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.

Three-colour interlaced knotwork

The choice of colours focuses the eye on the embroidery of interlacing and knotwork in orange, blue and mauve. It clearly shows the complexity of the design. Presumably drawn by Bain, it may have been embroidered by one of his students or a member of his family.

The interlaced central flower with its mauve centre and the knotwork surrounds are all worked in stem stitch. The very simple, orange linear border is stitched in herringbone.

Across the globe interlaced knotwork designs were inspired by plaiting & basket weaving. However George Bain believed knotwork interlacing to be peculiar to Pictish and early Irish forms of Celtic art.

See: Bain’s Celtic Art, Methods of Construction page 25

Intertwined birds

This fabulous embroidered cloth came from the home of George Bain. He probably created the design for one of his students to embroider. The inspiration comes from the various birds in the Lindisfarne Gospels and Book of Kells.

Bain has drawn four vibrantly coloured, stylised birds standing tail to tail. Each head drops down into the centre, its orange beak biting its own brown leg. The long necks and crests are set on a black stitched background. Forming an interlaced design, they connect each pair of birds with its neighbour. The clawed feet of the birds, dropping from their brown speckled bellies, also criss-cross in the centre.

The needlework is extremely skilful, with stitches including satin, herringbone and close blanket styles. The birds’ bodies and wings are worked in 9 colours of thread. The pattern includes spirals, dots, zigzags, strands and mosaics of colour. The blanket stitches of the primary feathers form scallop and chevron contours. This table cloth must be one of the most accomplished pieces in the collection.

See: Bain’s Celtic Art, Methods of Construction pages 109-111 Plates 1-5

Beard-pullers together

This amazing design was drawn by George Bain and embroidered by a pupil in a Kirkcaldy High School sewing class. It must have taken hours of work.

There are four sets of two, slightly different, kneeling men facing each other. Their beards join each pair together in a single interlaced strand. Their long hair links each man to one in another pair – it’s incredibly complicated. Bain took his inspiration from the Book of Kells. Within the intricate Chi Rho page of the Gospel of St Matthew there are two pairs of beard-pullers (also known as beard sages) .

We can’t see how the design was transferred to the cloth for the embroiderer. Perhaps a soft pencil was used and it has washed away. But two shades of blue thread have been used, apparently randomly except for the ankle spots. Maybe the embroiderer ran out of the lighter blue thread before completing the work. The outlines of the men are in stem stitch and the background is fly stitch. Satin stitch marks most of the ankles.

The narrow border is also very accomplished, with its repeated motif of three-coil spirals (triskeles) and their elegant trumpet ends.

See: The Book of Kells, TCD MS58 folio 34r, Trinity College Dublin (detail centre right)