The Blossoming of the Textile Society:
A Brief History of its First 25 Years
The first press release of the Society records that it was launched on 8 May 1982 at a conference held at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. It goes on to note that the ‘broad scope of the society is reflected in the group of people who have brought about its formation – practising textile designers and artists, staff from museums, private collectors, conservators, students of textiles and teachers from art colleges, polytechnics and universities.’ Although this mixture of interested parties seems unremarkable today, it was not the case then. As remembered by Lou Taylor, our first Chair, ‘We were then seeking to create what would now be termed a trans-disciplinary academic “space” – when the existing boundaries/walls surrounding the study of textiles were set in cement – economic history, ethnography, curatorial chronology, celebrity designers, etc. There were few who worked together across these divides, few who took an “academic” interest in peasant/regional dress in UK universities, and little debate between designers, makers [and] academics.’
What brought about this interdisciplinary society? It was, in fact, the brainchild of a former senior lecturer in the history and theory of art and design, David Greysmith, who recalls ‘talking to people about it in the early 80s and everyone said “yes, yes, what a good idea” but of course no one did anything about it.’ ‘Then,’ he goes on to say, ‘I met up with Jane Bridgeman. ... I have a feeling she wrote to me offering to help.... Anyway we did meet quite frequently and together we planned the setting up of the Society.’ Jane herself – who became the founding Editorial Co-Ordinator – places Hazel Clark at those early discussions, and by November 1981 there was sufficiently widespread interest for an open forum, held at Middlesex Polytechnic. There, both David (founding Events Secretary, 1982-88) and Christine Woods were members of staff, and together they approached Peter Green, Dean of Arts, who agreed to the use of Polytechnic facilities for mail shots and the like. Christine was the founding Secretary and was responsible, as David has so aptly put it, for ‘much of the early donkey work...’ Minutes were even prepared by Christine for the five meetings between 6 November, 1981, and the formation of the Society four months later; these record the involvement of Hester Bury, Peta Lewis and Lois Sherlock in addition to the above-named, as well as others who became founding committee members: Fiona Barratt, Treasurer; Jacqui Pickford, Membership; and Jackie Herald, Press Officer. The ordinary members were Chris Boydell, Sarah Levitt, Maggie Lydon, John Miles, Janet Oliver, Hanna Singer, Gerald Stead and, replacing Hanna in 1983, Margot Coates and Barbara Ingram. By 26 January 1984, the Society had achieved charitable status, largely due to the efforts of Fiona Barrett.
Together with Hazel Clark (founding Noticeboard Editor and Secretary 1986-87), Chris, Sarah, Janet and Gerald went on to take committee positions, and from among these Chris Boydell returned to the committee in the 1990s, for stints as Secretary and co-Editor (the latter from 1996-2000 with Lesley Miller, who had herself served on the committee since 1986). However, it is the 2006-7 Chair, Freda Chapman, who wins the prize for the most years served: twenty-one in total, including time as Events Secretary (1987-90) and Vice-Chair (1993-98). From 1987-95 her husband, Tony, was our Press Officer, and there is no doubt that the Society owes a great debt to the Chapmans. Second place surely belongs to Audrey Duck, who has run the events programme almost continuously since 1994, and was an ordinary committee member prior to that. Too many to name are those who have served 7-9 years; in fact, in total there are 84 present and one-time committee members that the Society has to thank for its progress over the past 25 years. However, a few others have hit the dozen-year mark: Walter Bowyer (1994-2006), Sue Kerry (1994-today) and myself, whose previous involvement dates from nearly the outset until 1996. It was under my chairmanship (1990-94) that the position of Honorary President was created, giving us another welcomed long-server, Lucienne Day, whose tenure from 1992-2002 was followed by that of another RDI, Eileen Ellis.
The length of service by some committee members accounts for a consistency of goals that can be traced to the inception of the Society. One is the provision of student awards. Initially, these were to be given for two essays, one written by a design student, and sponsorship was sought to fund this. (Best article in any publication and best produced textile design were also considered.) Ultimately, it was the creation of the Antique Textile Fair that allowed the bursary schemes to flourish, and this event was founded at Trentham Gardens in Stoke-on-Trent in 1992 by Alison Dunne (Treasurer 1989-92). Margaret Bolger removed the ATF to its present location at the Armitage Centre, Manchester, where it has been held since 1994, and put the event on a firm footing. Having run the ATF in its second year at Stoke, I know how much effort is involved and here, among the many who have assisted, it is Audrey that the Society must thank for sustaining this lively and profit-making event. (As an aside, I should add that the event was originally called the Antique Textile Show, with its change to the present name giving rise to some amusement on my part, given that ATF in the United States stands for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms!) As a result, graduating designers have benefited from the Lucienne Day award since 1993 and, with careful marshalling of funds, the museums’ award and student bursary were added in 2000 and 2004 respectively, with the professional development award completing the list in 2007.
