Amgueddfa Blog: Textiles

Augusta Hall, Lady Llanover (21 March 1802 – 17 January 1896) was a strong advocate and supporter of the Welsh Woollen Industry and Welsh traditions. At the National Eisteddfod in 1834 she submitted an essay titled `The Advantages Resulting from the Preservation of the Welsh Language and the National Costume winning first prize. She took the bardic name "Gwenynen Gwent" 'the bee of Gwent'.

Gwenffrwd Woollen Mill

In 1865 she commissioned the building of Gwenffrwd Woollen Mill on the Llanover estate near Abergavenny. The mill carried out all operations for woollen production and produced heavy flannel cloth that was made into clothes for the house and estate workers to wear.

Harpist's Costume from the Llanover Estate

Material from the mill was also made into clothes for lady Llanover and her friends styled on her own ideas of Welsh traditional Costume. The mill continued in production until the 1950s using equipment installed by Lady Llanover.

Worker at Gwenffrwd Woollen Mill

The National Wool Museum in Drefach Felindre is home to a comprehensive collection of tools and machinery involved throughout history in the processing of woollen fleece into cloth. It also holds the national flat textile collection and the best collection of Welsh Woollen blankets with documented providence dating back to the 1850s. These range from large double cloth tapestry blankets that are now very collectable, to plain white single utility blankets from WWII. In this blog, Mark Lucas, Curator of the Woollen Industry Collection for Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, shares his knowledge of the heritage of Welsh blankets and some fine examples from this important collection.

 

Welsh Blankets traditionally formed part of the bottom draw for Welsh brides. A pair of Welsh blankets was also commonly given as a wedding gift. The would have travelled great distances with people moving during the Industrial Revolution looking for work, but wanting to keep a small piece of home with them. Thus, Welsh blankets have found their way across the world, adding a touch of homely aesthetic to a room by day and providing warmth at night.

 

Narrow Width Blankets

Narrow Width Blanket - two narrow lengths stitched together.

Narrow width blankets were the earliest, woven on a single loom. They were made of two narrow widths hand sewn together to form a larger blanket. Single loom blankets of this type were the norm before the turn of the twentieth century when the introduction of the double loom enabled the weaving of broader widths of fabric. However, many of the smaller mills, as well as individual weavers, did not convert to wider looms and, as a result, narrow-loom blankets continued to be produced in significant quantities during the 1920s, 30s and even later.

 

Plaid Blankets

Plaid Blanket

Plaids were popular during the nineteenth century, usually featuring strong colours against a natural cream background. The introduction of synthetic dyes in the late 19th century allowed weavers to mix more coloured yarns into the designs, although some colour combinations were subtle, others could be gaudy. Many smaller mills continued the use of natural dyes well into the 20th century. The natural dyes were made from madder and cochineal for reds, woad and indigo for blues, and various berries and lichens for other shades. The National Wool Museum has its own natural dye garden and hosts courses and talks throughout the year on natural dyeing

 

Tapestry Blankets

Tapestry Blanket

Welsh Tapestry is the term applied to double cloth woven blankets, producing a pattern on both sides that is reversible and is the icon of the Welsh woollen industry. Examples of Welsh tapestry blankets survive from the eighteenth century and a pattern book from 1775 by William Jones of Holt in Denbighshire, shows many different examples of tapestry patterns. Double cloth was first used to make blankets, but its success as a product for sale to tourists in the 1960s led to its use as clothing, placemats, coasters, bookmarkers, tea cozies, purses, handbags and spectacle cases. Because of the hardwearing quality of the double cloth weave the material has also been used for reversible rugs and carpeting.

 

Honeycomb blankets

Honeycomb Blanket

Honeycomb blankets are a mixture of bright and soft colours. As the name implies the surface is woven to produce deep square waffle effect giving the blanket a honeycomb appearance. This type of weave produces a blanket that is warm and light.

With the current resurgence of Welsh blankets for a decorative home-style item there is much interest in old blankets and the designs patterns. Antique blankets have become very popular with interior designers and feature heavily in home décor magazines. They are used as throws and bed coverings in modern homes with many high-end textile designers as well as students researching old patterns for inspiration for their new designs.

Caernarfon Blanket

Many of the fine examples in the Museums’ blanket collection come from mills across Wales that ceased production long ago. A highlight is the collection of Caernarfon Blankets. These were produced on Jacquard looms in a range of colourways. Only a few mills used Jacquard looms, which can make complicated designs and pictures. The Caernarfon blankets show two pictures one with Caernarfon Castle with the words CYMRU FU (Wales was) and a picture of Aberystwyth University with the words CYMRU FYDD (Wales Will Be). It is believed that these blankets were first been made in the 1860s, and last produced for the investiture of Prince Charles in 1969. A recent donation to the museum is an earlier example of the blanket featuring two images of Caernarfon castle. Woven by hand it contains a critical spelling error - Anglicising the name to Carnarvon.

