Sunday, January 04, 2015


A New Year

I cannot believe that it is six months since I posted last and here we are at the start of a new year, which I hope, will be just as exciting as the last one.

I received all my items safely back from the Brigham City Museum, beautifully packed; following what I understand was a very successful summer exhibition.  My thanks go to Mary Alice and her staff for the care taken and sending me photos and keeping me informed of the media interest.

Another exciting event was the Silvery Threads Exhibition, which took place at The Hostry, Norwich Cathedral, in October.  As an exhibitor, I was invited to attend the opening and prize giving, along with the Lord Mayor and High Sherriff of Norwich, which was a very exciting event.  The 65 exhibits had been chosen by an independent panel of judges from well over 300 photos, sent in from all over the world and were spectacular.  Most aspects of textile making were represented under three categories –wall-hung pieces, three- dimensional items and garments and accessories.  I entered a hand-quilted boy’s waistcoat and was thrilled to learn that I had not only won second prize in the garment and accessories category, but also the Best Member award for the category ( photo on website).  It was so encouraging to see many younger people collecting the awards, which gives hope for the future of textiles.

Shortly after the excitement of this event, we travelled to Scotland for me to give two promised workshops at the Wemyss School of Needlework, for a cushion, based on a quilted hot water bottle cover pattern, designed by the School for the Queen Mother.

History of the school

The school can be found on the main street of Coaltown-of-Wemyss, Fife on the Wemyss Castle estate. It was started in 1877 by Miss Dora Wemyss (later Lady Henry Grosvenor). Inspired by the opening of the Royal School of Needlework, she wanted to teach girls so they could have a vocation and earnings of their own.  She sent the first mistress Mrs. Webster (who was then stitching and teaching at the castle and described as “the most exquisite of needlewoman”), patterns from Kensington, so that she could learn the stitches to enable her to become mistress of the school, when it moved to its new purpose built premises in 1880.

Pupils, who came mainly from the mining and farming families living in the area, entered at the age of 14 for a six-month apprenticeship.  After their apprenticeship, they either stayed on with a wage or went into service, as their skills were then considered to be very desirable.  At its height, the school employed or taught 36 girls at any one time and some stayed on for a number of years.  Mrs. Webster trained her pupils quickly and took great pride in seeing their work “finished as neatly on the wrong side, as the right”.  Their work included embroidering many yards of satin for court dresses.  Two sets of crewelwork curtains were made for H.R.H. the Princess of Wales (daughter-in-law of Queen Victoria), delicate undergarments, children’s wear, trousseaux, layettes and quilting.  The school was also well known for its restoration of ancient needlework and the production of new work inspired by it.  One example being curtains made for Wemyss Castle of dark green velvet, embroidered with the thistle of Scotland, adapted from Mary Stuart’s needlework. (Mary met her future husband, Lord Darnley, at Wemyss.)

Over the years, the school continued supervised by a succession of highly accomplished needlewomen always supported by a member of the Wemyss family.  Latterly the School was run by Mrs. Birrell (Mrs Webster’s great granddaughter) with Lady Victoria Wemyss at the helm.  Sadly, over recent years, the school building had fallen into disrepair, to the extent that many of the patterns and textiles had to be rescued.  Upon her death, Lady Victoria’s overall responsibility was passed to Fiona Wemyss, her granddaughter-in-law, who has done a magnificent job in restoring both the fabric of the building, as well as the interior into a functioning school, once again.  Fiona and Louise Foster are now putting together the history of the School with the help of volunteers and local people, who have searched in their homes for examples of needlework done at the school by their relatives. Original patterns hang on the walls of the workroom and all around; there are examples of the exquisite work, which was once done there.


Amongst the School’s extensive collection of patterns, there is a wholecloth hot water bottle cover, which was designed especially for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.  Fiona was particularly interested in me using this as the basis of design for a silk cushion, for the two workshops I had arranged to teach.  It is a beautiful and delicate pattern, using individual feathers (none repeated), small flowers and curlicues instead of background quilting.  It took me a couple of days to adapt the pattern without spoiling the integrity of the original design.  Unfortunately, at the moment it is unclear who the designer was, but the School does have an extensive record of students who attended through the years and hopefully, one day, she will be identified.

When I visited the School, I was amazed by the treasure trove, which awaited me.  It is still housed in its original building, which consists of just three rooms and a loo (which includes a framed, hand written text, detailing various quilting techniques).   There is a shop filled with colourful embroidery wools, threads and other needlecraft items.  The School is currently teaching again and producing kits based on items from their archive.  The kits may be purchased through the website (see below). The room, where the workshops are held, is very light and holds 10 students comfortably and also houses some of the School’s textile collection (some dating back to the 17th C).  I could have spent all day exploring it.

The School, a selected exhibition from the collection and its shop is open to the public on regular days (see below). They also welcome prearranged group visits on any day of the week, (a fee is payable).  Contact The School to make arrangements. Since there is a rotating selection from the archive on display, items can be tailored to suit each group’s special interests for an extra donation.  The one-day workshops are usually inclusive of a delicious lunch (provided by a local community cafe). 

Bespoke kits and patterns are available, either newly created or based on designs held in the School’s archive.

A lot of very hard work has already been done to achieve a working School again and there is much more to be done.  It is hoped to have many more images and information on the collection and past pupils both at The School and on their website.

The Wemyss School of Needlework is well worth a visit.

Open Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday  10am-5pm

Wishing you all a very happy and successful 2015.


P.S.  Although I do very few long distance workshops now,  I am always open to unusual suggestions and particularly those with an additional interest in the history of quilting.

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