Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  September 17, 2015

Costume in the Needlework Development Scheme Collections

The Needlework Development scheme, founded in Scotland in 1934, aimed to ‘encourage interest in embroidery and raise the standard of design and technique’. The scheme, a collaboration between J&P Coats (the Paisley thread manufacturers) and four Scottish art colleges, was highly unusual at the time, as one of the first initiatives to connect industry and education. After a series of meetings, representatives from the art colleges of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow decided to collect British, foreign, contemporary and historical embroideries intended to form an inspiration resource for both teachers and students. In the years between 1934-1939 roughly 900 samples of embroidered textiles and garments were collected and used by the art colleges, local education authorities and women’s groups.

The scheme was re-formed after the war in 1945, a central hub was established at 89 Wellington Street in Glasgow and each year an embroidery expert was appointed to oversee the activity of the scheme. A series of educational booklets were published for children, as well as multiple books on embroidery techniques. The collections continued to swell year by year, and when the scheme ended in 1961 over 3000 embroidery samples needed re-homing, dating from the 16th century to 1961 and representing dozens of countries around the world. These collections were donated to around 25 different art colleges and institutions in the UK that operated lending policies, in the hope that the collections could remain readily available to those that sought inspiration for their embroidery education.

The collections – split over these many institutions but united through the tastes and ethos of the NDS collectors – are rich and diverse, with extreme variations in size, technique, style, cultural origin and quality: from the educational experimentations of young school children, to refined Carickmacross lace. The breadth of costume styles across the collections is also staggering, ranging from 19th century Chinese imperial robes to Georgian waistcoats and the most delicate Ayrshire needlework bonnets. In the collection of around 60 objects belonging to Edinburgh College of Art, a particularly stand-out piece of costume is an exquisite 18th century bed-jacket, made in white cotton with extensive broad anglais decoration, flaring at the waist and tied with two duck-egg blue silk ribbons. The Glasgow School of Art collection contains a wonderful Portuguese apron dating from the 19th century. Notable for its vibrant colours and bold geometric design, the apron was featured in a painting of the celebrated embroidery teacher Kathleen Whyte, who was the head of the famous Glasgow School of Art embroidery and weaving department between 1948-1974. The Dundee collection contains an unusual shadow-quilted jacket of questionably Chinese origin, while costume in miniature features strongly in the Paisley collection dolls and toys.  Shawls, bonnets, christening gowns, gloves, bags, sleeves and slippers are common occurrences across the broader collection.

These collections were put together in the hope that they would inspire embroiderers young and old to create their own designs, or draw inspiration historic embroidery. Garments were collected solely for the techniques they bore; not for their cut or style, yet inspiration could certainly be drawn from these aspects as well as their ornamentation. Information on endless methods of stitching, smocking, sewing and lace-making can be found in the NDS collections, and appropriately the collections are still available over 80 years on from the formation of the scheme. The Embroiderer’s Guild are the only NDS owning institution to still operate a loans policy – but collections across the country are still available to view by appointment or online. The Duncan of Jordanstone in Dundee, V&A, Reading Museum and Glasgow School of Art collections can be view at least partially online, while further collections can be found at Grays School of Art in Aberdeen, Edinburgh College of Art, Leicester Museums, Plymouth Museum, Paisley Museum, and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Lucie Whitmore, Costume Society Ambassador 2015

  • 19th century Portuguese apron from the Needlework Development Scheme © Glasgow School of Art
  • Georgian waistcoat from the Needlework Development Scheme © Glasgow School of Art
  • 18th century bed jacket waistcoat from the Needlework Development Scheme © Edinburgh College of Art
  • Christening gown from the Needlework Development Scheme © Edinburgh College of Art
  • Queen Anne apron from the Needlework Development Scheme, image credit Lucie Whitmore, © Edinburgh College of Art