It turns out the British National Needlework Archive is 10 minutes from my house. It turns out I drive past it every day amongst the run down building of the converted Greenham Common Airbase – now an industrial park on the outskirts of my home town Newbury. Turns out someone my mum knows arranged for a Quaker Tapestry to come down from its permanent base in Kendal to have a special exhibition at the archive. With all those coincidences, even though tapestry hasn’t ever really been a particular interest of mine – overwhelming curiosity took me and my mum on a visit to the archive this weekend.
I am so glad I did – This place is awesome! The building is a little odd, it’s a converted chapel and I’m pretty sure I did kung fu there when I was a teenager for a few weeks…but inside now it is a real Aladdin’s cave with amazing works of textile art. There’s a library with knitting and sewing magazines archived back to 1900…there’s a small haberdashers with a stock of quilting cotton and there’s a room for workshops and two exhibition spaces, as well as a little tea room. It’s all run by volunteers.
They also run textile art competitions which I find really exciting – I have made quite a few fabric pictures and love doing stuff like that but finding sufficient inspiration to make me realise I do have the time and it is worth doing is difficult. Having a competition to work on would be fantastic. Watch this space! The next one is the ‘Poetry in stitches’ competition so I’m going to investigate that when the details are realeased.
I found the Quaker tapestry a little confusing at first, it’s in a very traditional style (I mean 17th century traditional) but it was only made from 1981 – 1996. I couldn’t help thinking it if I had done it I would have gone for something a bit more modern. It charts the story of Quakers up to modern times. It’s interesting and some of the needle work was wonderful, I found the depictions of modern life (peace protests etc) the most interesting, because it contrasted with the overall style.
The Country wife by Constance Howard
This totally blew me away – I am besotted with it, I can’t believe it has been just down the road for so long and I never knew! Made for the 1951 festival of Britain this wall hanging depicts the life of a countrywife in the 1950’s, it’s like a Stanley Spencer painting, only made almost entirely from fabric, embroidery and raw edge appliqué. Mary Quant worked on this when she was a student of Constance Howard’s. What you can’t see from the picture is that this wall hanging is huge – maybe 4 meters by 3 meters, and a lot of the figures are 3D, partially stuffed with 3D props in their beautifully crafted hands. The faces were all done by Constance herself and the style of the faces is strikingly 1950’s (not to mention the clothing – those hats!).
The hanging is being painstakingly cleaned and conserved by local volunteers, I was so captivated that I put my name down. They are trained by a textile conservationist and have been slowly cleaning the fabric and documenting its condition for the last 3 years.
All in all it’s a funny little place but charming and I will definitely go there again, hopefully to do a bit of conservation myself.