Amy Cooper’s Needlework
One afternoon, I walked down the Mile End Rd to the Bancroft Library, where the Local History collection is housed, to view a small collection of Spitalfields silk and lace. The archivist produced a cardboard chocolate box from the nineteen sixties with a Raeburn portrait of a child on the top. He kindly placed a table beside the window in the dying afternoon light and covered it with a piece of grey paper. The he opened the box and unwrapped the precious packages inside wrapped in white tissue paper, arranging them on the table, so that in the last light of day I could photograph them for you.
The first item to catch my eye was this little silk purse with the phrase SPITALFIELDS SCHOOL OF DESIGN 1848 elegantly picked out in gold thread. Not only is the stitching neat and regular, the balance and spacing of the typography is perfect. This curious item has no wear, it cannot have had any function beyond displaying the accomplishment of its own creation. It fits neatly into the palm of the hand and is exquisite in every detail, the string of golden glass beads looped around the edges, the delicate string handle, the jet button and the oyster blue silk lining.
Next I examined the needlebook below, with embroidery of flowers on both covers, and – taking the utmost care – I unfastened the ribbons that held it closed. Opening it up, I found a scrap of paper folded in between the pages of needles which tells us the maker. This needlebook was made by Miss Amy Cooper: she was born in 1794 & died in 1891. The script itself had a delicacy and restraint, similar to the handwriting of “No more twist!” pinned on the Lord Mayor’s unfinished waistcoat in The Tailor of Gloucester.
I love the aesthetic, using pale silk and embroidering subtly coloured flowers in natural colours, as fresh as the day they were stitched. The use of different toned threads in the recognisable heather and rose flowers suggests Amy worked from nature. Every individual stitch is a decision made with the same care you might bring to the selection of vocabulary and arrangement of words in a poem. Fine details, like the sky blue lining, the grey glass beads sewn at intervals around the edge of covers and the use of bordered ribbon upon the spine, draw the eye to observe the nuances of this lovely artefact. When someone invests as much time and consideration as Amy did here, it deserves our closest examination and rewards us in turn by delighting the eye.
Amy Cooper lived to be ninety-seven, born five years after the French Revolution, she died in the year that automobiles began manufacture. The three sisters who donated the collection, which belonged to their mother Mrs Ann Maitland MacEwen, knew nothing of its origins – so we cannot say if Amy made them all or establish what is the connection to the Spitalfields School of Design, which was an early government project to promote design in industry, founded at 37 Crispin St in 1842. Amy would have been fifty-four in 1848, when the purse was made, and I would like to think she made it as an example to show her pupils at the school.
The other two items that complete this modest collection are two girls’ lace caps. The workmanship of these pieces is inconceivably intricate and the awe-inspiring skill on display bears testimony to long hours of patient labour.
With thanks to Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archive
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