Alan Townsend explores ecclesiastical needlework


In his sermon at All Hallows, Gospel Oak (New Directions September 2020) Bishop Jonathan Baker referred to the fixtures and fittings aiding our witness to the crucified and risen Lord. It was in the wake of the Oxford Movement that there was a revival of interest in church furnishings, supported by the Ecclesiological Society, and many local guilds of embroidery sprang up, often with the newly founded religious communities.

Leek in the Staffordshire Moorlands was, in the 19th century, a thriving silk town with several mills, and these were dominate by the Wardle family. Thomas (later Sir Thomas) Wardle was a friend of William Morris who was interested in the techniques of dyeing. He spent three years (1875-1877) with Wardle in Leek, attempting to rediscover the lost art of vegetable dyeing. Reacting against mass production, he was likely to support any attempts to produce hand crafted items. It is not surprising therefore to learn that he was enthusiastic about Elizabeth Wardle’s work. 

Elizabeth Wardle, wife of Thomas Wardle, had an interest in embroidery like so many Victorian ladies, and was a skilled needlewoman. Following the birth of her youngest daughter, she was seriously ill and it took 2 years to recuperate. Once she had recovered her ability to read and write, she resumed her embroidery with renewed enthusiasm. Her husband asked her to work some tussur silk which he had made. Before her illness she had gathered a few friends to join her, and they produced some wall hangings which were not too well received. Now they turned their skills to serious church embroidery. Supported by Morris they produced some fine work which was soon more widely recognised. The Leek Embroidery School was formally established in 1879 or 1880 (the date is not known for certain), some 12 years after the ladies had first worked together. In 1881 they put on a display at the Leek School of Art for the annual prize giving, Sir Philip Cuncliffe-Owen, the Director of what was then the South Kensington Museum, who gave away the prizes saw the 18 pieces of embroidery, which included altar frontals, pulpit falls, and alms bags, and was so impressed that he gave the Society his enthusiastic support. It was not long before it received royal patronage, and secular pieces were supplied to various members of the Royal Family. A white bedspread on the royal bed at Osborne House is said to have been worked by the Leek Society. Walter Crane. Norman Shaw, Gerald Horsley, John Ridley, John Sedding, George Gilbert Scott, Burne-Jones, J L Pearson, Bodley and William Morris all supplied designs. A shop was opened in Leek, and in 1883, one at 71 New Bond Street.  When it closed after only a few years an agency was established at Debenham and Peabody in Wigmore Street. They also influenced Liberty designs according to their 1894 catalogue. An important product of the Guild was a facsimile of the Bayeux Tapestry now in Reading Musuem. While they produced much domestic work, including tablecloths, cushions, curtains, and table centres, their main work was ecclesiastical. This included stoles, altar frontals, pulpit falls, chalice veils, burses, alms bags, and palls. At is height there were at least 50 embroideresses working at Leek.

Each year, coronavirus permitting, there is an exhibition of Leek textiles in the church of All Saints, Leek. The church itself is a gem of the Arts and Crafts movement and so is a fitting environment for the display. The building was designed by Norman Shaw, the reredos, font and pulpit by Lethaby, the chancel and Lady Chapel decoration and the chancel paneling is by Gerald Horsley (a pupil of Norman Shaw), and most of the glass was designed by William Morris.

In the records of Christ Church, Fenton, Stoke on Trent, about 12 miles from Leek, where I served, there is reference to alms bags being acquired from the Leek Embroiders Guild. Sadly they have disappeared long since, as have pieces from elsewhere, but there are many items to be found in local churches and further afield. The Leek churches, as one would expect, have many pieces; both All Saints and St Edwards have several fine examples, and in St Luke’s, a frontal bearing the pelican emblem, designed by J D Sedding, can still be seen. The Leek Embroidery Society also worked with Anglican Sisters, and a cream frontal in All Saints Church was worked jointly with the Sisters at East Grinstead. Frontals were made for as far away as Zanzibar Cathedral, Grahamstown Cathedral and the Gordon Memorial Chapel in Khartoum.

The Oxford Movement had far reaching effects in the development of spirituality in the Church of England and our understanding of doctrine, but it also found expression in the dignity of worship, and that included the beautifying of our churches, and in that the needlework guilds played no small part.


Further Reading:

Anne G Jacques: Leek Embroidery; Staffordshire Libraries,  Arts and Archives

D G Stuart (ed.): The History of the Leek Embroidery Society; Department of Adult Education, Keele University

Cathryn Walton: Hidden Lives – Leek’s Extraordinary Embroiderers; Privately Published


Fr Alan Townsend SSC is a retired priest in 

the Diocese of Lichfield.