THOMAS COOPER // Memory and Embodied Experienced in the Embroidery Practice of May Morris

In a drawing by May Morris’s colleague and friend, Mary Annie Sloane, a group of nine women is shown sitting around a table engaged in free-hand embroidery. [Fig. 1] They appear to work collectively on one piece. To the left a single figure is sitting and embroiders, accompanied by a small cat. Much of the room has been sketched quickly and broadly with a soft pencil. However, the hands and heads of the women are described with delicate detail. Their faces look down to their work in hand yet they show expressions of concentration and attention to their sewing. An elderly bespectacled woman is sitting at the far side of the group table. Her furrowed brow is coupled with a gentle patience formed through years of experience. Rozsika Parker in The Subversive Stitch writes that the hunched position of the embroiderer’s body, seen in Sloane’s drawing, has been co-opted into the construction of a femininity subservient to a patriarchy. But at the same time this pose is subversive: ‘Eyes lowered, head bent, shoulders hunched — the position signifies repression and subjugation, yet the embroiderer’s silence, her concentration also suggests a self-containment, a kind of autonomy.’[1]  Other feminists, writers, historians and artists have unpacked what ‘kind of autonomy’ this might be and have accorded the role of mental activity and self-identity a primacy in the practice of needlework.[2]  Maureen Goggin, for example, in Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles writes of ‘Bodily knowledge’ and of the mental and physical experience at play in embroidery. The embroiderer ‘needs to understand choic-es of threads, materials, stitches, colours, motifs, and so on; she needs in other words, to know how to read and write fabric via the mind and body.’[3]

This article focuses on May Morris’s practice of embroidery, which is examined here within an intellectual framework in which the mind and body are inexplicably intertwined. The claim made here is that the roles of memory and embodied experience are fundamental to not just May Morris’s embroidery practice but also to the state and progress of embroi-dery design within the context of the Arts and Crafts movement more broadly. To date, this has not been explored in foregoing scholarship on May Morris. Julia Dudkiewicz has dis-cussed May Morris’s role in memorialising the legacy of her father, William Morris, through editing his collected works, preserving the lived state of Kelmscott Manor, overseeing the building of the Morris Memorial Hall in Kelmscott, and her involvement in the 1934 Morris Centenary Exhibition.[4]  However, a discussion of the wider concept of memory as under-stood in the Victorian period and its relation to May Morris’s embroidery remains un-addressed. Within this article and alongside examples of her embroidery and technical publications, I also consider May Morris’s role in editing her father’s collected works as I develop a discussion of memory and its application to conscious mental activity. I later set this against a discussion of differing states of consciousness – or cerebration – and how memory functions within them. These discussions draw from nineteenth-century understandings of memory and the embodied mind within the scientific contexts of ornithology and physiological psychology.[5]  This article contributes to the growing body of scholarship which has turned to examine the fine and applied arts of the Victorian period in light of scientific contexts, such as evolutionary theory and physiological aesthetics, to productive ends.[6]  In particular, this article is partly a response to Caroline Arscott’s essay of 2013 on William Morris’s Woodpecker Tapestry.[7]  In her discussion of Arts and Crafts textile arts, Arscott ‘asserts the intellectual power and cultural significance of handcrafted works.’[8]  Here, I move to demonstrate how a consideration of physical and psychical activities and states are productive ways to understand May Morris’s embroidery practice. It must be made clear that my approach does not seek to mystify embroidery or occlude the use of embroidery in the domestic and personal settings in which it was often enjoyed and functioned as part of everyday life. However, part of the argument I make here is that the embroidery of the Arts and Crafts movement should be understood as progressive and situated within a wider and forward-thinking culture in which art, craft, literature, philosophy and science intersect. In doing so, I reassert and demonstrate anew that it is a misapprehension to regard the applied arts of the Arts and Crafts movement as medievalist and retrogressive.[9]

Finally, I should note that an underlying premise of this article is a view that embroidery should be interpreted through a joint analysis of the art form’s visual and material properties and qualities. Thus this article considers together formal aspects of the embroidered design, technical aspects of stitches, the use and effects of colour, and the quality of the ground (the embroidered fabric). These features and aspects are used to guide discussion on May Morris’s Kelmscott Hangings and Melsetter Hangings.


The Past in the Present

May Morris learned how to embroider from her mother and father, Jane and William Morris. With her sister, Jenny, and her mother she worked on textiles produced under the designation Morris & Co. In 1878, she enrolled at the National Art Training School in South Kensington, choosing embroidery as her specialism.[10]  May became a highly skilled embroiderer and an efficient businesswoman, heading the Morris & Co. embroidery department and a team of assistants and apprentices, from 1885. She retired from Morris & Co. in 1896 but continued to teach and lecture; from 1899-1902 she was appointed Special Teacher of Needlework at the Birmingham School of Art and in the autumn/winter of 1909-10 she undertook a lecture tour of North America.[11]  Throughout her life she continued to practice embroidery and exhibit her work in international Arts and Crafts exhibitions. She published numerous essays on embroidery and a more extensive hand-book, Decorative Needlework, in 1893. May Morris gained a great and respected reputation as a designer, artist, and embroidery historian.

