I think that defining this embroidery technique as a traditional, regional craft is stretching the definition somewhat, as it was invented at the beginning of the twentieth century by members of the Dorset Women’s Institute. But at the end of the day, it involves many traditional stitches and it can be traced back to a particular region so why not! Some would give credit solely to a lady called Olivia Pass, one of the members of the WI, who wrote a book all about the stitch. However in the foreword of the book Mrs Pass refers to ‘we’ and says;
“This happy easy work is a revival, by Dorset Women’s Institutes, of some old stitches in modern form.”
so it seems to me, it was more of a group effort than the invention of just one member.
Dorset Feather Stitchery is really a reinvention of various well known, basic embroidery stitches – Feather, Buttonhole, Chain and Fly stitch, working them together to form a distinctive design. Why I think that it clasifies to be here amoungst much older traditional crafts is because it is an evolution of older techniques. To quote Mrs Pass again
“In evolving this work, Dorset has drawn on traditions from many sources, notably a book of designs taken off nineteenth century smocks…… (and) a beautiful Balkan apron.”
As the nights draw in, I have started to grumble about the cold. I have decided it would be nice to have a good old fashioned eiderdown or quilt to put on my bed. Obviously, this got me thinking about where the different types of quilts come from. So I am off again, heading up north to look at North Country quilts. Also known as Durham quilts, but they have always been made across the whole of Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire.
North Country quilts are whole cloth quilts, which means instead of being made from scraps of fabric to make the more familiar patchwork quilts, they are made from a continuous piece of fabric. Like most historic crafts this would traditionally be a cheap, readily available fabric, usually cotton, but sometimes a sateen type fabric. The exception to this rule was a ‘stripy’, which was a utility quilt that used strips of fabric, which was easier to construct and cheaper.
North Country quilts are often confused with Welsh quilts and this is not surprising, as to the uninitiated they do look similar. The main differences between the two are; Firstly, each have different ways of creating the stitched patterns. North Country quilts have a central motif surrounded by an area of infill patterns, often based around a specific design called the running Durham feather stitch, with a decorated border around the edge. Welsh quilts also have a central motif which is then framed by two or three squares which are then infilled with patterns, often a spiral motif. The second way of differentiating between the two regional quilts is the way the edges are finished. Welsh quilts tend to be finished with a butt edge, secured with a couple of rows of running stitches and North Country quilts tend to be finished with a couple of rows of machine stitching. Thirdly, North Country quilts are generally padded with cotton, presumably from the local mills and Welsh quilts are padded with wool, from the local sheep. Last but not least is that although both North Country and Welsh quiltmakers sometimes made the ‘Stripy’ quilts, the North Country quilts incorporated the strip into the design, with the patterns following the stripes whereas the Welsh quilts ignored the stripes and the patterns remained the same as whole cloth quilts.
I found a really interesting post on the difference between Welsh quilts and Durham quilts on Pippa Moss’s blog. Pippa goes into great detail on the differences and has some great images of her amazing collection of quilts. I must say, having looked at all her lovely examples, I really think a nice antique Durham quilt is just what I need for my bed. I will have to look out for one on ebay as there is not even the smallest chance I am going to make a full size quilt for myself. I know this for an absolute fact, as I just don’t have the stamina. I am in the process of making some samples of English quilting for the Design and Stitched Fabric course I have rashly signed up for and it is going to take me a month to make a cushion cover. But I digress….
Both the Welsh and the North Country quilts have very intricate designs and patterns, and these patterns could vary, not just from area to area but also within the same village where individuals would have their own distinctive style. Kate Trusson is a quilter from Swaledale and in an interview for Popular Patchwork she describes how North Country patterns were flowing, using running feathers, leaves, twisted chains, curlicues and spirals. Julie still uses patterns which are linked to her own locality, Swaledale in the Northern Dales. These unique patterns have an openness and a primitive quality about them.
Interestingly, Welsh patterns were called ‘string and teacup’ because they used household objects to draw round and used string as a compass and also to mark out straight lines. There were many ways the patterns were marked out and North Country quilter’s sometimes sent their quilts off to a stamper who printed the chosen pattern onto the fabric to give the quilter a guide to work from. This method does explain the complexity and symmetry of some examples of whole cloth quilts from the late nineteenth century.
