Amgueddfa Blog: Textiles

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.

The Cardiff 2018 National Eisteddfod Chair is sponsored by Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales to the celebrate 70th birthday of St Fagans National Museum of History.

St Fagans has championed crafts in Wales since it opened in 1948, and sponsoring the chair for the National Eisteddfod in 2018 is a fitting celebration, which continues the Museum’s tradition of supporting Welsh craft and makers.

Chris Williams had the honour of designing and making the 2018 Chair. He lives in Pentre and has a workshop and gallery in Ynyshir, Rhondda - he works as a sculptor and is a member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors.

Elements of the chair were made at St Fagans National History Museum in a purpose built building, Gweithdy. This is a brand new sustainable building celebrating the skills of makers past and present - where visitors of all ages can experience traditional craft skills first-hand.

At Gweithdy, Chris demonstrated and shared the process of making the chair with visitors – a first in the history of making the National Eisteddfod chair.

Swipe, or tap the circles below as Chris explains the process of making the iconic Eisteddfod chair:

  • From the Hearth to the Stage

    The 2018 Eisteddfod Chair, through the eyes of its maker

  • The Inspiration

    The 2018 Eisteddfod Chair is inspired by Welsh stick chairs like this one, pictured at Cilewent Farmhouse at St Fagans.

  • Celebrating Welsh Makers

    This Welsh carthen, or blanket, was chosen for its beautiful repeating pattern - becoming the main motif for the chair

  • The rough materials - elm and ash - arriving at the workshop in Pentre

  • I designed the chair in Rhino 3D, so I could have an accurate model. This enabled me to take dimensions, to create jigs and templates for shaping the arms, spindles and legs

  • The seat and back are made from the same elm tree. Sanding the wood reveals the grain, and reveals any defects in the timber that need to be sanded away

  • I shaped the seat with a scorp and cabinet scraper at Gweithdy workshop at St Fagans. It was nice to share this experience of making the chair with the public

  • The seat and back were then engraved using a Co2 laser engraver - thank you to Caerphilly council for letting me use the engraver! The elaborate pattern was inspired by a blanket woven at Esgair Moel woollen mill in the 1960s. The mill (and the blanket) is now at St Fagans museum.

  • The clamping operation was complex and required a number of sash clamps to control the pressure

  • The text on the arms was also engraved with the laser engraver. This was done on a flat piece of ash which was laminated to the curved arms with many, many G clamps

  • Gluing the legs into place

  • Getting closer... The back is mortised into the seat

  • The arms are cut around the back to create a unique join, and glued into place. Then, the spindles are fitted with wedges, to be cleaned when the glue has dried

  • And here's the finished article - the 2018 Eisteddfod chair. Good luck to all the competitors!

The Museums Association Conference of 1948 was held at National Museum Cardiff over five days, running from July 12th to the 16th. All conference meetings were held in the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre, while an area within the Zoology Department was used as Association Office, Writing Room and Smoke Room.

We know the majority of host duties would have been carried out by Frederick J. North, who was Keeper of Geology and Archibald H. Lee, Museum Secretary, because they are listed on the programme as Honorary Local Secretaries. It is most likely we have them to thank for the ephemera held in the Library, including copies of the programme, associate and staff badges, reception invites, day trip tickets and the official group photograph, taken on the steps of the Museum.

The first day of the conference began with registration, followed by a Council meeting and visit to Cardiff Castle and a reception at the South Wales Institute of Engineers in the evening. The programme states this event as requiring Morning dress code which, during this time period would be a three piece suit for the men, and smart day dresses for the women, or general smart clothing suitable for formal social events.

The second day began with official welcomes by the Lord Mayor of Cardiff, Alderman R. G. Robinson, and the President of the National Museum Wales, Sir Leonard Twiston-Davies. This was followed by a number of papers read by delegates [all fully listed in the programme], gathering for the official conference photograph, and a Civic Reception at City Hall, hosted by the Lord Mayor [with refreshments, music and dancing].

1948 was the year that St Fagans National Museum of History was first opened to the public as the St Fagans Folk Museum and to mark this, a visit was arranged for the afternoon of day three. St Fagans Castle, gardens, and grounds had been given to the National Museum Wales by the Earl of Plymouth in 1946 and over the next two years extensive work had been carried out to make it suitable to open to the public. According to the 1950 St Fagans guide book, in the Castle, new central heating, electric lighting, and fire appliances had to be installed along with a tickets office, refreshment room and public amenities. By 1948 our delegates would have had access to the Castle and its newly refurbished historic interiors such as the kitchen with two 16th century fireplaces, the Hall furnished in 17th century style, 17th and 18th century bedrooms and the early 19th century Library. They would also have enjoyed walking the gardens which included a mulberry grove, herb and rose gardens, vinery, fishponds, and flower-house interspersed with bronze sculptures by Sir William Goscombe John. Onsite also were a traditional wood-turner and a basket-maker, creating and selling their wares. The handbook also describes a delightful sounding small tea room with curtains made at the Holywell Textile Mills and watercolour paintings by Sir Frank Brangwyn. However, according to a Western Mail clipping, this didn’t open to the public until some weeks later on August 24th. Presumably a room within the Castle itself was used for the delegates’ buffet tea to which they were treated after being greeted by the Curator of St Fagans, Dr Iorwerth Peate.

