Back to the loom: Weaver Jenny KilBride on Ditchling and the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic

By Richard Moss | 17 July 2015

Weaver Jenny KilBride MBE on Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, returning to the loom and the legacy of The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic in Ditchling

a photo of a woman seated behind a loom with thread on it
Jeny KilBride - back behind the loom© Courtesy Jenny KilBride
From the 1970s to the late 1980s, Jenny KilBride worked as a silk weaver and vestment maker in the business set up by her father, the silk weaver Valentine KilBride, who was a member of The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic established in Ditchling in Sussex in 1921 by Eric Gill, Hilary Pepler and Desmond Chute.

Ditchling Museum reopened in the summer of 2013 to tell the story of these and other artists and craftsman associated with the development of art and craft in Ditchling.

As the chief fundraiser for the 2013 award-winning redevelopment, KilBride raised £2.3 milliom from the Heritage Lottery Fund, charitable trusts, foundations and individuals.

Her fascinating personal and professional connections to Ditchling’s internationally renowned history of pioneering art and craft practice also enabled her to make valuable contributions to the development of the Museum’s current collection and curatorial programme.

Now, as she returns to the loom and her first career as a weaver after almost 25 years, she talks to Culture24 about life in Ditchling, her memories of the Guild and the museum she has helped to establish.

Take us into your father’s weaving workshop as you remember it in Ditchling

a colour photo of a man working on a loom in a workshop
Valentine KilBride weaving on the dobby loom© Courtesy Jenny KilBride
Our workshop looked out on one side into a yard and on the other to an orchard. At one end was a door leading into Dunstan Pruden’s silversmithing workshop and the stone carvers workshop was on our other side. Across the yard was the Maxwell’s wood workshop and next to that was Edgar Holloway’s workshop where he did paintings, etchings and woodcuts.

Our workshop was a large light building, open to the rafters with skylights to let in the north light. In winter it was freezing. The walls were whitewashed brick and the floor was brick too. It had previously housed the St Dominic’s Press and you could occasionally find pieces of type between the bricks.

At one end was all the paraphernalia for dyeing the silk yarn. In the middle was a huge table for cutting out the cloth and sewing the church vestments that were our stock in trade. Along one side were two very large flying shuttle dobby-looms. They were hand-operated but quite sophisticated.

They had been used in a mill for sample weaving long after the mill had mechanised the rest of the machinery as they were so flexible. They wove 60-inch wide cloth.

On the other side was a beautiful little braid loom that my father had made for him just before the Second World War by the last loom-maker in Spitalfields.

a black and white photo of a man and a woman in overalls in a yard next to a mangle and a large bucket
Valentine KilBride and Petra Gill in the dyhouse at Gospels© Courtesy Jenny KilBride
My father had trained in the family commercial dyeworks in Bradford before the First World War, but had then become very influenced by reading William Morris and other Arts & Crafts writers and decided that he wanted to become a hand-weaver.

He first came to Ditchling in 1924 to work with Ethel Mairet, who taught weaving, spinning and natural dyeing in her workshop at Gospels.

From there he moved up to Ditchling Common to join Eric Gill in his newly formed Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic. He set up his workshop in 1926 and continued as a silk weaver and vestment maker until his death in 1989 – a pretty unique record, I should think, for the 20th century.

My three brothers, my sister and myself all worked in the workshop - some for only a few months but in my case for much longer, from 1974 to 1989.

What was life like as a member of the Guild, both for you as a weaver and as a child?

a black and white photo of children racing towards the finishing line across a field
St Dominic's Day races at the Guild in 1960© Courtesy Jenny KilBride
Life as a child at the Guild was idyllic. There were lots of other children and we went in and out of each other’s houses freely and also could play in the fields around the workshops and on the Common. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood what a hard life it was because none of the workshops made money.

Our house didn’t have electricity until the mid-60s and always had an outside earth toilet. We did, however, have lots of books, beautiful pictures and good, if very simple, food. I accepted the ideals of the Guild without question and though I realised we were different from other families in the neighbourhood, we were all proud of our difference!

The Catholic religion was very central to our lives but it was a rather enlightened form of Catholicism. The chapel at the Guild looked more like a Quaker (or perhaps Shaker) chapel than the over decorated Gothic Catholic parish churches around us.

Do you have specific memories of some its key members?

