In the eyes of tapestry stitching coordinator, Paula Reynolds, the old county of Renfrewshire is a brightly coloured portrait of many historical firsts, including the global reach of its once thriving thread industry.
During the late 19th century, 98 per cent of the world’s thread was made in Paisley and the town was home to a huge repertoire of textiles – the Paisley Pattern, shawls and woven fabrics.
Inspired by the likes of the Great Tapestry of Scotland and the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry, volunteers at the Paisley Thread Mill Museum decided the tale of Renfrewshire was a legacy best told by needle and thread.
According to Paula, the Tapestry of Renfrewshire will pay homage to the skeins of culture Paisley has to offer.
She says: “The point of the tapestry is to inspire people to learn more about what they see.
“For all the mill buildings in Paisley, people aren’t necessarily aware of the scale of it.
“People genuinely don’t know that Paisley has this strong history, and we want to discover all those different stories – especially the wee ones that not many people know about.”
Funded by the Paisley 2021 bid and the Big Lottery Fund, one half of the project involves the attentive stitching of ten beautifully illustrated tapestry panels, each dedicated to a small patch of Renfrewshire’s past.
Every story was sourced by the efforts of local history expert and vice-chairman of the Paisley Thread Mill Museum, Stephen Clancy. After running a series of workshops throughout Renfrewshire and Glasgow last year, chapters of the Renfrewshire Tapestry began to surface as people expressed what Renfrewshire meant to them, highlighting their favourite historical tales.
The other half of the project is the paisley teardrops, which aim to capture the various evolutions of Paisley and the world of textiles today. For a small donation, The Paisley Thread Museum offer teardrop stitching starter kit to anyone, anywhere interested in contributing the tapestry.
So far, over 300 teardrops have been donated, all of which will be incorporated into the final tapestry design.
“The idea is to tell the story of Renfrewshire and the teardrops gather that from all around,” says Paula. “People have really engaged with this part of the project. It means that they can put their own stamp on what the tapestry means to them.”
The third strand of the project involves donations of Paisley thread. The first panel was stitched entirely from Clark’s thread – manufactured by The Clark Thread Company, which operated from the old mills in Paisley during the thread industry boom of the Victorian era.
“We want to make as much of this tapestry as possible with thread that was made locally,” says Paula. “Given that they haven’t made thread locally for quite a long time now, it’s a tricky business, but we were surprised by how much thread we’d been given. We’ve received three and a half thousand skeins of Clark’s thread, so far.”
And wrapped up in all this linen and yarn is a strong sense of community, as many busy hands from all over tirelessly pull the tapestry together.
Andrew Crummy says, “As the designer of this tapestry, I have watched it grow to involve over 1000 people.”
Video of Tapestry Designer Andrew Crummy discussing the Tapestry design. Credit: Paisley 2021.
The first panel has been passed around lots of different stitching groups in the area, such as those from Paisley Abbey, the Sma’ Shot Cottages, and the Paisley Thread Mill Museum itself, as well as places outwith Renfrewshire such as the SECC in Glasgow.
Paula has also been working with pupils from Paisley’s Trinity High School and Mary Russel School, with the aim of reintroducing traditional skills to the school curriculum.
Embroidery is undergoing quite a resurgence. There’s a whole embroidery scene within social media, says Paula, and the teenagers responded surprisingly well to the old practice: “The teachers were quite surprised by how much it calmed pupils down – as one kid said, ‘it pure chills me out’.”
The aim is to have a complete tapestry by the end of 2021, which Paula says is still an important date even though Paisley didn’t win City of Culture last year.
“It remarks a renewed sense of confidence in Paisley,” she says.
Once complete, The Tapestry of Renfrewshire will be going on tour, returning it to contributors from within and without Renfrewshire.
Currently, a permanent home is being built for the Great Tapestry of Scotland, and the Tapestry of Renfrewshire hopes to use part of the exhibition space there.
Paula believes that this tapestry in particular will play a pivotal role in bringing life back into Renfrewshire’s stitching scene: “There are lots of people out there who have these incredible embroidery skills, but nowhere to showcase them.
“The Renfrewshire Tapestry provides an outlet for these skills, whilst also allowing people who have never stitched before to have a go.”
Paula has been a keen embroiderer since she was a teenager and is certain that the growing craft can only reap huge benefits for the area.
She says: “There’s no greater thrill than creating something like this and then going to see it displayed.
“I enjoy this more than anything else. It’s fulfilling and very relaxing.”
To see this story in print, pick up a copy of our new Paisley-based magazine ‘The Pattern’ at the Paisley Thread Mill Museum.