Interestingly the programme provides times of the train service that ran from Cardiff Central Station to St Fagans. Sadly, the station at St Fagans is no longer there, the service being withdrawn in 1962, although a signal box and level crossing on the line remain.

The Annual General Meeting, Council Meeting and Federation of Officers Meeting  were all held on the next day along with more papers, including one by Mr Duncan Guthrie [of the Arts Council], on the upcoming “Festival of Britain, 1951”. There was also an evening reception in the Museum hosted by the President, and the then Director [Sir Cyril Fox], with refreshments and music by the City of Cardiff High School for Girls Orchestra. The programme states evening dress if possible for this event so it’s a shame we don’t hold any photographs of what would have been a sea of tuxedos and evening gowns.

The final day consisted of further papers in the morning followed by escape and fresh air with visits to the Newport Corporation Museum and the Legionary Museum and Roman Amphitheatre at Caerleon during the afternoon.

The September 1948 issue of Museums Journal contains a full report on the conference, with detailed examination of all papers presented and the discussions they generated. It also lists the delegates including those from overseas. The report concludes with thanks to the National Museum Cardiff for the welcome and hospitality accorded to the 240 delegates, with special mention to North and Lee [who would certainly have earned their salaries over those five days!].

Forget Raindrops on roses, you can keep your whiskers on kittens…

With such varied collections that we have in the museum I can’t help noticing some fabulous objects.

Thanks to players of People’s Postcode Lottery, we have had funding so we can enhance records and add images for you to view in Collections Online, soon you’ll be able to search the museum catalogue and discover your own favourite things.

These are a few of my favourites:

Image in chalk pastel on paper of Welsh rugby player scoring a try against the All Blacks

The Try that Beat the All Blacks by Frank Gillett (1874 – 1927)

What a fabulous picture this is! (I may be a little biased). This picture shows the first ever test match between the Wales and New Zealand rugby teams in 1905. Wales won 3 – 0 (a try was only worth 3 points in those days rather than 5 points as it is now).

Seated figurine of a mouse holding a disc

Roman copper alloy figurine of a mouse

This lovely little mouse (only 3cm high) was found in Loughor, or Leucarum as the Romans knew it. Is it nibbling some cheese, or has it found a biscuit somewhere?

Locomotive painted bright yellow and black

Electric locomotive

It might look like something from Thunderbirds, but this is an electric locomotive used in Glamorgan Haematite Iron Ore Mine (Llanharry Iron Ore Mine) from the 1960s. These locomotives replaced the use of horses for haulage in the mine.

Section of blue damask fabric with intricate silver thread embroidery.

Detail of the silver thread embroidery on the court mantua. 

This shows detail of a dress from the 1720s. This is a very grand court dress (known as a mantua) which would have been worn for presentation at court by Lady Rachel Morgan the wife of Sir William Morgan of Tredegar House. Just look at the incredibly detailed embroidered silver thread on silk damask. The best thing about it I think, is that it was altered during the 19th century by one of Lady Rachel’s descendants, probably to wear as fancy dress! The dress will be on display in the new galleries at St Fagans National Museum of History in the autumn of 2018.

Jug with a cut out trellis-like design of circles and lozenges at the top, with a ring around neck from which protrude three bulbous spouts.

Puzzle jug made by the Cambrian Pottery c. 1800

What’s the puzzle about this puzzle jug? Try and pour from it, and you’ll end up with beer all over the place. To find out how these were made, and importantly, how you’d use it, check out this video by the V&A museum.

If you want to see more of the collections you can explore online or come and visit one of our museums. Not all of our items are on display, so before you make a special trip to see something specific, check that it’s on display first.

People's Postcode Lottery Logo

 

I am an artist, studying for an MA degree in contemporary design craft, specifically the sculptural potential of prosthetic limbs. My visit to the Mollusca collection occurred after I came across a blog about the interior structure of shells on the museum website, and I made the connection between the interior structure of shells and how 3-D printers work and correct form. On the blog there was a contact number for the Curator of Mollusca, so I contacted Harriet Wood, not knowing what to expect in response.

Photograph of cross-section of 3D printed cube, showing internal supporting structure
Internal structure of 3D printed object © Matthew Day 2017

Looking inside shells - shell sections

When I explained my work on prosthetics to Harriet, and the connections with the interior structure of shells and 3-D printing she seemed very excited and invited me to come down, and also offered to introduce me to the person who runs a photography lab who uses 3-D printing and scanning for the museum.

