Long-lost threads catch the eye in embroidery showcase

Delightful embroidery from a remarkable archive of needlework that lay neglected in a cupboard for 50 years is being exhibited at the University.

The historic collection – donated by a renowned thread manufacture and rediscovered eight years ago – features an eye-catching range of exhibits.

Touching Stitches offers a rich sensory and visual window on an intricately handcrafted tradition.

All of the objects in Touching Stitches –held in the University's Main Library – were part of the Needlework Development Scheme (NDS), which now belongs to Edinburgh College of Art (ECA).

The exhibition puts the scheme in context, outlines its history and how we care for it, and showcases recent initiatives that have extended its influence

Francesca BasebyExhibition co-curator
Long-lost threads catch the eye in embroidery showcase

Global collection

World renowned yarn manufacturers J&P Coats set up NDS in 1934 to improve design in embroidery. The Paisley-based firm made their global collection available to Scotland's four art colleges as teaching aids. 

Having stopped temporarily during the Second World War, the NDS was extended to schools throughout the UK in 1946.

In 1961, the scheme was disbanded and the precious embroideries were distributed amongst the Scottish art colleges, the National Museums of Scotland and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Lending library

The company’s rich collection of embroideries from around the world formed a lending library. Scotland’s four art colleges borrowed embroidery pieces as teaching aids.

A hands-on approach to learning was the lifeblood of the scheme. Students were encouraged to closely analyse the embroidery stitch formation and the overall design of a piece.

The embroidery featured in Touching Stitches was re-discovered in a wine cupboard in Edinburgh College of Art boardroom in 2011. Since then, the intricate pieces have educated – and charmed – students just as they did between 1934 and 1961.

Teaching support

ECA's programme director of textiles, Lindy Richardson – a co-curator of the exhibition – has used the collection ever since 2011 to support teaching with students.

Embroiderers’ guilds, refugee groups and embroidery beginners at Cornton Vale women’s prison in Stirling have also accessed the collection.

The collection is accessible and interactive. Exhibition curators consulted with the Royal National Institute for the Blind to create 3D prints and enlarged digital replicas for visually impaired visitors.

The NDS had a widespread impact on embroidery design and education in the 20th century. Handling, close analysis and practical exploration was always at its heart.

Lindy RichardsonExhibition co-curator

Vibrant exhibits

Highlighting the vibrancy and devotion of the embroiderer’s art, Touching Stitches provides a contemporary take on what could easily be dismissed as a domestic hobby.

Notable exhibits include charming embroidered birds, an elaborate Chinese headdress and the striking image of an angel adorned with gold thread.

Other highlights are the remnant of a 400-year-old Italian bed hanging, an ornate replica of a 19th century man’s wedding smock and a vibrant shroud dedicated to the patron saint of embroidery, St Clair.

Red stags

Elsewhere, a quirky beret, scarf and mittens set – designed in 1953 and embroidered with red stags – catches the eye.

The significance of the NDS from a cultural and historical perspective is also highlighted in the exhibition.

Touching Stitches runs from 29 November – 29 February at the University of Edinburgh Main Library. Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm (closed 25 December 2017 until 3 January).

Related links

Edinburgh College of Art

Images © David Cheskin