A visit to the Kingdom of Fife may sound like something from a Harry Potter film, but this beautiful area on the east coast of Scotland is just a wee distance from Edinburgh across the Firth of Forth (the estuary of the river Forth). St Andrews, renowned as the home of golf, is probably Fife’s most famous town, but the area is dotted with beautiful towns and villages, especially along the coast.
There used to be a lot of coal mining in the Kingdom of Fife, but the mines have disappeared, and these days the landscape is mainly agricultural. The village of Coaltown of Wemyss harks back to its heritage and may sound uninviting, but it is a pretty village just a short distance from the coast. It is also home to the Wemyss School of Needlework. (Wemyss is pronounced “weems”!)
Started in 1877 at Wemyss Castle by Dora Wemyss, the idea behind the school was to teach needlework skills to the daughters of the miners and farmers in the area so that they could earn a living and be independent. The girls paid for a six-month apprenticeship, at the end of which they could seek employment, and the most skillful would perhaps be kept on at the school and paid a wage. Mrs. Webster, a talented local needlewoman, was appointed to teach the girls, and the school became so popular that just three years after it opened, the school built the premises that it still uses to this day. The school operated, teaching large numbers, until about the time of the World War II (1939–1945), and at that time, many women probably went off to do war work and may not have returned to the area.
Though it remained open, the school fell into disrepair over time, but in 2011, the building was renovated and re-opened, and it is now a bright, welcoming space. On the sunny day that I travelled to Fife, Sheila Hubble, the shop manager at the school, welcomed me warmly and led me into the shop area that is festooned with beautifully packaged kits and a gorgeous array of threads. But it is the large, framed embroideries that dominate the space, as they define the history of the place.
The images in the work are derived from embroideries in the school’s rich textile archive, which is a resource that provided the girls with the inspiration and information that they needed to create new work. This tradition continues today, and two of the current kits, Jamie (crewelwork) and Charles (goldwork) were both inspired by two beautiful 18th-century men’s embroidered coats (probably of French origin) that were discovered in Wemyss Castle.
The coats and other items, such as a beautiful beadwork dress and gorgeous embroidered caskets, are displayed around the workroom, along with historic pamphlets and even intricate printing blocks. The school runs regular workshops in this room and embroiderers attending the classes really are immersed in the history of the place.
The school continues to be forward-looking, and the skillful tutors who run the day classes, some of whom are graduates of the renowned Royal School of Needlework, promote excellence in all things embroidery. But the past is not forgotten, and the school is putting together a catalog of their archive collection and also collating as much history as possible about the school and those who attended it.
The past, present, and future of embroidery is embodied in the Wemyss School of Needlework.
You can find out more about the Wemyss School of Needlework, the classes they offer, and buy their beautiful kits through their website at www.wemyssneedlework.com.
Kathy Troup, born in the north of England, has lived in Scotland for many years. She edited a U.K.-published stitching magazine for seventeen years and continues to write about the subjects she loves.
Featured Image: Two gorgeous embroidered caskets (the original and the brighter, reworked model) are displayed side-by-side in the Wemyss School of Needlework workroom. All photos by Kathy Troup.