Quilt making both in the UK and America is very much alive and kicking and the traditional patterns are still known and used. There are also many contemporary quilt makers who push the boundaries of this traditional skill. You only have to search the internet for Durham quilt making workshops to find a whole host of resources. If you want to see exquisite examples of both antique and contemporary quilts then I suggest you check out some of the websites below. Right now I am off to draw up an example of Durham running feather stitch for my course samples and I better order some cotton batting too if I want it to be authentic!
www.lilian-hedley-quilter.com - Queen of North Country quilts who runs courses on how to do Durham running feather stitch and also how to mark out your pattern
Finally finished my second tutorial on Dorset Buttons. Had lots of images of all the samples I made and so I thought I would share them with you all.
Got a bit carried away and kept making more!
One great big Shirt Waister (yes, I know it’s off centre)
Open Weave around a Curtain Ring, a Christmas tree decoration perhaps
I like these ones – On a nice cardigan or maybe a brooch.
I think I have got the Dorset button bug now. I may even branch out and do some colourful ones. I found a really nice booklet which gives intricate details of how to make many of the traditional dorset buttons including the High Tops and Singletons.
I am planning on integrating some big ones into some of my embroidery pieces next. Have a look here.
‘How to Make Dorset Buttons Booklet’ by Marion Howitt is available from
Right – here it is. My first blog post for Dulwich OnView my local online community magazine. I can’t believe how hard it was! I was limited to eight hundred words and it made me realise that I do drone on abit. I find it very hard not to include everything I know. Anyway here it is, all very interesting stuff and great I have found a regional craft right here on my doorstep. I may well feel obliged to revive the local industry from my garden shed, now there’s an idea! I could make mugs.
Anyone who lives in Dulwich and likes a bit of gardening will know that six inches below the ground lies thick and heavy London clay. I was doing some digging in my garden the other day, swearing at the nasty stuff and I thought to myself – someone should open a pottery to get rid of some of this.
So, whilst breaking my back digging a hole only just deep enough to plant a tulip bulb, I dreamt up a fantastic plan to rid my garden of the gloop. I will start an swap scheme, anyone who wants a bag of my lovely clay to make pots, can come to my garden and dig themselves two sacks full of the stuff and in exchange they can fill the hole back up with couple of sacks of loam rich compost. Now those who know me will realise I always have some new plan or scheme, some good and some really bad, but I honestly think that this one’s a corker. How can it go wrong?
As this was obviously such a brilliant scheme, I gave up the digging and went inside to start my cunning plan. Why should I dig when people would soon be queuing up to do it for me? One quick google search later and I discover Lambeth has always been the home of London pottery and interestingly, it is where Royal Doulton all started. I never knew that!
To be honest since traditional industries usually developed near the raw materials and since I know Lambeth is built on top of an endless supply of London clay, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that it used to be famous for pottery.
Pottery has been produced in Lambeth since the Roman times, at least. The potteries, or pothouses as they were known, were concentrated near the river in the area between Vauxhall Bridge and Lambeth Bridge. Here they could take advantage of the supply of water, easy access to transportation and the low lying location, which provided the most perfectly humid atmosphere for making pots and most importantly was the supply of London clay.
Lambeth’s fame for pottery really took off in the sixteenth century when tin-glazing came to England.
Tin-glazing, or Delftware, is a method of producing a white glazed pottery, which can be over painted with metal oxides to create intricate patterns or pictures and back then this was cutting edge pottery technology.
Lambeth Delftware proved very popular, pothouses produced tiles, wine jars, and apothecary pots. The industry got a real boast in the mid seventeenth century with the introduction of tea and chocolate into English polite society. The ladies who lunched were desperate for the very latest teapots and cups to show off at their tea parties.
However, during the eighteenth century Staffordshire took over as the centre of the English potteries and Delftware production in Lambeth declined. I suppose it would have been very easy for pottery production in Lambeth to fizzle out altogether but I guess the kilns and expertise were there and needed to be used and in the last half of the eighteenth century Lambeth pothouses began to produce a robust type of pottery called salt glazed stoneware,
The most famous of the Lambeth stoneware potteries is now known as Royal Doulton, but it started back in 1815 as Doulton and Watts. If truth be told, Doulton and Watt’s made their mark by making the most boring, unglamorous of stuff – leech holders for doctors, ink bottles and chemists pots and most famously the sewage pipes under the roads of LondonIn the 1850′s, after making themselves some money from all the boring stuff, the company began a new initiative called Doulton & Co’s decorative stoneware. They teamed up with nearby Lambeth School of Art to produce highly decorative tableware, sculptural panels and tiles.
It must be said, there were other stoneware potteries in Lambeth and James Stiff and Sons and Stephen Green’s Imperial pottery deserve a mention, but it is fair to say Doulton quickly eclipsed other local firms.
