The Tangled World Of British Embroidery:


A stitch in time saves nine”: This was the phrase that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson used during a televised speech on 22nd September 2020 to explain why he would be introducing a “package of tougher anti-coronavirus measures” in England. His reasoning, as the Metro newspaper columnist, Caroline Westbrook, noted the following day, was that it would be better to take the necessary action immediately rather than to wait for the situation to get worse later.

According to historians, as Westbrook then observed, the first published reference to this saying was in 1732, when it appeared in a book by the clergyman Thomas Fuller on “Gnomologia: A Collection of Adages, Proverbs and Witty Aphorisms”. It’s origins are generally believed to be derived from sewing, the idea being that “if you mend a small tear with one stitch, it will prevent it from becoming a bigger tear which might need more stitches – in fact nine – to repair”.

It’s a concept which will undoubtedly be particularly familiar to the thousands of devotees of embroidery and textile art around the United Kingdom. However, the organisation to which it would seem to be most applicable – the Embroiderers Guild (EG), founded in 1906– has this year become embroiled in a fierce dispute with its 145 branches and 4,200 members and been on the brink of having to close down altogether. On 5th March, Tara Conlan, a journalist with the Guardian, reported that the bank accounts of all the branches had been frozen by the EG in February “to divert money to pay head office debts as part of a plan to save money”.

Penny Hill, EG’s Social Media Trustee, justified this decision during an interview with the “Stitchey Stories” podcast producer, Susan Weeks, on the basis that membership numbers – EG’s primary source of income – had declined by 1,500 over the previous twelve months despite the annual prescription being only £38 and so it was no longer covering its costs. Because the rules governing charities don’t allow it to run at a loss and in order to avoid liquidation, it proposed to focus on online courses and on “ThreadIt” a “dedicated digital space where members can meet, converse, explore and discover the many aspects of embroidery and the textile arts.”

Hill pointed out to Conlan that, due to the surplus of £129,844 in 2018 having become a deficit of £67,305 in 2019, Embroidery magazine no longer making a profit and the sales of Stitch magazine falling by 47% over a decade, the only way EG could survive was by turning its branches into completely “independent stitch groups”. It would, though, provide them with “set-up grants of £250” along with continuing support and information.

Following EG’s announcement, a petition opposing it, launched by one of its members, Eliza Bruml, an artist with “Bound To Stitch” in Kings Worthy, Hampshire, attracted 5,486 signatures. It demanded the unfreezing of all local branch bank accounts, a period of consultation and insisted that, with so many people feeling isolated due to the covid-19 restrictions, it was not the right time for this action to be taken.

There were also complaints that long-serving members were not being valued and a query as to why the retiring CEO, Terry Murphy, who by his own admission, despite 10 years with EG, had “never picked up a needle” had been paid “such a vast (undisclosed) sum” if HQ had been haemorrhaging funds. Despite these protests, of the 2099 votes cast either at the General Meeting on 4th March or received by 5 pm on 12th March, 88.4% were in favour of the EG’s plan and just 10.2% against.

The Embroiderers Guild’s current difficulties are perhaps a little puzzling in view of the soaring demand for stitching kits which has apparently been galvanized by the Netflix show “Bridgerton”. The Yahoo!Life contributor, Tara Donaldson, on March 1st estimated that 82 million viewers had tuned into the “period drama” since its launch on Christmas Day. At the moment, she perceived, consumers don’t want fashion to reflect reality and instead have responded to the creation of an escapist, romantic long-ago world that has served as an antidote to the interminable months of “quarantine-induced malaise”.

The Daily Mirror’s Consumer Editor, Ruki Sayid, on 20th January depicted the “Bridgerton Effect” as having sparked “an embroidery craze” with fans obsessing over the Regency lifestyle and keen to copy the glamorous look of the smash hit. Sayid cited statistics released by the UK’s leading specialist retailer of art and craft products, Hobbycraft, revealing that there has been a 1,000% increase in searches for the term “embroidery” on its Ideas Hub since December. Likewise, the sales of stitching accessories and kits have increased by 30% and 20% respectively.

It’s the witty personalities and eccentric outfits which, in Hobbycraft’s view, have led to such huge success and have seemingly provided some much-needed crafting motivation, with the leading characters “embroidering their way through the series”.It would appear, Donaldson also reflected, that even collections for Spring 2021 virtual events such as London Fashion Week AW21 have been labelled as “Bridgerton-Inspired”.

As the historical designer, Dr Christine Millar (better known as “Sewstine”) told Donaldson, she suddenly noticed her sales were going “utterly bananas” and she didn’t know why: “Turns out it was Bridgerton: It was like a 1,000% increase in orders specifically for the Regency patterns”. The sudden, urgent search for “Bridgerton’ seguins, Jane Austen gowns and Regency era dresses was what was driving traffic to her site.

Filed under: Society, Theatre & Film | Posted on March 22nd, 2021 by Colin D Gordon

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