Embroidery Heroines : Mrs Grace (Archibald) Christie
I have to confess, until the age of 36 I had only made clothes, enjoyed Needlepoint and was recently introduced to Cross Stitch. It was only after opening my needlework shop and meeting some very clever embroiderers that I decided that I simply could not miss out! I was introduced to the local Embroiderers group who were holding an exhibition that year and in fact it was an off shoot of this organisation comprising of a group of rather fearsome elderly ladies who I really have to thank for encouraging me to sew something in the first place. A serendipitous trip to my favourite second hand book shop resulted in picking up a book by a Mrs. Archibald Christie called ‘Samplers & Stitches’. It looked a little austere and the pictures were black and white but the diagrams looked easy to follow..…and this was the real seller…..I loved the wee line drawings of little animals accompanied by sewing paraphernalia between each of the chapters!....Then the black & white plate between pp.58 and pp.59 of mice (a rodent for which I have a particular partiality) saw my fate sealed ….that was to be my first attempt at embroidery!
Grace Christies’ father, Rev. James Chadburn , was a congregation preacher in Poplar and as well as being active in many London artistic activities, became the founder in 1900 of The Central School of Arts and Crafts (later to become Central St.Martins.). At the same time Grace married an architect who was Professor of Design at the college whose ‘Traditional methods of pattern designing’ was published in 1929.
Meanwhile Grace taught at The Royal School of Arts & Crafts but whilst she rubbed shoulders with many born of the Arts & Craft Movement including William Morris’s daughter, May, she had very specific ideas about embroidery as an Art which did not necessarily conform to the latest designs of the movement just mentioned. It is hardly surprising therefore that given her artistic pedigree and marriage. Grace was to become one of the most significant proponents of embroidery at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
For Grace ‘The best kind of work is that which appeals to the intelligence as well as the eye, which is another way of saying there should be evidence of mind upon the material’ (p.31 Embroidery & Tapestry Weaving 1906). For her, earlier works should be hunted down in museums and studied for colour co-ordination, stitch techniques and subject matter but not slavishly copied. She believed that simple outlines and designs could be taken from historical works and freshly worked but insisted that subjects should be ‘interesting’ as well as ‘attractive’.
I went on to collect her earlier book ‘Embroidery and Tapestry Weaving’ from 1906 (her first publication) and realised ‘Samplers and Stitches’, was an updated version published in 1920 and explored the application of stitches within simple sampler pieces. I am also lucky enough to own a rare bound copy of her run of ‘Needle & Thread’ magazines published in 1914 in association with the silk manufacturer Pearsall’s. Grace in no way disrespects simple, rough-hewn ‘homely’ works as she calls them, but insists that all women should be given the tools to strive for the best creations possible. Indeed she has no high notions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ embroidery such as was argued for Fine Art and just books of the era bare out, she was a great advocate of bringing as many practical sewn items into the home as possible! What she wanted was women to think of each piece of embroidery they undertook as a virtuoso piece of work; a studied, thoughtful design of their own making translated intelligently into a beautiful, balanced and colour coordinated sewn piece.
Neither was she expecting perfection – far from it! ‘…character , gesture , grace, colour’ matter more than ‘perspective, light and shade or modelling of form’ which she branded as ‘misdirected energy’! Given I am spending hours over an interpretation of wild roses and honeysuckle, each petal of which is taking more than an hour to complete, this made me smile! Whilst she admitted the observance of nature was a thing of merit, she dubbed it ‘commonplace realism’ because she saw it lacking imagination!
The Stitch Glossaries in her books are a fascinating insight into the development of stitch ‘groupings’ and of stitches themselves. I have scoured the pages for the official name of the ‘Knotted Stitch’ on p.124 of ‘Embroidery & Tapestry Weaving’ and by 1920 the same diagram in ‘Samplers & Stitches’ is called ‘Coral Stitch’! Yet her stitch directions are more than just pictures and instructions ; they incorporate usage, their basis in history and differing workings which may – or may not – be as effective. Hers are not only the practice, but theory of stitches written in a day when books were read properly rather than glanced over to get the quickest result.
Grace Christie could not be more different from Erica Wilson. Grace, who died in 1953 was about study, design, discipline and being the very best practitioner possible whilst Erica who’s career started in the mid 1950’s was about getting Embroidery out there to a new age of Embroiderers. Hers was spontaneous, non-prescriptive and informal but her own talents were no doubt both influenced and guided by Grace as one of the first true scholars of embroidery. She inspired many women through her teaching who would go on to write books just as she had done and put forward new ideas and methods of working which continue to keep Embroidery alive and fresh in the 21st century. Likewise historians still admire the extensive research she did on medieval embroidery and her works can still be studied at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. For me personally….I have everything to thank her for.
FOOTNOTE : I have written a Footnote about my first piece of embroidery inspired by Mrs. Christie as a separate entry. I do hope you enjoy it! .....