The Dovecot Tapestry Studio is just off the South Bridge in the centre of Edinburgh. I didn’t seek it out, rather, I came across it when I was looking for a spot to while away a little time, having arrived early for a class I was taking next door. An A-board on the street piqued my interest and drew me in. It announced that an exhibition called ‘Daughters of Penelope’ was showing. The significance of the title was lost on me. In an airy space, empty of people, is a small collection of contemporary works of textiles. It is so quiet here. Having been to other galleries lately, I appreciate the stillness. Tapestry hangings, carpets, gossamer thread drapings, a woven Belfast sink – utterly impractical, but fitting the William Morris’s edict: ‘have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ All of them are works of beauty, and all are created by women.
I sit quietly, read, and learn that ‘Daughters of Penelope’ is a reference to the Greek mythological figure of Penelope – Odysseus’s faithful wife. The story of Penelope, however, is a little ambiguous. One take is that she was the embodiment of female loyalty and chastity, patiently weaving while she waited for her adventurous husband to return home (it took him 20 years!). Everyone else had given him up for dead, they wanted her to re-marry, but she held out, saying she would take a new husband only when she had finished her weaving. Every night she would stay awake and undo that day’s work – one step forward, two back – so she never had to marry. The other take is that she was a strong and assertive woman – using her intelligence and wit to outsmart unwanted suitors (sound familiar?!), thus maintaining control over her own destiny. All that digression to say, it was an exhibition of women’s work, excelling in an art form long since dominated by men.
Like me, you probably think that sewing, weaving, and tapestry is a woman’s domain. Not so. During the Arts and Crafts movement (back to the William Morris era) there was a revival in weaving and tapestry and the apprenticeships for these professions went to…. men. It was fine for women to weave domestically, to make things for the home, but not to take commissions, not to call their work ‘art’. This persisted well into the Twentieth Century. Maybe it’s the week that’s in it – but doesn’t this old story begin to sound exasperating?
On my way out I ask the woman at the desk why it’s called the Dovecot Gallery. “Ah, doocot!”, she pronounced it the Scots way. She explained to me that this building was never a ‘doocot’, it was actually the old Victorian swimming baths for the area. The Tapestry Studio used to be housed in another part of Edinburgh; in Corstorphine, in an actual Dovecot (also spelt Dovecote) that was built in the 1500s as part of the Corstorphine Castle estate. When the studio moved, it took the name with it. The Dovecot, elaborate beehive shaped brick buildings, kept pigeons – a valued resource both for their meat but also their dung, which had various uses from manure for the land to the production of saltpetre – an ingredient in gunpowder! I’m glad they don’t do it anymore. I’m glad these women are getting a chance to shine. I’m glad for change.