Decorative Needlework articulates May Morris’s principles on design, stitches and colour arrangement and, crucially, advocates for the study of historic embroidery as indispensable. By the 1890s literature on embroidery was reaching the height of its critical return to the art of the past. It expressed a broad view that the standards, taste and skill of nineteenth-century embroidery had suffered a substantial decline. The study of old embroidery could recover these failings. A knowledge of historic embroidery was deemed essential to understanding the laws of the art, achieving success in design and supplying ideas about how it can improve modern work.[12]  Authors on needlework charted a history of embroidery that began as far back as we might imagine, in the activities of our cave-dwelling ancestors.[13]  May Morris herself stressed the importance of taking historic study further back than the more immediate productions of the eighteenth century. In her account of old embroidery she sketches periods notable for their skills in embroidered arts. She maps early civilisations of Egypt and Babylonia, ancient Greece and Rome, and then moves onto the middle ages.[14]  For May Morris, this period represented the apogee of old embroidery. To turn to medieval embroidery is to find

the simple dignity and graciousness of medieval work. It is here, I repeat, the student must go for example and inspiration towards serious work: modern embroidery does not compare favourably with that of any period, but it is the very antithesis to the early [medieval] art, and it is indeed time that something was done to raise it to a higher level.[15]

The medieval embroideries in the collections of the South Kensington Museum offered a means of accessing this past.[16]  May Morris advised students to study these with rigorous attention, and to observe the compositional handling and achievement of balance, repose, and colour harmony. The laying and execution of stitches should be carefully examined also. May Morris cites the exquisite split stitch employed in the celebrated Syon Cope (c. 1310-1320) and the way it describes effectively flesh and bodies through working the stitches in tightly expanding circular spirals ‘with the most inconceivable minuteness’.[17]  The Syon Cope was a notable example of Opus Anglicanum (a latin term for ‘English Work’).[18]  This type of English medieval embroidery displayed exceptional quality of design and stylistic refinement, harmonious balance of colours, technical mastery, and extensive use of gold and silver threads as well as precious stones. Observation with the eye alone, however, only took the student so far. Critical to May Morris’s approach was a firm understanding of the stitches employed. This was achieved through unpicking old examples or by repeated prac-tice of recreating the stitches.[19]

May Morris (1862–1938) was an artist, craftswoman, designer, and a key figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. Yet, accounts of the Arts and Crafts movement have, until very recently, largely ignored her contribution, and May Morris’s life, work and legacy more broadly have been overlooked. Building on recent scholarship that has emerged since 2017, this article examines May Morris’s embroidery practice and explores the relationship between the mind and body within this practice. The claim made here is that this relationship is not only inexplicably intertwined, but essential to May Morris’s embroidery practice. This article proposes that this understanding of May Morris’s embroidery practice can be better appreciated when the roles of memory and embodied experience come into view. Along the way, formal aspects (colour and composition), technical processes (stitches) and material qualities (fabric) of embroidery are explored to suggest concepts around movement, experience and the body; May Morris’s writings and editorial work are considered to examine the relationships between the past and the present; and contexts new to Arts and Crafts embroidery – ornithology and physiological psychology – are called upon as memory and embodied experience are unpacked through scientific frames of reference.

Fig.1: Mary Annie Sloane, Circle of Women Embroidering, 1896 – 1901, pencil on paper, 45.0 x 29.0 cm, William Morris Gallery, London. © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest.
Fig.1: Mary Annie Sloane, Circle of Women Embroidering, 1896 – 1901, pencil on paper, 45.0 x 29.0 cm, William Morris Gallery, London. © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest.
Fig. 2: May Morris, ‘Chain Stitch’, Decorative Needlework, 1893, 14.
Fig. 2: May Morris, ‘Chain Stitch’, Decorative Needlework, 1893, 14.

May Morris believed chain-stitch was introduced towards the end of the thirteenth century in Opus Anglicanum and that the stitch played an important role in medieval work.[20] Chain stitch was little used in modern, European embroidery but May Morris pushed to revive it. It was the subject of an essay she wrote for Hobby Horse (1888) and discussed in Decorative Needlework. Its technique is as follows: the needle returns to a loop made by the previous stitch, piercing and tacking the ground inside the loop. The needle then passes under the ground and emerges a stitch ahead, on the traced line. Where it emerges, the thread is wrapped under the needle. This catches the thread around the needle, which is then pulled through and a new loop is made (1893, Fig. 2). The stitch is so named because of its imitation of a linked chain and the stitch builds up in regular links as ‘each little loop grows out of the last.’[21] The stitch is well-suited to describing line as well as filling in form due to its efficiency in smoothly handling curved lines. After a design made by her father, May Morris embroidered an image of a flowerpot with silk thread on wool (1890–1900, Fig. 3). This is worked predominantly in chain stitch. Minute, precise and even linked chains describe the bulbous swell of the flowerpot, the sweeping arcs of flower stems and the curving lines of a butterfly’s wings. May Morris demonstrates the strength of this stitch and its success in handling ‘manifold interlacements of stem and tendril.’[22]

Fig. 3: May Morris, Flowerpot, c.1890 – 1900, wool ground embroidered with silk, 54.0 x 54.6 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Bequeathed by the maker. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Fig. 3: May Morris, Flowerpot, c.1890 – 1900, wool ground embroidered with silk, 54.0 x 54.6 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Bequeathed by the maker. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I want to suggest that the types of movement articulated in chain stitch – of returning, stepping ahead, catching, and looping – can be read as a metaphor for the linkage with the past. We can conceive of the traced line of the design as a provisional historical trajectory. The threaded needle – the present – returns to the previous loop – the past – and now runs beneath the ground to a point ahead on the line – the future. Where the needle emerges on the traced line the thread is caught. This forms one half of the loop; the rest of the loop is made complete as the needle is pulled through. This stage of catching the thread around the needle is critical. If the thread is not caught the needle passes through the previous loop without making a link. The previous loop would hang loose above the ground, not tacked down and no longer part of the traced or embroidered line. The loop is jettisoned, the stitch becomes broken, and the past becomes disconnected from the present and future.

In returning to medieval embroidery, and revising and employing earlier techniques, the literal chains stitched by the embroiderer become figurative yet secure links between the past and the present. More than this, however, in employing past techniques, like chain stitch, the embroiderer in a sense inhabits the past. The digital dexterity required by the embroiderer becomes a means through which the physical sensations of the past are recreated in the physical sensations of the present. The revived technique thus goes beyond issues of technical finesse and style and offers an instance of embodied experience. This idea will be developed below.