Another goal was the dissemination of information. Initially this was done through a Newsletter and Noticeboard. Having nursed the former through from its second issue in 1984 until 1989, it was a pleasure – under Brenda King’s editorship (1989-96) – to see the larger and more professionally-produced TEXT emerge from it in the early 1990s, when the old Noticeboard was restyled Newsletter. At the same time recently-replaced letterface logo was commissioned from the graphic designer Brian Brassington, husband to Linda, a committee member from 1987-93 (and Secretary from 1988-91). And the first of the overseas trips – an ambition from the outset – was also achieved, this time by Montse Stanley, who led a group to Barcelona in the spring of 1993, the last of her four years as a committee member. The 1992 double issue of TEXT anticipated this event, with guest editors Montse and Lesley Miller providing translations for Spanish and French contributors. Memorable overseas jaunts have followed; these mainly courtesy of the seemingly indefatigable Audrey. The Collectors’ Group, formed by Angela Thompson, was soon brought under the umbrella of the Society by Montse, in concert with Alisdair Peebles (committee c.1991-96) among others. And one can’t pass by 1992 without mention of John Greenwood, whose ‘Historical Notebook’ first featured in TEXT in that year, continuing until 1998. Our website has offered further exposure of the Society’s events and ambitions, and this was instituted in 1997 by Sue Kerry and Freddie Launert (1996-2003, editing the Newsletter from 1999, then TEXT volumes from 2001 as co-editor). It was realized in 1998 with graphics by Peter Farmer, orchestrated by Kay Greenlees (Chair 1997-2000, committee from 1993). The website’s resource list has an antecedent in the Register that listed lecturers and their specializations, and was among the first initiatives of the original committee.
Among other traditions kept alive from the outset, one is the place place normally held for a representative from the V&A on the committee, with the first holder of this position being Jennifer Wearden, followed by Frances Hinchcliffe in 1985. It was through this route that the committee gained executive members Paul Harrison (1989-95, membership to 1993) and Ngozi Ikoku (1995-2003, co-editing TEXT with Freddie). Not surprisingly then, as a precursor to the museums’ award, in 1990 funds were given to the V&A to support the installation of Natalie Rothstein’s exhibition on eighteenth-century silks. In a less formally stated way, there has always been a Warner Archivist on the committee, the first of whom was Hester Bury. Thus it was natural that the Society made a donation to the 2002-4 “Save the Archive” campaign, and other such actions can also be traced back through the past 25 years. For example, as early as January 1983 the committee wrote to protest the proposed closure of Winchester School of Art and, in 1988, the proposed closure of the William Morris Gallery – the later a possibility that has once more arisen. Another tradition – at least since Clare Dowson in 1991 – has been to recruit a student representative.
So, from the outset, a wide range of individuals, events and publications have forwarded the manifesto of the Society, aimed at making connections across all specializations within textiles and the variety of institutions whose work encompasses aspects of the field. Such diversity within the committee was, returning to Lou’s recollections, ‘...the fun behind these meetings – and that was where the sparks and energy came from.’ Those who can recall the early meetings in Gray’s Inn, where our gracious hostess was Lou’s mother (Lady Polly Elwyn-Jones, née Pearl Binder), and later, in South Kensington, where our hostess was Jenny-Boyd Carpenter (committee 1984-90, Chair from 1986), can confirm what a great time we had. Debates remained lively during my time, but there have been the inevitable moments of sadness; death took its toll as we lost our fourth Chair, Angela Lodge, in 1996, John Greenwood and Montse Stanley in 1999 and, in 2006, Walter Bowyer, who from 1994 looked after membership, moving to the position of Treasurer from 1997 and then Vice-Chair from 2001
In all, however, it has been a remarkable 25 years, with a great deal achieved since David Greysmith’s campaign for this Society’s creation. Going back to the beginning, the final words belong to Lou Taylor who, from her vantage point today as Professor at the University of Brighton, can rightly state that ‘the field is blossoming year by year – and maybe we made some kind of positive contribution to all of that way back then...’
Note: I am grateful to David Greysmith, Christine Woods, Jane Bridgeman, Lesley Miller and Lou Taylor for their recent correspondence with me about the history of the Society, to Sue Kerry for telephone conversations to confirm details, and especially to Katina Bill, the present Secretary, who for this report prepared a provisional list of all committee members from the minutes, which demanding task was much appreciated.