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Rabat Curtain, MorrocoFez Panel, Morocco

Looking at Mediterranean Textiles

with curator Frances Pritchard

Sat 5th March 2011
2pm

Whitworth Art Gallery
Manchester

As we climbed the stone staircase with the heavy balustrades, Frances Pritchard, Curator of Textiles at the Whitworth Art Gallery, cautioned us to be quiet on our return journey. The Museum was a hubbub of activity, including a music and poetry session we had to pass through. This is one of my favourite Museums, there is so much going on, so many different exhibitions with such diverse subjects - apart from a main gallery displaying superb Stitched Textiles from around the world, we had fantasy wallpaper murals, breathtaking in size and scale, contrasting with a contemporary presentation of Mary Kelly’s work - Projects, 1973-2010, giving much food for thought.

Our Textile Society objective was to view a display of Mediterranean Textiles set out for us by Frances Pritchard. Initially she had intended to cover the area with items from the prestigious Newberry Collection, but felt that this was too vast a subject, so had concentrated on their Moroccan Textiles. This proved to be a real feast of embroidery and colour.

Percy and Essie Newberry were renowned as collectors of textile fragments dating from the 10th-19th century. Initially a biology and geology student, Percy Newberry was to become famous for archaeological work in Egypt between 1890 and the 1930's. Over 2000 pieces of Egyptian and Islamic textiles are now in the Ashmolean Museum together with his egyptology notes and correspondence. Luckily, Percy’s wife Essie shared his textile enthusiasm and became President of the Embroiderers’ Guild in 1922. Embroideries from the Greek Islands, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia are now in the Whitworth Museum Collection.

The embroideries of Morocco are surprisingly diverse. Situated in the extreme North West of Africa, coastal areas range from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mediterranean shores. The Atlas Mountains bisect the country at an angle and terrain ranges from northern fertile olive groves to southern Sahara desert. Thus textile influences come from Spain and Portugal, Greece and the Islands, Turkey and the countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa, while weaving is influenced by the Berber Arabs.

Frances Pritchard had laid out several long narrow pieces from northern Chéchaouen. These featured a diversity of stitches from counted thread to the ‘Sale’ bouclé stitch, worked over a needle to give a textured surface. Designs were geometric, with a star-shape in the central panel. More diverse were the curtain fragments from Rabat, with close satin-stitch embroidery clusters covering the surface with vibrant colour.

The embroideries of Tétouan, also in the north, are often worked on a yellow silk ground, with double-sided motifs of obvious Turkish origin. The work from Meknes is more open, with double-running stitches giving the same effect on the reverse. Fez embroidery is completely geometric, reminiscent of tile-patterns as are the bolster cushion covers from Salé, worked in red or black silk thread while earlier bouclé work also features needle-weaving sections, with Eastern influence. The embroidery designs from Azemmour, reminiscent of Assisi work, were brought to the west coast by Portuguese pirates and traders, and are still worked today.

Angela Thompson

Images copyright Angela Thompson, of objects in the Whitworth collection.