Margaret Swain

Share this article

Margaret Helen Swain, embroidery and textile historian

Born: 13 May, 1909, in Lancashire

Died: 27 July, 2002, in Edinburgh, aged 93

TAUGHT to embroider by her Irish grandmother before she could learn to read, Margaret Swain went on to become a renowned historian in the field of embroidery and textiles.

Born Margaret Helen Hart in Lancashire, she was the eldest of five children. In 1929 she went to London to train as a nurse at St Bartholomew’s Hospital and it was there that she met her future husband, Richard (Dick) Swain, a bacteriologist.

It was Dick’s appointment to a teaching post at Edinburgh University in 1947 that brought the family to Scotland just as the first Edinburgh International Festival was starting. At an exhibition in the Signet Library, Margaret was first made aware of Ayrshire needlework. Finding no books on the subject, she researched it for herself, and her findings were published in 1955 as The Flowerers. This was kindly received and she had much encouragement from people such as John Nevinson, who wrote widely on historic needlework. She also had an enormous amount of encouragement from her husband, who pushed her to publish everything she found out.

She found it puzzling that so little was known about the historical needlework of Scotland because she found such riches here. But she brought a new eye to the subject, as newcomers often do.

Much of the work for her second book, Historical Needlework: A Study of Influences in Scotland and Northern England, published in 1970, was based on her travels round Scotland with Lady Victoria Wemyss. Lady Victoria had conceived the idea of an exhibition of historical needlework to raise money for the National Art Collections Fund, and the resulting exhibition was held in the Merchant Hall in Edinburgh during the Festival in 1967.

Two years later she helped to arrange a second exhibition on historic clothing. Margaret Swain had received much help for the exhibitions from the curators of the two national museums in Edinburgh, who found her knowledge of embroidery and other textiles invaluable. Afterwards, she became a consultant to both institutions.

Her expertise was also sought by those responsible for the upgrading of displays at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh in the mid-Seventies. Her work led to a catalogue of the tapestries and embroideries at the Palace; an area of the collections that Margaret felt had been neglected in the past. Historic tapestries had for many years been a Cinderella topic in textile studies; her interest in them enabled her to help many other owners of these objects and bring about a better appreciation of their worth.

No-one can write about embroidery without coming across various mythic embroiderers, and one that anyone researching in Scotland was bound to encounter was Mary, Queen of Scots. In her book on this topic, Margaret Swain diligently sorted out fact from fiction in a very elegantly produced volume, which was reprinted in 1987 for the 400th anniversary of Mary’s death.

One aspect of embroidery had fascinated Margaret for a long time and that was the source of embroidery designs used in the past. Figures on Fabric: Embroidery design sources and their application, published in 1980, was the first to look at this aspect of embroidery. It was also the book that Margaret wrote "for herself" because it was a topic that really interested her. Her interest in the sources of embroidery design was encouraged by John Nevinson and also by Nancy Graves Cabot, of Boston, an American who pioneered this study.

Margaret Swain’s last major book was Scottish Embroidery: Medieval to Modern, which was originally suggested by Kathleen Whyte, of Glasgow School of Art. This brought together all the strands of interest in embroidery done in Scotland that Margaret had pursued over the years. These have included samplers, Ayrshire needlework, embroidered furniture, particularly seat covers, bed and wall hangings, as well as the early 20th-century pioneers of embroidery.

For a more general audience, she wrote three in the series of Shire books. Ayrshire and Other Whitework, Embroidered Stuart Pictures and Embroidered Georgian Pictures. Over the years, though, Margaret wrote for a very large number of journals and newspapers on embroidery, household textiles and tapestries. She was also an indefatigable lecturer and speaker, at home and abroad. Her easy style of delivery and pertinent anecdotes enabled her to convey both a wealth of information and a real interest in the welfare of the makers of whom she spoke.

Margaret Swain was awarded an honorary MA from Edinburgh University in 1981 and made an MBE in 1989 for her work on embroidery. In 2001, a pencil drawing of her by Elizabeth Blackadder was accepted by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, donated by her children in honour of their mother’s 90th birthday.

Her husband’s death in 1981 had been a great loss to her, but she found much enjoyment in her family, travelling within Britain and abroad and in her researches. She made a lasting contribution to the history of embroidery and textiles and her books are much sought after. But her interests were wide. For many years she was a member of the Samaritans in Edinburgh, and despite deafness and tinnitus she was a regular visitor to the opera.

She was an immensely warm and helpful person, always interested in the ploys of younger people, and she corresponded with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances on all aspects of embroidery and textiles.

She is survived by her three children and their families.