Stitches in olden time;Arts;Exhibition

26th February 1999 at 00:00
The Thistle and the Rose. Burrell Collection, Glasgow until April 5 Deedee Cuddihy sees pupils dressing up as Tudors and Stuarts as part of an embroidery exhibition

They looked a picture: 24 Primary 6 children from Springhill School in Barrhead, one of the girls dressed as a 16th-century queen in a velvet costume trimmed with lace and pearls; one of the boys rigged out as her consort in a brocade suit with tights and black shoes. The rest of the class wore frilly lace collars and looked totally at ease in them, seated on the floor in the education room at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow.

They were there for one of the expressive arts workshops that museums education consultant Jennifer Stevenson is holding for primary schools at the Burrell every Tuesday in February and March during the Thistle and the Rose exhibition. The show of rare Stuart and Tudor embroidered furnishings has been curated by Liz Arthur and beautifully mounted. The entrance to the exhibition is hung with velvet curtains and lit by flickering electric candles, both of which feature throughout the display space, where walls have been painted in rich dark colours to set off the furnishings, and period music plays softly.

Although the embroidery itself will be of interest to needlework enthusiasts, it is the story behind the stitches and threads that will fascinate other visitors to the show. For, as Liz Arthur explains:

"Embroidered furnishings were important status symbols at a time when furniture was plain and interiors sparsely furnished. Their rich colours and fabrics and lively details provided comfort, luxury and decoration in the homes of the aristocracy and middle classes."

Beds, the children learned, were once the most important piece of furniture in a house, with the best one usually left in a father's will to his eldest son. Shakespeare's wife, for instance, was only bequeathed the "second best bed" by her husband.

To prove the point, an elaborately carved bed made for the Earl of Shrewsbury in the 1500s is on display - with its wooden "roof" and massive corner posts, it is so solid it could have been lived in.

Rich folk used their beds not just for sleeping in, but for displaying embroidered hangings which often cost more than the frame. A whole set of hangings, like the ones on show at the Burrell, might include curtains, counterpanes, canopies, valances and a padded headboard made of silver and gold cloth, velvet and taffeta and decorated with tassels, silk fringes and ribbon.

Rarer still than these priceless hangings is an early 17th century pillowcase, embroidered with the same stitches as the tooth cloths that Queen Elizabeth used. (Ordinary mortals used plain, undecorated cloths to clean their teeth.) Of particular interest are the embroideries believed to have been worked by Mary, Queen of Scots during her 18 years' imprisonment. As Jennifer Stevenson explained to the children, people didn't have videos then and embroidery would have helped Mary keep her mind off her predicament.

In fact, pupils taking part in the workshops spend very little time peering into the exhibition's display cases. Instead, they learn about the Stuart and Tudor periods through costume, dance and music. Visitors looked suitably impressed when the P6s from Springhill School bowed and curtsied to each other in their Elizabethan ruffs as Jennifer Stevenson put them through their paces in one of the public galleries.

For further information on workshops, tel: 0141 287 2747

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