Gill died before I was born and I was too young to remember Hilary Pepler but I have clear memories of many of the others. Joseph Cribb, the stonecarver and Gill’s first apprentice and assistant, was the most friendly to children. He welcomed us into his workshop and gave us bits of stone to carve. He was a keen naturalist and encouraged our interest in wildflowers, birds and beetles.

The silversmith Dunstan Pruden, on the other hand, was a rather terrifying figure who ignored children. You wouldn’t have dreamed of going into his workshop for a chat. As an adult this all changed and I was very flattered to be asked to join the group that had coffee with him every morning.

He was what we would now call rather a foodie and bought a special mix of beans in Brighton which he carefully ground each day and made in a pot on a gas ring. There was absolutely no question of adding milk.

George Maxwell was also not a great one for talking to children but we loved going into his workshop, smelling the sawdust or helping with the nightly bonfire when one of his apprentices burned the day's floor sweepings.

What are your earliest memories of weaving and when did you first start to use the loom?

a black and white photo of a teenage girl winding bobbins on a loom
Jenny KilBride winding bobbins in 1959© Courtesy Jenny KilBride
My earliest memories of weaving are of climbing in and out of one of the big looms as it was being threaded up. My father sat on a stool inside the frame, threading each fine thread through the harness, and as he did so he hid a thimble somewhere within the frame for me to find.

Later I had my own little loom to use on Tuesday nights when he held an evening class in the workshop for local people. As a teenager I wasn’t interested in it, though I did sometimes wind bobbins for my father to use in the flying shuttles to earn pocket money. Eventually though I came back.

After doing a English degree at Manchester I taught for two years in a teachers’ training college but decided pretty soon it wasn’t for me so I came back on a temporary basis to help my father who, by then, was 77.

I found I loved it so I stayed and began to learn to weave properly, eventually taking over from him in 1981 when dementia finally overcame him.

You were one of the last members of the Guild - following in the footsteps of your father who was the first weaver to enter its ranks. What kind of weaving projects were you involved in then?

I was the first woman member – there were only two of us. By the time I joined there was absolutely no opposition to my membership on the grounds of gender. My father specialised in weaving silk for church vestments and furnishings.

I followed that too but also wove rugs, scarves and bags when I first started which I sold at local craft shows. Eventually, however, I too specialised, as the liturgical work was financially more rewarding.

Tell us about your experience of the final years in Ditchling before the workshops were wound up and dismantled.

a photo of a woman behind a loom winding thread
Jenny kilBride winding bobbins in 1978© Courtesy Jenny KilBride
The final years at the Guild were very fraught. The workshops were in a dreadful state and needed a considerable sum of money spending on them. None of us were earning enough to finance this so we began to look at other ways to raise money.

My nephew, the calligrapher Ewan Clayton, and I wanted to continue and bring in new members but we would have had to buy out the other members to do this.  

We had struggled for a long time to preserve a sense of community. There was little left of the communal spirit of earlier days (though they too had had their disagreements). We failed to get planning permission for the Ditchling Press to move from the centre of the village back to the Common.

We had hoped to sell them some of the land and continue in a reduced area. In the end we had an offer from a developer and the members voted to sell in 1989.

What was it like to eventually leave weaving behind for a career – albeit it a very successful one – in arts fundraising?

Leaving weaving was in the end a necessity. I had been struggling to make a living and had begun to work in the evenings on the Glyndebourne switchboard. Between 1985 and the Guild closure in 1989 I continued to work at Glyndebourne on a part-time basis. My father had died in 1982 and my mother was living with me so I needed to have a regular income of some sort.

She died in 1985 and I continued to try and make the workshop pay, but when the buildings were sold I felt that I couldn’t face carrying on. Luckily Glyndebourne offered me full-time employment in the finance department and I later moved on to work with Sir George Christie as administrator of the campaign to raise money for the new theatre.

The excitement of this job, compared to the struggles of the previous decade, meant that I threw myself into this new life and tried not to think of what I had been before.

How did you get involved with Ditchling Museum?

A photo of a long gallery with a printing press at the end
The Stanhope Press and Print Gallery at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft© Courtesy Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft
My turning away from the past meant that I rather avoided getting involved with the museum, though the Bournes did ask me to become a trustee long before I agreed to do so. I felt that it was too early for the Guild and its achievements to become museum objects.