For May Morris, a return to the art of the past was productive in addressing and reforming the regressive state of modern embroidery. She wrote:

It is always safe in the nineteenth century to take a humble stand point as regards art, and consent to turn to former centuries and learn of people who were always masters in art where we are dilettanti, and who assuredly took it as a matter of course that they should have pretty things about them in their daily lives as much as we take the ‘useful and ugly’ as our matter-of-course.[23]

In line with the principles of her father, May Morris believed that the states of art, beauty and taste had reached a critical ebb as a result of modern and capitalist production systems and markets.[24] The role and importance of the art of the past and its methods and societal implications to contemporary arts were explored in Arts and Crafts Essays (1893), written by members of the Arts and Crafts Exhibiting Society. William Morris wrote the preface and May Morris contributed essays on the art of embroidery and its colours and materials. Design and stitches are not the only critical elements of embroidery but colour and material choices are fundamental elements of the art form as well. Embroiderer and a founder alongside May Morris of the Women’s Guild of Arts, Mary E. Turner wrote on modern embroidery. This was considered inferior to old embroidery, as it used aniline dyes and it failed to achieve a balance between naturalism and conventionalism in ornament and decoration.[25] Further, modern embroideries reproduced by machines discounted ‘the thought of a human brain and the skill of a human hand’ wrought by ‘every stitch placed by the needle’ that hand-made embroidery offered.[26] An essay on needlework design by John D. Sedding was also included in the collection. For Sedding, the art, science and history of needlework had never been so well understood as in the 1890s. The storehouses of history, style, design and pattern had been earnestly raided and schools of needlework had been established with equal enthusiasm. Yet, Sedding believed that modern embroidery still fell short. The old embroidery so admired took its subject from nature ‘first-hand’.[27] The mistake of modern embroidery is that it turns without thought to imitate the masterpieces preserved at the South Kensington Museum, and thus ‘only reflects the reflection of dead periods.’[28] Sedding lamented that this approach does not ‘leave the world richer than we found it’.[29] He believed in finding a new starting point – in the present – and resolving to pursue ‘design by living men for living men – something that expresses fresh realisations of sacred facts, personal broodings, skill, joy in Nature – in grace and form and gladness of colour.’[30] This is not a rejection of the past but a call to be more attentive to what it is that modern work is (re)producing. It advocates a sensibility to adopting the approach of old embroidery and for modern work to respond to current thought. This is the lesson to be taken from the art of the past:

The charm in old embroidery lies in this, that it clothes current thought in current shapes. It meant something to the workers, and to the man, in the street for whom it was done. And for our work to gain the same sensibility, the same range of appeal, the same human interest, we must employ the same means. We must clothe modern ideas in modern dress; adorn with living fancy, and rise to the height of our knowledge and capabilities.[31]

For Sedding, the study of old embroidery involves the critical application of conscious, willed thought. As this article will argue, the role of mental faculties and their relationship to physiological terms are important to the embroidery investigated here. Mary Smith Lockwood, the author of Art Embroidery (1878), puts forward the expression of intelligence as the first principle of needlework.[32] Embroidery design, for May Morris, should demonstrate an understanding of ‘the limitations of process and material’ and in turn ‘those mental qualities that distinguish mechanical from intelligent work.’[33] In his preface to the Arts and Craft Essays, William Morris calls for a consciousness of the art of the past.[34] He is setting up the essays in terms concerned intimately with conscious thought, its application and states of awareness, and how these shape artistic endeavour.


Places, Colours and Voices of the Past

From 1910–1915, May Morris compiled and edited in twenty-four volumes the collected writings of her father. A crucial component to The Collected Works is May Morris’s introductions. These were composed through May Morris’s accounts of her father’s life, and in turn those of her own life, and through the recollections of those who knew, and worked and corresponded with William Morris. In part these introductions served to rectify the failings of John Mackail’s biography of William Morris, which May Morris felt was inaccurate. Scholars have pointed out that these introductions also function as autobiography of sorts and tell us a great deal about May Morris as well as her father.[35] They ‘gather together fragments and certain memories’, May Morris writes.[36] Indeed, memory is a critical resource from which May Morris draws, not least her own. We receive William Morris’s recollections of his travels, for example, through May Morris’s own memory of her childhood when she first heard these tales.[37] William Morris died in 1896 and during her time editing his writings May Morris also lost her mother Jane in 1914. She wrote to Howard Pierce of this familial loss, telling him ‘I live only in memories now’.[38] Memory is also a product of the introductions through the ways in which they preserve William Morris’s legacy.[39] Thus, the introductions draw from and create memory.

Fig. 4: William Morris, Frontispiece from News from Nowhere, 1893.
Fig. 4: William Morris, Frontispiece from News from Nowhere, 1893.

It is important to note that May Morris records the place in which she wrote these introductions; in ‘the old house by the river’: the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Kelmscott Manor.[40] A watercolour by Mary Annie Sloane, now in the collection of the William Morris Gallery, shows May Morris sitting in the tapestry room at Kelmscott Manor engaged with The Collected Works, handling loose papers and drafts. Kelmscott Manor figures as the Old House in William Morris’s utopian romance News from Nowhere (1893), and the house is represented in its frontispiece (1893, Fig. 4). News from Nowhere follows the character William Guest, who departs his nineteenth-century present and journeys to a utopic future where William Morris’s Socialist ideals are realised in the co-operative lives of the happy, healthy and free New Folk. As Guest and the character Ellen travel up the river Thames from Hammersmith to the Old House the place and time he knew and came from slip into the past. His present becomes the past; while a medieval past is revived in the future he visits in a new present. In her introduction to volume twenty-four May Morris writes:

News from Nowhere was written late, but it epitomizes so much – calls up to my mind such a long train of thoughts, such a medley of events, that I am forced to pause while the pen almost automatically records picture after picture of varying intensity, and in the background, in intimate life so precious so dear, Kelmscott with its flowers and birds, long hours spent with Homer, swift pattern design – all the easy work that is a respite from the weary journeyings to the Far East of London, or the four corners of this Island.[41]

May Morris’s turn to memory is conveyed here, as is the way the Manor was bound up inseparably with the Old House. Guest and Ellen experience a parallel response as they enter the front garden, ‘redolent with June flowers’, leading to the Old House.[42] They are enthralled by the beauty of it all as rooks sing and swifts whirl about the gables ‘built by the simple country-folk of the long-past times’.[43] They enter the house and climb to the first-floor tapestry room. Guest admires the worn colours of the tapestries and Ellen turns to him and asks: ‘You’ve begun again your never-ending contrast between the past and this present. Is it not so?’ He replies in the affirmative.

