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From the file

An embroidery scandal | Why did a century-old embroidery charity, led by a CEO who proudly said he’d never picked up a needle, go to war with its craft-loving members?

Cross stitch
The Slow Newscast

Cross stitch

Cross stitch

How an embroidery charity – beloved by its members – tore itself apart at the seams


Transcript

“Angry, disgusted, ignored… I was thinking lots of four-letter words then… cheated, furious, deceived… I was cross. As were my friends… patronised, vengeful, livid… finally, unsurprised.”

Basia Cummings: This is a story about a scandal. 

About infighting and rumours.

And… it’s about sewing. 

I’m Basia Cummings, and in this week’s Slow Newscast we’re going to take you on a pretty wild ride through the world of British embroidery, where a fierce storm has been brewing. 

And if you thought that the Handforth Parish Council meeting was angry, well you haven’t met the embroiderers. Forget any images you might have in your mind of dainty women doing needlepoint, or some scenes from Pride and Prejudice… this isn’t about posh women gently sewing to keep themselves out of trouble.

This is much more radical. 

In the reporting of this story, one woman sent us a threat that she’d found circulating on the internet in embroidered form: “WARNING”, it read – in all capital letters. “THIS IS PROOF I HAVE THE PATIENCE TO STAB SOMETHING 1,000 TIMES.”

And it was illustrated with a skull. 

Now, you see, this is a story about some seriously cross stitching. 

My colleague Claudia Williams has been reporting this over the past few weeks. She dared to enter into the snake pit of anger and conflicting narratives and accusations that has totally engulfed the Embroiderers’ Guild, a century-old institution that has found itself at war with its embroidery-loving members… 

Basia: Hi Claudia.

Claudia Williams: Hey.

Basia: I have to say this story sounds amazing and very dramatic. How did you first come across it?

Claudia: Like all the best stories, this one started with a whistleblower. An angry stitcher told us there was something fishy going on at the Embroiderers’ Guild… and perhaps we should take a look. 

Now, you might not have heard about the Embroiderers’ Guild, but it’s a charity and, in its own words, promotes textile art in all its forms. It’s also this membership organisation, and it’s got, at the moment, about 4,000 members. On average they’re about 70-years-old. Members hang out together at local branches, where they get together to sew and socialise and organise talks. Think Women’s Institute, but with needles and thread. 

But recently, something went… weird. 

There was a financial crisis at the Guild – I thought it was all about the pandemic at first. But as we started digging we uncovered rumours of a CEO earning £100k a year… valuable items being sold off… family members hired as financial managers… and a membership that was turning against its own charity. 

Our story starts with a pretty remarkable showdown. 

“Good morning everyone, we acknowledge that this is a difficult time for all concerned…”

Embroiderers’ Guild general meeting

This is the General Meeting of the Embroiderers Guild, held at the beginning of March. 

It was big news. A couple of weeks beforehand, members had found out that their local branch accounts had been frozen… and that the branches, the bit they loved most about the charity, were probably going to close. 

Apparently, 4,000 people tried to attend the meeting – and only 982 made the cut because of limits on Zoom. 

“… it is a shock for many members, but the writing has been on the wall for several years…”

Embroiderers’ Guild general meeting

It’s not quite as fiery… but we are in the terrain of Jackie Weaver and the Handforth Parish Council meeting.

“You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver, no authority at all.”

Brian Tolver at the Handforth Parish Council meeting

You may remember it as a rare moment of pandemic joy, when it went absolutely viral in February. 

[CLIP: “Read the rules” from Handforth Parish Council meeting]

“Read the standing orders, read them and understand them!”

Aled Brewerton at the Handforth Parish Council meeting

The General Meeting was… tense. 

Off camera, hundreds of women were becoming more and more incensed. I actually interviewed one woman who said she had to start knitting to stop herself from screaming at the laptop…

And from the very beginning, these trustees – who are unpaid volunteers, they’re clearly really nervous – it felt like they set up a very “us versus them” dynamic. 

“In April 2019 we presented a Guild plan to face the challenges. Only 23 of a 145 branches registered to take part in the initiative…”

Embroiderers’ Guild general meeting

And there was also someone on the call who I really hadn’t expected to see…

“One question that has arisen is why Terry Murphy is logged in as a participant? He has been providing background technical support, and support for members experiencing difficulties in getting into the meeting. He’s also a member of the Guild, so he is entitled to be here.”

