Textile Conservation & Further Thoughts

March 2015 157-tile Yesterday I was invited to an event at Glasgow University's Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History. Not only did this mean I got to meet students and see the objects they were working on, but I also learned about the science behind what we see in museums and private collections. Some things were familiar to me (like dye pots!) and then I ran into a Ph.D. student who showed me a fantastically complicated machine that extracted chemical profiles from 17th century China textiles. The Centre had only invited people working with textiles one way or another, and I found it hugely invigorating to see the multiple ways we can approach textiles (it's been a very good week for that!). If I had not been absolutely shattered, I would have stayed much, much longer.

But I have been very shattered this weekend thanks to a very hectic weekend. EYF has rippled into this week with plenty of emails and a lot of follow-ups - I am still trying to get to grips with those, apologies. I have also been curled up in my favourite arm chair thinking about stuff. I spent the past weekend in the company of some rather incredible people. The Edinburgh Yarn Festival was home to a lot of strong, bold and interesting people with Thoughts and Ideas. I came away encouraged by the positivity, the warm support, and the ingenuity of the people I met. I spoke with some very smart people who gave me plenty food for thought. I was surrounded by people who did not fit into society's preconceived ideas of what we should think, believe or do - and I feel so encouraged to see people questioning all the big narratives surrounding gender, fashion, consumerism, and technology.

These past few days I have been thinking a lot about the Thing-ness of Things, too. What materiality means and how the physical nature of Things impact our perception of them. A weighty tome. That yarn has a nice handle. I have a favourite knitting needle that 'sits right' in my hand as I work with it. I will need to think more about these Things and start figuring out what the Thing-ness of Things mean when it comes to my work. Maybe when my brain is back to full speed.

Plans for the rest of the week: tomorrow I'm releasing the very last instalment in the Old Maiden Aunt/Karie Westermann sock club (this last sock pattern happens to be my favourite..) and Saturday I am teaching Continental Knitting at Glasgow's The Queen of Purls, so do pop along to that one!

Threading West: The Great Tapestry of Scotland at Old Anchor Thread Mill

Nearly readyI am a big fan of Scottish textiles and particularly Scottish textiles heritage. I am not much of a stitcher (more about this later), but I know a piece of outstanding beauty, artistry and craftsmanship when I see it. The Great Tapestry of Scotland is such a thing and it is currently on show at Paisley's Old Anchor Thread Mill. I caught up with stitcher, event committee member and volunteer co-organiser, Paula McKeown.

First, could you tell me what The Great Tapestry of Scotland is?

The Great Tapestry of Scotland is simply Scotland's story in tapestry form.  It tells the country's history over 160 panels handstitched  by around 1,000 volunteer stitchers all over the country.

The author Alexander McCall Smith saw a tapestry depicting the Battle of Prestonpans and he loved it so much he had the idea that he would tell Scotland's story in that way.  The main challenges were really to pick what history to show and then coordinating the over 1,000 stitchers. So McCall Smith involved Alistair Moffat, the historian and Andrew Crummy, the artist.

How did you become involved in this project? I know it was a real challenge to bring the Tapestry to Paisley - but you were involved before then?

I went to see the Prestonpans Tapestry at the Anchor Mill last year and got talking to the people about stitching.  When they found out I am a stitcher, they asked if I would like to help stitch the panel they were making for the Great Tapestry of Scotland.  I jumped at the chance as I had tried to volunteer to stitch a panel already and had been told it was too late to volunteer.  I went back the next week and started stitching on the panel that the Thread Mill museum were making about tenement life in the 1930s.

I got involved in getting the Tapestry to Paisley simply by stitching on the actual Tapestry panel.  We were then offered to stitch two panels for the Diaspora tapestry so I stayed involved helping with the museum and working with other stitchers.  When the chance came to bring the Tapestry, the vice chair of the museum, Margaret Muir asked me to help.

How did the Thread Mill Museum end up showing the Tapestry at the Anchor Thread Mill? I know it is a small, local museum with limited resources.