For the characters of the story, the tapestry room embodied the past in the present, connecting through textiles the present to ‘So many centuries, so many ages’ past.[44] Aesthetic response to discolouration plays a vital part here as the soft and aged colours are presented as being agreeable to the eye. This intersection between aesthetic and physiological sensibility is salient throughout writing on embroidery. We find terms of physiological experience within discussions of colour in embroidery in the 1880s and the 1890s. In Needlework as Art (1883) Marian Alford sets her discussion of aesthetic response to colour within scientific contexts, referencing the work of John Tyndall, Hermann von Helmholtz and Ewald Hering and others, and draws up a model of physiological aesthetics based on pleasure and pain: ‘As through all ages the eye has been gradually educated to appreciate harmony in colour, so dissonance – that is, what errs against harmony – hurts us, without apparently sufficient reason.’[45] May Morris writes that colours and their combinations can arouse different physiological states of being, such as repose or agitation. She recommends that colour arrangements in designs attend to ocular sensation and physiological response to colour, and encourages designers to produce colour harmonies ‘most restful to the eye and brain’.[46] To achieve this, she advises her readers and students to select bright, strong and clear colours. She reminds us that colours have positive and relative values, which can change and morph depending on their combinations. For example, ‘a cold, strong green, not in itself very pleasing, placed against a clear brilliant yellow, gathers depth and force which it would otherwise lack; a blue-green may strike the right note in a certain place, but if its use be exaggerated may blemish all.’[47] In addition, the relationship between material and colour needs consideration; wool, for example, absorbs light, whereas silk reflects it.[48] Colour plays an active role within a dynamic relationship between the embroidery materials (wool, linen, silk), the colours used therein, light, and the viewer. For Alford, colours carry associated –often emblematic – meanings, which encompass memory and the past:

It must be allowed that it is by the earliest associations of the individual, or by those derived from the family, the tribe or the nation, that colours are connected with such attributes welded by act and time into traditional meanings.[49]

Colour in embroidery thus becomes a site where the aesthetic and the physiological, and the past and the present, intersect.

Fig. 5: Designed by May Morris and embroidered by May Morris and assistants, Kelmscott Hanging, c. 1893, linen ground embroidered with crewel wools, 192.0 x 122.0 cm, one of a pair of hangings (KM231.2), Society of Antiquaries London: Kelmscott Manor. © Society of Antiquaries of London (Kelmscott Manor) / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Fig. 5: Designed by May Morris and embroidered by May Morris and assistants, Kelmscott Hanging, c. 1893, linen ground embroidered with crewel wools, 192.0 x 122.0 cm, one of a pair of hangings (KM231.2), Society of Antiquaries London: Kelmscott Manor. © Society of Antiquaries of London (Kelmscott Manor) / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Textiles mediate the past and present in the bedroom at Kelmscott Manor. There stands a carved oak Jacobean four-poster bed, used and beloved by William Morris. May Morris designed and, along with assistants, embroidered two hangings and a pelmet for the bed. Worked with wool in stem, long and short, satin, split, chain, and fly stitches on linen, the hangings show a garden scene (c. 1893, Fig. 5). In both hangings a central pomegranate tree stands in front of a trellis background, which recalls her father’s earlier designs.[50] Two sprays of flowers grow tall in front of, but not quite on, the trellis. Below, bold and curving tendrils of large flowers fill the foreground. Their loose symmetry, variated furled stems and supine forms reveal May Morris’s own style and conventionalisation of nature that depart from her father’s. A rabbit rests among the sprays of flowers while ten birds perch on, or essay a flight between, branches and stems. Jenny Lister connects the hangings with the date of the bed as the ‘stylized flower heads and leaves worked in greyish green and blue wool’ clearly show ‘May’s study of seventeenth-century crewel work’.[51] The pelmet running round the frame incorporates William Morris’s specially written poem ‘For the bed at Kelmscott’, which also recalls the past:

I am old and have seen / Many things that have been, / Both grief and peace, / And wane and increase.

The ‘I’ of the poem is the voice of the bed, an old voice of the past that has ‘seen many things that have been’, and which continues to be present. ‘The old bed speaks’, wrote May Morris in the introduction to the final, twenty-fourth volume of The Collected Works. Her closing words quote the poem and leave us with ‘the last lines of the kind message’.[52] The lived character of the bed is evoked in another watercolour Sloane painted of Kelmscott’s interior (1912, Fig. 6). The bed stands in the centre of the room. The carved end-posts lean to the left, and the wood’s colouring is variated and aged through centuries of use. Through the posts of the bed we see May Morris standing in the corridor before the entrance to the bedroom. She is looking at the bed. While not literally in the room, May Morris is nonetheless tied up with it in visual terms. She is framed by the bed and her blue dress corresponds with the blues in the bedroom furnishings: the wallpaper, the carpet, and, of course, her own embroidered hangings.

Fig. 6: Mary Annie Sloane, William Morris’s Bedroom at Kelmscott Manor, 1912, watercolour on paper, 23.0 x 28.5 cm, William Morris Gallery, London. Mary Annie Sloane bequest, 1962. © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest.
Fig. 6: Mary Annie Sloane, William Morris’s Bedroom at Kelmscott Manor, 1912, watercolour on paper, 23.0 x 28.5 cm, William Morris Gallery, London. Mary Annie Sloane bequest, 1962. © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest.

