The Scottish Highlands & Islands Needlework Tour has begun and I have a few days to catch up on so brace yourselves for a few blog posts back to back as I throw out there all the juicy photos we've been taking over the first week.
The first news item of great importance is that I, Laura, an actually here! Usually I'm not and I have to pester Mum for photos so I can post something and so I can vicariously join the action. Usually all I get back are a few blurred snaps of needlework and far too many of ladies having a very silly time. Well this time I'm having my own silly time and taking my own photos!
So here we go...
Day 1 - Arrival, Clan Gregor and our first day of stitching
After a nervous weekend making sure everyone had arrived safely we had everything in hand by Monday morning and were ready to go!
This is a special moment because you get to reunite with old friends, meet the new people we have been chatting to for months (or even years!) prior to the retreat, and to say a formal and wholehearted welcome. And as always, we had before us a clutch of charming, intelligent, beautiful and extremely interesting women, all with one thing in common - needlework.
Before I go on we want to shout out to Georgia who couldn't make it at the last minute. We miss you and can't wait to see you next time
So everything was ready and we could begin our first session, which was to be delivered by Sir Malcolm MacGregor, 24th Chief of Clan Gregor.
Malcolm's family has held the chiefdom-ship of the Gregor Clan since the 1780s and can date their family back, in a straight line, to 1390. Malcolm is the 24th Chief, a responsibility he inherited from his father in 2003, after he served his country in the Scots Guards and the 51st Highland Brigade.
Malcolm spoke eloquently about the social, political, economic and military development of tartan and how its use and its significance has changed over the centuries. Malcolm and his lovely wife Lady Fiona came appropriately dressed, fully decked out in MacGregor tartan, as they would for an important clan event.
The recurring theme was the romanticism of tartan and how its evocative qualities have caught the imagination of generations of Scots and those who admire the Scottish culture. We will speak more about this in a future post but in the meantime here are a few photos, including one of an incredible artefact from Malcolm's family collection, a velvet waistcoat and tartan overcoat worn by the clan chief in 1822 when the MacGregor Guard of Honour escorted the crown jewels to the king.
This was a moment of incredible significance in clan culture as it represented closeness with the British monarch and importance within the union. From then on there was no stopping the popularity of Highland culture, tartan and everything that went with it. Feel free to add comments below about his subject, there is so much to say about it and we hope to do so in a future post.
We would like to thank Malcolm for the research he put into this lecture and the pride with which he delivered it. We are so very honoured to have met the man who's family for almost a thousand years have been at the forefront of forging the Scottish culture we love and admire.
After Malcolm's talk it was time to meet our retreat designs and get on with our first class. We had prepared a goody bag, which was waiting for everyone as they sat down. As well as the regular essentials such as their notebook, two pairs of embroidery scissors, and some essential Scottish merchandise, we also gave each person an antique solid silver Scottish scarf pin. We have been collecting these pins from auctions and antiques shops over the past couple of years as a memento for each student and we were excited to give them to everyone. Each one was different and unique.
Meredith's Dunollie Rose & Leaves
So, on to the designs. Meredith's design is an elegant motif of a tutor rose, pansy and leaves framed in a circular stem. The stitches used are in silk and metal thread, which we were about to find out was a tricky combinations. But we were excited. Meredith's classes are disciplined, extremely clear and calm. She's runs a fun and enjoyable class but demands focus, which served us all well as we started to get to know our temperamental threads for the first time.
The design itself comes from a fragment of a bodice in the family collection at Dunollie Castle on the West Coast of Scotland. We would be seeing the original piece later in the week but for now we had to make do with a photo.
A novelty for me was actually being in class. I'm not usually at the retreats as I have two young kids but they're old enough now for me to escape for a few days so I was especially excited to join in. Also it was the first time that I had actually worked with these materials (shocking I know, Mum works me too hard) so it was a double pleasure.
I actually think I enjoyed it more than crewel work (shhh). The delicate silk was really enjoyable to stitch with and when we came to the metal, the contrasting texture and the challenge of manipulating it with patience and getting it to stay away from the fine silk was really satisfying. The linen too was incredibly delicate. We were using an historically accurate even-weave linen that we had pre-printed with the design (you can read about how we sourced this here) and it was very tricky to handle. A light tough was required throughout.
Most of all for me, the simple pleasure of being able to sit there with everyone, empty my brain, and just stitch was priceless.
By the time lunch came around we were almost finished our first motif and had started to think about the rose.
During the break Meredith presented a second design that she would be teaching as a travelling piece. We always like the students to have something to stitch on the coach and needlepoint is the perfect thing. Meredith had canvases hand-painted in a MacGregor plaid and each student had their initial added in the centre. This one was Meredith's 'W' for Willett.
Phillipa's Dunollie Feathers
On to Phillipa's design. This one I had seen in the making and was already very familiar with so I was excited to see how it was received. It takes us about a year to develop a design depending on the size and how efficient we are so it had been around the house, sent back and forth through our team chat with Georgie and Frankie, and in and out of Mum's suitcase quite a few times as she visited me in Barcelona.
Being crewel work it was a much more forgiving project to tackle than Meredith's and Mum's classes are a shade more informal because she's can't resist the banter (give a lady an audience).
The feathers design features 20 stitches and in some ways has the qualities of a sampler. It replicates a section of a curtain in the Dunollie Castle family collection. The design was pre-printed on to our Jacobean Z twist linen, just like our normal kits, and the wools used was a two-ply merino wool hand-dyed by Renaissance Dying.
We have exclusive permission from the family to replicate both designs featured on this tour and we are delighted that they will be available for all to purchase afterwards with a donation from each sale going go the castle.
More to come on our Scottish adventure so stay tuned.