The Art of Ayrshire Needlework

The Art of Ayrshire Needlework tells the story of the origins, heyday and the 1950s and 60s revival of this embroidery tradition. On display are baby robes, bonnets, tools of the trade and examples of contemporary work gathered from the collections of both East and South Ayrshire Council's museums and private collections in the region. The exhibition has toured several museums in Ayrshire throughout 2006 / 07 and is now available to view online. It has been supported by the Embroiderers' Guild and Dean Castle Textile Team.


At the beginning of the 18th Century, Ayrshire's population was predominantly rural. The way of life of the country people had not changed significantly since the middle-ages. The land which they occupied, supplied all of their needs and provided a surplus which paid their rent. A town like Kilmarnock provided a market for the sale of local agricultural produce and the townspeople engaged in craft industries such as knife making and bonnet making. But, change was in the air. As the century progressed, towns were growing. New agricultural practices meant that fewer people were needed to produce more food. New villages were planned as country people left the land. The Earl of Loudoun created Darvel in 1752 and the men there, made a living by weaving. 

In order to stimulate Scotland's economy, the government encouraged farmers to grow the flax from which linen is made. Coarse linen cloth was exported from the west of Scotland to America in ships whose return cargo was tobacco. Towards the end of the 18th Century cotton was being imported in large quantities and the weavers turned their skills to this new fibre. Fashions had changed. Elaborately structured gown with hoops and stays of whalebone were 'out' and looser, simpler garments were now 'in'. Fine, cotton muslin was the new sought after fabric. By 1810 there were 6000 cotton muslin weavers in Ayrshire! 

Although the simple whiteness of muslin was valued, decoration was also desired. The looms which produced the fabric were unable to perform the complex functions required to include patterns in the weave. The answer was hand sewing - white embroidery on white cotton muslin. In many parts of the west of Scotland, village girls and farmer's daughters learned needlework skills brought in from continental Europe. They supplemented the family's income by satisfying the booming demand for white-on-white embroidery. In the 1840s the local minister reported 'The male inhabitants of Kilwinning are chiefly employed in weaving and mining, the females in sewing.' 
In the early decades of the 19th Century it was Ayrshire work which brought the highest price in the market. 

Looms began to be introduced which were capable of automatically introducing decoration into the weave. The middle of the 19th Century saw a slump in the cotton trade and fashions were changing. The high point of the art of Ayrshire needlework was coming to an end.


'Dream Stitcheries & Delicate Traceries' - Ann Macbeth 

In 1782 Luigi Ruffini, an Italian embroiderer, skilled in the art of Dresden work and tambouring, arrived in Edinburgh with an idea to set up in business. Fine linen lace was in great demand and yet there was no serious industry in Scotland. Lace was imported from Europe at great expense and was so precious that it was smuggled into the country. Around this time due to changes in ladies' fashion cotton began to take over. Ruffini had arrived at the perfect time. The skills needed for linen embroidery transferred themselves beautifully into this delicate 'new' material. Pulled stitches of Dresden work were used for 'sprigging' and the chain stitches of tambouring were used for flower sprays. The youngest girls worked on dotting. 

Linen and cotton were both ancient fabrics but cotton did not come to this country in any amount until the 17th century via the East India Companies. In Napoleonic times women's fashion changed to diaphanous high-waisted white embroidered muslin gowns. Such was the demand for this fairy fabric that 'flowering' muslin was taken up in many places but no more so than in the West of Scotland. Landowners were keen to promote this 'new' industry. Girls who would previously have been spinners turned to decorating muslin. 

In the early 19th century Lady Mary Montgomerie loaned a Mrs Jamieson of Ayr an exquisite baby robe that she had brought back from the Continent. This had been made by a Frenchwoman and was inset with lace stitches. Mrs Jamieson was an agent - a person who distributed plain muslin to home stitchers, ready stamped with patterns to be embroidered. She was also a needleworker. After copying the stitches on this baby robe, she taught her workers the method. This was the beginnings of what we now call 'Ayrshire Needlework'. Sewed muslin embellished with glorious needlepoint fillings. 

In Kilmarnock, the mother of Henrietta Scott (who owned Dean Castle and other areas of land around Ayrshire) employed the expertise of a Swiss gentleman, Mr. Halbick to develop muslin weaving and sewed and tamboured muslin in Kilmarnock and on the Cessnock Estate in Galston. 

Ayrshire Needlework was mainly produced at home, meaning a cottage with peat-burning hearth, open fire, candlelight and earth floors. Initially a garment would be produced by one person but later when the industry was developed a piece would be passed around so that each person could concentrate on the stitiches in which she excelled. This ensured the highest quality work. It was sent to Glasgow, Edinburgh, London and was exported to Dublin, the Continent and America .



'but no machine can work so fair a thing as can the hand whose motive power is love and sweet imagination'  - Ann Macbeth 

Victorian Britain celebrated its success as an industrial power with the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. The creations of its designers and manufacturers were arrayed in an innovative structure built for the purpose - the Crystal Palace. For the British establishment it signalled the triumph of empire, trade and the nation's achievements as the world's first fully industrialised society. Not everyone shared this view. The artist and craftsman William Morris was appalled by what he saw as vulgar, inferior design. Morris had been inspired by the writer John Ruskin who saw modern mechanised manufacture as dehumanising. Ruskin identified in medieval Gothic art & architecture a humane ideal where the role of artist and craftsman merged and where anonymous workmen expressed their individuality through labour. Views such as these gave rise to the Arts & Crafts Movement. 

By the 1870s local hand embroidery traditions had gone into decline. At the same time, members of the Arts & Crafts Movement began to reassess embroidery as an art form. New colours, and designs were now being used. In 1872 the Royal School of Art Needlework was founded. In 1894 an embroidery class was started at the Glasgow School of Art by Jessie R Newbery. Her belief was that the design of even the most humble object was important - that we should be surrounded by beautiful things in our daily lives. From this beginning, a department developed which had both national and international influence. The emphasis was on the new, but there was still an interest in the past. In 1916, The Glasgow School of Art published a book by James A. Morris titled 'The Art of Ayrshire White Needlework'. On the last page of this short work, Morris considers the question 'Whether the beautiful craft of Ayrshire needlework may again be revived, whether indeed it is even possible, is open to grave doubt' 

Attempts have been made over the years to revive Ayrshire needlework. The Embroiderers' Guild is one of the organisations which has played a role in this. In 1956 the Ayrshire Federation of the Scottish Women's Rural Institutes ran a series of Ayrshire needlework classes in Irvine. One of those who attended these classes was Agnes F. Bryson. Mrs.Bryson exercised her skills as an embroideress in a range of needlework styles. As an Ayrshire woman, however, she felt inspired to dedicate herself to the revival of the local needlework tradition. A number of difficulties were to be overcome. The materials which the early Ayrshire needle-workers used were no longer easy to source. It was necessary to unpick some original Ayrshire work in order to understand the complexity of the stitching. Since discovering the wonders of Ayrshire needlework in the 1950s, Agnes Bryson has taught the Ayrshire craft to students and lectured extensively in Britain and Canada. In 1989 her book 'Ayrshire Needlework' was published. Ayrshire needlework is now taught at the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace. With the popularity of the craft established in Britain, North America and the Antipodes, its survival and development is ensured. 

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