Embroiderers’ Guild general meeting explaining the presence of Terry Murphy

Terry Murphy is the Embroidery Guild’s former CEO. He was CEO for the best part of a decade, until retired at the beginning of 2021. 

And from the outside, anyway… it is not clear how he fits within the world of the Embroiderers’ Guild.

He’s an ex-Proctor and Gamble man – on his LinkedIn he pitches himself as a consultant. He specialises in bringing companies back from the brink – he’s about change and transformation. 

And during this hugely important meeting he’s sitting there on screen, sucking his pen. 

I mean it’s possible he didn’t know the camera’s on him… but it goes down terribly with some members. Just the sight of him incenses them, and then he’s there, all blasé, chewing a biro. You can imagine it. A lot of furious stitching and knitting going on…

Because what’s really happening here is a clash of cultures. This guy, this changemaker, has been at the top of an organisation focusing on the money, and he’s completely at odds – a world away – from the members, almost all women, who love embroidery, they love the branches, they love the community of it all. 

Because the thing is, really, it’s impossible to understand this story without understanding what the Guild – and embroidery – means to these women. 

Gill: I’d always sewed, but I’ve never had any professional training, you know, just bits and pieces at school and the like.

And my sister-in-law found an embroidery class near her. We used to go along on a Monday evening and the person who ran that was chairman of the Merseyside branch of the Embroiderers’ Guild. I then joined the Guild – and that was in 1988 and I’ve been a member ever since, so...

That’s Gill. She is one of many women I’ve spoken to for this story – and yes, they’re all women except for Terry – and they’ve all said the same thing.

That the drama and the outrage all comes from a place of love. 

And it’s tricky. Because the Guild isn’t a charity in the way you might typically think of one. It has charitable aims, it provides scholarships… looks after an important collection of embroidery. It runs a magazine… it puts on educational events. It has priorities of its own. 

But then on top of that, it also runs a membership organisation. And these members, they have expectations and demands. They form this deep network of local chapters, and for many of the women these branches have been a home – a community – for decades.  

And, of course, there’s also a big social element…

Eva: We stitch, we chat, you know… it’s a space for women to do their… well, it’s mainly women, to do their stitching… 

Teresa: It’s like, I’m going to have lots of good friends in my life, but I don’t think I’ve ever had so many sewing friends. And I really like having sewing friends. 

Gill: If you find someone who has the same interests as you, the same common purpose as you, the same enjoyment in a craft, as you, there is always a great connection. 

Honestly the way that some of these women talk about their local branches… it’s so heartwarming. And the thing is that for many of them it’s what’s kept them going during the pandemic.

So when they find out that all of this could be cut loose from the Guild – it’s a huge shock. 

And they’re angry.

But that anger… it hasn’t come out of nowhere. And that’s the thing with this story. The more you dig into it… the more you realise that this is an unlikely viper’s nest of accusations and in-fighting that all goes way, way back.

Clare: “I left when… the Manchester project failed. And at the time the Guild had been told that they probably would have to move out of Hampton Court Palace. There wasn’t very much money anyway….”

This is Clare Jady. Ardent embroiderer and long-time Guild member. In fact, in the late noughties she was a financial advisor to the Guild trustees and also a Guild treasurer. So she’s seen it all.

In 2010 Terry was brought in as an interim CEO: the Guild was in debt after a big project to move the headquarters to Manchester had gone drastically wrong, leaving a black hole in the Guild’s finances and members… annoyed. Terry was going to turn it all around and save the day. He was a changemaker, after all. 

But… an expensive one. An usually expensive one. 

The Guild has refused to confirm this, but we’ve been told that Terry was being paid £9,500 per month to help solve the charity’s problems. 

For Clare, that was just… insane. 

Clare: So I became really concerned, partly because of the way he was taken on. So he was a self-employed consultant, not a proper employee. And also because of the amount. If you divided the number of members at the time – that’s about 10,000 – by the amount he was taking… So we were paying fees at the time of around £23 per member, and £13 of that was going directly to pay his salary (if you assume there was no other income for the Guild). 

And I just thought that was a shockingly large proportion of our fees. And it made me wonder what there was left of our £23 to pay for other stuff to do with the running of the Guild and to do with other charitable objectives the Guild might have had.

