A Craft House in which people of different ages would come together in a friendly and welcoming atmosphere to nourish the practice an appreciation of traditional needlecrafts. Sounds like a dream come to true for many contemporary crafters and craftivists. Indeed, it was the dream of Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth (1886-1967), descendant of the Shuttleworths of Gawthorpe, an established well-to-do family in rural Lancashire. I came across her intriguing life story at the the annual conference of the British Quilt Study Group in October 2017. There, the the curator of Kay-Shuttleworth's extensive and asthonishing textile collection, Rachel Midgley, presented on the life and collection of her namesake. The similarity between Kay-Shuttleworth's ideas about crafting and the process of making and those of contemporary critical makers and theorists was surprisingly striking and I was immediately fascinated by this women. Over the holidays, I was now finally able to read the short memoir about her life and passions, published posthumously by her longtime friend and vicar Canon G. A. Williams. A quick read that I can recommend to anyone interested in needlework and practices of making.
From an early age, Kay-Shuttleworth had a liking for needlework and, as was the custom of the time, it was part of her schooling. As an adolescent, she attended the boarding school Northlands and was shocked to find that the curriculum inteded needlework to be taught primarily to younger students whereas the older ones were supposed to focus on more academic subjects. To the fifteen-year old Rachel this made no sense because, in her opinion, "education should be a matter of coordination of mind, hand and eye" (Williams 1994 , p. 4). To be able to successfully learn about about literature, history, music and other languages and cultures the physical engagement of the hands in particular, and of other parts of the body in general, was instrumental. Practices of physical making such as needlework, therefore, should not be treated as separate from the primarily book based study of many subjects in the humanities. Many crafters, past and present (myself included), can confirm this theory from personal experience and contemporary theories of education also draw on similar concepts. For example, in her work on 'craft as conversation', educator Kate Dunstone from Manchester Metropolitan University, explores how craft can be used as a means to generate and share knowledge. Zine making, stitching, cutting or sculpting allow participants to be active as they consume information about aspecific techniques or non-craft related topics. Yet, unfortunately, across much of the (higher) education sector it would still be cosidered rude to be found knitting or hand-sewing, during a lecture or a seminar.
Echoing, though perhaps unconciously, Marxist philosphy about the alienation of mechanized labour, the sixteen-year old young debutante also developed an interest in the effects of the Industrial Revolution and mechanization on the labourers that lived in the vicinity of her family's second home Barbon Manor, located on the outskirts of the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales. While mechanization meant more free time for certain workers, Rachel observed that this was not necessarily to people's benefit. On the one hand, they were lacking the satisfaction that comes with completing a handmade piece of work. On the other hand, there was no alternative outlet that allowed people to creatively express themselves through making. William recounts that "Rachel recognized that personality develops through expression and that without opportunity for creative work personality must suffer" (1994 , p. 7). So off young Rachel went to create such opportunities for people by teaching needlework classes in the surrounding villages and encouraging people to meet up regularly in groups to work alongside each other and to provide one another with assistance. The establishment of her Craft House was to be the ultimate embodiment of this mission.
On route to this goal, she also discovered the value of different pieces of needlework to serve as inspiration and as a medium for teaching. She travelled extensively and whereever she went, she made sure to bring back some examples of the local textiles. Soon friends and relatives came to help with the growth of her collection by donating textiles and salvaging any pieces they came across on their own travels. The collection grew steadily though, most of the time, it was stored in boxes under beds and in cupboards in Gawthorpe Hall and Rachel's own property Holly House. Rachel kept an extremly busy life managing her family's household and as an active member in various social and charitable causes, above all the Girl Scouts. Nonetheless, she always managed to find time to nurture her interest in textile and became increasingly known as an expert on needlework, particularly lace-making.
But it was only in her late fifties that she finally found the time to fully dedicate herself to the Craft House. She came to refashion her old stately family home, Gawthorpe Hall, for this purpose in collaboration with the National Trust. Until her death, Rachel was dedicated to showing people the collection (which in size is only surpassed by the textile collection of the Victoria and Albert Musuem in London) and to sharing her passion for needlework. As a working collection it was and continous to be open to students, researchers and the general public. Indeed, the collection also includes some "quite hideous things, chosen for their intrinsic interest or To Show People How Not [sic]" (Kay 1994 , p. 37). Right up to her death, Rachel was an avid needlewoman herself and continued to be involved in the management of the collection and the house. Since then, the National Trust alongside with the Gawthorpe Textiles Collection has committed to preserving her collection and legacy at Gawthorpe Hall and the property is open to the public. The online gallery of the collection provides contemporary crafters worldwide with insight into century-old practices wedged within discourses of women's work, the arts and crafts, mass production and creativity.
|Gawthorpe Hall as pictured in Greeves, L. (2013). The Houses of the National Trust.|
References and further reading:
Dugan, E. K. (2007). Rachel's Tat. Uncoverings, 28, 27-51.
Kay, F. (1994) . The Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth Collection. In: Williams, C. G. A. Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth: A Memoir. Kendal: Titus Wilson and Son, pp. 37-38.