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Dorset groups: We’re like gardeners, we love to share our knowledge

Lindsay Neal examines the work of the West Country Embroiderers

West Country Embroiderers hard at work

For all the impressively fine needlework needed to decorate antimacassars for the backs and arms of chairs, or to embellish striking trousseaux, 21st century embroidery must encapsulate much more. And as two of Dorset’s most dedicated practitioners shed light on their art by debating the merits of industrial textures, new fabric technology, drills and hot air guns it’s clear the time has come to relinquish a few preconceptions about this apparently genteel craft.
As chairman of West Country Embroiderers, Sue Fenwick says the group embraces all aspects of modern embroidery, from the traditional to the wildly experimental, as she wants to create a welcoming atmosphere for absolute beginners and those returning to skills they may have learned half a lifetime ago.
‘We have members who do the most incredible pure embroidery – our past president Jane Lemon is very well known for her church work – but we also have embroiderers that push the boundaries,’ she says. ‘I was taught that you have to learn your threads and fabrics first and be able to produce samples of basic stitches before you can really start to experiment, but once you’ve learned the basics then really there are no rules, you can do anything. We use drills, hot air guns, even ovens to distort the work, which may incorporate things like electrical wire, stones, shells, wood, paint, cords and tassels.
‘The fabrics we use have changed considerably as well. I’ve worked a lot with dissolvable fabric, the kind of thing that’s used in hospitals to contain dirty linen so that nobody has to touch it. When it’s washed it dissolves, so if it’s stitched it leaves this crispy texture behind. A lot of these fabrics come from military or industrial uses.’
She explains the joys of working with Tyvek, a fabric made of flashspun polyethylene fibres and used for hazardous material suits, as seen on television in any number of CSI dramas: ‘Someone decided it would be very good to stitch through and then burn or distort, so they tried it with some great results.’

Summer Flowers by Eileen Pugh of the Poole group

Most cultures have developed a form of embroidery, frequently with both practical and decorative purposes. Used to embellish existing fabrics, for working people it strengthened clothes to make whole garments or sections of them harder wearing; while for more mannerly society it was used to decorate clothing, to show off and for some ladies of leisure, simply to use up time. Places of worship also made much use of embroidery in ecclesiastical clothing and decoration.
With all due modesty, Dorset has given its name to part of the embroidery vernacular – the Dorset Feather Stitch, a combination of traditional Feather, Buttonhole, Chain and Fly stitches in a distinctive design. It was first made at the beginning of the 20th century by members of the Dorset Women’s Institute, one of which, Olivia Pass, published a book about it in which she wrote: ‘This happy easy work is a revival, by Dorset Women’s Institutes, of some old stitches in modern form. In evolving this work, Dorset has drawn on traditions from many sources, notably a book of designs taken off nineteenth century smocks… (and) a beautiful Balkan apron.’
Today, other than the sheer joy of embroidering for its own sake, its professional applications include conservation and restoration work, theatrical costuming and decorative work on upholstery and items such as bed linens. Although invariably mass-produced on machines, there is still a core of skilled artisans working by hand.
‘Embroidery is a living, breathing art form,’ says West Country Embroidery’s Dorset coordinator Annette Jones, ‘and our members are very good at trying new things and thinking of fresh ideas to have a go at. It is incredibly liberating as an outlet for creativity and to that extent we are textile artists. People that have spent years tied up with jobs and family and what have you suddenly find they have time on their hands and are rediscovering the skills they learned perhaps in childhood.
‘You sit there with your friends stitching away and there might be a workshop going on, or someone giving a talk. Somebody else is wondering how you did such and such thing, so you get up and show them, then you’re talking about this and that, it’s very sociable. Embroiderers are very generous people, we’re like gardeners, we love to share our knowledge and pick up new ideas and tips from each other.’

A panel made by the Weymouth group, Moonshine was sold in November 2013 to raise money for child victims of Typhoon Hiayan in the Philippines

West Country Embroidery exists to promote and share all aspects of embroidery. Formed in 1973 and with more than 1,000 members spread mainly across Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, its 32 groups are all self-governing and organise their meetings to suit their membership, but each appoints a representative to attend regular county group meetings and the county coordinators meet with an executive committee three times a year to administer the organisation.
Events include sewing days, demonstrations, talks, visits, outings, residential courses and shows such as the biennial Dorset County Exhibition, held this year at Upton Country Park from 12-23 June, where members showed a wide range of work, some of which was offered for sale.
‘It’s all for the love of it,’ says Annette, ‘there’s no real thought of selling what we make. People don’t want to pay what they would for a painting on canvas, there is so much time wrapped up in pieces that to price them by time is impossible. It’s interesting that we’re all of a similar mind set, so those that come to us and think they are going to make a fortune from embroidery are soon disabused of that idea.’
Inevitably, both Sue and Annette proudly admit to harbouring sizeable collections of works in progress – the result of an incessant creative thirst they say is common to all embroiderers.
‘The exhibition means I’ll finish some pieces, but there’s quite a body of incomplete work,’ says Sue to nods of agreement from Annette.     ‘It happens because I start one thing, then I want  to try something else, then another thing and so on,’ she explains. ‘I have a room of what I call UFOs – Unfinished Objects!’ ◗
❱     There are Dorset groups in Christchurch, Poole, Purbeck, Sherborne, Wareham, Weymouth and Wimborne.  Contact: Sue Fenwick, chairman
01202 892622,

Homage to Van Gogh by Lesley Rundle of the Bridport group

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