Colourful strands

This scallop-shaped piece may originally have been used as a small place mat. It seems that it was carefully cut to shape after completing the embroidery.

The colourful interlace design is made up of two interlaced strands. Both are outlined in blanket stitch and then infilled with feather stitch. The pale green in one of the ribbons provides a subtle contrast to the other strand.

Scalloped interlace

This beautiful circular place mat contains an intricate embroidered interlace design. Brightly coloured silk and wool threads totally cover the backing fabric. This has produced a sturdy piece, so was probably used under a teapot or plant.

The central single strand design has been worked in light and dark greens. The more complicated outer circle of knotwork is stitched in yellow and fawn. It contains loops which link the two blanket-stitched designs together. Even the spaces between the strands have been filled in with a variety of textured stitches, including satin stitch and French knots.

Another blue strand

The broad border around this tablecloth is reminiscent of the design of a place mat in the collection. The knotwork has been skilfully drawn onto the cloth before embroidery begins. To ensure the flow of the design, the interlace of the opposing corners is different. It’s so neat.

The borders of the single interlaced strand are highlighted in royal blue blanket stitches. These secure the outer edge of the material so that it can be trimmed right up to the knots of each stitch. Then, unlike the design of the place mat, the strand has been filled with tiny pale blue fly stitches.

Table cloth of spirals

This brightly coloured tablecloth has a rich embroidered main panel of spirals with corners of interlaced knotwork. The central design is packed full of shapes and colours, there are no blank spaces. The stitching shows just how skilful the needleworker was. It is very hard to sew such even, simple stitches.

The square panel with rounded corners has 18 six-coil spirals in two shades of green. Each contains three, solid, satin-stitch, red spots, highlighting the importance of the six-coil in the design. They are surrounded by many other simpler spirals. These are made of three and two coils in blue, mauve,  orange and yellow. The remaining gaps are filled with turquoise triangles on a brown or tan background, although some are unfinished. 

Each six-coil strand develops into a strand for a three-coil spiral. This then joins with a strand from another six-coil spiral. The design ends elegantly at the outer edges with strands forming two-coil spirals.  Filling every spare space, this work reflects the Celtic art designs of Pictish cross-slabs and early medieval manuscripts. In particular it resembles a fragment from Tarbat, Ross-shire. One the panels on the Shandwick stone may also have provided George Bain with inspiration.

A blue strand

This knotwork design is made up of a single strand outlined in bright blue thread. The embroiderer has skilfully defined the two edges of the interlaced strand.  The incredibly even blanket stitches also complete the four edges of the outer circle. If you trace the flow of the strand it has no beginning or end, used to signify eternity, or eternal love.

Working the blue detail onto a fine white cloth gives the design an almost three dimensional effect. We think it was made by a member of George Bain’s family.

Four knotted birds

This long, narrow embroidery really is stunning. At more than 1m long it could either be a wall hanging or a table runner. It consists of two pairs of birds, one at each end of the cloth, connected by series of five complex knotwork shapes. The tail feathers interlace with other, separate, coloured strands, finally linking the birds together.

The tail feathers are elements of elaborately stylised and decorated birds with entwined necks. Each has an elongated crest feather of gold wrapped around the two necks and then held in the other’s beak.

The strands that form the birds are worked in satin stitch and feather stitch. Other parts of the design use fly stitch and french knots. Every element is outlined in black, as if the design was a drawing. But the embroiderer has cleverly used shades of different colours to produce an almost  painted effect.

Work in progress

George Bain, his daughter Claire, or one of his students, has chosen a large length of fairly coarse, grey-brown linen for this work. In fact, the material is so heavy and dull in colour that we don’t know if it really was intended for a wall hanging. Perhaps each circle was to be cut out once embroidered and used as a placemat.

The prepared designs have been drawn onto the cloth. Three patterns are outlined in pencil, but only one has been started. Two are of the Aberlemno triskeles (three-in-one spirals), carved into the centre of the Pictish cross in the graveyard. The other is of three intertwined birds, their talons interlocked at the middle of the roundel. Each bird has a different design on its wing. They are loosely based on similar examples in the Book of Kells.

A cord-quilted cushion

The repeated knotwork motif on this cushion is copied from one on the Pictish Dunfallandy stone, in Perthshire. It’s in the lowest panel of the cross shaft. This is one of many similar knotwork designs that George Bain used in Methods of Construction. They include examples from the cross-slabs at Rosemarkie, Ross-shire, as well as St Vigeans and Meigle in Angus.

Whoever made the cushion has created a sculpted textile of knotwork. The raised design has been worked using a method called Italian (or corded) quilting. Two layers of fabric are used. Parallel lines are stitched through both layers, then cord or wool is threaded between them. It cleverly reflects the three-dimensions of the cross-slabs.

Knotwork place mats

George Bain explored how Celtic interlaced designs on sculpture and other objects could be translated into embroidery. The pattern on this small, circular place mat was created by him. It was transferred onto cloth so that a set of six could be made. We presume they were embroidered by one of his students, either in Kirkcaldy or Glen Urquhart.

Light and dark blue chain stitch forms two endless knotwork strands. Accents are added in turquoise satin stitch. The cloth has then been carefully edged in white blanket stitch. It’s finished with a separate border in fawn, either created using picot stitch or by tatting.

More complex embroideries, sewn by needlework pupils at Kirkcaldy High School, were included in a display at Glasgow’s Empire Exhibition in 1938. As well as sponsoring the Exhibition, J&P Coates Ltd of Paisley organised their own display stands for an International Collection of Embroideries. It included work by the school using Bain’s designs.