Ethel Mairet – The Mother of English Handweaving

New Exhibition. Open until 29 October 2022.

A new textile exhibition at The Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon is a must for weave enthusiasts. Open until the 29 October it tracks the life and work of the Partridge family, whose name is synonymous with the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The mother of English handweaving is how Ethel Mairet (1872–1952), the eldest of the siblings, was described by esteemed Japanese master potter Shoji Hamada. She was a highly skilled weaver and pioneer of Britain’s twentieth-century modern craft revival. She was also the first woman Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) in 1939.

School’s Workshop

I was delighted when I was approached to lead the school’s weave and natural dyeing workshops for Barnstaple Museum’s new exhibition on Mairet and the Arts and Crafts Movement, and I’ve found researching her life’s work fascinating.

From the outset I felt a close affinity with Mairet. She was born exactly 100 years before me, spent time living and traveling in India, (as I did in 2006), prioritised colour and combining different textures of yarn in her weaving more than the techniques, (whilst being highly skilled technically), and she taught and influenced Peter Collingwood, (who’s workshop contents I have recently acquired). The more I discover, the more I want to know and we share a similar approach in our weaving and teaching.

A copy of her rare book, ‘Hand-Weaving Notes for Teachers’, serendipitously came into my life when the conversations with the museum first started. This has been instrumental in how I’ve designed the school’s workshops, as well as giving me insight into her mindset.

Original edition of one of Mairet’s books
Examples of woven cloth from Mairet’s Gospels workshop on display
The finished work by students of Park Community School

In her book, Mairet was adamant that teaching in schools shouldn’t be about creating useless and unwanted things, and I entirely support this view. In response, I created a practical dyeing and weave workshop where the dyed yarns and woven cloth are made into simple cushions. These are intended to create an inviting and comfortable space in a communal area in school; ideally where the pastoral care team is based. I hope the students feel a sense of pride in their creations and a better understanding of the value of handmade and the skills they learned in creating them.

The students work forms part of the exhibition until 29 October 2022
Shepherd and weaver, Jenny Wilkinson demonstrating handweaving in the exhibition

This beautifully curated celebration of her life’s work and teaching at Barnstaple museum is a great opportunity for weave enthusiasts to experience Mairet’s work. The exhibition brings together items from the Museum’s own Partridge Geology Collection, with loans from national and regional museums including examples of Mairet’s celebrated handmade textiles from the Crafts Study Centre and Ditchling Museum of Arts and Craft; jewellery created by Fred from the V&A, Fitzwilliam and Birmingham Museums; and a first edition copy of a book on Mediaeval Sinhalese art from the British Library.

Visit The Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon website and check social media for opening times, demonstrations and the talks programme. The exhibition The Partridge Family of Barnstaple: Ethel Mairet, Fred Partridge and the Arts and Craft Movement is on until 29 October 2022, at The Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon, The Square, Barnstaple, North Devon, EX32 8LN.

Angie Parker