 

Back in 1998, long before I started my current job as Senior Textile Conservator at St Fagans National Museum of History, I spent two work experience placements at the museum, helping my predecessor Clare Stoughton-Harris.  I had just started on my 3-year post-grad course in Textile Conservation the previous year.  The course was based in apartments within Hampton Court Palace.  I saw an ad for a placement at St Fagans on the Centre’s noticeboard and decided to apply. A few weeks later, I found myself driving over to Cardiff to start my placement.

My first stint was for 3 weeks, over the Easter Holidays.  The work mainly consisted of preparing St Fagans castle for re-opening after refurbishment, so it involved a lot of surface cleaning, but we also got around to wet cleaning a carpet.  The image shows Clare sponging the carpet in the detergent bath in the studio. 

When I came back in the summer, my project was to improve the storage conditions of the shoe collection.  Most shoes were stored on open shelving, with several pairs stacked on top of each other.  Some were not wrapped at all and were gathering dust, and others were wrapped in yellowed newspaper as you can see in the 2 pictures below.  That’s me, unwrapping and examining some children’s shoes!

As they were, the shoes were also very inaccessible as it was impossible to know which pair was wrapped in each bundle of tissue paper.  So I remember assembling endless flat pack boxes and re-packing the shoes… so here they were in their lovely new storage boxes:

Once the contents of the Old Costume Store moved into the Collection Centre at St Fagans in 2008, the project was improved upon by adding thumbnail images of each pair, clearly attached to the outside of the box, so here they are in their current configuration!

From 1998, it took another 7 years, and jobs with the National Trust, in Norfolk, a private studio in Dublin and 2 years at the British Museum before I was became the Senior Textile Conservator at Amgueddfa Cymru. Now I have the occasional pleasure of overseeing students myself and can return the favour of giving them the chance to expand their experience and help them along their career path!

 

Recently, we’ve been privileged to accept a fabulous new accession into our collection.  It is a set of three silk garments which belonged to Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 4th Baronet, who lived between 1749 and 1789.  He owned vast areas of land in Wales, was active in politics and was a great patron of the arts.  You can find out more about him here:

Image of painting of Watkin Williams-Wynn from our 'Collections Online'
Small pastel portrait from the museum's collections

As part of Sir Watkin’s lavish lifestyle came an opulent wardrobe.  The garments we have acquired are a matching set of waistcoat and breeches made from grey silk, woven with silver metal thread, silk embroidery and metal thread trim,

F2019.21.1 waistcoat Watkin Williams-Wynn

F2019.21.1 waistcoat, detail of buttons, embroidery and metal thread weave

F2019.21.2 breeches Watkin Williams-Wynn

F2019.21.2 breeches, metal trim

F2019.21.2 breeches, button

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

as well as an embroidered waistcoat of flamboyantly pink satin. 

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat Watkin Williams-Wynn

 All three items have passed through the Textile Conservation Studio over the last few weeks to record the garments’ construction, materials, and condition, before packing them up to go into storage.  The grey set of waistcoat and breeches were in remarkably good condition, but I was worried about the embroidery on the pink waistcoat.  The embroidery consists of undulating bands of white net which covers small florets made of paper.  The bands run down both sides of the centre front and across the lower edge as well as across the pocket flaps.  Other embroidery features are foliage and blossoms made from chenille thread and mauve ribbon-worked rosette flower heads. 


The white net is made from silk which has been coated with a stiffening agent.  This stiffening agent has made the net brittle and the yarns have cracked in many places resulting in areas of loss and loose areas.  Those loose remains of the net were vulnerable to snagging and abrasion and I was afraid that further pieces would break off and become lost.  Equally, the paper flowers that lay underneath and were formerly protected by the net were now exposed and also at risk of damage or loss through accidentally brushing against them.  As it was, a number of petals had pulled away from the stitches that held them in place and had curled up and become creased and distorted, with several petals and some entire flowers becoming lost. 


To protect the fragile areas I decided to apply an overlay of very fine white Nylon net.  This net does not disturb the aesthetics of the embroidery while at the same time providing protection to the vulnerable net and paper underneath.  Before I could start, however, I had to humidify the paper petals to re-shape them and arrange them in their correct position. For this, I dampened the paper with deionised water applied with a fine paint brush.  Once it was wet, the paper was pliable and creases could be removed.  To apply the net overlay I stitched it in place with small running stitches using a thin white silk organzine thread.  I used a curved needle as the garment had to remain flat on the table (to avoid unnecessary movement).  It’s only now that it has been conserved that the waistcoat is strong enough to go into storage.