Then, in 1901 the company became Royal Doulton courtesy of Edward VII and continued to be a big employer in the area. But pottery production on any great scale stopped abruptly in 1956, when the factories had to close due to the new clean air regulations.
But never mind the history lesson – back to today and my cunning plan. You may have noticed that times are hard and banks aren’t lending, yet I really think I may have discovered the solution for many Lambeth residents. It’s been here all along, right under our feet, gardens full of a heritage product! Tons and tons of world famous ‘Lambeth Doulton Clay’! Never mind swap schemes, I’m going to sell my clay! Local clay for local potters. With a bit of clever marketing I am sure it would work. Now I just need a plan to decide what to do with the massive hole I will have in my back garden!
In the meantime, before I get around to digging myself some London clay I have . found someone who already uses it to produce lovely little bird sculptures. Find them here at LondonClayBirds.co.uk. How sweet are these!!
I have just discovered another variation on regional rag rugging that I was unaware of until today. In Staffordshire rag rugs are known as bodged mats. Bodged meaning poked and each of the strips of fabric are poked, or bodged, through the backing material and knotted to hold them in place.
Yorkshire really is enormous! Well, in British terms it’s enormous. If you are used to the open plains of America or the Sahara Desert it is actually quite tiny, but as far as the counties of Britain are concerned – it’s huge. So it follows that within the Ridings of Yorkshire there are many interesting traditional craft stories to tell, one huge story, which I will only be able to scratch the surface of here, is the story of the hand knitters of the Yorkshire Dales.
The Costume of Yorkshire Illustrated By A Series of Forty Engravings - George Walker, 1814
Hand knitting was an important cottage industry across the Yorkshire Dales from the end of the sixteenth century right through to the beginning of the twentieth century. Sheep had been an important part of the local economy since way back when, and it followed that spinning, weaving and knitting industries developed in the area. Yet, it wasn’t just in Yorkshire that hand knitting was an important cottage industry. During the seventeenth century, hand knitting had been a major source of income for the pauper classes throughout the United Kingdom. Up to 13% of the very lowest earners across the country scrapped a living by knitting stockings. Thinking about it, it’s not surprising really, as everyone wore stockings back then and someone had to make them. However, by the beginning of the eighteenth century hand knitting as a cottage industry on any scale had already begun to decline due to mechanisation. But hand knitting continued in the Dales of Yorkshire, because it was a poor, isolated area with little other options and people were able to combine it with farming.
Knitting in the Yorkshire Dales developed in a very distinctive style. Descriptions from the 1840′s stated that knitters sat rocking to and fro like weird wizards! On each rock of the body, both hands engaged in a variety of little motions which together formed a uniform tossing action. Needles were pricks and crooked, with one attached to a knitting stick tucked into the belt called a cow band. The technique was known as swaving and it enabled the knitter not only to knit very fast but also to knit one handed and this was vitally important as to scrape a living the knitters had to work day and night to make it worth while.
Knitting stick - often carved by young men for their sweet hearts.
All members of the family would be required to knit, children started as young as three or four and they would have to knit practically all the time. Men would knit as they milked the cows and drove the wagons and once the days work was done, families would gather at each others houses, taking it in turn to host their neighbours. Knitting throughout the evening by the light of the peat fires rather than waste candles, telling stories and singing to pass the time. The Vicar at Dent even complained the women were knitting during the Sunday church service.
The items that were knitted varied greatly. Stockings were the most important item but bonnets, hats, gloves and undershirts were also produced. The wool, called bump, was thick and greasy. As the industry developed a ‘bump’ master transported the wool to the villagers and took the finished articles either to market or back to the mill to be dyed. Gloves and stocking made of finer wools were also made and it was these that displayed the distinctive Dales patterns.
By the beginning of the twentieth century the hand knitting tradition of the Dales had waned as a cottage industry but knitting for domestic use continued and luckily the traditional patterns and styles are well documented. To be honest, whilst it is fascinating to read about a craft so strongly linked to an area, it is easy to understand why it’s not really a career choice today. Hand knitted clothes are now reassuringly expensive to reflect the amount of time it takes to knit a jumper or even a pair of socks! It is still not easy to make a living from this traditional craft in Britain but easier than it was.
Lesley O’Connell Edwards – Working Hand Knitters in England from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries, Textile History, Volume 41, Number 1, May 2010 , pp. 70-85(16) (accessed online via ingentaconnect.com)
William Howitt - The Rural Life of England in Two Volumes, 1840, p307 (accessed online via google ebooks)