Last weekend, I was lucky enough to get to visit Gawthorpe Hall and to see a sprinkling of the wonderful textile collection housed there. When I was working towards my City & Guilds diploma in Sweden, I came across this collection in my research and first learned about Rachel Kay Shuttleworth - the founder of this extensive collection. My first glimpse of her came in these wonderful books about the history of embroidery by Gail Marsh. These books are simply wonderful if you love the history of embroidery - full of stunning photographs and packed full of information and techniques, these are ever present in my sewing room and much drooled over. When I looked further into Gawthorpe's textile collection, I made a mental bookark to visit this place on my return to England. As it turns out, amazingly, I don't live too far away and last Saturday we made our first trip there.
Gawthorpe Hall is a splendid Elizabethan house in Padiham, near Burnley in Pennine Country in the north of England. The landowning Shuttleworth family are known to have lived in the area from the 13th century, and in 1603 they moved into this new house, built around and ancient tower. It is a beautiful house, and no expense was spared, with craftsmen from Italy being brought in to enhance it's design. It has a long gallery on the third floor which is magnificent and the house is full of treasures from the family who lived there. Charlotte Bronte was a guest here and there is a lovely exhibition about her and her visit in one of the rooms. Now owned by the National Trust, it has become a fascinating place to visit and you can find out more about it here
Rachel Kay Shuttleworth was born in 1887, the third child and daughter of Sir Ughtred Kay-Shuttleworth and his wife Blanche. She was followed by a much longed for brother and heir, Lawrence and then another brother Edward and a little sister Catherine. Along with her two older sisters, Angela and Nina, the family seems to have been a happy one. Rachel, though, was never one for convention and had a clear independence of mind from an early age. Sent to a boarding school at the age of fifteen, called 'Northlands', she was less interested in their speciality 'music' and instead preferred Needlework, believing that 'education should be a matter of coordination of the mind, hand and eye' and that time should be allotted for working with handicrafts. By the time she was ready to leave the school, she was teaching the younger children, lacemaking.
As an aristocratic young lady of the day, she seemed expected to fill the time before finding an appropriate suitor and went, with her friend to Paris where they studied art and attended lectures at the Louvre. In 1902, she was presented at court, as a debutante of the Edwardian era. She lived in a whirl of country house parties, balls, mixing with royalty and generally participated in the ritual of being paraded in the marriage market. However, Rachel was a serious young lady and also helped her mother and sisters in their charitable work and even gave some lectures at the National Gallery. She was a committed liberal and enjoyed meeting politicians and listening to the discussions of the day. Her overwhelming passion for needlework of all kinds and her belief that creativity feeds the soul, even led her to work at a shop in Kensington, where she sewed in the workrooms, learning the techniques of the seamstresses. She seems never to have been tempted by marriage though and showed a strength of mind in this that seems rather unusual for the day. Instead, she was far more interested in what was going on around her and growing up in the industrial heartlands of England had plenty of material with which to work. Modern technology was changing the face of the Mills, and this brought many issues of its own. Social conditions were still poor for many and opportunities scarce, especially for girls. Rachel set about working in her community, addressing such issues as child mortality, by organising Infant welfare classes to educate mothers. She helped found the girl guide movement, Civic arts associations and worked tirelessly for the National Relief Fund launched by the Prince of Wales to help the families of those affected by the first world war.
Her own family, did not escape the ravages of the 1914-18 conflict. Tragically, both her brothers were killed, leaving the heir to the family, just a young child. Rachel had much to do with her little nephews and niece and helped to bring them up in the family. In a devastating turn of fate, both these boys were later killed in the second world war. Rachel continued to worked tirelessly on her various committees and social welfare projects and meanwhile ran classes for embroidery and needlearts. She was fearful that these skills would be swallowed up by the modern world and was passionate about collecting and preserving examples of textiles for future generations. This collection was to grow into a enormous archive from all over the world and it is stored at Gawthorpe for posterity. Rachel set about cataloguing all the items and in fact the textile giant Courtaulds recognised this collection and often sent students there to aid their research and design skills.
Rachel died in 1967. She seems to me to have been quite a remarkable woman. Rather like those great aunts of mine, from that same period - a stalwart, unfussy and practical woman with a sense of the bigger picture. Self reliant and determined, she wanted to do something for the greater good. Admittedly she was born into a world of wealth and privilege, but at least she used it for something bigger and worthwhile. Recognising that the pace of change in the world, she feared that it would sweep away carelessly many fine pieces of textile history, in its impatience for progress and mass production and she set about preserving these for posterity. Her love of all things creative and beautiful and her belief in their intrinsic value has meant that she left behind a vast and precious legacy. Rachel not only collected textiles, she was also a profilic needlewoman herself and the house itself is brimming with her fine work. It is a working collection, a fabulous resource centre and a comprehensive archive of all things with a needle and thread for students of art and textiles. Unfortunately photography was not allowed in the house, but you can see more about this amazing collection here.
In short, if you love to sew, you will love this place.