So I just thought it was an exceptional amount of money to be paying from our subs. And I couldn’t see how the Guild could afford that amount long term, unless it started to really increase its other sources of income, which it never did. 

Claudia: And what did you do about those concerns? Did you raise them with the trustees? Did you raise them with the CEO? 

Clare: I wrote a letter to the trustees and to members, which I was hoping that I would be able to read at the AGM. It expressed my concerns about the amount he was paid and some of the defences that I’d seen of the amount he was being paid. But actually I wasn’t allowed to speak at the meeting but I felt that… things were then able to carry on with Terry Murphy being paid, I think, a considerable amount of money.

Tensions just grew from there. Many members felt uncomfortable that this guy had been drafted in and paid so much cash… Terry’s salary became an elephant in the room. 

Clare raised her objections, and she wasn’t alone in doing that. 

There were others, such as Pauline Hannon. She was a long-time member from Lancashire, who was voted in as Chairman of the Guild just after Terry was hired. She wasn’t convinced by him either. 

Claudia: And did you raise concerns to the trustees and to the CEO himself, kind of from the beginning?

Pauline: Yes, that we can’t continue… we will have to look for a CEO who is employed. You know… £120,000-odd was off the radar. Absolutely off the radar. 

Okay, so he’s being paid a lot – but this charity clearly needs some change and some transformation, and you get what you pay for. 

But part of what is remarkable here is that over the course of a decade the issue remains heated. It’s never really resolved.

And it’s not just about the money. 

Some members – and I should say that it’s definitely not all members – they were concerned about other things too. 

Pieces of embroidery from the Guild’s collection were sold off without members being told. One of the CEO’s family members was hired for a financial role. And an expensive but troublesome database system meant that memberships lapsed without people knowing. 

And this is all happening during a decade where interest in the Guild is waning… membership drops and that impacts the finances… the magazine profits go down… And to many of the members the offering from the central Guild is getting worse. 

And look, these are women who get together regularly, sit together, natter, and sew. It’s the perfect conditions for a giant rumour mill. 

The Guild and Terry say that these are totally unfair criticisms. That tough decisions were taken because they had to be, and that the Guild’s decline goes back a long time. The Guild fully supports Terry and the work that he has achieved, and says that this criticism… it comes from a minority of members with “strong opinions”. The charity doesn’t want to focus on the past, it wants to look forward to the future. 

So that’s one side of things. But… there’s also something underneath it all. 

One member told me that it felt like Terry just didn’t seem to take the embroidery done by the women in the branches seriously… that it seemed like it was just “women’s work”. 

In his leaving letter to members when he retired earlier this year he jokes about the fact that he’s never picked up a needle. And I think that brings us to a really important point of perception here.

This is a charity that is almost entirely made up of women. But it’s now run by this man who says he’s a specialist in corporate turnarounds on this big salary… and some of the members, frankly, felt dismissed. 

Gill: He came to address the Merseyside branch. We were not favorably impressed with him as a person or as a CEO. 

This is Gill, the member from Merseyside. She works as an accountant and also runs a small business making corsets and wedding gear.

Gill: And there was this… it was quite a patronising attitude he adopted to the members. And we were asking hard questions about funding and the like, and it was there… “Oh, well you do this.” 

And it was the dismissive, it was almost misogynistic in some respects, it was very dismissive. And we got infuriated. I can tell you the members in Merseyside were pretty steamed up about it.

The situation became so difficult that for some people, it felt like you were either with Terry or against him. 

Pauline, the woman who was elected Chairman just after he started, felt that she was being targeted because of her objections to the way the Guild was being run, and trustees were starting to turn against her because of it… 

Pauline: I think they were just conspiring to get rid of me. 

Claudia: And what happened in the end?

Pauline: They got rid of me. 

And this was all setting the scene for 2021. In February’s newsletter Terry writes that he is retiring as CEO. 

And then there’s this cascade of events. It all kicks off. 

Clare was one of the first to notice, and she had a theory about what was going on…

Clare: I knew that he would only have retired if the money had run out. So my immediate reaction was that the Guild must be in financial trouble. Otherwise he’d still be there taking the money.

And I suggested to our branch that we should try and make sure that we spend our money, the money that was left in our account. And then our account was frozen. So… it was frozen when we had about £500 left in it. 

