Getting Closer to the Founding of the Royal School of Needlework

Life’s events often seem to be the outcome of other events and a grand intermingling of individual and historical influences. Far fetched though it may seem, the founding of the Royal School of Needlework (RSN) was one of the outcomes of the Industrial Revolution.

In Britain, this started in the mid 1700s with the invention of the Spinning Jenny. Until that time, weaving was done on hand operated looms and it took three carders and three spinners to keep one weaver supplied with weft thread. This was essentially a cottage industry and England was famous for its wool and worsted cloth. The East India company started importing cheap cotton fabrics from India, China and Persia often printed with patterns now called chintz. The patterns were an easternized version of crewel work designs. About 1740, fabric brokers began supplying cotton to English weavers who wove it into fustian, a coarse and heavy cotton cloth which was made into clothing for the working man. From there, weaving looms were developed powered by animal or human energy. This form of mechanisation lasted a long time specially in rural and farming communities. One can see treadmills and wooden machinery in museums and historical villages dating back into the 1800s. Britain forbade the export of both machines and their design though enterprising individuals were able to remember the details adequately to reproduce the technology in other countries. An example of this is in Lowell, Massachusetts with its 19th century textile mills. In 1781 James Watt patented a steam engine with a continuous rotative motion. Steam power had been in existance for a long time but the use of it was not practical. The rapid development of powered industry is well known history but I wanted to ‘set the scene’ for the following.

The result of mechanization on the populace was profound. Coal and water provided steam and power, the mines needed labour as did every developing industry. The huge exodus of people from the country to the cities radically changed society. The birth rate soared and population increased. The numbers of working poor increased as did the wealth of the employers. The development of small businesses and tradespeople led to the emergence of the middle classes, something new to the British experience. There were the usual number of wars overseas which reduced the numbers of young men and death in childbirth took a heavy toll among young women. Wealthy ladies had their social lives to occupy them and the poor working classes struggled with injury, diseases, poverty and malnutrition. Mechanization was not available for household chores so service in the households of both the wealthy and the middle classes gave employment to a large number of the working poor. But there was a problem with occupying the excess number of middle class women who now had time on their hands but whose employment opportunities were extremely limited. They could be a companion or a governess. Nursing and office work had not yet been invented nor was education widely available. A need for acceptable employment for the middle class, something both genteel and clean, was evident.

Another factor was that Berlin Work had been the rage for 50 years and, although it is ideal for kneelers in churches, it was not a suitable technique for new vestments, altar frontals or for replacing those pieces that had worn out.

Add William Morris to this mix. He was a gifted designer with a strong interest in textiles and interior design. He grew tired of Berlin Work and he was also tired of the often shoddy mass production of poorly designed goods. He sought a return to the days of simple items that were attractive and functional. He started the Arts and Crafts Movement. He met and became good friends with Sir Thomas Wardle. You will remember that Sir Thomas imported Tussar silk from India and developed methods of dying and spinning this silk which was cheaper than the fine silk threads available from China. Most importantly, he dyed silk threads that came in different shades of each colour (Leek Embroidery – November 26, 2013). This made Satin Stitch and Long and Short Stitching not only possible but gorgeous.

Some designs attributed to William Morris

I am sure there will be readers who will find this analysis to be inadequate and biased and, of course, they are quite right. There is no mention of transportation, science, slavery or the competition with almost every other country in the world but I wanted to focus on the effect the Industrial Revolution had on the development of textiles. The effect was a profound one.

In searching for designs by William Morris, this coat surfaced. Not made by Morris but inspired by him. I included it as I think that it is gorgeous. A fantasy garment. Hope that you like it too or find it interesting.

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Comments

  1. Reply

    Hello Ann,
    Really enjoyed your post. I love William Morris designs and have an applique book of designs. I would love to have attended the Royal School of Needlework, what a wonderful experience it must be. One of these days I hope to get to tour around. There are so many techniques I still want to learn. My health has not been good since this bad weather started, so I find I can’t stitch, very frustrating. I hope you will write a follow up article on this on.
    Kind regards
    Mandy Currie

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