Stitch in time: Polly Devlin on history in the making …
Knitters in the Sun
In my last column, we were thinking on a chit of 17, Louisa, born daughter of a duke in 1694 who married the Earl of Berkeley in 1711. Jonathan Swift, who was no slouch at a bitterness of tongue himself, said she was “ill-natured, coveted, vicious and proud in the extreme”. From our viewpoint, I surmise that she didn’t make enough of him or behave herself as women were meant to do, so he disapproved. I had hoped it was she who worked the fantastic needlepoint chairs at Berkeley Castle, but since I now know she died at 21, I know the chairs are not her work – they would have taken many years to stitch.
Needlepoint chairs and stools (and certain cushions too) are among my collecting passions and for decades I stitched away in airports and on flights and anyone looking at the results can see where I tightened the threads through nervousness when we hit turbulence. Two of my needlepoint seats are rare – one is an 18th-century wing chair covered in petit-point with the most wonderful thistle pattern in a glaucous greyish greenish colour; the other is a stool, one of a pair, covered with one leftover needlework canvas pattern from the reworking of the chairs in the Throne Room in Windsor Castle, or is it Buckingham Palace? (I’m a bit hazy on my throne rooms). The required petit-point was far beyond my capabilities and I see from an invoice dated March 1992 that I asked the Royal School of Needlework in Hampton Palace to finish it. It cost £387 which I reckon is about £1,000 now. Whew! I asked a master carpenter to copy a stool I saw in Ham House to fit the cover. Anyway, not many people notice the stools in my room but needle and textile women artists always do and fall on them with cries of joy at the workwomanship.
Whichever countess it was who made those works of art for Berkeley Castle, had had a comfortable chair, a good light, and a warm room. Many a morning and dark evening, for centuries, by whatever light and warmth they could have, women have cut and spun, and stitched and darned and crocheted and embroidered to earn a living, to make and mend their family’s clothes, to pass the time, to ornament and elaborate, decorate and beautify – and to mourn.
A friend and neighbour who works with ancient textiles in museums all over the world and so literally knows his Stuff, not so long ago went to a small auction in a town in Somerset and saw what he could hardly credit – a beautifully embroidered child’s burial dress from the third century BC, lying in its wrap. Two thousand, four hundred years old and in pristine condition. To look at it and gently hold it was heart-stopping, but more heart-stopping still, was realising that a mother had embroidered the little garment to help her child go into the galactic dark.
Needleworkers and stitchers often used what they could find or what came to hand to make and sew. It was actually the poorest people who bought fabrics instead of using pieces from discarded garments, since their clothes were worn until they were beyond all salvage. For a few pence a bundle they bought scraps of fabric from dressmakers or mills. How some of the needleworkers found the time to do work of this beauty and precision and skill beats me.
I collect patchwork quilts – most have been handed down over generations.
A needlepoint ottoman and cushions in Polly Devlin’s London home.
One of the most beautiful is a 19th-century example of a mosaic of blocks of printed cottons alternating with appliquéd motifs on plain blocks. Hand sewn, detailed, complex and immaculately symmetrical, it was designed and made in the mid-19th century by a Mrs Mary Anne Slevin, a farmer’s wife with ten children – an unsung artist.
Elizabeth Bishop, that great poet, wrote: “My grandmother was very nice to me when I was sick. She gave me her button basket to play with, and her scrap bag, and the crazy quilt was put over my bed in the afternoons … the crazy quilt was the best entertainment. My grandmother had made it long before, when such quilts had been a fad in the little Nova Scotia village where we lived. She had collected small, irregularly shaped pieces of silk or velvet of all colours and got all her lady and gentleman friends to write their names on them in pencil – and sometimes a date or word or two as well. Then she had gone over the writing in chain stitch with silks of different colours, and then put the whole thing together on maroon flannel, with feather-stitching joining the pieces … my grandmother would sometimes tell me that that particular piece of silk came from Mrs So-and-So’s going-away dress, 40 years ago, or that that was from a necktie of one of her brothers, since dead and buried in London, or that that was from India, brought back by another brother, who was a missionary.” History in the making.
In 1966, I went to the south of France to interview Lesley Blanch for the 50th anniversary issue of Vogue. Her book, The Wilder Shores of Love (still in print), had been a wild success and she had been the features editor of Vogue 20 years before. She was offered the job because of an article she had written for another magazine, “Anti-Beige, a Plea for the Scarlet Woman”. I stayed for some time and besides an interview I could have turned into a book, she taught me the stitches of needlepoint – a little slanting one, half Cross Continental or Diagonal Tent, a straight up and down one. Then Mosaic, Scotch, Brick, Old Florentine, Hungarian, Parisian Bargello. She taught me about ego too. She referred to herself – and not quite ironically enough – as “darling self”.
The rooms in her delightful house had needlepoint cushions everywhere, treasures of colour and beauty constituting an autobiography of her life in needlepoint, unique beyond compare, every cushion a ravishing image of an episode in her remarkable and adventurous life. If she was in Istanbul, she embroidered the scenery and mosques, in Russia the domed silver churches, at home she sewed portraits of her cats and her flowers, images of enchanted gardens, stitched adages and proverbs. I tried to make my own but with no degree of skill.
I was appalled to hear in 1994 that Blanch’s house had gone up in flames and she had lost everything, everything, at the age of 90. Undefeated, she started over and died aged 102, surrounded, I hope, by petit-point cushions.
Finally, the title of this essay. Important. It’s from Twelfth Night and is one of those sublime passages that Shakespeare dropped off so lightly.
Women are singing as they spin and sew and knit and crochet and weave their art and the duke is watching. “Mark it Caesario: It is old and plain; the spinsters and the knitters in the sun and the free maids that weave their threads with bones/Do use to chant it. It is silly sooth and dallies with the innocence of love like the old age.”
Sign up to our MAILING LIST now for a roundup of the latest fashion, beauty, interiors and entertaining news from THE GLOSS MAGAZINE’s daily dispatches.