Jul
07
2009

Where can you see historic needlework in Scotland?

Traquair House has fine needlework from the 1600s and 1700s  (Photo by quezi.com - CC-BY)

Traquair House has fine needlework from the 1600s and 1700s (Photo by quezi.com - CC-BY)

Fans of old embroidery will find plenty in Scotland. The suggestions here are a few favourites, all in reach of Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Traquair is an ancient house with a unique collection of old needlework. The 16th century petit point fruit and flower “slip” motifs are well-preserved, still waiting to be sewn onto soft furnishings, and there are 17th century embroidered bed hangings. Some rare early 18th century silk on paper colifichet needlework was done at a French convent school by girls from the Stuart family whose descendants still live in their centuries-old home. There is church needlework too, including finely-quilted, white priest’s robes that were hidden from anti-Catholics by being folded in amongst stores of bedlinen.

Mellerstain House, about 30 miles from Traquair, is also in the Borders, and about an hour’s drive from Edinburgh.  A sampler made there in the early 1700s covered in colourful animals is especially charming. Two daughters of the family stitched it to their governess’ design during their daily 2-hour sewing sessions. An even earlier crewel firescreen is the most famous piece there. There are other samplers and textiles throughout the house, and interesting old clothing in a “museum” section.

In central Edinburgh you can see late 18th century appliqué bed hangings at the Georgian House where needlework pictures are on show too. The National Museum displays some of its extensive collection of samplers from the 17th  to 20th centuries, as well as household and church embroidery. (Please note museum renovation work will disrupt things until 2011.) On the city outskirts is Newhailes House with 18th century furnishings including textiles.

Go west to Glasgow and visit the unmissable Burrell Collection. Exceptional 17th century needlework is displayed in a dimly-lit room tucked away from the bright glass-walled spaces. Exhibits are rotated for conservation reasons, so you  will only see part of the impressive collection of clothing and ornamental pieces: like richly-embroidered bodices, sleeves, coifs, slippers, bags. The museum owns 26 17th century samplers, including white work, band and spot work, to choose from. Elsewhere in the building are embroidered wall hangings and other interesting textiles, including antique embroideries from the Middle East.

Travel 90 minutes south to Shambellie House, the  Museum of Costume, to see clothing and accessories from 1850 to 1950, some embroidered, some trimmed with lace, feathers, or jet. In the playroom are examples of Scottish girls’ samplers from the same era.

Art nouveau fans will like Hill House, less than an hour from Glasgow, where artist Margaret Macdonald ‘s designs for embroidered bedcovers and fabrics are integral to the interior design planned with her husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh. An embroidered folding screen in a similar ‘Glasgow school’ style is in the city centre Kelvingrove Gallery.

Scotland has many historic houses and castles, and you have a good chance of finding interesting needlework and other textiles in any one of them. Here I’ve picked out some personal favourites in or quite near the two biggest cities. The Traquair and Burrell collections are especially worthwhile. You can read about them in a booklet by Margaret Swain and a book by Liz Arthur.

Museum collections are shuffled around quite often, so ask in advance about particular items. Please check opening times and accessibility before setting out to see anything.

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