‘Through the Eye of the Needle’ – Needlework & Embroidery Education in Ireland Workshop, Ulster Folk & Transport Museum.

The Ulster Folk & Transport Museum near Bangor, County Down is perhaps one of my favourite museums in Ireland. I have many fond childhood memories of visiting the museum and all of its old houses, particularly the houses where I could have some made soda bread! I also loved days where I could dress up as a Victorian or Edwardian child- this love of ‘dressing up’ has stayed with me and I have been known to try on kids dressing up clothes in museums! I have to say that the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum (or Cultra as it is locally known, though Cultra is the area rather than the museum) has definitely fuelled my love of museums and Irish history. Therefore, it is no surprise that I found myself on a cold November morning with a fellow museum aficionado, who blogs at Culture & Crafts, at Cultra to attend a talk on needlework education in Ireland, entitled ‘Through the Eye of the Needle’.1                                                                   Detail of black metallic floral and circular

patterned bead work on a net background.  

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                                                                     Multi-coloured hand sewn beaded strips

                                                                            on a background of black linen.

The talk was given by Valerie Wilson, Curator of Textiles, who is a lovely woman who is very passionate about Irish textiles and costume. This passion translates to her job and is refreshing to see a Curator who is truly interested in their specific area of interest. The talk took on the form of a roundtable discussion with Valerie Wilson and several textile and costume loving women, myself included! Valerie started the talk with a history of embroidery and textile education from mid-nineteenth century to mid-twentieth century Ireland. This was juxtaposed alongside a discussion on the home worker’s industry in Ireland during this period, as many girls trained in needlework went on to work as a home-sewer.1 This workers were also known as ‘piece workers’ as they were paid per piece of embroidery or sewing that they completed. Normally, these women were not paid recompense for the detailed and skilled work they produced, thus the non-alleviation of women from the drudgery of poverty.

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Hand-sewn metallic and bronze beaded floral and foliage design on netting.

Moving on from this topic of discussion, Valerie Wilson discussed the difference between the home worker’s industry and hobby crafting and sewing.2 The main difference being that hobby sewing was done predominantly by middle and upper class women as a means to pass time between social and domestic duties. A prime example of this can be found in the picture above. The picture displays a section of a dress with hand embroidered silver and bronze metal beaded flowers on black netting. Another example of this type of craft, and a very popular one during Victorian times, was the cross stitching of slippers for presents for family members and friends, as seen in the pictures below.

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          Detail of a hand stitched green, red and gold            

                                                                beaded floral slipper design on black canvas.    

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Black calico or linen slippers with hand stitched

                                                                                     floral design to centre.

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High-heeled slippers with a floral, feather and cat design.

Valerie explained how these shoes were firstly sewn on a flat pattern, then sent away to be produced into wearable slippers, as seen in the two examples above. These items were a chance for women to show off the sewing skills learned from a governess or a whilst in a school based setting. Throughout the talk Valerie Wilson discussed the needlework and embroidery education provision given to girls of all classes in Ireland. Girls from working class backgrounds families were taught needlework as a means of gaining employment, whilst upper class girls learnt sewing as part of their ‘accomplishments’ education e.g. learning French, playing the piano, watercolour painting etc. A large majority of working class Irish girls whom received sewing training would hope to gain employment as a domestic servant or as in a mill or factory. A lot of these girls completed a ‘portfolio’ of different stitches and sewing techniques to show to prospective employers, a form of a tactile curriculum vitae.

Young girls in more rural locations may have joined their mothers in making ‘piece work’ after completing their education. These women mainly produced handkerchiefs, drawn thread or white work for many Irish textile firms including Robinson & Cleaver’s and Ferguson’s. Agents from these firms would travel the countryside with a sample book, as pictured below, and ask women for several dozen of a number of different designs, e.g. ‘ten of number twenty’ or ‘forty number one hundred’s.’ These numbered designs could have been anything from simple stitch work to exquisitely stitched lingerie and linen blouses.

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Detail of an agent’s piece work sample book. Hand-drawn designs 

on paper.

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Handkerchief design book, c.1920s -1930s.

Valerie Wilson also discussed the social history of the objects and that many of these objects above have little or no social history attached to them. Their story has essentially disappeared over time, this is a predicament that is often found with historical problems and a problem faced by every museum professional. However, we can only imagine a young woman sewing by candlelight or gaslight in her cottage or drawing-room, applying her needlework skills in different uses in order to feed her family or provide presents. However, it is fortunate that museums such as the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and Curators like Valerie Wilson are part and parcel of the job of bringing these items back to life once more.

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Exquisite Whitework and Drawn Thread Work on Silk, Robinson & Cleaver’s, c.1900’s.

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Whitework and Drawn Threadwork on Silk, Handkerchief, Robinson & Cleaver, c.1900’s.

  1. Catriona Clear, Women’s Work (The Irish Times; Dublin, 2012) <http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/century/century-women-and-the-vote/women-s-work-1.553384>
  2.  Jean Clair LaBelle, The Memoirs of a Mormon Mistress & Victorian Housewife (iUniverse; Lincoln, N.E.,                  2003).

All photos (c) Rachel Sayers 2013-2016. Original objects courtesy of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

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