Migrating Birds and Embodied Memories

As she encouraged her readers and pupils, May Morris conventionalised her representation of nature in the Kelmscott Hangings.[53] Leaves are flattened, and stem growth is stylised in roughly symmetrical arrangements. The open heads of the large foreground flowers of poppies or roses, detailed with cream-coloured French knots against royal blue, have a visual equivalent in the flowers of the two sprays and in the trees’ pomegranates. These elements are linked together through the use of red wools, which are also seen in the birds’ feathers. This unified decorative scheme flattens depth and renders differentiation difficult. The scene feels shallow, crowded, hot. The wool stitches are laid densely and worked loose in hand. As a result, the ground is wrinkled where the linen has gathered without a frame support to hold the fabric taut. The qualities of the hangings’ techniques, materials and colours come together to form a noisy visual texture, which is compounded by the noises we imagine the subject matter depicted to make: a squawking and chirping chorus of birds.

Fig. 7: May Morris, Melsetter Hanging, 1898 – 1902, handwoven linen ground embroidered with crewel wools, 146.0 x 191.5 cm, one of a pair of hangings, National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh.
Fig. 7: May Morris, Melsetter Hanging, 1898 – 1902, handwoven linen ground embroidered with crewel wools, 146.0 x 191.5 cm, one of a pair of hangings, National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh.

Seven years after producing the Kelmscott Hangings, c.1900, May Morris worked the same designs in another set of hangings in collaboration with her friend and client Theodosia Middlemore. Known as the Melsetter Hangings, these were made during May Morris’s visits to Melsetter Hall, on the island of Orkney, Scotland.[54] The Melsetter Hangings differ radically from the Kelmscott Hangings (1898 – 1902, Fig. 7). The foreground flowers and pomegranates are distinct in form and colour, and the flowers before the trellis are worked in pastel pinks, oranges, yellows, greens and blues. The heterogenous decorative scheme and lighter tones create a sense of depth and space between foreground and background. Moreover, the linen ground is flatter and less creased, which brings a sense of lightness and air to the scene. We see the same number of birds (ten), although three are worked in wools so light they seem to match the colour of the ground. The remaining birds are bold and clear, however. A thick, dark blue stem stitch is used to trace the strong outlines of their wings and feathers. This comparison between the earlier and later versions of the hangings gives the suggestion of the birds becoming more mobile in May Morris’s designs of the 1890s. In the Melsetter Hangings, the birds are no longer static elements of a tightly unified and shallow visual field; they are shown as distinct and animated entities flying between and above the trellis and plant forms. The qualities of materials and technical processes here operate in unison with the visual subject as the thickness of the wool stem stitches cause the birds’ forms to stand proud from, and casts shadows onto, the ground. The birds appear free and imbued with a sense of movement, suggesting ideas of flight and, in the context of memory, migration.

Birds were closely associated with Kelmscott Manor. May Morris describes life at the Manor as filled with flowers and birds. The air is full ‘of the busy chatter of the rooks, hard at work, ‘repairing’ or spring cleaning their ancestral homes’, she wrote to Emery Walker.[55] In her introduction to volume twenty four of The Collected Works May Morris describes the watermark used in the Kelmscott Press: a bird with a branch in its mouth ‘– a hieroglyph of the Manor-garden and the river-side and their delights.’[56] William Morris had a great fondness for birds and wrote of their activities at Kelmscott. He describes often the comings and goings and songs of the cuckoo and the blackbird. He was amused especially at the many starlings that visited from spring to autumn; to his mother he wrote: ‘The birds here are most delightful: the starlings so amusing: one has built his nest under the eaves of the porch and keeps flying in and out with great big worms all day long.’[57] Birds are a common motif throughout May Morris’s embroideries and designs. Most are conventionalised in keeping with May Morris’s description of nature. In hangings and bedcovers, birds serve as smaller elements within larger decorative schemes. In other examples like Maids of Honour and two panels representing the four seasons, birds are key components of the designs and are often tied in with representations of, or allusions to, the seasons. These associations prompt terms of arrival and departure, of forces moving forward and pulling back, and of the past and present. These ideas lead me to considering migration.

‘Flying in and out’ and moving across seasons, starlings are migratory birds. British starlings usually breed during the spring and summer months but come autumn they ‘join the migratory flights that pass Southwards’, wintering in Southern Europe and Northern Africa.[58] By the 1890s ornithologists had observed, charted and published extensively on the complex phenomena of bird migration. They explored its patterns, cycles, routes, distances and durations. The term was expanded to include partial and seasonal migration across multiple lines of dispersal: north to south and east to west.[59] It was understood also that the same species could breed and winter in opposite locations.[60] Yet, bird migration still remained ‘enveloped in much mystery.’[61] The crux of the matter was how birds learnt, and knew where, to migrate. Fledglings migrate to winter grounds weeks ahead of their parents and ‘can have had no experience whatsoever of the route they have to follow.’[62] Yet they succeed. Further, ‘birds have an extraordinary memory for localities. The same individuals will often return to breed in the same identical spots year after year, in spite of the thousands of miles they traverse between each annual visit to it.’[63] While they could not explain how, ornithologists posited that the knowledge came from birds’ inherited and ‘automatic’ memories.[64] Author of The Migration of British Birds (1895), Charles Dixon wrote: ‘There can be no doubt that the practice of migration…is an acquired habit during the gradual range expansion of such species from a more or less equatorial base.’[65] Migration was a habit acquired through inheritance; it was memory embodied.

