exquisitely made up – pale pink cheeks, rosebud lips, finely drawn soaring eyebrows.  Her expression backed up Mum’s command. Don’t touch. She is not a toy.

Not being a toy meant she was handled with care and fascination.  Not being a toy meant she was confiscated if she was found to be in amongst the rough and tumble of the rest of the dolls and rabbits.  Yes, rabbits.  I still have two of them. One Mum made that was supposed to be a nightdress case, with a big flowery skirt and matching ears, called Rosey. I didn’t like her flat, un-nightdressed, so she was stuffed instead, to maintain maximum cuddleability.  The zip along the size of her lower round half, the now not necessary nightdress access, served as a very good hiding place for contraband.  But I digress.

When I finally left home (as in took more than just the paratrooper boots I wore come rain or shine, and leather jacket that was usually on my back), she stayed on the dressing table. She was not for the great unwashed of the shared houses and patchouli oil.

As I moved around, she grew older, and was disinclined to move.  She stayed on the dressing table, which was now in my Mum’s room. I’d talk to her every Christmas, pop in and say ‘hello’ when I visited.

Finally I had my own home, and with great glee, my parents loaded a large van of everything that was mine, and promptly set about filling the space with more books, videos and computer parts.

And this is where it gets hazy.  I can only picture the Russian Doll on the dressing table.  And then one day, many years later, she just wasn’t there.

Mum said ‘oh she was so old – she fell apart’.

Mum said….  but is that another of my family’s stories.  Did she come to live with me, and did I break the rules, play with her.  Did she start dancing all night, ditch her basket, and then, did she leave home? Trade in her silver coins and head off, back to the Balkans and down to Greece?  I do hope so.

So why now am I thinking of her, you ask?  Well,  she just appeared in my head as I was painting one of my mermaids. The  colour palette and her face.  I suddenly recognised her in what I was doing. Of course, I do not have a picture of the Russian Doll, but we have the World Wide Web.  And I’ve found her sisters.

And now I really must get on as I do have other things that I’d better be doing.  I am taking part in the Etsy Made Local Christmas market at Canterbury’s Westgate Hall this weekend, and have mer-angels to finish. And I have a dog to walk, who is waiting not so patiently for me to finish this, sort out the washing, light the fire – he has just fixed me with a look. We walk now.





A Stitch in Time #throwbackthursday

embroidered face

This was the UFO, the UnFinished Object that turned up in yesterday’s tidy.  As it has been in this unfinished state for about fifteen years,  I’ve decided it is actually finished. I think it would be rather a shock to its system, and mine, to continue with it.

This piece of embroidery was very much of a time and place, but what interests me as I look at it today, is how it fits in with what I now do. At the time I created this, the Profanity Embroidery Group was a long way off in the future.  As were my large scale cloth dolls, my Fabric Friends, and embroidered stories.

When I stitched this piece, it was as part of a nostalgic installation I made for the second year of my arts degree, but instead of looking backwards, it turned out to be looking forward. I’m rather glad to see it again.



Books of Wonder

around swam a host of tiny mermaids, illustration by alice e newby from 1920s

Now, once upon a time there was a little girl – who lots of people thought was a little boy because she didn’t have much hair and was always dressed in her brother’s cast-off clothes, and in fact, the only reason the family were lucky enough to live in their lovely home was because the old witch who owned it had wanted a family with two boys to live there after her. She came back to visit most bossily and was very cross to discover this was not the case; fortunately by then her powers had grown weak and she couldn’t do anything about it apart from insist the little girl gave her thick powdered face a kiss. Which was terrifying. Afterward the little girl flew down the garden being as loud and fast an aeroplane as she could imagine. But I digress…

Wonder Book, image of cover of vintage book

The little girl’s mother had all these wonderful books when she was a child, and having an inherent hoarder gene (not too big a one to constitute a real problem mind you) she had kept them, even after they got soaking wet in Great Aunt Vera’s loft. These books lived happily in a rather Gothic sideboard with glass doors locked with a very tiny special key. Inside the cupboard were little figurines, and a silver shoe and a tiny horseshoe (from a wedding cake) and a really monstrous china water lilly and a  small chipped blue and white china teaset.  If the little girl was VERY good, or rather poorly, the little key was turned, and out came the magical contents.