As time passed, however, I began to see that the museum might in the end be the only way that the Guild would be remembered, so I finally agreed to join the Trustees in 2001. By this time Joanna [Bourne] had died and Hilary [her sister] had retired so I could not say that I was ever really involved during their time at the Museum.

As it began to take shape what was your personal vision for the museum and to what extent has that been realised?

My initial personal vision for the museum was simply to secure its future by restoring the buildings and increasing visitor numbers and to ensure that it represented the Guild in a faithful and interesting way. I then became interested in exploring how the Guild sat within the wider artistic community of the village and the arts and crafts movements of the 20th century.

I think this vision has been realised, though there is so much still to explore to understand just what it represented and what its legacy is and could be for artists today. I feel very proud of what we have achieved at the museum and can’t quite believe we have done it.

You have been an important part of its success, but what are some of the difficulties in fundraising for a rural museum location like this?

The main difficulty in raising money for the museum was that so few people knew about it. We had this fantastic collection but the state of the building and the limited resources we had to mount exhibitions meant that we had to ask people to put their trust in our ability to bring the project off.

We are a bit off the beaten track so had to try quite hard to bring people down from London to see our plans. Luckily we are on the route to Glyndebourne so I worked hard to get people to call on us on their way there. Happily some generous people did believe in us.

It’s a radical and ambitious transformation, but also a natural and logical one. Is the museum’s function now to explore the wider role of art and craft or to tell the often complicated story of the Guild?

a photo of the interior of a gallery with display case white wooden walls and display wall of sculpture and prints
The main gallery at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft© Courtesy Jenny KilBride
I think its role is both in that the principles that governed the way work was produced at the Guild do still have something to say though the language in which they expressed their thoughts may need sometimes to be updated to make sense to a modern audience. 

But I wouldn’t want it to always be looking inwards. To survive and flourish the museum needs to look outwards. We should start by looking at themes that spring out of our collection and then see where this leads.

I would also want to emphasise that there were other equally interesting artists in Ditchling who were not members of the Guild, such as Edward Johnston, Sir Frank Brangwyn, Ethel Mairet, Charles Knight and Louis Ginnet.

Should the museum tackle the complexities and controversies of the Guild’s personalities? What stories should the museum be telling?

Someone who visited us once from America said that the problem with Gill was that he sucked the air out of the room. I would be worried that, if we go too much towards the personalities in the Guild, he will dominate and what was achieved will be overlooked.

On the other hand I don’t think we should shy away from the controversies and complexities of what community life is like. It will be difficult to find a balance but it shouldn’t be avoided.

How important are hands-on workshops, education and craft practice to the future of the museum?

Vitally important.

a photo of a green woven priest's silk cloak see from the back
Jenny KilBride, Handwoven Silk Cope© Courtesy Jenny KilBride
What are your favourite artworks/exhibits and what are you most proud of about the museum?

I love the Guild chapel bell and the other items from the chapel, anything by David Jones who I think is by far the most interesting artist among the whole group, and the various handwoven garments we have which were produced in Ethel Mairet’s workshop.

I’m proud the spaces and materials both inside and out are beautiful and so true to the spirit of the artists whose work is shown.

You are Secretary of Ditchling Common and Tenantry Down Ltd and Ditchling Commoners’ Association – what makes Ditchling so special?

For me I think it is the fact that I have been here so long and my experience of the village and its surroundings is so many-layered and built up over so many years. 

There is still a strong sense of community and, I hope, an acceptance of a certain degree of eccentricity which is attractive to the young people who move here.  Though like every community there are factions and tensions.

The museum was not redeveloped without its fair share of criticism and some people are still very ambivalent about the way it has moved from being a social history museum of all aspects of village life to a museum concentrating on the village’s artistic heritage.

You have set up your loom again and you will be using your original tools and equipment; what projects do you have in the pipeline?

a photo of a series of silk dye and weave samples
Silk dye and weave samples© Courtesy Jenny KilBride
I don’t still own the big looms but have a more useful small George Maxwell pre-war loom which is in perfect working order. I am definitely going to weave silk again and am really keen to develop my knowledge of using natural dyes on silk. 

This is something I need to learn a lot more about. I think there could be a real attraction for people in having a handwoven silk scarf dyed with plants from the surrounding countryside.

For more on Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft visit ditchlingmuseumartcraft.org.uk.

More on this story:

The re-opened Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft: A new jewel in the Sussex Downs

Curator's Choice: Hilary Williams of Ditchling Museum chooses Eric Gill's printing press

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