Inspired by James Leman, Designer & Master Weaver of Spitalfield’s Silk

As I am a volunteer and a keen amateur textile artist, I have attended several talks at the Huguenot Museum about the Spitalfields silk industry. James Leman (1688-1745) work is always mentioned, as he is an important Huguenot being a designer of silk patterns and a master weaver. The brand design for the museum is based on the Huguenot silk pattern (V&A:E.4440-1909) developed by James Leman in the early 1700s.

I wondered if I could do my own piece of work using his designs as inspiration, as the designer had done with the museums brand design. I am a weaver but know producing a piece of fabric with such intricate figured designs would be beyond me. I am intrigued by how they produced such fine figured work on a draw loom using only two shafts. The heddles with the warp ends had to be pulled up were manually selected by a second operator (draw boy) so it would have been a slow and labour intensive process.

As I like to sew and embroider I decided I would use one of James Leman designs from ‘V&A Pattern Spitalfields Silk’. The book has a compact disc with all the patterns from the book stored on it which you are able to use for non commercial applications. I selected the pattern no 21 Pencil, watercolour and body colour on paper.UK, 1719 (V&A:E.4472-1909) which I then printed out to the size I wanted my embroidery to be.

I regularly attend embroidery classes in Dartford at Craft Frames run by Melissa Cheeseman, who is Royal School of Needlework trained. Melissa helps and guilds us in selecting the right stitches etc. Free style embroidery uses variety of stitches worked onto a background fabric leaving areas unworked or completely covering the fabric. It is often referred to as Jacobean work. The threads I will be using are stranded cotton (which consists of six strands which separate easily) plus metallic pearl thread. Different results are achieved depending on how many strands used.

After carefully tracing the design I then pin pricked it ready for my next sewing class. The pin pricked design is transferred onto the backing fabric using crushed charcoal. I had chosen white silk, as James Leman designed silk fabric. The silk was then herring-boned stitched onto a piece of calico for extra strength. Two separate red silk pieces where bonded onto the white silk to be worked on for the pomegranate and strawberry.

James Leman was one of the first people to use gridded paper to draw his silk designs on. You can see the grid on the watercolour pattern I am using so I wanted to have this frame work in my embroidery. I am using stem stitch with a white single strand. Once this is complete I will be ready to start on the adventure of selecting and sewing the different stitches on my interpretation of James Leman design.

By Ann Bowdler