Useful and Beautiful

I have long been in agreement with the famous William Morris quote:

‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ William Morris lecture ‘The Beauty of Life’, 1880

I love the fact that he doesn’t necessarily expect things to be both. He allows for ‘unnecessary’ beauty and personal taste and doesn’t say that everyone else should think something is beautiful – only that you should…

I recently saw this on the National Portrait Gallery website (where they are currently having a Morris Exhibition.)

‘Nothing which is made by man will be ugly, but will have its due form, and its due ornament, and will tell the tale of its making and the tale of its use’.  William Morris article ‘Art’, 1891

I assume, given that it is Morris writing, that he is referring to handmade objects. ( Although I question his assertion of man’s inability to make anything ugly, but once again I suppose he is allowing for personal taste).  I like the idea that an object shows the tale of its making and use.

As I have written here before I believe that making something slowly and by hand provides a wonderful contrast to the speed and machine led nature of modern life. It is the reason that I can be found escaping from the computer and stitching quietly and slowly during many of my lunch breaks.

I am currently re reading poet and novelist May Sarton’s ‘Journal of a Solitude’ first published in 1973 and came across this:

‘It is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or craft. Instant success is the order of the day; ‘I want it now!’ I wonder if this is not part of our corruption by machines. Machines do things very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life….So the few things that we still do, such as cooking, knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular value.’

Goodness knows what she would have thought of today’s world, but the quote seems even more pertinent now….

What are you going to do with it?

It’s often what people ask when they see me with a piece of embroidery in my hands.  The answer usually is ‘I haven’t got a clue’.  That’s not why I do it… When I make felt  I am often thinking about functionality as well as what it looks like…hats, bags, jewellery, slippers (if I ever get them finished.)  I am aiming for the William Morris ‘useful and beautiful’…

But I embroider because I like the process.  Most of all I like it because it is SLOW and contemplative…and about as far away from sitting at a computer as you can get!!  I am often to be found during my lunch break french knotting away happily, and I enjoy my Thursday evenings sitting with a group of other women in my regular class occasionally chatting and slowly producing beautiful things.


This is what I am working on at the moment.  It’s based on a Klimpt landscape and it is pretty much all knots and straight stitches.  I love knots (except the ones I get by mistake!)  I painted it onto calico before I started and am gradually working out how to shade just using the knots like my own version of pointillism. 

I think the ‘frame’, which is currently mostly covered by the embroidery frame, is going to branch out into chain stitch and couching so I can add some gold thread.

William Morris Gallery

A couple of weeks ago the Scotsman and I paid a visit to the newly refurbished William Morris Gallery with some friends. 

I’ve lived in the vicinity of Walthamstow for the past twenty-five years and never gone there before, but was inspired to go by seeing some of the tapestries and embroideries currently on show in the Tate’s Pre Raphaelite Exhibition

I wish there had been a bit more about the textile work although it was interesting to read about their remarkably modern ideas when it came to marketing their goods.  For instance you could buy a handmade embroidery from their workshop or if you couldn’t afford that you could buy the ‘kit’ and embroider it yourself. 

Anyway, the combination of both exhibtions has left me wanting to find out more about May Morris (William’s daughter) who seems to have taken after her father both in an artistic and political sense….

I particularly liked this William Morris quote:  “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving a tapestry, he had better shut up, he’ll never do any good at all.”  Top bloke!!