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Amy Cooper's handiwork

January 12, 2010
by the gentle author

One afternoon at the end of last week, I walked down the Mile End Rd to the Bancroft Library, where the Local History collection is housed, to see a newly donated collection of Spitalfields silk and lace. The archivist produced a small 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 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 – James Brown and Richard Ardagh would be impressed. 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 she 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 in 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, know 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 bears testimony to long hours of patient labour and awe-inspiring skill. I am a keen stitcher myself, I have sewn shirts by hand, I mend my own clothes and you have seen the quilt I made, but I could never begin to approach this level of expertise. I particularly like the smaller one with its beautifully regular ruching, gathered at the crown and the drawstrings at front and back.

Now I have seen my first examples of Spitalfields lace and silk, it has made me curious to find more. This place is famous for the silk thread, cloth and clothing that was made here, and much of the story of Spitalfields can be told through the textile industry. Somewhere in archives there must be wonderful examples, and I have decided that I am going to seek some more of our predecessors’ work to show to you.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Anne permalink
    January 12, 2010

    It’s amazing what can be found in local history collections and how wonderful it is that somehow these things survive down the centuries. I have a sampler my Great Grandmother worked in 1888 but when I hear of things from earlier in the century and back to the 1700s that someone has kept/saved it’s very humbling. It’s only by reading about and looking at these things that we can truly understand ourselves. What a great experience it must have been to be at such close quarters to such beautiful objects.

  2. Joan permalink
    January 13, 2010

    When I was growing up in Stepney in the 1960s and 70s (a time when my grandad was trading in caged birds and then, once that became illegal, second hand tellies in Brick Lane) there used to be a collection of Spitalfields silk on display at the Bethnal Green Museum. I would regularly visit it and it was instrumental in my decision to go on and study textile technology. I guess that when the museum decided to concentrate on childhood items the silk was relocated to the V and A.

    Many thanks for your blog. Am exiled now in E15 but regularly revisit Tower Hamlets – especially as my children have discovered the delights of Carom and beigels.

  3. the gentle author permalink*
    January 13, 2010

    Dear Joan, I will go the V&A to find the Spitalfields silk and photograph it for you.

  4. Joan permalink
    January 13, 2010

    Thankyou so much for that. I shall look forward to seeing the photos.
    Best wishes, Joan.

  5. Joan permalink
    February 11, 2010

    Just seen that today’s (10th Feb) post on the Persephone Post blog is a new American edition of ‘Howards End’ with a cover of a woven silk design by Anna Maria Garthwaite.

  6. the gentle author permalink*
    February 11, 2010

    Dear Joan, You might like to know that research is already underway to bring you some features here about this extraordinary eighteenth century silk and textile designer, Anna Maria Garthwaite.

  7. Joan permalink
    February 11, 2010

    That’s lovely news. Your blog posts are much appreciated here.


  8. Joan permalink
    April 21, 2010

    Obituary in today’s Guardian of Natalie Rothstein who did so much to chart London’s silk history.

    Online version has a lovely colour photo of one of Anna Maria Garthwaite’s designs.

  9. skye permalink
    May 13, 2010

    I would be very interested if you can find out more about Anna Maria Garthwaite. I live in Spitalfields and ever since seeing the Blue Plaque on her former house in Princelet St I have done extensive research into Garthwaite (Rothstein’s amazing book Silk Designs in the Seventeenth Century is one of the best resources), and she remains an enigma to me. How she acquired her technical skills and professionalism (as a relatively well-to-do clergyman’s daughter), why she moved to London from York with her sister, and why she is so curiously absent from the correspondence of the day, when others like Mrs Mary Delany feature prominently. I look forward to seeing the results of your research into this fascinating character!


  10. January 8, 2011

    i like your phrasing – a keen stitcher: i like to think of myself as a keen stitcher too, rather than a someone who likes to sew

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