A prestigious school in the Coaltown of Wemyss is appealing to the Fife community to help sew together fragments of its missing history before it is too late.
Wemyss School of Needlework is embarking on the arduous task of building a pictorial library of every single girl who ever worked within its walls since 1877.
Leading that formidable feat is Fiona Wemyss, who recently oversaw a structural refurbishment of the school and the organisation of its contents.
She said: “We have all the old registers of girls who worked here, when they came and when they went.
“I’m terribly keen to speak to people who could help us build a database of all the girls and I’m appealing to members of the Fife community to help us achieve that.”
Wemyss School of Needlework was founded by Dora Wemyss, who employed Jeanie Webster as its first mistress.
“Dora believed everyone should have a skill and be able to earn their living,” explained Fiona.
“Mrs Webster was a first-class needlewoman and was sent the Royal School of Needlework in London to learn different techniques. She came back and set up the school with half a dozen girls in the castle.”
After the school moved to its permanent Main Street premises in 1880 it took on more local girls, mostly miners’ daughters.
As an alternative to working long hours in local linen and carpet factories, the girls would actually pay ten shillings to undergo an “excellent” six-month apprenticeship in needlework.
But it was a risk, since only the very best students were kept on.
“At a maximum there were 36 girls here at a time,” Fiona commented.
“How they fared in rooms as small as these, God knows.”
“I suspect that some people at the end of six months never wanted to see a needle again!”
For those that did stay on, the work produced was second to none; most of the needlework created by the school was made for European aristocracy and the order books were full.
The school’s teaching role effectively ended with the advent of the Second World War when the girls found more lucrative jobs in the forces.
However, visitors to the school today can still appreciate examples of this stunning work, which include gold thread, applique satin quilting and French embroidery, in a newly refurbished gallery which shows highlights of the Wemyss’ private collection to its best advantage.
The school also boasts hundreds of historical design tracings (many now transferred to a digital format) which include examples of patterns by Mary Queen of Scots, Bess of Hardwick, Chippendale and Hepplewhite.
Margaret Swain, a doyenne of textile history who catalogued the Wemyss collection in 1984, determined it one of the best collections in Britain.
“The full collection is unique in Scotland and can probably only be equalled by that of the Royal School of Needlework, she stated.
The collection has since been added to and the school moves forward under the care of Fiona Wemyss, Louise Foster and Freya Gabbut.
And, with much success, part of that task included reprising the school’s teaching role with the introduction of classes run by Helen McCook, who trained at the Royal School of Needlework.
The school is also a living, breathing part of its community again; achieved recently, for example, with visits from Fife College fashion students and an appearance on the ITV programme “Off The Beaten Track”
In addition, the school offers a bespoke design service and sells a huge range of Appleton wools, available to buy since 1881.
“I want the local community to see we are here and come here. I want us to be a one-stop shop for needlework,” said Fiona.