Going Behind the Scenes

I could not have imagined it could have gone as well as it did. I met Harriet at the information desk of the museum and we then headed behind-the-scenes, where the collection is kept. Walking around the museum to get out back was really nice and modern. It reminded me of an academic journal I read not long before my visit, from the International Journal of the Inclusive Museum: ‘How Digital Artist Engagement Can Function as an Open Innovation Model to Facilitate Audience Encounters with Museum Collections’ in the  by Sarah Younan and Haitham Eid. 

photo showing a large cabinet full of specimen drawers
Some of the archives at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

Behind the scenes at the museum was quite a special environment - generally the general public are not allowed access unless arranged. It was a great privilege to be walking through rooms and rooms full of shells that people over the years have discovered and appreciated for their beauty. What was really fascinating was how the shells had been cut so perfectly. The cut shells looked almost as if this was their natural state – the way they were cut blended in so well with the form of the shell. This is what I wanted to see.

Black and white photograph showing a selection of shell sections
Shell sections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

I was speechless when I saw these collections of shells – especially seeing that part we’re not supposed to see. It was really exciting to see interior structure revealed by the cut, as it added a whole new value to the shells. They really reminded me of work by the the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, whose work I really admire.

black and white photograph showing a single conical shell, cut to show its internal spiral structure
© Matthew Day 2017

We see shells all the time on beaches and they just fascinate me, especially the broken ones which reveal part of the interior. It’s a very imperfect break, very different to the quality of the shell which has been sliced purposely to reveal what is inside. A natural object sculpted by man: I feel that this is what I am drawn to.

3D Scanning: Art and Science

Before examining the shells myself, Harriet offered to take me down to see Jim Turner, where we ended up spending most of my visit because what he did was just very interesting. Jim works in a lab which uses a photography process called “z-Stacking” (or extended depth of field – EDF) which is used extensively in macro photography and photo microscopy.

Jim is also creating an archive of 3D scanned objects for the museum website, where people can interact with scanned objects using VR headsets - bringing a whole new experience to the museum.

I understood what he was doing immediately from my own work. He explained the process and I understood the technicalities. It was a real pleasure to speak to someone who is using 3-D scanning in a different way to me. Jim is using 3D scanning in a way that was described within academic texts I had read - and even though he wasn’t doing anything creative with shells, he was still putting the objects into a context where people could interact with them using digital technology such as VR headsets, and on the web via sketchfab.

'Like being on a beach...'

When we got back to the Mollusca Collection I was able to take my own time and was under no pressure - so I got to have a good look and explored the shells. It was like being on a beach spending hours of exploring all wonderful natural objects.

black and white photograph showing a single conical shell, cut to show its internal spiral structure
© Matthew Day 2017

This visit had an amazing impact on my MA project - and I cannot thank Harriet and Jim enough for their time. This visit also gave me the confidence to approach other museums, such as Worcester Medical Museum, where I worked with a prosthetic socket from their collection. I 3D scanned the socket and, with the inspiration from Harriet’s collection of Mollusca, I created a selection of Sculptural Prosthetic sockets, drawing inspiration from the internal structures of shells, and illustrating sections of the shells that I was most drawn to. 

'A sculpture in its own right': my collection of sculptural prosthetics

Side by side photographs showing a sculptural prosthetic sock and a shell section. The prosthetic is shaped to emulate the internal structure of the shell.
Prototype conceptual prosthetic sock sculpture inspired by National Museum Cardiff's Mollusca collection © Matthew Day 2017

photo showing a black sculptural prosthetic socket with a yellow decoration
Prototype prosthetic sock sculpture inspired by National Museum Cardiff's Mollusca collection © Matthew Day 2017
photo showing a grey sculptural prosthetic socket with a yellow decoration
3D printed, fabric dyed prosthetic sculptural socket, inspired by the Mollusca collections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

photograph showing prosthetic socket with a large yellow decoration shaped like a round shell
3D printed, fabric dyed prosthetic sculptural socket, inspired by the Mollusca collections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

 

What’s next?

My MA is now reaching a climax, and I am starting the final major project module after the summer, which I am very excited about.

For the final part of my studies, I want to take all that I have explored and incorporated into my research to date, and use it to create a concept prosthetic limb which would be wearable, but also a sculpture in its own right – work which is now on track.

3D illustration of a design for a prosthetic leg, with decorations inspired by the internal structure of shells
Concept design of prosthetic sculptural leg, inspired by the Mollusca collections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

I aim to create a really spectacular prosthetic limb using 3D printing, further incorporating the shell-inspired aesthetics you see in this blog.

More of my work can be found on my website: Matthew Day Sculpture