Wed, 26 Sept 2018
Volunteers working on The Country Wife
WHEN Linda Connell decided to set up a record of community textile pieces being made to celebrate the millennium, she could not have imagined that nearly 20 years later she would be the guardian of what is now called the National Needlework Archive.
Housed in the former non-denominational chapel, now the Old Chapel Textile Centre, Greenham Common, the archive not only maintains the national record of millennium needlework and associated Stitch 2000 research project, including work from across the country, but also stores or records important textile pieces and collections made at any other time.
Linda Connell outside the Old Chapel Textile Centre
Linda started the archive and collection in Southampton, where she lives and where she taught textile classes. But it soon outgrew its home, especially when she realised how many different occasions have been commemorated with textile pieces and that there was no central record. Hence the archive.
The need to move became even more pressing when the National Federation of Women’s Institutes approached Linda about a particular piece, which had been created for the Festival of Britain in 1951 by Constance Howard, who was arguably the most influential British pioneer in textile design of her generation.
Called The Country Wife, it represents the role of women at the time. Badly in need of conservation work and a new home, it was passed on to Linda at the National Needlework Archive in 2009 and it was then she realised that she needed to find larger premises for her collection, not least because The Country Wife is a huge mural, measuring 5m x 4.5m – not suited to your average wall space.
“When we heard about the disused chapel at Greenham, we came to have a look,” says Linda. “It was a complete wreck, but the area at the back where the various services used to be held, with its high ceiling, seemed to be ideal for housing The Country Wife.”
Linda freely admits that what started out as an interesting millennium project has completely taken over her life – indeed, she would not be able to cope with the number of artefacts that have come in, arranging the exhibitions, storing and caring for the items, travelling to record textiles in situ, and running the library, if it were not for the army of some 30 volunteers.
The library is filled with books old and new on textiles and crafts. As well as the reference library, there is a fully-functioning lending library of particular interest to textile students. The centre has amassed hundreds of donations of books and magazines, and the process of cataloguing them seems never-ending. There are also some rare books, the oldest of which dates back to the mid-19th century. The centre has also accumulated hundreds of patterns, which serve as a social record of changing fashions and fads.
There is a display of old sewing machines and other gadgets as you wander through the small, unassuming area and the centre regularly runs workshops and classes. There is also an ever-changing exhibition of textile works.
And, of course, no building of this type would be complete without a welcome tea room, which serves tea, coffee, soft drinks and delicious homemade cakes.
The Country Wife is not only iconic in terms of style and social content, but it is also a major example of the work of one of the most important textile artists of the 20th century, Constance Howard. She was a lecturer at Goldsmith’s College, London and made the piece along with some of her students.
Some of the craftwork featured on the mural was made by members of the Women’s Institute, experts in the fields of glove-making, cane work and embroidery. The Country Wife was displayed in the Country Pavilion at the Festival of Britain in 1951.
The huge mural has a unique perspective as the top half is a flat landscape of a typical rural village, leading the eye to the bottom of the work, which shows a room with various women working at their crafts and children playing with their toys. The bottom half is 3D, which gives the work a special perspective and brings the activities in that room to life.
It is indeed an extraordinary piece and there are three professional conservators working on it, together with regular volunteer stitchers.
Conservator Wendy Hickson says volunteer work includes cleaning and packing the collection with some minor repair work.
If you're interested in textiles and conserving these important archives or are keen to learn something new, and have plenty of patience, why not book yourself in for one of the training sessions either Tuesday, October 9, 10am-1pm or Wednesday, October 31, 1pm-4pm. Call the office on (01635) 38740 to book your place.