Preparing a rag rug

It is hard to imagine the length of this piece of hessian – it’s over 2m long. Each four-part square of angular knotwork is more than 30cm in size, an ideal scale for a rag rug.  There’s a photograph of one of George Bain’s adult students working on a similar rag rug design in publicity for his College of Celtic Cultures in Drumnadrochit. He encouraged local people to create their own Celtic artwork and apply it to craftwork such as embroideries, knitwear, rugs, and wooden objects.

Two different knotwork designs are used, drawn out in blue wax crayon. Both are reminiscent of the angular knotwork of the Ulbster Pictish stone, a favourite of George Bain’s. Over the short sides of the hessian, the four-armed cross at the centre of each pattern is coloured red. Perhaps this is a clue to the final colour of the rug.

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.

An interlace jumper

This long sleeved, ladies jumper with its vivid interlace was knitted by Bain’s daughter Claire. She was following one of his charted designs, using stocking stitch. The wide blue interlaced strands, outlined in red, flow seamlessly onto the sleeves. If you look closely at the stitches you can see how this was done.

The body of the jumper and parts of the sleeves are knitted as one piece. Perhaps Claire used a long circular needle. The rest of the sleeves, with their closely fitting cuffs, were knitted separately and then grafted or sewn on.

George Bain charted many patterns to be used for knitting. There is a hint in his Celtic Art, Methods of Construction that he may have been thinking of publishing a book on the subject. When his son Iain retired, he gathered together his father’s knitting charts with the hope of printing them too. This never happened.

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.

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)

A ring of birds

This embroidered place mat was one of the first objects to be given to Groam House Museum by George Bain’s son and grand-children. He probably created the design and then one of his students embroidered it in brightly coloured threads on white linen.

Six birds make up the border of the mat. Pairs of vivid birds face each other. Their necks interlace so that each rests its bright yellow beak back on its own wing, as if roosting. Their long tail feathers interlace with those of the next pair. They surround a complex, circular knotwork design in gold and blue, with its central six-pointed star highlighted in red and yellow.

The embroiderer has used a variety of stitches to create different textures. There are back, stem and chain stitches, herringbone and close blanket stitches, french knots, fly and feather stitches. The use of such a range of stitches results in a surprisingly textured piece.

The shapes of the birds are all typical of those in illuminated manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells. The central knotwork design is a reminder of a design on the Pictish Hilton of Cadboll cross slab.