They asked us!  We realised we couldn't do it alone so partnered with an Arts group called Weaving Musical Threads and West College Scotland. We put a joint bid together and happily the Tapestry trust was happy to give us the chance to stage it.

The Thread Mill Museum tells the story of Paisley's thread manufacturing history. Paisley was home to many mills, and the Coats and Clark families developed their businesses from Paisley, taking their threads all over the world.  Sadly all the mills in Paisley are closed now. As the mills closed, the Old Paisley society started to collect items associated with the Mills and eventually the Thread Mill Museum was opened with former mill workers acting as guides.  As time goes on unfortunately there are fewer and fewer mill workers still around, so we are always looking for new volunteers to help keep the mill stories alive.

The museum has lots of equipment and items from the mills and information about what mill workers' lives were like. We also have a lot of stitched and crochet items made from Anchor threads and yarns.  We are located in the basement of the Mile End mill building which is now a business centre.  The owner of the building, Marcus Dean, donated the space to us and helps us out too.



Can you tell me about the different techniques used in stitching the Tapestry?

Strictly speaking, the tapestry is not a tapestry as tapestries are woven.  The techniques involved are based on crewel work embroidery which is traditionally worked on linen using wool.  The major stitches used are chain, heavy chain, stem, Quaker and various straight stitches.  The linen is from a Scottish company, Peter Greig & Co, and the wool used is Appleton's wool.  The stitchers were given a coloured drawing and wool in the those colours.  What stitches we used was up to us to decide.  The panel borders did have to be done in heavy chain stitch and the lettering was all done in Quaker stitch.

Which panels are your favourite?

So many are favourites. Naturally I love the one I stitched on - No 130 Tenement.  No 140 Cumbernauld is a big favourite of mine, the embroidery is amazingly beautiful.  The design is so modern and distinctive - and it shows how embroidery can be modern,  I love the scene from the movie Gregory's Girl in the panel.  I would have loved to have stitched on panel 107 Mill working because of the gorgeous Paisley pattern motifs in the dress.  Also Panel 105 Paisley pattern for the same reason.  Panel 92 Scots in India has much amazing colours.  Every time I see the panels, I pick a new favourite.

What should visitors know about the Tapestry exhibition?

It's open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm and open late on Wednesdays and Thursdays until 8pm.  The venue is the Atrium of the Old Anchor Thread mill -a gorgeous space.  The venue is on the 1st floor but there is a lift available.  The Thread Mill Museum is nearby but is only open Wednesdays and Saturdays from 12-4pm.

Finally, any books resources for people wanting to know more?

There have been two books so far about the Tapestry, both by Berlinn books and available via all good bookshops and at the Exhibition.  Paisley Thread museum's site is at http://paisleythreadmill.co.uk, we also have a twitter account   The tapestry website is at http://scotlandstapestry.com

Thank you Paula!

I have signed up for a stitching workshop with Paula. I haven't stitched since I was about 15 years old so I love the chance for a refresher's course. There will be other workshops running concurrently with the exhibition - keep a look out on the websites and the twitter feed for more information.

Scottish Textiles Heritage - A Day in Paisley

You may remember that I have been involved with the University of Glasgow and their work on Scottish textiles heritage. Most of the talks from the workshops are now available to download from iTunes.

On a very related note, I travelled to Paisley today to have a closer look at their textiles heritage. Paisley is a town just south of Glasgow and it is steeped in textiles history - not only did it lend its name to the paisley pattern and the Paisley shawl, but it was also home to many textiles mills and weavers. Be warned - this is going to be a picture heavy post. For the full set of photos, do go to the Flickr photo set. Paisley Textiles Heritage

Mile End Mill is no longer a working cotton mill, but it used to be a part of Anchor Mills, home of Coats & Clark and the world-famous Anchor threads and crochet cotton. Coats & Clark still exist today and they still produce the Anchor threads, of course, but the company has left Paisley (though the Anchor emblem is scattered throughout Paisley as are statues of Messrs Coats and Clark). Today the Mile End Mill is a business centre with a gym and a nursery attached .. and a museum.

