Leek Embroidery Society
“For Silken Fabrics Rich and Rare
What Citie can with Leek Compare?”
From a Staffordshire ballad
During the 1870’s, societies grew up throughout Britain to teach Art Needlework. This was a reaction against the repetitive and unskilled embroidery called Berlin woolwork which had been immensely popular since the 1830’s amongst leisured ladies. These societies aim was to improve the design and standard of embroidery, as well as to supply suitable employment for poor gentlefolk or women who had fallen on hard times and needed to earn a living.
In 1879 The Leek Embroidery Society was established by Elizabeth Wardle in Leek, Staffordshire. Elizabeth and her friends had been working on large, church embroideries for twelve years prior to her establishing the Society, and were well known for the originality and excellence of their work. Some women were employed and paid a salary, whilst others paid for embroidery tuition. Originally the work was undertaken in workers houses but gradually the demand was so great that a property adjacent to Elizabeth’s own house were taken as a schoolroom, workshop and commercial outlet, selling both materials and kits.
Elisabeth’s husband, Thomas Wardle was a silk importer, dyer and printer, as well as a friend and collaborator of William Morris. Together they developed a range of natural dyes which could be used on the tussore or tasar silks, both skeins and fabrics, which Wardle imported from India. The natural beige tussore silk ground fabric had been originally imported from India by Thomas' father Joshua . He was unable to discover the secret of dyeing the natural tasar silk. Thomas continued his father's dyeing experiments using vegetable and mineral dyes, and in 1877 made a breakthrough by dyeing the silk to any shade required. The slubs or imperfections produced in the weaving process, due to poor reeling by the villagers in India, were also eliminated with modern reeling techniques. It was Thomas who gave Elizabeth some strands of tussore silk and asked her to devise a new form of embroidery, hoping to encourage needlewomen to use his silks. The dyes produced near colour-fast, clear soft and bright tones, Art Colours’ which were a great contrast to the harsh shades of aniline or chemically dyed wools used in Berlin woolwork. It was Elizabeth’s skill in blending the colours which was such a feature of Leek Embroidery Society pieces. Elizabeth and her gentlewomen embroidered secular and religious pieces with the Indian tussore floss silk skeins onto a tussore printed silk ground, the pattern acting as a transfer. Thomas had the silk printed in India to his own designs, in turn influenced by Indian designs. Damasks, brocades, silk plush and velvet, all dyed in Wardle’s works, were all used for backgrounds .
Embroideries could be purchased as kits, complete with floss silks. A small section of the embroidery would already be started, so the purchaser could copy the stitches. Cushions, chair backs, curtain borders, firescreens and handkerchief bags were all produced in the School’s workshops and sold as finished products.
Artist designers of the day, such as William Morris, Walter Crane and architects including John D Sedding, Norman Shaw and George Gilbert Scott who were designing churches, employed the Leek Embroidery Society to embroider church vestments and altar cloths.
The Society’s work was in demand until around 1900 and was sold in Wardle’s shop in New Bond Street, William Morris’s shop in Oxford Street, Liberty & Co in Regent Street and at Debenham & Freebody, off Oxford Street.
In 1881 the Society instigated an exhibition at the Leek Art School with the director of the South Kensington Museum (later to become the Victoria & Albert Museum) presenting the prizes. The work exhibited consisted of their ecclesiastical work as well as fifteen items of secular embroidery. Morris & Company and the Royal School of Needlework also sent examples of work for the exhibition, signifying the acceptance of art needlework as a legitimate artistic medium and not just a hobby for leisured ladies.
Click here to go to British Arts & Crafts - Artist/Designers section of the website.
Jacques, Anne G Leek Embroidery. Staffordshire Libraries,
Arts & Archives 1990, ISBN 0903363437
King, Brenda Silk and Empire. Manchester University Press 2005, ISBN 0719067006
Schoeser, Mary English Church Embroidery 1833-1953. 1998 Watts & Co Ltd. ISBN 0953326500
© 2006 Meg Andrews.