9 February


While I want to pay homage to (and conserve in motion) traditional domestic handicraft techniques used for textile and fashion design, I do not simply want to create reproductions. My practice is about drawing inspiration from time-honoured craftsmanship to produce work which reflects my aesthetic, my time, my place. So far my research concerning the work of other artisans (a word which I feel encompasses not only professional ‘artists’ but domestic/utilitarian ‘crafts’-people also) has tended to fall into five main categories:

  • my own personal ‘family heirloom’ collection of worked linens, laces, collars, christening gowns (with smocking, tatting, crochet and embroidery), mainly produced in the late 19th and early 20th century – I am also looking at similar work produced by women outside my family;
  • details in historical garments in museum collections (predominantly 18th to 19th century);
  • textile practitioner’s from the British Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century;
  • embroidery, construction and form from the ‘Golden Age’ of couture (first half of the 20th century);
  • the use of domestic craft techniques in contemporary couture collections.


Embroidery and appliqué experienced a revival in Scotland in the early later 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, many critics consider this the period in which embroidery was most creative (and thus artistically valued) in Britain (The Textile Blog 2009). Although few embroidery artists were taken seriously and the medium was considered to be one of the ‘lesser’ decorative arts, a small number of practitioners achieved critical acclaim. I am particularly interested in the work of two women, who were prominent artists in this movement, Margaret MacDonald, Jessie Newbery, Helen Lamb and Ann Macbeth.

Having studied at the Glasgow Margaret MacDonald collaborated with her sister Frances and later her husband Charles Mackintosh, who was an architect. Like many of her contemporaries, Macdonald worked across many design mediums including metalwork, embroidery, textile graphics and painting (Parry 2005, 76). Prior to the popularity of postmodern multi-media, Macdonald creatively employed various mediums simultaneously. For example, White Rose Red Rose is painted gesso on hessian with glass beads.

White Rose and Red Rose, Margaret MacDonald, 1902

Jessie Newbery (1864-1948) studied at the Glasgow School of Art and later married its Principal, Francis Newbery. She often used appliqués with heavy linen and cotton fabrics and minimal stitching. Many works featured her characteristic motif of circular rose and lettering. Newbery’s pieces were published in The Studio (fine and decorative arts magazine), exhibited regularly and are now held in V & A collections (Parry 2005, 140).

Jessie Newbery, linen appliqé cushion cover, c. 1900

Helen Lamb was an illustrator and embroiderer who also studied at the Glasgow School of Art. Her diversity is exemplified by a collection held in the Dunblane Cathedral, which features prayer book illustrations, illuminated hangings, glass etchings and textiles (The Textile Blog 2009).

Helen Lamb, embroidery panel, 1909

Ann Macbeth studied at the Glasgow School of Art and was appointed head of embroidery in 1911 (The Textile Blog, 2009). She also exhibited regularly, published embroidery books and designed textiles for Liberty’s, Donald Brothers of Dundee and the Knox Linen Thread Company (Parry 2005, 134). Many of her works are held in the V & A collection. I am particular attracted to her appliqué and embroidery on satin works, which featured women reminiscent of the romantic muses which inspired Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painters (Rossetti, Millais, Waterhouse etc.).

The Sleeping Beauty, Ann Macbeth, 1902


Ann Macbeth, c. 1910


Bocca Baciata, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1859


Ophelia, John Everett Milais, 1852


Circe Invidiosa, John William Waterhouse, 1892




With a passion for perfection in finish, fit, construction and detail, I am inspired by the romantic notion of couture. I wish to produce a collection which pays homage to domestic arts through applying them to grandiose couture designs. Charles Frederick Worth is often credited as the founder of couture, “unifying design and fabrication under one roof”, when he opened his atelier in 1858 (Wilcox 2007, 12). Worth championed a fashion culture where a garment could be recognisable as the work of a particular individual (Rennolds 1985, 10). The Golden Age of Couture refers to the first half of the 20th century, the height of the haute couture industry. At this time regulations were established to restrict the number of ateliers, which legitimately produced ‘haute couture’. Requirements for membership of the Chambre Syndicale (Couture houses) included a ‘suitable’ Paris premises, 75 or more designs in each collection, an ability to show twice per year (Spring and Autum), offering 3 fittings at each stage and 20 full-time employees (Palmer 2007, 66). Hence, although my work could never technically be considered couture, I wish to emanate some of the production qualities associated with couture.