Paisley Textiles Heritage

The Thread Mill Museum is symptomatic of many local museums: it has practically no funding and is run by volunteers - most of which are former mill workers who delight in talking about their former workplace and in keeping the memory of Paisley's industrial past alive. We were greeted by the lovely Eleanor who took us around the small space. There was much to interest the casual textile enthusiast.

Paisley Textiles

Many of the machines on display had been rescued from skips or recovered by former mill workers.

Paisley Textiles Heritage

Boxes of brightly coloured crochet cotton. 1970s?

Paisley Textiles Heritage

Various stages of cotton thread production - from raw cotton via bobbins to finished dyed thread.

Paisley Textiles Heritage

Mill workers leaving the Anchor mills, 1950s. Note the "mill wheel" on the gatehouse.

And that was what really struck me. When we visited, there was a small group of elderly ladies chatting in the room whilst leafing through photo albums. It soon became clear that when the last cotton mills finally closed in the late 1980s, Paisley did not just lose a lot of jobs; it lost a sense of community. The mills had not just provided a paycheck, but also a social structure around which lives were constructed. Tellingly, when a supermarket chain opened a new store in the mill area, it branded its building with anchors. We belong here, it screamed to me, and you belong to us.

Paisley Textiles Heritage

Paisley's weaving industry can be examined in the Sma' Shot Cottages - a small cluster of buildings a short walk from the mill complex. They are found in Shuttle Street (Paisley street names are fantastic markers of textile history). I really enjoyed these cottages - I did not know nearly as much about weaving as I did about cotton mill production - and I found the place fascinating. Material history and social history twined together.

Paisley Textiles Heritage

This sock-in-progress was too lovely not to photographed. One of the local guides was busy spinning yarn on her wheel when we arrived. I wondered if this was her work too?

Paisley Textiles Heritage

A 18th century loom still in use today.

 The weavers of Paisley had a dispute with their employers in 1856 over the sma' (small) shot thread used to bind the weft and warp threads. As the sma' shot was not a visible part of the shawl, employers refused to pay for the thread leaving weavers to purchase the thread themselves. The weavers organised and eventually the employers had to back down. Paisley celebrates a Sma' Shot day today - the first Saturday of July - by staging a rally and burning an effigy of an employer. Ouch.

Paisley Textiles Heritage

Paisley museum has an entire section devoted to Paisley shawls, as you might imagine. Sadly the museum is being refurbished and you can only access the shawl gallery by a side door. It is well worth the effort, though. The museum has some beautiful looms with great educational material displayed. And they have shawls. Photos do not do the shawls justice: their colours are deep and rich, and the patterns are intricate and exotic. The shawls were (mostly) woven using jacquard looms with punch cards (as pictured). Many of the punch cards reminded me of knitting charts.

Paisley Textiles Heritage

I found it particularly interesting to see how fashion had an impact on the Paisley shawls. The stoles were particularly popular during the Regency period. The 1820s and early 830s favoured triangular shawls (the notes on these shawls called to mind knitted triangular shawls) and later squares became popular. The Paisley shawl was finally undone by the bustle - you did not want to hide your bustle under a shawl nor did you want anything to hide that tiny waist above the bustle. I have always been a fashion history geek and I had a bit of a moment there and then.

Paisley Textiles Heritage

The refurbishment meant the Textiles Department was in a bit of a disarray but we were lucky enough to meet up with Dan Coughlan who works as the Curator of Textiles at Paisley museum. This proved to be my personal highlight of the day. Unfortunately we were not able to leaf through the museum's collection of paisley pattern books, but we saw photographs as well as various types of looms. Dan also spoke passionately about the need to highlight not just Paisley's but Scotland's textiles heritage. I could not agree more.

Paisley Textiles Heritage

It was raining all day long but I did not mind the rain. There is such a rich seam of textile history in Paisley and it is a shame that this is not discussed with same fervour as Bradford or Leeds.  I wish funding was in place to fully support Paisley's textile and industrial heritage - as it stands, much depends upon volunteers to keep places running. Do visit and do support the hard work all these people are doing. I learned a lot today. I think you would too.