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Ayrshire Whitework

8th November 2023.

By Becky Foxwell

Included in the Costume, Accessories and Textiles Sale on 17th November is a Private Collection from Scotland of 18th and 19th century baby’s bonnets and gowns, incorporating meticulously executed Ayrshire whitework, a traditional a traditional hand embroidery technique that originates from the county in south-west Scotland. The collection was put together by Annette Porteous, and having inherited and bought all the items in the collection, knew that her family would not want to keep them. During the Covid lockdown, she embarked upon a project to catalogue and photograph each one, reproducing them in two books 18th & 19th Century Baby Bonnets: My Collection, and My Collection of Antique Baby Gowns.

Traditionally worked using white thread onto a fine white muslin, Ayrshire embroidery is recognisable by stylised floral motifs with areas of filled in cutwork. Developed from Dresden embroidery (a form of pulled work) and tambour embroidery, it uses a range of stitches, including satin stitch, chain stitch, eyelets and buttonhole edging as well as a range of lace filling stitches.

The technique became popular in the early nineteenth century, when the previous fashion of elaborate gowns with hooped skirts was replaced by looser, simpler white cotton muslin garments. Although the elegant simplicity was favoured, women also desired some decoration. However, looms of the time could not create complex designs, so women turned to hand stitching.

Using cotton muslin woven in Ayrshire, local women and girls would complete the intricate whitework to help supplement their family income. Mainly produced at home, Ayrshire whitework garments would be initially completed by one person. However, as the technique became more popular and the industry developed, to ensure high quality work, a piece would be passed around so that each embroiderer could focus on completing the stitches they specialised in.

It is believed that the designs and motifs used in Ayrshire whitework were inspired by lace filling stitches found within an inset in a French Christening robe that was bought to Scotland by Lady Mary Montgomery, who then lent it to Mrs Jamieson of Ayr. She copied the stitches used within the robe and taught them to her outworkers, and she also produced plain muslin that was stamped with a water-soluble blue ink design that made embroidering the designs neater and more efficient.

Ayrshire work became popular quite quickly, and it was incorporated into collars, cuffs and caps as well as children’s clothes and bonnets. Pieces were exported across Europe and the British Empire.

As the decades progressed, technology advanced, resulting in looms that could incorporate decoration into the weave of the cloth, reducing the need for hand embroidered Ayrshire whitework.

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