The Diana Springall Collection

Diana Springall

When meeting Diana Springall at her home in Kent two things in particular stand out. The first is the manner in which her love of textiles occupies her life. A conversation with Springall reveals a woman possessed with formidable tenacity and relentless energy to celebrate embroidery. The second is the way in which her unique collection of contemporary British embroidery is present throughout her home. Rather than languishing in archive boxes, her collection quite literally decorates the walls of the space in which has raised her family and developed her own design practice. An upcoming exhibition at the Silk Industry Museum in Macclesfield (April - July 2009) will offer the public insight into Springall’s unique embroidery collection with work hailing from the mid-1970s to the present day.

Like many textile artists, Springall’s first experience with textiles occurred during childhood. Born in India, she describes her mother as “a wonderful needlewoman” responsible for her introduction to embroidery which then continued, from the age of nine onwards, during her years at boarding school in England. The visual arts continued to play a significant role in Springall’s life as a young adult and from 1956-60 she studied Fine Art at Goldsmiths’ School of Art, specialising in painting. It was during this time that her formal education in embroidery was also reinstated through evening classes. Springall’s studies, while part of the Fine Art curriculum, coincided with Constance Parker’s (née Howard) leadership from 1954 to 1975 of the celebrated embroidery department after which the Constance Howard Resource and Research Centre in Textiles is now named. The time proved decisive and Springall determined that textiles would become her career.

In the ensuing years Springall has approached textiles through a wide reaching range of contributions. “Teacher, lecturer, author, practitioner and contributor,” are now the descriptions she uses to define the contributions she has and continues to make to the field of textiles. But for a number of years, these roles were supplementary to her work as a designer who created large-scale corporate commissions in fabric and stitch. Springall explains that when working to commission she is “motivated by the demands of an exacting brief. I gain a great deal of satisfaction from work that involves problem solving in response to a brief.” This awareness of context, client and audience has proved central to her approach, not only when designing textiles, but also when lecturing, conducting workshops and collecting. Her designer’s mindset and affinity for textiles is combined with lessons from her early education that have proved invaluable to the development of her textile work. “Drawing and painting,” she notes, “remain fundamental to my making.”

One senses that Springall’s ability to tease out ideas from a client is central to the didactic role that drives much of her work today. “Teaching and the associated element of ‘how to do it’,” she explains, “has led to invitations to write books and an on-going research project to produce a critical appraisal of the best of Britain’s leading embroiderers.” Today her design work is part of the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Embroiderers’ Guild. Her chosen textile techniques are as diverse as the many contributions she has made to the textile community: hand and machine embroidery, loop pile techniques, appliqué, patchwork and felt. To add to the list she is also, to date, author of five publications on embroidery: Canvas Embroidery (Batsford), Embroidery (for the BBC), Twelve British Embroiderers (Gakken Tokyo), Design for Embroidery (Pelham) and Inspired to Stitch - 21 Textile Artists (A&C Black).

Throughout these numerous endeavours Springall has also maintained a keen eye for the support of emerging textile artists, often making purchases of work long before reputations are established. Collecting work and artists at a time when many institutions and individual collectors were overlooking the importance of embroidery practice, Springall has amassed a record of British embroidery over the last three decades may have otherwise never existed. When selected highlights from her collection go on display at the Silk Industry Museum in 2009, the general public will be able, for the first time, to enjoy a glimpse of the last three decades of British embroidery as seen through the eyes of this maker and collector. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue mark yet another significant contribution Springall has made to our understanding of British embroidery.

As a collection and an exhibition, the work on display is visually challenging. Stitch is represented in all its diversity and the result is an eclectic aesthetic, which provides a fair representation of the sheer diversity of embroidery practiced in Britain. Included are early works by artists who have gone on to enjoy considerable recognition and careers such as Jeanette Appleton, Pauline Burbidge, Alice Kettle and Audrey Walker as well as many other less well known names. Rather than represent one collector’s taste or style, the Springall collection is unusually democratic. Stitched works large and small, from the emerging as well as the established, are placed side by side. The result is an honest record of the materials, styles, and themes explored by British embroiderers over the past several decades.

Without the devoted collecting of individuals such as Springall, large portions of recent textile history would remain unrecorded. While her collection is important in the time and place it records, its ongoing life within the collector’s home is of equal importance. Out in the air and light, available for touch and observation – the place of this collection within the home may be a conservators nightmare, but it is also the environment many of these textiles were designed to inhabit. Her upcoming exhibition will provide the public with a rare glimpse of these works, but it is worth remembering that the gallery walls are very much their temporary home.

Dr Jessica Hemmings is the Associate Director of the Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies at the Edinburgh College of Art

Embroidery magazine (March/April 2009: 32-35)