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Amy Cooper’s Needlework

March 14, 2016
by the gentle author

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

You may also like to read about

A Dress of Spitalfields Silk

At Anna Maria Garthwaite’s House

Susannah Dalbiac’s Almanack

9 Responses leave one →
  1. March 14, 2016

    Wonderful needlework, so different to the buy-cheap-and-throw-away mentality today. How wonderful that they have been treasured and kept. Valerie

  2. March 14, 2016

    Beautiful created sewing needlework shown here all hand work, of course practical as well. The rose flower is raised almost in 3D. All done in an age when time was not of the essence. Its just amazing these items have survived and are just perfection for the period. Good housekeeping here by seamstress Amy Cooper and all the custodians who followed on after her, after all its ‘a duty of care’ . Thanks to Gentle Author, Bancroft Library and Tower Hamlets L H L for a job well done. John

  3. Barbara Elsmore permalink
    March 14, 2016

    Thank you for sharing these very wonderful things with us and telling us something of the story behind them. The fact that they are kept in a 1960s chocolate box just adds another layer to their history. Whose was the hand that last tucked the sewing needles in the beautiful little case with such precision I wonder – could it be Amy Cooper herself

  4. Sue Woolston permalink
    March 14, 2016

    What a lovely piece of wring with images of beautiful embroidery. I have a feeling my generation may be the last to do fine embroidery. although I didn’t do beadwork, my mother did. I spent hours doing all sorts of work, until my mid thirties when four children took over. I’m now in my seventies and still use the lovely needle case embroidered by my mother although I have no idea where my own went to.

  5. Mike permalink
    March 14, 2016

    A wonderful and delightful story. Thank you very much for sharing these incredible things with us. Such a delight.

  6. Linda Granfield permalink
    March 14, 2016

    WOW! The satin stitching of the patterned bands in the second (last) bonnet is superb! Such precision in the repetition of what must have been hand-drawn designs.

    Utterly magnificent!

    I learned embroidery from my grandmother and mother–taught my daughter; however, schools aren’t including needlework in programs any more. A lost chance to interpret our souls and what we see around us.

    What gifts you’ve given to us today—every day. Thank you!

  7. Linda Granfield permalink
    March 14, 2016

    I hope acid-free tissue and an acid-free box will replace the dangerous chocolate box. It would be lovely to stop any deterioration so that these delicate pieces will be enjoyed in another hundred years.

  8. Rosemary Hoffman permalink
    March 14, 2016

    How beautiful I rmebr my grandma doing lots of embroidery-I have 2 or 3 of the tablecloys she made but nothing like this

  9. pauline taylor permalink
    March 14, 2016

    I am lost in admiration at the skill displayed here as it is something that I could not do to save my life!! Needles and I just do not get along and needle work lessons at school were sheer hell!!
    Reading of other people’s pleasure in sewing makes me think that I have missed out, but then I can draw and paint so I must not complain.

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