Stich in Time church exhibition to showcase items relating to periods of Bungay’s history
- Credit: Bungay Museum
A new exhibition in St Mary’s Church focuses on textiles and embroideries including items relating to various periods of Bungay’s history.
Unlike some Suffolk market towns, Bungay didn’t prosper from the woollen industry as the low lying water meadows are subject to flooding so unsuitable for grazing sheep.
Instead, cattle were reared, not only for dairy products, but for their hides, and an important tanning industry developed from the mediaeval period.
Wealthy leather merchants created trade links with other towns and cities, and provided funds for the extension of the Benedictine Priory, and the building of the Priory Church, now St Mary’s, founded in the 12th century.
The Prioress and nuns became accomplished needle-women, and not only adorned their buildings with decorative fabrics but also sold or donated them to religious establishments in the wider East Anglian region.
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Examples of ‘Bungay-werke’ were recorded in the archives of Blythburgh and Eye Priories, and Leiston Abbey.
Bungay also developed a trade in textiles made from hemp cloth. Hemp was usually grown on small plots of land, and although some larger areas were farmed on Outney Common, and along the banks of the Waveney, it was chiefly a cottage industry.
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Access to water was essential, because when the hemp was ready to be harvested it had to be soaked for four or five days, in ‘Mardles’ or ‘Retting Pits’.
The work was chiefly managed by women, who not only helped with the crop production, but also engaged in the spinning and weaving.
The resulting cloth ranged from fine fabric for sheets, coarse cloth for work clothes, and ‘huckaback’ a rough fabric for towels.
In the 17th century it was made into a special “Bungay Canvas” for the sails of fishing vessels, such as those used for the highly important herring industries in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth.
Middle and upper class women were not expected to engage in paid employment, and one of their main occupations was embroidery.
From childhood, they were taught how to create a variety of stitches for samplers, until they were sufficiently skilled to create embroidered garments, cushions, fire-screens and framed pictures.
Bungay Museum has some fine samplers, one dating from the late 17th century, made by the ancestors of the wealthy Town Reeve.
From the Georgian period, a few schools in Bungay began to offer education for girls, where needlework was taught, and an example of a neat but plain Victorian sampler will also be on display in the exhibition.
A major textile business commenced in 1832, when a silk mill was established at Ditchingham by Grout & Co who had mills in other parts of the country.
At its height it employed between 300 to 500 workers.
The chief product was black crepe silk used for mourning dresses made popular by Queen Victoria following the death of her beloved Albert in 1861.
However, it suffered a financial decline when strict mourning became less popular towards the end of Victoria’s reign, and the factory eventually closed in 1896.
In recent years, the Friends of St Mary’s have been arranging regular exhibitions of textiles and embroidery.
Local artist Mary Walker organised a team of needle-women to create a wall-hanging depicting significant events in the church’s history, which is now on permanent display in the south aisle.
Since then, the Sew on Sunday group meets monthly in the church, and has produced designs based on the 17th century carved bosses in the church roof.
The exhibition “A Stitch in Time” comprising needlework and textiles, is at St Mary’s Church, Bungay, from Saturday April 29 to Wednesday May 3 from 10am to 4pm. Entrance is free though donations are welcome.
A preview evening takes place on April 28 at 7.30pm with Jane Rowton-Lee, lace expert, exhibitor and international judge which will cost £10 including wine and nibbles. To book tickets contact Keith Parker, on 01986 893133, or John Warnes on 01986 892855.