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’.