An Embroiderer’s Eye

The Diana Springall Collection provides a crucial contribution to modern textile history through the representation of work made with needle and thread in Britain from the mid-1970s onwards. As a collector, Springall has moved against the norms of the times, collecting with discipline, place and time very firmly in the forefront of her mind. The result provides us with a considerable record of recent material culture in stitch, a collection that may not have materialised if it had allowed itself to be defined by more mainstream collection policies.

The Springall Collection reflects its collector’s prescience in a number of ways. Firstly, it is vital to remember that many of the familiar names that make up this collection were individuals at the very beginning of their careers when Springall first acquired examples of their work. Alice Kettle’s Eve Falling from Grace (1986), for example, was purchased at the conclusion of the artist’s studies in a Postgraduate Diploma in Textile Art at Goldsmiths’ College. This foresight and confidence in careers that, in many cases, were taking their very first steps when Springall began collecting their work is indicative not only of her visual acuity, but also her confidence and commitment to modern embroidery. In more than one instance, this collection policy is known to have bolstered flagging spirits of talented individuals, who have gone on to establish professional careers in textiles. Thus, this collection stands as testament not only to an observant, but also a brave, eye. The collection that now exists is the result, in equal measure, of instinct and intellect.

Currently located in the collector’s home, the Springall Collection is a living representation of contemporary embroidery practice. Bruce Chatwin’s narrator, in his novella Utz, explains how crucial it is for collections of objects to breathe and live in their appropriate context. “An object in a museum case,” Chatwin’s narrator explains to the reader, “must suffer the de-natured existence of an animal in the zoo. In any museum the object dies – of suffocation and the public gaze – whereas private ownership confers on the owner the right and the need to touch. As a young child will reach out to handle the thing it names, so the passionate collector, his eye in harmony with his hand, restores to the object the life-giving touch of its maker.”[1] These observations are of particular pertinence to the textile traditions, techniques inspired by, and devoted to, the sense of touch. In Springall’s home, her collection breathes. It is exposed to the curious touch of the admirer and, as a result, is reminded and can remind of the maker’s touch.

Uniquely, this collection also includes a number of preliminary works on paper. This approach offers rare insight into the preliminary design development on paper of a number of textile works and provides a reminder of the importance of process in the creation of textiles. It is likely that Springall’s own lengthy career as an artist and designer is, at least in part, responsible for her sensitivity and interest in capturing the early stages of the design process alongside finished works. This, coupled with her career in education, has impressed upon this collection a didactic responsibility, not only as record keeper, but also as teacher. Theresa James’ pastel drawing of a building’s exterior shows us, for example, how the maker’s eye can be drawn to surfaces that are textile, as well as surfaces that exhibit the qualities of the textile. At the other extreme is the minimalism of Tania Cuthbert’s cut paper design of plants, the spontaneity of Alison Roger’s frog and bird design sheets or Natalie Beavis’ abstract work sheets. These simple, rapidly constructed works test colour and composition but belie the time and labour required of the final outcome. Without their presence in this collection, many viewers may remain unaware of the many incarnations a design can go through before the realisation of a finished work.

Stitch, the process and skill on display, is defined broadly to include machine and hand made work, traditional and experimental techniques. The collection chooses not to dwell on the subversive stitch, in which Rozsika Parker famously noted an inherent duality in embroidery as “a means of educating women into the feminine ideal, and of proving that they have attained it, but it has also provided a weapon of resistance to the constraints of femininity.”[2] Springall’s collecting does not dwell on subversion in a popular sense. But I would like to suggest that as a collection it engages with an equally controversial policy, not through feminism, but in its simple refusal to disregard what may otherwise have been overlooked.

Parker reminds us of the complexities embroidery embodies. It provides us with the possibility of repair: materials are brought back together, snags and holes pulled close, patches secured, damage tidied and straightened. From this complex vocabulary grows the work of contemporary embroiderers, part of the maverick discipline of textile art that seems to delight in its own ability to elude definition. Process is certainly vital: the rhythm of labour, either by machine or hand and the inescapable commitment to time that so many textile processes demand. Material is also of great importance, although in recent years textile art has become restless, flirting with ephemeral and technology based work that addresses textiles, without necessarily working through them. Engagement with process and material as the core of textile art is a definition that has weathered considerable scrutiny in the past few decades, but the potential of the textile to communicate has remained constant.

This collection, in particular, communicates through a range of techniques, materials and themes. Surfaces include the sparsely stitched marks of the Machine Street Buildings (artist/date unknown) to the ornate sleeves of Robin Giddings’ black embroidered women’s dress (1985). Order and disorder are also apparent. Sarah Denison’s highly stylised surfaces in Staffordshire Dogs (1992) provide a graphic composition of sharp edges with clean blocks of colour and texture. In contrast, Karen Armistead’s wet, moody Landscape (1985) includes threads that trail away from the focal point; wind blown and dangling like glimpses through glass of storms raging outside. Other works tackle issues central to art history, Verina Warren, for example with her study of perspective seen in Renaissance View (1979). Formal studies of colour and composition are communicated through material in Theresa James’ textured Tufted Sample (1988) and geometry in Anne Butler Morrell’s The Summer Abstract (1985).

Thread and cloth are also imbued with personality, such as seen in Jane McKeating’s anthropomorphic Shoes Hanging (1983/4) and the flowing movement of Daisies (1978) by Richard Box. Humour is an inescapable element, found in Claire Knight’s three-dimensional works such as Row Boatmen (1983) and the intricate jewel coloured clowns of Cheryl Welsh’s small stitched bag (1988). More recently, work by Laura McCafferty, Lady at the Flower Stall (2006), captures a moment lost to concentration, the work’s lone figure turned away from the viewer’s gaze. Interestingly McCafferty bleeds colour and texture from the stall’s flowers, our expected point of reference and draws the eye to the textiles within her textile image: a bold print skirt, the fabric backdrop of the stall and the stitched edges of a pink pinafore. The work sums up much about contemporary textile practice in its search for an expanding and ever shifting textile vocabulary.

It is crucial when understanding this work to bear in mind discipline, place and time. The Diana Springall Collection represents work from several decades in modern embroidery’s recent history that did not receive mainstream attention at the time of their creation. Today, they act as reminders of a number of individuals who chose, and have continued, to work with materials and ideas that communicate a range of emotions and themes. Looking back now it is refreshing to see that none of these works drown us in conceptual thinking, nor do they need chapters of theory to untangle their meaning from their materiality. Instead, they are explorations of all that thread, stitch and cloth capture and communicate best: colour, texture and pattern; joy and sorrow; labour, concentration and skill.

Dr Jessica Hemmings
Reader in Textile Culture, Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton
April 2008

[1] Bruce Chatwin, Utz. Vintage: London, 1998. 17.
[2] Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the making of the feminine. Routledge: New York, 1989. Foreword.