Thursday, 23 December 2010

Suffragette connections Part 7 - The Sisters

 Having examined some tangential suffragette connections, it is time to return to one of the most obvious connections that the Peasant Arts movement had with female empowerment: the leading roles assumed by Ethel Blount and Maude Egerton King, the sisters.
The Wheel and Spindle Club, Sandhouse, Witley.  Reproduced courtesy of Haslemere Educational Museum
Above is a picture that I believe contains both sisters, however which is which is not clear!  Standing on the far right is definitely either Maude Egerton King or Ethel Blount.  The other sister may also be in the photo, perhaps sitting in the middle behind the wheel, looking downwards, as she appears to have similar facial features to the woman on the end.  King and Blount jointly ran the Wheel and Spindle Club (more on this below).

At the core of the sisters beliefs was the importance of home industry and the impact of this work upon spiritual well-being.  This is well demonstrated in Greville MacDonald’s first hand description of Maude Egerton King “she felt that the spiritual worth of spinning and weaving, of building chairs and tables, or of carving vessels or crucifixes for the home, was absolute…so the humblest home was to her more sacred than any church or shrine or altar” (MacDonald, Reminiscences of a Specialist, 1932).
Image from the exhibition 'Hand Made Tales: Women and Domestic Craft', The Women's Library, London

It is interesting to see the parallels behind Blount and King's views with those of today.  The current Women's Library exhibition, curated by Carol Tulloch is described as "a timely exhibition focusing on the role domestic crafts play in many women’s experiences. It draws on the connections between the current revival of domestic crafts such as sewing, gardening, and cooking and the historical roots of the domestic arts within the home."

Ethel Blount in The Story of the Homespun Web (1910) refers to the historical tradition of woman being “identified with her spindle as a man with his spear” and questions “is it so well for the world that women have given up their birthright of this lovely labour, and have left it to be done under the dark skies of factory hands?”.  Blount encourages readers to “accept the spindle, and all it means, nobly, remembering that you also are a part of Fate, spinning by your feelings and deeds the weal or woe of others”. 

Haslemere Weaving, illustration from Woolson, 'Revival of English Handicrafts: the Haslemere industries', The Craftsmen, January 1902
Having finished instructing the reader from the initial scouring of the fleece to weaving their first cloth, Blount declares “when you did but spin you were a spinster: now you are a wife, a weaver.  It has always been recognised as the higher, more worshipful position, and in old pictures it is ever the Queen who sits at the loom, weaving for her household, and he young maids and humbler folk who card and spin”.

The Peasants Arts movement was a close follower of Ruskin and Blount refers to Ruskin’s letter to young girls where he “asks them if they will be housewives or house-moths, Will they fret and consume things of life merely, or will they create and preserve? It is a question which may well be asked of our women to-day, for on their answer depends our civilisation. May they soon begin to choose to be housewives again, makers of homes as well as of cloth!" Blount envisages a women’s movement, not in line with Blatch’s need to vote, but need to weave “if but few can be found to try such a mode of life, let women take heart, and begin it by twos and threes, for more will assuredly follow in their footsteps.  What might not England be in even ten year’s time if women would turn their splendid energies and devotion to this re-conquest?” (Blount, The Story of the Homespun Web, 1910).
from Ethel Blount, The Story of the Homespun Web, 1910

This home-making enabled women to redefine themselves through design; Buckley connects this with linking their personal and political lives (Buckley, ‘On the Margins: Theorizing the History and Significance of Making and Designing Clothes at Home’, Journal of Design History, 11 (2), 1998).  Myzelev interprets such writing as claiming that “the movement, especially women’s efforts in reviving indigenous crafts, allowed them to emerge in the public realm, gain employment, and at times challenge the traditional binary division between male designer and female maker” Myzelev, Craft Revival in Haslemere: she, who weaves…Women's History Review, Vol 18, Issue 4, 2009). 

from Ethel Blount, The Story of the Homespun Web, 1910

An important part of Blount and King’s approach was to impart knowledge through teaching.  The Peasant Arts movement began when Maude Egerton King taught a few local women to weave at Lower Bertley, Witley in 1895 as part of a Home Arts and Industries Association (HAIA) class with some of their products being shown at the annual Home Arts exhibition in the Albert Hall later that year.  In 1898 there were four paid women weavers operating from the Weaving House in Foundry Meadow (Myzelev, Craft Revival in Haslemere: she, who weaves…, Women's History Review, Vol 18, Issue 4, 2009). 

The work conditions for employees were clearly very important to the Peasant Arts movement.  The Art Journal reported that “The Haslemere Weaving Industry, like that of the Peasant Arts Society, employs women and girls from the village, who are taught their craft, and who earn a home-industry wage at work that is pleasant to do, and done in pleasant surroundings.” (‘Haslemere Arts and Crafts’, Art Journal, 1906).
Peasant Arts leaflet header

Ethel Blount ran the Spinning and Weaving School at the Hall of St George in Foundry Meadow, a leaflet for the school proclaimed “This is work too which offers women an opportunity for self-expression, a want particularly felt to-day, when machinery has robbed their homes of so many vital and absorbing industries…The School is entirely disinterested, the promoters receiving no remuneration, and all profits going to further work.”

Ethel Blount and Maude Egerton King jointly ran the Wheel and Spindle Club which they established in 1912 at Sandhouse (the Kings large house in Witley).  Here they taught local girls aged between 7-14 years old to spin.  Blount and King reported on this venture that “To give a little girl the use of her hands is to bring a disinherited princess back into her kingdom” (‘Our experience of the Influence of Handicraft upon the Workers’, Peasant Arts Guild Paper, No. 10 , Ethel Blount and Maude E. King).  

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