While domestic textile crafts are often represented as kitsch or ‘twee’ in serious fashion contexts, there is an established relationship between the mythic designers and textile crafts-people: “the makers of the cloth and embroidery feel that they have contributed to the couturier’s creation. And his imagination has undoubtedly been influenced by their suggestions” (Bertin in Wilcox 2007, 14). During the Golden Age, the most notable embroidery ateliers were Lesage, Rébé, Vermont and Brossin de Méré (Palmer 2007, 74).


Leasge embroidery on Lanvin dress, 1957


With regard to form, Dior’s flower inspiration parallels my interest in botanical illustrations. However, my floral appropriation differs significantly from his approach. Christian Dior (cited in Miller 2007, 39) reflected: “I designed clothes for flower-like women, with rounded shoulders, full feminine busts, and hand-span waists above enormous spreading skirts”. Such a restrictive, constrained notion of the flower form seems deeply at odds my concept of nature. In terms of fashion kinetics, I feel far greater affinity with Chanel (cited in Miller 2007, 40), who wrote in the 1950s, “elegance in clothes means freedom to move freely”. Nonetheless, Chanel’s minimalist androgynous aesthetic does not resonate with my design sense. Ideally, I would like to produce a collection which presents a new notion of femininity in fashion. Just as I wish to celebrate the inherent femininity of domestic arts – a challenge to feminist art theorists who perpetuate devaluation of detail, delicacy and personalism (Anscombe 1984; Araujo 2010; Buckley 1986; Parker in Callen 1989) – I want to appropriate flowers (which have almost become a feminine cliché) in fresh (excuse the pun), free, organic and altogether more natural forms.


I find Cristóbal Balenciaga’s innovation in form particularly inspiring. While Dior relied on two highly structured silhouettes, the ‘Corolle’ (corolla) and ‘Fuseau’ (spindle), Balenciaga “had no need for a framework…which he believed straightjacked the woman” (Join-Diéterie 2007, 150). Rennolds Milbank (1985, 319) made me conscious of the reasoning behind my admiration of Balenciaga: his designs neither flow from the body’s form (like Chanel and Vionet) nor “change the shape of a woman’s body; they celebrate the shape without actually mirroring it”. Furthermore, Balenciaga was a designer maker, recognising the relationship between artistic/conceptual design and the physicality of making, which for me are inseparable. Balenciaga made all his own toiles, exhibiting “incredible integrity and self-allegiance, a fidelity to art as much as craft” (Rennolds Milbank 1985, 320).


Cristóbal Balenciaga




My appropriation of domestic art techniques within a couture context is by no means a complete innovation. Many some contemporary designers have also drawn on domestic detailing, for example the honeycomb smocking in Givenchy’s SS 2007 collection.


Honeycomb smocking at Givenchy SS 2007




Join-Diéterie, C. 2007. Dior and Balenciaga: A Different Approach to the Body.in Wilcox. C. (ed.) 2007. The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-57. London: V & A Publications: 139-154.


Miller, L. 2007. Perfect Harmony: Textile Manufacturers and Haute Couture 1947-57. in Wilcox. C. (ed.) 2007. The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-57. London: V & A Publications: 29-60.


Palmer, A, 2007. Inside Paris Haute Couture. in Wilcox. C. (ed.) 2007. The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-57. London: V & A Publications: 63-86.


Parry, L. 2005. Textiles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. London: Thames and Hudson.


Rennolds Milbank, C. 1985. Couture: The Great Designers. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.


The Textile Blog. 2009. Ann Macbeth and Applique Design. http://thetextileblog.blogspot.com/2009/02/ann-macbeth-and-applique-design.html (accessed 20 January, 2011).


The Textile Blog. 2009. Embroidery by Helen A Lamb. http://thetextileblog.blogspot.com/2011/01/embroidery-by-helen-lamb.html (accessed 20 January, 2011).


The Textile Blog. 2009. Jessie Newbery and Embroidery. http://thetextileblog.blogspot.com/2008/10/jessie-newberry-and-embroidery.html (accessed 20 January, 2011).


Wilcox. C. (ed.) 2007. The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-57. London: V & A Publications.


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