May Morris’s move to represent and mobilise birds across seasons and the motions of push and pull they suggest can be aligned with her mobilisation of the past in the present. These can also be allied to the fluid states of consciousness between mind and body that go into the formation of memory, as we see advanced by nineteenth-century physiological psychologists such as William Carpenter, Herbert Spencer, George Henry Lewes, Henry Maudsley, Eneas Dallas and Frances Power Cobbe. These thinkers recast the science of the mind. They proposed a monistic (rather than dualistic) system of mind and body in which mind was not just seated in the brain but throughout the body. The body’s mental activity was understood by these theorists to operate outside conscious, willed and reasoned thought, through involuntary or automatic action – what we might call reflex actions. This was described as unconscious cerebration. This was not, however, cut off from voluntary or willed action or thought. Lewes and Spencer proposed that all actions are reflex and interchange dynamically; Dallas described this interchange as a fluid traffic between conscious and unconscious mental activity.[66] Voluntary actions can become involuntary through trained habit, as walking, cycling and swimming do; involuntary actions may become voluntary, as in the cases of the slowing of a heartbeat, holding one’s breath, or winking. Moreover, these different operations of multiple states of consciousness take place concurrently in myriad bodily functions. The strength of physiological psychologists’ persuasion came through demonstrating the dynamic nature of mental and bodily mind in everyday experiences. Voluntary and involuntary actions, conscious and unconscious thinking – these make up the reality of daily lived experience.

Earlier I demonstrated how News from Nowhere engages with how we turn our thinking, willed and conscious thought to the past. Yet in numerous instances, engagement with the past occurs involuntarily through unconscious cerebration. As Guest and Ellen climb the river bank and approach the Old House, Guest ‘had a mind to say [he] did not know the way’, but his body’s mind did: ‘almost without my will my feet moved along the road they knew…we crossed the road, and again, almost without my will my hand raise the latch of the door in the wall.’[67] Later as he leaves the church he turns to face the Old House ‘once more without any conscious effort’.[68] But how does the body acquire memory?

Memories are acquired continually through everyday experience, although we are quite unaware of them. ‘An impression made upon the sense, even unwittingly, abides for evermore’, wrote Dallas.[69] Memory is embodied as transactions of everyday life register impressions upon our senses and are inscribed into the nervous system. These form without our knowing and lie dormant until a stimulus triggers them to resurface. It is then that we become conscious of them. Inscribed memories become habitual through repeated physical action until they are performed automatically without conscious will. Many treatises on physiological psychology used the example of the pianist. A skilled player needs not recall the notes, for her body knows them, and the speed of her ideas and movements ‘surpass the rapidity of succession of conscious ideas and movements’.[70] She is able to take up a conversation while her hands are still playing, governed by unconscious cerebration. Myriad ideas, movements and bodily functions perform at the same time in different states of consciousness. We will return briefly to music below.

Fig. 8: May Morris, ‘Knotting’, Decorative Needlework, 1893, 21.
Fig. 8: May Morris, ‘Knotting’, Decorative Needlework, 1893, 21.

Helpfully, Cobbe gives the example of sewing, which we can apply to embroidery.[71] Impressions are inscribed through the bodily coordination of eyes, hands and arms as the embroiderer works a stitch. French knots, seen in the Kelmscott Hangings and the Melsetter Hangings, involve such coordination (1898–1902, Fig. 8). The right hand pushes the needle against the thread, held taut by the left hand. Sustained engagement of the muscles pulls this thread tight while several loops are then ‘taken around the needle’ by the turning of the left wrist.[72] Muscular tension is maintained in unconscious cerebration, as the wrist is guided by willed thought to rhythmically wind the thread. The shape of the stitch is thus made on the needle and the stitch is secured as the needle plunges into the ground and fastens the knot. In stitches that describe line and fill in form, such as stem or satin stitch, a skilled embroiderer puts her conscious mind to threading the needle and precisely anchoring the first stitch to the ground. But once she begins to sew, she takes up a rhythm, and through repeated and habitual practice, the needle and thread are worked without conscious thought. These actions are based on the pure and automatic memories Maudsley describes.[73] Her actions, learned and made habit through the body, take place spontaneously and her mind is able to fix ‘upon some other object of thought’.[74] For May Morris, stitches are best learned through doing. Thus, the practice of embroidering fabric with thread to complete a design is made possible through memory and bodily knowledge. In this way, the making of embroidery can be understood in terms of acquired and learned memory. But May Morris’s embroidery practice and writings also welcome thinking about instinctive memory as something that informs how the body performs without conscious reason. As discussed above, memory operates as reflex action in association with or response to a stimulus, such as Guest’s reaction to the sight of the Manor. May Morris herself (re)turns to places of memory. In The Collected Works, she describes walking the stretches of land William Morris knew and loved as a child:

In a pilgrimage to Marlborough and Savernake and the neighbourhood one lovely summer evening the present writer, going all over the old haunts she had often heard described, stood at last before a tablet inscribed with the familiar name, and woke out of a dream: for she had been wandering place to place with a youthful companion, well-known though never seen.[75]

Upon reading a familiar name – a memory inscribed on the body – a switch in cerebration takes place as she awakens from a dream state, from unconscious somnambulism to conscious alertness. The last phrase carries resemblances of the qualities of bird migration as her body travels in an automatic process guided by something ‘well-known’ but not visible. This is a journey she is sharing, and one in which the past and the present, unconscious and conscious thinking, are brought together.


Practices and shared experiences

In his study of materialist aesthetics within Victorian science and literature, Benjamin Morgan explores how William Morris developed a physiological aesthetic practice.[76] Morgan argues that this practice was somatic, and was accessed via ‘Morris’s phenomenologies of labouring bodies – their shared states of alterness, sensory vividness, exhaustion, meditation, and dreaming.’[77] William Morris’s aesthetic practice is based on the body’s corporeality, and it is also a practice that insists ‘on the fundamental sharedness of human corporeality and the political necessity of assuming the availability of simple enjoyment of the body to an entire community.’[78] This model of aesthetic experience allows for aesthetic response to not be limited to an individual’s interiorised experience, instead offering the potential ‘to think capaciously about the networks that contain and connect persons, things, bodies and experiences.’[79] Colour in the practice of embroidery provides an example of these networks, as viewers, light, material, texture and colour converge to generate a physiologically-based aesthetic experience.

