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Transcontinental Threads

Adam MacKlin and Billy Shortall.

Lily (1866-1949) and Elizabeth Yeats (1868-1940), pictured above, originally moved to Dublin from London to join Evelyn Gleeson (1855-1944) in her newly established arts and crafts enterprise, Dun Emer Industries in 1902, where the printing of high-quality books and prints was overseen by Elizabeth and embroidery by Lily. The enterprise was named after the Irish mythological figure, Emer, who was renowned for her artistic and needlework skills, and Cúchulainn’s wife. However, after an acrimonious split with Gleeson, the sisters established Cuala Industries in 1908 taking their own areas of production with them. The ideology of both organisations was espoused in the original Dun Emer prospectus, which stated its desire to “make beautiful things” using honest and native materials in “the spirit and tradition of the country”. Both were female enterprises and almost exclusively employed and trained young women as assistants in arts and crafts

The Press, the dominant part of Cuala’s business, published handcrafted books by leading members of the Irish literary revival including Nobel prize-winning sibling William (1865- 1939), and prints designed by Irish artists, chief among them another sibling Jack Yeats (1871-1957). Lily’s embroidery department was also notable, but its output was smaller and its legacy harder to track as many of the domestic embroidered items, such as, clothing, tablecloths and bedspreads are no longer extant. Framed embroidered art works such as those in the National Gallery of Ireland and in private collections indicate the artistry and technical quality of the embroidered work of Lily and her assistants. Before moving to Dublin, Lily had established herself as a skilled artistic embroiderer working for six years in the late 1800s with May Morris, daughter of William Morris, in their world-renowned Arts and Crafts scheme.

TCD MS 11535/6/2/2/10

The ongoing conservation project on the Cuala Business Archive held in the TCD Library, funded by the Schooner Foundation, is currently examining, repairing, and conserving embroidery designs. These designs were functional and might have been discarded once the item was embroidered but survived as business ephemera. Mostly on tracing paper, to facilitate the visual transfer of the design, they are damaged by the pin holes needed to attach the design to the cloth, and subsequent folding – however many survive and are now being preserved. The Embroidery designs within Trinity’s Cuala Press collection (TCD MS 11535/6) comprise of 370 drawings. The designs are drawn with ink and pencil, and in some cases have watercolour and gouache pigments. The designs are mostly on tracing paper and vary widely in size and shape.1 These also vary in type, colour, and condition. All the 370 drawings have until now been stored in one archival box.

The aim of the conservation project is to stabilise and rehouse the collection, thereby preventing further damage. This will allow researchers and readers to access the beautiful collection. To understand the conservation approach, it is worth understanding tracing papers.

Tracing papers are common, not just for embroidery designs. They are translucent, allowing light to pass through them. This makes them ideal for copying designs from underneath. The process of making these papers translucent is the cause of much of the damage we see today. Translucency in paper can be achieved through several methods. These include the addition of waxes, oils, or resins; the further breakdown of paper fibres with acids; and the overbeating of fibres. These methods remove more air pockets than standard paper making methods, allowing light to pass through. Another common feature of tracing papers, the smooth surface is attained from additional pressing. The implication of these methods of papermaking is that the paper has weaker and smaller fibres. Good for translucency but weakens the overall papers. The weaker and smaller fibres increase the likelihood of tears and loss.

The tracing papers in this collection show extensive signs of use. These include folding; re-drawing and rubbing on the verso; and puncture holes. These help to transfer the designs onto the textiles, and in the case of the puncture holes, also help to hold the design in place. They have caused weakness in the papers and may lead to further damage. Folding, for example, can in some cases break fibres and tears are common along fold lines.

TCD MS 11535/6/2/2/9 

Further to the damage incurred throughout the designs’ lifetime, repairs have been carried out. These often take the form of tapes, linings and even stitching sections back together. The use of tapes as a repair is of concern for conservators as they introduce adhesives that can permeate the paper and are difficult to completely remove. The linings can distort and cause further damage to the designs. The holes from the stitching along with the tension from the thread can also harm the tracing papers.

There are many other types of damage encountered in this collection including wrinkling and creases throughout the design and foxing.2

The focus of the treatment is to stabilise and strengthen the objects and have included gentle humidification of the objects and pressing; the removal of tapes and linings; and the repair of tears and loss with thin Japanese papers and wheat starch paste or isinglass. This has resulted in stronger and more stable objects that can be handled more easily. The embroidery designs can now be rehoused safely and securely.

Interestingly included with the embroidery designs is an undated newspaper clipping from the Manchester Guardian titled, “Two Royal Bedspreads, the work of Irish artists”.3 The article describes how two bedspreads designed and embroidered by Cuala industries “ordered by the Australian Government for the new Government House at Canberra, and which have been specially commissioned for the [upcoming] visit of the Duke and Duchess of York, are at present on exhibition in Dublin”. The Royals were guests of the Federal Parliament for the opening of Parliament House on 9th May 1927. The embroidery was completed by Lily Yeats and her assistants, and the design was by artist Mary Cottenham Yeats (1863-1947), wife of Jack, and one of the “Cuala group of artists”.4 The embroidered floral designs were according to the paper, “greatly admired”, and examples of the “revival of Irish hand embroidery”. The bedspreads were shown separately during February 1927 in Messrs. Freke’s shop window on Grafton Street.5 The colours for both were chosen “to match the curtains of the bedroom”, one was “of blue and gold shot taffetas and the other a pale shade of pastel blue”.6

To explain how such an important official commission from a State on the other side of the world happened we must look at another member of the “Cuala group of artists”, Ruth Pollexfen (1886-1974). The Cuala Business Archive holds numerous embroidery designs by Ruth, who, following the separation of her parents became a ward of her cousin Lily Yeats in 1900. Shortly afterwards she moved to Dublin with the sisters and became an apprentice with Lily, preparing decorative designs at both Dun Emer and Cuala.

Ruth married Charles Lane-Poole (1885-1970) in Dublin in July 1911 when she was given away by William Butler Yeats. Eventually the Lane-Poole’s settled in Australia where Ruth established herself an interior designer and received a commission in 1926 to design the Prime Minister and Governor General’s residences in Canberra. As part of this commission, she ordered two embroidered bedspreads from her previous guardian and employer. In 2021, the Canberra Museum and Gallery held an extensive exhibition with an associated catalogue on the interior designer, “Ruth Lane-Poole: A Woman of Influence”.7 This exhibition highlighted the importance of her early career in Cuala on her later design work that “had a profound impact on Australian home furnishing and interior design, especially in Canberra”.

Mary Cottenham Yeats’ design (TCD MS 11535/6/2/1)

  1. The size varies from as small as 2 by 8cm to 40cm by 2m.
  2. The discolouration of the paper due to mould and iron contaminants within the paper pulp.
  3. “Two Royal Bedspreads, the Work of Irish Artists” in Manchester Guardian, undated newspaper cutting but Feb. 1927, in The Cuala Business Archive, TCD 11535/6/10/1/8.
  4. Ibid.
  5. “Australian Order for Ireland. Bedspreads for Government House” in Irish Times, 3rd Feb. 1927. 9.
  6. Ibid
  7. Ruth Lane-Poole A woman of Influence. Canberra Museum & Gallery, 2021
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