Diane Cooke meets the curator who’s working to bring a museum’s collection to a wider audience – with help from some top designers
JENNIE Pitceathly’s Gawthorpe Hall office is a crafter’s utopia. Stacked cardboard boxes with mysterious labels like ‘dressing capes and jackets’ reach the ceiling, exquisite vintage pieces of gem and pearl-encrusted lace are scattered upon a huge oak table.
I fight an overwhelming urge to swoop on something pretty like a magpie on a raid.
Jennie, 36, is lucky. As director of Gawthorpe textiles collection she’s surrounded by beautiful “preciouses” from far-flung lands and it’s her role to preserve and promote them. For that reason a gaggle of top designers visited the collection recently to help catapult it into the 21st century crafter’s consciousness and to make some vital cash for its upkeep in the process.
World-renowned designer Debbie Bliss, whose publications, patterns and yarns are stocked by John Lewis was one. Knitwear designer of-the-moment Kate Davies, originally from Rawtenstall, is another. Claire Montgomerie, editor of Inside Crochet, Jane Ellison of Purlandjane. co.uk, Emma Varnam and Jane Ellison make up the dream team.
They will be producing a collection of Gawthorpe-inspired patterns which can be bought and downloaded, and the designers have agreed to waive their copyright to the patterns.
“They all recognised that it was such an exciting project and a great opportunity,” says Jennie.
And with the nation enraptured with all things home-made, the timing could not be more perfect.
Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth – Miss Rachel – the last resident of Gawthorpe Hall who died in 1967 and who created the collection would have been cock-a-hoop.
Says Jennie: “Miss Rachel was an incredibly passionate and compassionate woman who was very involved with people and the community. A group of local women have created a banner in her honour which opens the collection.
"I had to smile when I saw two young girls taking selfies using it as a backdrop.
“The collection is a great source of inspiration to young and old. In fact, a recent survey of visitors revealed that the largest group of visitors are in their mid-20s to early 30s, with careers and with plans to start a family. That came as a great surprise to some.”
Born in 1886, Miss Rachel was a collector, embroiderer, lacemaker and teacher, and for a time Gawthorpe Hall was used by local artistic women as a craft house.
She was also heavily involved in the Guiding movement; every Guide and Brownie in East Lancashire in 1923 added at least one stitch to a series of embroideries in the collection.
“Miss Rachel was such an inspiration that many local girls were called Rachel after her. In fact, this is a living collection as there are still people alive who remember her,” says Jennie.
She travelled all over the world collecting examples of embroidery and textiles. There are 3,000 in total. One magnificent piece hails from India – a quilt created by an anonymous soldier from old uniforms.
“People can relate to this collection. We all have cushions, curtains, jumpers and baby bootees. We know these things and we can engage with them much more than with, say, an oil painting. They have an appeal greater than that for high art.”
Jennie left her native Canada after graduating from the University of Toronto with a degree in art history. She came to the UK for work experience and has worked for various museums.
She came to Gawthorpe in 2012 and found a collection which was rather understated and “old-fashioned”. Her brief was to take it to the masses – about 25,000 a year visit the hall but targets are much higher. Her first task was to work with a group of talented Burnley women to make the ‘Miss Rachel’ banner.
So what drew her to the post?
“While I was working for museums in Pennine Lancashire, my friend taught me to knit and crochet. It’s something I thoroughly enjoy, so I understand fully the pleasure this collection brings to many and will bring to so many more.”
Gawthorpe Hall re-opens to the public on Saturday, March 29, with Textilefest. The Gawthorpe-inspired designer patterns will also be available from March.