Portrait of Ann Macbeth, wearing a collar she made and embroidered with the Glasgow rose, ca. 1900.
Left: The WSPU Signatures Banner at the “Prisoners Pageant” march, 1910. Courtesy © Museum of London. Right: Ann Macbeth. The WSPU Signatures Banner, 1910. Linen, silk, and cotton. Courtesy © Museum of London.
Embroideries by Ann Macbeth, reproduced in Studio magazine, vol. 27, 1903.
Ann MacBeth (attributed). Appliqué panel, ca. 1900. Silk.
Liberty & Co. Ltd. (retailer) and Ann Macbeth (designer). Cover detail, 1910. Courtesy © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Ann Macbeth’s Activist Embroidery

by Alice Rawsthorn

For centuries, embroidery was one of the few creative activities considered to be suitably decorous for women, wealthy ones especially. Yet during the early 1900s, Ann Macbeth, a teacher at Glasgow School of Art in Scotland, led a group of like-minded female embroiderers in transforming their genteel craft into a tool of political activism.

As well as using their skills to create banners for women’s suffrage marches, Macbeth and her friends ran embroidery classes for women in economically deprived areas of Glasgow, enabling them to make useful objects for their homes and to earn extra money. She propagated her empowering vision of her craft through books and public lectures, while providing teachers across Britain with the practical resources they needed to teach embroidery to their students.

Macbeth herself was lucky in coming from a creative family that encouraged her early interest in art. She was born in 1875 to Scottish parents in Bolton, an industrial town in northern England, where her father worked as a mechanical engineer. In 1897, she enrolled at Glasgow School of Art, which was the most progressive art school in Britain under its director, Francis Newbery. He championed the Glasgow Style of art and architecture, led by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret Macdonald, who were commissioned to design a building for the school that fused the aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts movement with those of Art Nouveau and Celtic mythology. The needlework class was run Newbery’s wife, Jessie, who identified Macbeth as an exceptional student and appointed her as an assistant teacher beginning in 1902.

As well as being given the freedom to refine her techniques and a design language steeped in her fascination with Art Nouveau and Scottish folklore, Macbeth could pursue her political interests through her work at the school. She and Jessie Newbery ran Saturday classes where Glasgow school teachers learned how to introduce their students to embroidery. Macbeth also began a lifelong research project of identifying inexpensive threads and fabrics to make embroidery affordable for working-class women who could not afford to buy silks, satins, and velvets.

When Jessie retired in 1908, Macbeth took charge of the department and expanded the Saturday classes into a city-wide program open to all Glaswegians. She focused her own students on deploying embroidery as a form of social empowerment, rather than decoration, by encouraging them to make useful objects, such as table mats and needle cases, while appreciating the pleasure they gave to people in straitened circumstances, particularly when personalized with a little stitching. Samples of the students’ work were sent to schools across the country for use as teaching aids.

Macbeth’s own embroideries were sold by prestigious stores including Liberty of London, but many of her most important works were made for the Women’s Social and Political Union, the most militant of Britain’s women’s suffrage movements. She joined the Glasgow branch and made banners for its protests, while encouraging fellow teachers and her students to do the same. Macbeth created one of the principal banners for a 1909 WSPU demonstration in Edinburgh to support suffragettes who were on hunger strike while incarcerated in London’s Holloway Prison. It combined the WSPU’s signature colors of purple for dignity, green for hope, and white for purity with the embroidered signatures of eighty hunger strikers. Three years later, Macbeth was arrested at a suffragette protest and subjected to a fortnight of force-feeding in solitary confinement after staging her own hunger strike in jail.

During the 1910s and 1920s, she shared her democratic approach to her work in a series of books and public lectures. Their tone was characteristically calm, pragmatic, and encouraging. She continued to teach in Glasgow until 1928, then moved to the village of Patterdale in the Lake District, a beautiful area of mountains and lakes in northwest England, where she lived until her death in 1948. Three banners she embroidered for the village church using organic yarns she dyed herself still hang there as a tribute to the gifted, courageous, and resourceful Ann Macbeth.

Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. Her books include Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton, Design as an Attitude published by JRP|Ringier, and, most recently, Design Emergency: Building a Better Future, co-written with Paola Antonelli and published by Phaidon. She and Antonelli are co-founders of the Design Emergency podcast.