Postcard from Scotland: Traquair House
Visited by 27 Scottish kings and queens, including Mary Queen of Scots, Traquair House in the Scottish Borders is the oldest inhabited house in Scotland. Traquair is renowned for its collection of embroideries, which were stitched by needlewomen whose descendants still live in the house today. The embroideries encompass a variety of styles and techniques, from colifichets (embroideries on paper) to crewelwork.
The Traquair needlework tradition remains strong, and Catherine Maxwell Stuart, the 21st Lady of Traquair, decided that embroidered kneelers for the house’s small chapel would be the perfect way to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the house, which dates back to 1107.
Catherine was delighted to discover that needlework designer Carol Ann Long lived just a few miles (5 km) away, and as soon as she saw Carol’s work, she knew that it would be perfect for the project she had in mind.
Carol was to take her inspiration from the embroideries, murals, and woodcarvings in the house and create new from old. A tour of the house revealed plenty of inspiration. “The fine tent-stitch panels in the house depict fruits, flowers, and animals, so I had plenty of choice,” Carol told me. “As well as providing designs for some of the main images, such as the chameleon, the panels also provided the inspiration for the lovely details that adorn the background of many of the embroideries. I hate empty backgrounds, so I filled them with strawberries, heartsease, berries, leaves, and even the caterpillars I found on the panels. My designs weren’t simply copies though as I turned the paisley pattern shapes into trees on the stag panel design, which was derived from the stag on the crewelwork panel that hangs in the King’s Room.”
The panels were worked in groups, such as the hound, the eagle, and the camel, which were all inspired by some of the old murals in the house. “The shape of the hound is from the mural, but I married the design with the spotty dog from the tent-stitch panels,” Carol explained. “The camel painted on the mural has an almost swanlike neck, and I wanted to capture that, which is why he looks a bit strange. I also used the vines from the murals in the background of each of these designs and that also helps to define the group as a ‘set.’ The borders around the panels help to unify the whole collection, but the different styles of border also denote the groups.”
The fertility goddess was also taken from a mural. Carol said, “The goddess panels depict the four seasons and, although the overall design of the goddess is the same, the colors and details vary.”
Carol found that one of the hardest parts of the design process was working within the given sizes of 14 3/16 x 14 31/32 inches (36.0 x 38.0 cm). “Being constrained by size was a real challenge,” Carol admitted. “We worked on a 10-count canvas, but I found it difficult to scale everything down and still get the level of detail that I wanted.”
Catherine recruited volunteers to stitch Carol’s designs, which were worked in Anchor tapestry wools using a traditional canvaswork cross-stitch that was popular in the Victorian era. To introduce the technique to the volunteers, Carol gave them small kits to practice on. “The kit design was not painted onto the fabric, and the stitchers worked from a chart onto blank canvas,” Carol explained. “One or two volunteers dropped out, but a dedicated group met once a month, and we would sit in the old dining room at Traquair House having coffee and biscuits, stitching and chatting. Some of the volunteers stitched two or three panels, and they did a lot of the stitching at home. On average, I would say that each panel was about 60 hours of stitching and perhaps as much as 100 hours for the larger goddess panels, so it was quite a commitment.”
Once the stitching was finished, the kneelers were made up by an upholstery firm.
“After all of the design work and nearly two years of stitching, seeing the completed kneelers in the chapel was a real thrill for all of us; the colors are vibrant and contemporary, but they look very at home in their setting,” Carol told me. A small brass plaque in the chapel lists the names of all of the stitchers who were involved in the project, so the embroiderers who made the kneelers will never be forgotten. The project isn’t quite finished though as two more kneelers are under currently under construction.
“Traquair House hosts celebrations and events and also provides a magical and romantic venue for weddings,” Catherine told me. “The new kneelers are for use by the bride and broom.”
The kneelers are already an integral part of the house, and the volunteers who made them have become part of the history of this beautiful place.
P.S. Traquair House is only about 5 miles (8 km) from where I live. I first visited Traquair many years ago when I moved to the area, and the house hosted a needlework weekend. I sat in the drawing room embroidering a goldwork sampler and felt that I was at one with the generations of needlewomen who had gone before me. It was magical!
Traquair House is open to the public daily from April until the end of October and at weekends only during November. Needlework kits based on the Chapel Needlework Collection are available. Visit www.traquair.co.uk for location and more information.
Discover more of Carol Ann Long’s Animal Fayre Designs at www.gustafsgallery.co.uk.
Try your hand at embroidery with our Embroidery eBook. For more from Kathy, read her post “Postcard from Scotland: The Great Tapestry of Scotland” or the entire “Postcard from Scotland” series!
Featured Image: Traquair House in the Scottish Borders is the oldest inhabited house in Scotland. All photos by Kathy Troup.