“For Silken Fabrics Rich and Rare
What Citie can with Leek Compare?”
From a Staffordshire ballad]
During the 1870’s, societies grew up throughout Britain to teach Art
Needlework. This was a reaction against the repetitive and unskilled
needlework called Berlin woolwork which had been immensely popular
since the 1830’s amongst leisured ladies. These societies aim was to
improve the embroidery designs and standard of embroidery, as well as to supply
suitable employment for poor gentlefolk or women who had fallen on
hard times and needed to earn a living.
1879 The Leek Embroidery Society was established by Elizabeth Wardle
in Leek, Staffordshire. Elizabeth and her friends had been working
on large, church embroideries for twelve years prior to her
establishing the Society, and were well known for the originality
and excellence of their work. Some women were employed and paid a
salary, whilst others paid for embroidery tuition. Originally the
work was undertaken in workers houses but gradually the demand was
so great that a property adjacent to Elizabeth’s own house were
taken as a schoolroom, workshop and commercial outlet, selling both
materials and kits of embroidery designs.
Face screen, 1890s.
Elisabeth’s husband, Thomas Wardle was a silk importer, dyer and
printer, as well as a friend and collaborator of William Morris.
Together they developed a range of natural dyes which could be used
on the tussore or tasar silks, both skeins and fabrics, which Wardle
imported from India. The natural beige tussore silk ground fabric
had been originally imported from India by Thomas' father Joshua .
He was unable to discover the secret of dyeing the natural tasar
silk. Thomas continued his father's dyeing experiments using
vegetable and mineral dyes, and in 1877 made a breakthrough by
dyeing the silk to any shade required. The slubs or imperfections
produced in the weaving process, due to poor reeling by the
villagers in India, were also eliminated with modern reeling
techniques. It was Thomas who gave Elizabeth some strands of tussore
silk and asked her to devise
a new form of embroidery, hoping to encourage needlewomen to use his
silks. The dyes produced near colour-fast, clear soft and bright
tones, Art Colours’ which were a great contrast to the harsh shades
of aniline or chemically dyed wools used in Berlin woolwork. It was
Elizabeth’s skill in blending the colours which was such a feature
of Leek Embroidery Society pieces. Elizabeth and her gentlewomen
embroidered secular and religious pieces with the Indian tussore
floss silk skeins onto a tussore printed silk ground, the pattern
acting as a transfer. Thomas had the silk printed in India to his
own designs, in turn influenced by Indian designs. Damasks,
brocades, silk plush and velvet, all dyed in Wardle’s works, were
all used for backgrounds.
Embroidery on a silk damask ground,
probably for ecclesiastical purposes.
Embroideries could be purchased as kits, complete with floss silks.
A small section of the embroidery would already be started, so the
purchaser could copy the stitches. Cushions, chair backs, curtain
borders, pillows, firescreens and handkerchief bags were all produced in the
School’s workshops and sold as finished products.
Embroidery designed by William Morris for
Artist designers of the day, such as William Morris, Walter Crane
and architects including John D Sedding, Norman Shaw and George
Gilbert Scott who were designing churches, employed the Leek
Embroidery Society to embroider church vestments and altar cloths.
Society’s work was in demand until around 1900 and was sold in
Wardle’s shop in New Bond Street, William Morris’s shop in Oxford
Street, Liberty & Co in Regent Street and at Debenham & Freebody,
off Oxford Street.
1881 the Society instigated an exhibition at the Leek Art School
with the director of the South Kensington Museum (later to become
the Victoria & Albert Museum) presenting the prizes. The work
exhibited consisted of their ecclesiastical work as well as fifteen
items of secular embroidery. Morris & Company and the Royal School
of Needlework also sent examples of work for the exhibition,
signifying the acceptance of art needlework as a legitimate artistic
medium and not just a hobby for leisured ladies.
Jacques, Anne G
Leek Embroidery. Staffordshire Libraries, Arts & Archives 1990, ISBN
King, Brenda Silk and Empire. Manchester University Press 2005, ISBN
Schoeser, Mary English Church Embroidery 1833-1953. 1998 Watts & Co
Ltd. ISBN 0953326500
About the Author:
Meg Andrews has been buying
and selling collectable, hangable and wearable rare, unusual and
interesting antique costumes and textiles for 22 years. Prior to
this she established the Costume and Textile Department at
Sotheby's. Andrews sells to major museums in the UK and abroad,
particularly America. She also sells to collectors worldwide and to
individuals who want a beautiful textile for purely decorative
purposes. For 18 years, Andrews lectured at Sotheby's
Institute on English Furnishings of the 16th and 17th centuries,
Chinese Court Costumes and Kashmir and Shawls of Paisley Design. In
1986 she lectured at the Treasure Houses of Britain exhibition in
Washington, DC on the textiles and costumes in the portraits. MEG ANDREWS web site: http://www.meg-andrews.com