Embroidery and needlework agencies run by women, for women, are an under-researched sub-set of the nineteenth-century British art world. I explore these organisations and their complicated relationship with professionalism, commerce and philanthropy in my article ‘Stitching Professionalism’, published in the Journal of Victorian Culture 21, no.2 (2016). One group of female embroiderers that did not fit within the scope of that article, but which deserve further attention, are those that worked in convent workrooms. Religious women living in communities such as the Society of St Margaret at East Grinstead were paid to carry out embroidery commissions, and architects and designers nurtured strong business relationships with convent communities throughout Britain. This female labour was a vital part of the transatlantic network for the manufacture and sale of ecclesiastical dress and textiles, and this model of production was imitated in the United States and Australia.
Gothic revival architect Augustus Pugin was an influential figure in establishing links between convent embroidery workrooms and architects and designers with an interest in church decoration, many of whom had connections with the Arts and Crafts and Oxford movements. Pugin believed that the state of embroidery production in England in the mid nineteenth century was poor, and he and other advocates of neo-gothic styles blamed women for what they saw as the ‘decadence of contemporary church needlework.’ Rozsika Parker notes that these architects and designers ‘aimed as much at reforming the ladies as their work.’1 These reservations notwithstanding, women, and, more specifically, religious women, were regarded as suitable makers of ecclesiastical embroidery because of their presumed piety, spirituality and moral purity. Architects George Street, William Burges and William Butterfield along with design firms like Watts and Co carried on Pugin’s practice of commissioning convent workrooms to carry out substantial pieces of embroidery work.2
Convent workrooms were rarely formed to carry out embroidery purely for the sake of art or commerce. Like the Royal School of Art Needlework, the organisation often credited with popularising art embroidery, convent workrooms had a social mission. The Sisterhood of St John the Baptist, Clewer, for example, opened its School for Church Embroidery on London’s Gower Street to assist women in reduced circumstances make a living through needlework. The Sisterhood itself had been founded in 1852 to carry on the work of Mrs Mariquita Tennant, who provided care for prostitutes. The Clewer sisters received commissions from designer Charles Kempe and from churches in the United States, such as St Mark’s Church in Philadelphia. A Clewer offshoot in the United States, the Sisters of St John the Baptist Mendham, also produced embroidery.
The Society of St Margaret, East Grinstead, who were well known for their charitable work in East London, also ran a School of Ecclesiastical Embroidery in Bloomsbury where they took in female boarders. Graduates were able to earn up to £50 a year as trained, skilled embroiderers. This convent workroom had a strong relationship with architect John Sedding; Sedding’s sister Isabella, known within the sisterhood as Sister Isa, was head of the embroidery workroom.3 George Street’s sister also became involved in producing her brother’s embroidery designs; she joined with Agnes Blencowe to found the Ladies Ecclesiastical Embroidery Society in 1854. Blencowe later joined the sisterhood of St Mary the Virgin at Wantage, where she ran the embroidery room for twenty years.
Embroiderers from religious communities were not concerned with deriving personal income or cultivating their own artistic careers. Their status as producers, not designers, reinforced the gendered divide between maker and artist and the largely anonymous and non-attributable nature of their work has contributed to their marginalisation in art and design discourse. But embroidery did give these women agency; it supported their charitable work and gave them a presence in ecclesiastical aesthetics. With only one monograph dedicated to English church embroidery in print today4, the role of convent workrooms in the revival of nineteenth-century embroidery merits further attention.