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat vulnerable areas before conservation

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat, detail of applying net overlay using silk thread

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat after application of net overlay - now protected and safe for storage

There was something else that was interesting about the waistcoat: The rear panel is made from tabby woven cotton fabric and the lower section is made of cream silk.  As it is now, the seam allowances are facing outwards and raw edges are visible.  It is not unusual that areas of the garment that aren’t on view are made from less expensive materials and that the stitching might not be as carefully executed as on the visible areas, however, the current configuration and some indication of previous stitch holes suggests that the waistcoat would have had an outer back panel and what is visible currently, is simply the back section of the lining.  There is therefore a strong indication that the waistcoat may have been altered and the original back getting lost in the process.

F2019.21.3  pink waistcoat, back panel

 

The early 18th century court mantua from Tredegar House is perhaps the most well-known dress in the collection of Amgueddfa Cymru. Donated to the Museum in 1923 by Lord Tredegar, the mantua is currently on show in the Wales is… gallery at St Fagans.

Last year, we commissioned Kate Barlow – a maker and needlework teacher, originally from Mold – to replicate a motif from mantua’s heavily embroidered petticoat. This beautifully crafted tactile piece is now on display alongside the dress in the gallery. Here, Kate explains how she went about replicating the motif, and how she became a professional embroiderer.

Can you tell me how you got into embroidery?

From a very early age, I always loved to draw and paint and make things. My Nan was the kind of lady who could do all kinds of crafty things and she taught me to sew and to do embroidery. I went on to study Theatre Design at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and specialised in costume. I worked for a few years as a freelance costume maker and then joined the wardrobe department at the Welsh National Opera. I stayed with WNO for nearly eight years and loved my job very much, but I missed being creative. I decided to take the plunge and re-train as a professional embroiderer and tutor at the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace. After three years of intensive training, I graduated with distinction in 2016 and haven’t looked back since.

How did you go about replicating the motif from the mantua – what were the steps/processes involved?

I chose a motif from the original mantua that would make sense on its own and work well as a stand-alone piece. I then chose threads and wires that replicated the originals as closely as possible, and sourced a teal coloured silk satin as the ground fabric. 

To transfer the motif to the silk, the design was drawn onto tracing paper and tiny holes were pricked along the lines with a needle to create the ‘pricking’. The tracing paper was then pinned to the silk which had been laced into an embroidery frame. Pounce powder made from ground charcoal and cuttlefish bone was rubbed through the holes of the pricking and the paper removed. Excess pounce was blown away and the dotted lines were painted over using watercolour paint, a fine paintbrush and a very steady hand! Once the painted lines are dry the stitching can start. 

Goldwork embroidery has to be worked in a certain order, with any padding being done first. Then the check thread and smooth passing threads are couched down, any loose ends are ‘plunged’ through to the back of the work and stitched down. The cutwork is always stitched last as it is quite fragile. Wire check and smooth purl resemble tiny springs and are made from very fine wires. These can be cut to the right lengths and stitched down in the same way as a bead. The thread used to stitch the goldwork down is always run through beeswax to protect and strengthen it. Goldwork threads, particularly cutwork, can be quite sharp and can damage the sewing thread. The beeswax helps to prevent this.

How long did it take you from start to finish?

From choosing the motif to taking the final stitches, the whole process took over 15 hours. 

Do you have any thoughts on the design and skill level of the embroidery on the mantua?

The mantua is made from silk damask which would have been costly on its own, but the amount of metal thread embroidery would have made it a very expensive purchase when new. The mantua would definitely have made a statement when it was worn, the embroidery would have truly sparkled, especially in candlelight. The embroidery would have been done by an experienced craftsman. Working with metal threads is very different from other embroidery techniques and requires a great deal of skill. 

Do you have a favourite embroidery technique or a favourite period in embroidery history?

I don’t really have a favourite embroidery technique, but I really like the effects that can be created with blackwork. Black threads on white linen can look stunning. I’m bit of a magpie and love anything that sparkles. I like using goldwork techniques with coloured metal threads and wires. I also love the stumpwork that was stitched in the late 1600s and early 1700s. The level of detail, the fineness of the stitching, the figures and motifs are all fascinating. The skill involved can be exceptional, particularly when there was no artificial light to help.

What does embroidery give to you? How does it make you feel?

There are endless possibilities with embroidery. Beautiful things can be created with just a needle and thread. There are so many different techniques, I feel like there is always something new to learn and always room for improvement. I really enjoy recreating historical embroidery. Most of the techniques and tools used in hand embroidery haven’t changed much in hundreds of years and stitching period designs gives a little window into the lives of stitchers past.