The importance placed on corporeal, shared experience in Morgan’s account of William Morris’s model and the open networks made possible by it, are ideas I want to think about in relation to the claim I have been making for memory and embodied experience in the practice of May Morris’s embroidery. Above, I showed that the past is not just accessed but inhabited within the body as the embroiderer deploys revived stitches. This embodiment can be shared through communal working, like that depicted in Mary Annie Sloane’s drawing (Fig. 1), and that known to have operated in the workshops and teams of assistants headed by May Morris under Morris & Co. The critical use of the past and memory is something May Morris wants to share with her students and readers, for there is communal value to this shared experience: to improve the states of contemporary embroidery and design. An account of shared experience could be extended to encompass bird migration; again, sharedness here is allied with a collective effort that benefits society (or in this case the species) as a whole. The ideas expressed by contemporary folk singer and storyteller Karine Polwart are useful to consider here. Polwart describes migrating geese, who take turns in the lead position of their in-flight V-shaped skein so as to share equally the brunt of their lengthy and physically taxing journey. In the track ‘Labouring and Resting’, from the album A Pocket of Wind Resistance (2017), she calls them ‘sky-born socialists’.[80] Like the phenomenologies of labouring bodies seen in William Morris’s work, these migrating geese are – in turn – ‘stepping, up, falling back, labouring and resting,’ as Polwart sings, in a ‘symbiotic dance’.[81] ‘Labouring and Resting’ could be thought of as a musical echo of the schema of William Morris’s aesthetic practice as laid out in Morgan’s argument: idling, concentrating, noticing. The flitting between idling, concentrating and noticing in William Morris’s aesthetic practice prompts me to think about the ways in which May Morris’s embroidery practice comfortably transitions and criss-crosses between various mental and bodily states, in both conscious and unconscious modes of cerebration; the embroiderer is looking, practising, unpicking, learning, refining, memorising, sharing, remembering, embodying, accessing, thinking, selecting, feeling, knowing, threading, sewing, stitching, knotting, and so on.


The argument offered in this article is that May Morris’s embroidery practice is both a physiological and a psychological one, but, as we have seen, it is also a practice that offers the potential for shared experience and collective benefit beyond the individual. Such experiences and benefits are made possible through the central roles of memory and embodied experience within this practice. Memory and embodied experience in embroidery allow the past to be accessed, revived and embodied in the present, enable the states of the art form to advance, and provide the embroiderer with the means to connect and share places, actions and voices of the past with those of the present.


Thomas Cooper is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. Thomas completed his BA (2017) and MA (2018) at The Courtauld Institute of Art.