IMG_0659IMG_0664 (1)IMG_0657 (1)IMG_0658

The pictures in the books were of fairies and mermaids, of umbrellas turning into turkeys, and rabbits that were princes. Later, when the little girl finally mastered the art of reading – and lets face it, she’s never really got the hang of spelling – she was able to read the stories that matched the pictures.  And such good stories they were. Some were rather long, it must be said, but over the next half century, she eventually read them all.
Really it is no wonder at all that instead of algebraic formulas and logical mathematical models or an understanding of the laws of physics, for example, my head is full of fairytales.  ‘Cos yes, of course, the little girl was me.
photo of two little girls
So much of my head is ‘elsewhere’ that when indulging in online displacement activity the other day,  I shared the most delightful little picture by Alice E Newby.  My brain obviously was trying to get my attention, but it was not until I was asleep that it succeeded in telling me to look in Mum’s Wonder Books.  For when I acquired my own home, with proper book shelves (built by my Dad), I was given guardianship of the Books.
The shelves in which I now delve are the offspring of those built by Dad, in another home, in another town, put up by The Engineer. For no apparent reason other than nostalgia, I pick up the Favourite Wonder Book, and that is the morning gone.  Then I turn to the Wonder Book, and sure enough, there is my picture. The Story is Far-Away and Far-Beyond.  Two Kingdoms separated by a long stretch of sea.  In the past, the islands had been friendly, but times changed.  In the time of telling, King Longbeard of Far-Away was very old and short-tempered with everyone apart from his granddaughter.  The King of Far-Beyond was long since dead, and two bad uncles had been trying to get rid of the little prince, take control and seize Far-Away.  Fortunately the fish (and the mermaids) intervened, and once again, everyone Lived Happily Ever After.  Apart from the uncles, who never did find tails to fit.


Isn’t the brain a wonderful thing?

ps. the colouring in was done by my mum as a little girl


Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it is getting!



Goodness! is it really two months now since I last added to this blog? I promise you it is not because I have been idle.

Mostly I seem to have been making mermaids, but then again, I have managed a good few hours on the beach. It is, quite frankly, rude not to when the sun shines and it has been just too hot to do anything other than dunk oneself in the sea.  In fact, I am currently nursing an Oyster injury acquired in about eight inches of water after walking out a good quarter of a mile to catch the very edge of receding tide. When there is that little sea, the trick is to make like a crab, and give the illusion of floating whilst in reality just about managing to keep one’s bottom off the seafloor by balancing on your hands. Unfortunately my lead hand crashed into an Oyster, who bit me. Quite nastily. I shall not post a photo, but just remember, Oyster bites are no fun. And then the plug really did get pulled on the sea, and mud wading can be rather tiring, and hot and bother making, and undo the whole point of the cooling sea dip anyway, so it was time to return to the mermaid factory.

Consequently, today’s to-do list is alarmingly like yesterday’s: Mermaid cards; Mermaids for Hut No.13 in Whitstable Harbour village; A Smallish Alice; a Not-So-White Rabbit of similar size (am hoping smallish), and a Flamingo (large-ish).

The studio has however was beset with sewing machine issues.  My lovely little portable machine has thrown a wobbler, and is refusing to sew.  Given my bad sewing machine habits, I have declined the kind offers of a loan of a machine, and dragged out my big old Singer, not used due to its inconceivable weight, for ooh, well, a very long time. Unlike my new one, I know how to clean my Grandmother’s Singer, and although it only goes forward in a running stitch, I must admit it is not often that I use any of the 30+ variations on the new one, so shall not worry about that for now.  Although the effort of moving the huge wooden box up the ladder to my loft studio nearly did for me, I am very pleased it is back in action, and it does make the most delightful purring noise when in use, as though it too is happy to be working again.  Perhaps it can talk to the new one, and they can co-operate, work out a time share on projects – or even, just get on with them, with the help of the fairies…. Oh now I really am rambling on and on with absolutely no point, and time is running away with me

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”

What I did want to say was this – I’m House No. 10 on the Made In Whitstable Oyster Festival Arts, Craft & Vintage Trail on Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd July 2017.  Or to put it another way, in about ten day’s time….

Come visit the madhouse!

trail map 17 with 17 numbers