1870s in Britain: a Breakthrough for Education, Textiles and Embroidery

By the 1870s, there had been radical changes in Britain. The Industrial Revolution had been in progress for a century. The sources of power such as water, steam and electricity were developing and being accepted, manufacturing machinery was widely used, transportation systems were growing as were imports and exports, there had been a mass migration from the countryside to urban centres, the birth rate had accelerated and building in the cities had mushroomed. Legislation during the first part of the century had focussed on working conditions and the employment of child labour in the factories and mines. By the Education Act of 1870, education for children between the ages of 5 and 13 years became mandatory. This triggered the establishment of 3000 or more schools in areas where educational facilities were not adequate. The face of Britain had changed. The massive amount of building and the increase and redistribution of the population was a whole new world. And new worlds create challenges, and opportunities, that did not exist before.

One of these challenges was for employment and opportunities for unattached women. The lag in the development of labour saving devices for the home meant there were still many people in service in both large and smaller houses. Mechanization of farming also lagged behind the developments on the industrial front. This would continue until World War One and later. Labour saving devices for the home did not surface widely until after World War 11 when willing labour became scarce.

The result (that is of interest to stitchers) of this huge change in societal conditions was the founding of the School of Art Needlework. (Wow, we finally got there!). The Wemyss School of Firth was founded in 1877. Located in Scotland, its mission was to teach needlework skills to the daughters of miners and farmers so that they could find employment. Still in operation, even now revived, you can read more about this at: www.needlenthread.com (December 3, 2013). Mary Corbet wrote an article about the school including pictures. Well worth a visit. In 1879, the Leek School of Embroidery and the Embroidery Society were founded by Elizabeth Wardle though she had been embroidering for churches in the area since 1864. The school gave her the opportunity to pass her skills on to other women.

Wherever I read about embroidery in the nineteenth century, the subject of dying surfaces. Dyes for colouring fabrics and threads were originally sourced from plants, insects and minerals. Subtle in tone, they were not always colourfast. In the 1850s, aniline (chemical) dyes were discovered by an 18 year old chemistry student trying to create artificial quinine for the prevention of malaria. The number of colours proliferated but the processing was toxic. Even now, instructions on using aniline dyes include the necessity of a face mask and a well ventilated area. In 1878, Sir Thomas Wardle exhibited tussur silk cloth printed with patterns by William Morris. Included were tussur silk yarns dyed with rich but subtle colours. He also developed threads shaded between light and dark especially suited to Art Needlework. And from there on, Art Needlework flourished. The truism is correct. Given suitable fabric and threads, elegant embroidery will happen. We all, even now, owe Sir Thomas Wardle a huge vote of thanks.

The School of Art Needlework was founded in 1872. The ‘Art’ was to differentiate it from the canvas work stitched with bright coloured wools known as Berlin Work. Berlin Work had been hugely popular for 50 years to the point that stitchers no longer knew how to do anything else. A revival and development of suitable skills was needed. Put together single women needing employment, the availability of fabric and silk threads, the consumerism and fashions of the Victorian era which created a market, some gifted interior designers whose interests were textiles and the Arts and Crafts Movement and the result is Opportunity. And from this, came our ancestor, the School of Art Needlework.

The interval between entries on this blog has lengthened. The history has required much research and encapulating it into a brief summary has not been easy. Also, my time has been focussed on writing a book on stitching Summer Flowers. It would be nice to complete this before warm summer weather arrives when a vacation from writing will be welcome. Our summers are too short to spend in front of a computer.

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Comments

    • Boud
    • March 13, 2014
    Reply

    So glad to have found your blog via StitchinFingers. I’ve signed up to follow you, don’t want to miss anything.

  1. Reply

    Ann, I’m thoroughly enjoying reading your articles, they are so informing and inspiring. Mandy Currie

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