This week’s Stitches with Stories workshop focused on another fascinating tale of a type of embroidery developed by a single person – Mrs M Foster of Bath. Not very much seems to be known about her but her wonderfully inventive use of simple stitch pattern has been of renewed interest this century, in no small part due to Gay Eaton’s book Wessex Stitchery.
The liveliness of the original Wessex patterns is often due to her subtly, or not so subtly, changing colours as she worked. Today we have the luxury of variegated dyed threads which give us the same effect without the use of several needles and threads at once. Those at the workshop produced some striking patterns using these threads. Gay Eaton’s book has been out of print for some time (second-hand copies are online) and there is a delightful exploration of Mrs Forster’s work in Gail Marsh’s Early 20th Century Embroidery Techniques.
In contrast to the delights of the delicacy and precision of counted patterns on linen I thoroughly enjoyed myself learning more about drawing with charcoal. A class with Bobby Britnell at Art Van Go saw me drawing large (A 2) and bold and messy! Bobby proved to be a wonderful teacher; challenging and supportive and Art Van Go’s studio was a pleasure to work in. An added bonus was the presence of some friends from my local Embroiderers’ branch – we had a great time together.
It must be very satisfying to invent a new style of embroidery, one that becomes widely known and eventually a “traditional” technique. I researched some last year from Italy (Parma, Sorbello) and have recently tried my hand at Wessex embroidery. Unlike several types from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, developed to help poorer women earn a living, Mrs Foster of Bath created and named her own approach to counted thread work. She produced a very large number of pieces, and exhibited them, over her long life but so far as I am aware did not teach others.
The piece above is ‘Lindisfarne’ as shown in Gay Eaton’s Wessex Stitchery, a lovely book, now out of print (and carrying some amazingly high prices on the web – £195.00!).
Mrs Foster clearly loved pattern-making and colour. Her embroidery has a wonderful array of all-over patterns given vitality with colour changes across the work and frequently featuring fragments of poetry, scripture or commemorative details. Pieces exist from around 1918 and many were exhibited in 1934. Articles on the work in this exhibition appeared in Embroidery and The Embroideress. Recent research and publication by Gail Marsh and Gay Eaton have contributed to a revived interest in this ‘Wessex’ stitching.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my attempts and I’m in admiration of the skill (and eyesight) of Mrs Foster and her choice of such fine linen and threads. I’ve tried a larger scale but have to admit that the extra effort of working on fine linen is worth it – I love the detailed, variegated results.