[1] Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2010), 10.
[2] Maureen Daly Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin (eds), Woman and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009); Emma Shercliff, Articulating Stitch: skilful hand-stitching as personal, social and cultural experience (PhD dissertation, The Royal College of Art, 2014); Antonia Brodie, ‘Marking and Memory: An Embroidered Sheet in the Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum’, Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, 14.2 (2016), 160-175.
[3] Maureen Daly Goggin, ‘Introduction: Threading Women’, in Goggin and Fowkes Tobin, 4-5.
[4] Julia Dudkiewicz, ‘Memorialising her father’s legacy: May Morris as curator and gatekeeper of William Morris’s estate and the role of Kelmscott’, in Lynne Hulse (ed.), May Morris: Art & Life (London: Friends of the William Morris Gallery, 2017), 209-231.
[5] See, for example, Jill L. Matus, Shock, Memory and the Unconscious in Victorian Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Rick Rylance, Victorian psychology and British Culture, 1850 – 1880 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
[6] See, for instance, Diana Donald and Jane Munro (eds), Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009); John Holmes, The Pre-Raphaelites and Science (London and New Haven: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2018); Benjamin Morgan, The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).
[7] Caroline Arscott, ‘William Morris’s Tapestry: Metamorphosis and Prophecy in The Woodpecker’, Art History, 36.2 (June 2013), 608-625. DOI:10.1111/1467-8365.12019
[8] Arscott, 609.
[9] See, for example, Peter Cormack, Arts and Crafts Stained Glass (London and New Haven: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2015) and Tom Crook, ‘Craft and the Dialogics of Modernity: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Late-Victorian and Edwardian England’, The Journal of Modern Craft, 2.1 (April 2015), 17-32. DOI:10.2752/174967809X416242
[10] Jan Marsh, ‘‘A remarkable woman – though none of you seemed to think so’: The overdue re-evaluation of May Morris’s career’, in Hulse, 15.
[11] Helen Bratt-Wyton, ‘May Morris: Special Teacher of Needlework at Birmingham School of Art, 1899-1902’ and Margaretta S. Frederick, ‘May Morris in America: spreading the Arts and Crafts gospel’, in Hulse, 130-140 and 155-174.
[12] Mary S. Lockwood and Elizabeth Glaister, Art Embroidery: A Treatise on the Revived Practice of Decorative Needlework (London: Marcus Ward & Co., 1878), 69.
[13] Alan S. Cole, ‘Stitches and Mechanism’, in Arts and Crafts Essays, by Members of the Arts and Crafts Exhibiting Society. With a Preface by William Morris. (London: Rivington, Percival & Co., 1893), 403.
[14] May Morris, Decorative Needlework (London: Joseph Hughes & Co., 1893), 4-5.
[15] Morris, Decorative Needlework (1893), 10.
[16] The South Kensington Museum is now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum.
[17] Morris, Decorative Needlework (1893), 17.
[18] May Morris, ‘Opus Anglicanum – The Syon Cope’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 6.22 (1905), 278 – 285.
[19] May Morris, ‘Chain-Stitch Embroidery’, Hobby Horse, 3 (1888), 26.
[20] Morris, ‘Chain-Stitch’ (1888), 26-27; Morris, Decorative Needlework (1893), 11-17.
[21] Morris, Decorative Needlework (1893), 14.
[22] Morris, ‘Chain-Stitch’ (1888), 26.
[23] Morris, ‘Chain-Stitch’ (1888), 29.
[24] William Morris, Hopes and Fears for Art: Five Lectures Delivered in Birmingham, London, and Nottingham, 1878-1881 (London: Ellis & White, 1882).
[25] Mary E. Turner, ‘Of Modern Embroidery’, in Arts and Crafts Essays, 356-371.
[26] Turner, 362.
[27] John D. Sedding, ‘Design’, in Arts and Crafts Essays, 408. May Morris was also concerned that modern designers were turning simply to ‘the old stuff itself’, rather than taking directly from nature. See Lynne Hulse, “When needlework was at is very finest’: Opus Anglicanum and its influence of the work of May Morris’, Hulse, 100-101.
[28] Sedding, 409.
[29] Sedding, 409.
[30] Sedding, 410.
[31] Sedding, 411-412.
[32] Lockwood and Glaister, Art Embroidery, 10.
[33] May Morris, ‘Of Embroidery’, in Arts and Crafts Essays, 212-13.
[34] William Morris, ‘Preface’, in Arts and Crafts Essays, v-xiii.
[35] Dudkiewicz, 209-231.
[36] William Morris, The Collected Works of William Morris, With Introductions by his Daughter May Morris. Vol. I: The defence of Guenevere, The hollow land (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1910-1915), ix.
[37] William Morris, The Collected Works of William Morris, With Introductions by his Daughter May Morris. Vol. X Three Northern Love Stories, The Tale of Beowulf (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1910-1915), xij.
[38] May Morris to Howard Pierce, undated. William Morris Gallery Archive, J905 xiv.
[39] May Morris was instrumental in realising the building of the Morris Memorial Hall in Kelmscott, which occupied ‘a major part of May’s efforts and activities in the 1920s and early 1930s.’ The hall was built in dedication to, and memory of, William Morris and was intended to offer a community space for the village. It opened in 1934. See Mary Greenstead, ‘May Morris and Ernest Gimson: a wartime relationship’, in Hulse186-189.
[40] William Morris, The Collected Works of William Morris, With Introductions by his Daughter May Morris. Vol. XXIV Scenes from the Fall of Troy, and Other Poems and Fragments (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1910-1915), xvij.
[41] William Morris, The Collected Works of William Morris, With Introductions by his Daughter May Morris. Vol. XVI News from Nowhere, A Dream of John, A King’s Lesson (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1910-1915), xj.
[42] William Morris, News from Nowhere (London: Kelmscott Press, 1893), 291.
[43] Morris, News (1893), 292.
[44] Morris, News (1893), 295.
[45] Marian Alford, Needlework As Art (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1886), 175.
[46] May Morris, ‘Colour’, in Arts and Crafts Essays, 380.
[47] Morris, Decorative Needlework (1893), 111.
[48] Morris, Decorative Needlework (1893), 113.
[49] Alford, 180.
[50] Anna Mason et al., May Morris: Arts & Crafts Designer (London: Thames and Hudson in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2017), 98; Catherine White, ‘Decorative Needlework: May Morris and her embroiderers’, Hulse, 58.
[51] Mason, 98.
[52] Morris, The Collected Works Vol. XXIV, xxxiv.
[53] Morris, Decorative Needlework (1893), 79-90.
[54] Designed by William Lethaby, Melsetter Hall was a property of Theodosia and her husband, Thomas. The Middlemores were patrons of Arts and Crafts circles. They and the Morrises were mutual friends with the De Morgans, and Theodosia purchased embroidery kits from Morris & Co. in the 1890s. Annette Carruthers, ‘Darning, dyeing and embroidery: May Morris at Melsetter’, in Hulse, 111-118.
[55] May Morris to Emery Walker, 18 April 1911, William Morris Gallery Archive, J418.
[56] Morris, The Collected Works Vol. XXIV, xii.
[57] William Morris, Letter 162 to Emma Shelton Morris, 23rd May 1889, Manor House, Kelmscott in The Collected Letters of William Morris, Vol. III 1889-1892 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 69.
[58] Thomas L. P. Lilford, Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands, Vol. II (London: R. H. Porter, 1885-1897), 65.
[59] Partial migrants are ‘birds who may move to and across different locations in search of more suitable feeding grounds, for example.’  ‘ART. VIII.’, The Quarterly Review (October 1890), 520; ‘The Migration of Birds’, Bentley’s Miscellany (May 1898), 518.
[60] ‘The Migration of Birds, 518.
[61] ‘ART. VIII’, 519.
[62] ‘ART. VIII, 524.
[63] ‘ART. VIII, 525.
[64] ‘ART. VIII’, 525.
[65] Charles Dixon, ‘The Migration of Birds’, The Leisure Hour, April, 1896, 354.
[66] Eneas Sweetland Dallas, The Gay Science, Vol. 1 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1866), 207.
[67] Morris, News (1893), 291.
[68] Morris, News (1893), 304.
[69] Dallas, 213.
[70] Henry Maudsley, Body and Mind: An Inquiry into Their Connect and Mutual Influence, Specially in Reference to Mental Disorders (London: Macmillan, 1870), 26.
[71] Frances Power Cobbe, ‘Unconscious Cerebration: A Psychological Study’, Darwinism in Morals, and Other Essays (London and Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate, 1872), 310.
[72] Morris, Decorative Needlework (1893), 21.
[73] Maudsley, 25.
[74] William Carpenter, Principles of Human Physiology, with Their Chief Applications to Psychology, Pathology, Therapeutics, Hygiene, and Forensic Medicine, 4th edition (London: Churchill, 1853), 784.
[75] Morris, The Collected Works Vol. I, x.
[76] See ‘Practice: William Morris’s Socialist Physiology’ in Benjamin Morgan, The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017).
[77] Morgan, 177.
[78] Morgan, 177.
[79] Morgan, 190.
[80] Karine Polwart with Pippa Murphy, A Pocket of Wind Resistance (n.d., accessed: 5 June 2020,
[81] Polwart and Murphy, ‘Labouring and Resting’, Track 4, A Pocket of Wind Resistance (2017).