Claudia: And how did you feel realising that it had been frozen?

Clare: Really angry, but not at all surprised. 

As soon as I got that email saying that Terry Murphy had retired I knew that the Guild was in trouble at that stage, but I didn’t think it would try and get rid of the branches.

Claudia: And that was the bit that came as a shock? 

Clare: Yes. Yeah. 

Again, it comes down to perception. The members might not like the charity freezing their accounts… but the money in the branch accounts is the charity’s money. If they’re facing financial ruin they have to call their money in. 

But I mean… the timing couldn’t have been worse. Almost a year into this lonely pandemic, the members get this notice that basically says: we need you to vote to cut off the branches from the Guild. And if you don’t, you’re essentially voting for the Guild to go into liquidation. In both cases the branches are gone. It is a lose-lose. Oh, and you’ve got two weeks to decide. 

At the very least it seems wildly tactless. And I think for a lot of people it was a moment of, you know… all those problems that have been bubbling away: this is it. 

And then… all hell breaks loose. Embroidery hell. 

Pauline: I was cross. As were my friends. 

Eva: I really felt like sticking it to them. 

Teresa: I have to at least do something. I can’t sit by and watch nothing happen. That’s just not me. 

Teresa Harvey has stitched for years but she’s a relative newcomer to the Guild. But that didn’t hold her back. She was one of the first organisers of what I’m going to call “the Resistance”. 

Terry and the Guild were about to learn: you do not mess with the stitchers. 

Teresa: So we had a Zoom meeting and we had managed to contact, I think, over 30 branches. And we had about 50 people on the WhatsApp group. And at the meeting people had their say, obviously there was… some people just wanted to voice how they felt about it to start with. And then we were working out a way forward. And one lady said she would start up a petition. 

Teresa and the others were on a roll: they sent letters and emails, they formed WhatsApp groups, they set up a petition, they contacted barristers and the charities ombudsman…

Teresa: And I think as a demographic, we’re not a naturally militant group because we are probably mainly women who are 55 or older. We do have some men and we do have some younger people, but that is the group of women that are often written about as being invisible.

And I think that’s probably sometimes true, and I don’t think we’re quite as militant as younger women, because of the way that we were brought up. What’s expected of you actually has a subliminal effect on you. 

Claudia: You say, not make a fuss, but from what you’ve just said, you quite quickly organised. 

Teresa: Yeah. 

Claudia: You got together as a group, you got together…you created a Zoom you created an Action Group…

Teresa: We did…

Claudia: …and a series of actions to carry out and you, kind of, shared the labour and you organised.

Teresa: We did try. And we also tried a bit of craftivism as well, which was suggested by somebody at our branch, Verity Franklin. And she suggested that we all embroidered one word about how the actions of the Embroiderers’ Guild had made us feel and post it online. I actually put “shattered” because I was quite busy trying to organise all of this…

Claudia: What were some of the other ones?

Teresa: Other ones would include… “betrayed”, somebody put… some people just put “angry”, “embittered”, “ignored”… But also the one thing that did feel a bit strange about that was it felt very negative.

So I then felt the need, on another bit of material, to embroider the word “hope” because I don’t want to be just negative. And we have hope that the groups will carry on as independent concerns, so to balance it out.

Teresa and “the Resistance”, they’re trying to get things down. They embroidered their “one words” and they even sent them with a video to artist Grayson Perry, a submission as part of Grayson’s Art Club on Channel 4. 

“Welcome to Art Club, I’m Grayson Perry!”

Grayson Perry on Grayson Perry’s Art Club

They were not going to take this lying down. Gill, the member from the Merseyside who we met earlier, she went a step further…

Gill: As you may have gathered, one word wasn’t sufficient for me, I wanted to take a few words. And I think it was a case of… there was such a range of emotions.

Gill embroidered 15 words and she shared them on her instagram. And then she put them together as a single piece. 

Claudia: What were the words that you embroidered?

Gill: Ha, do you really want to know?

Claudia: Yeah, yeah!

Gill: Okay. In order: “angry”, “disgusted”, “ignored”, “disdained”, “robbed”, “cheated”, “furious”, “deceived”, “patronised”, “vengeful”, “livid”, “victimised”, “incensed”… “F-blank-blank-C-K-E-D”… And finally “unsurprised”. And then “EG” – ripped in pieces – “RIP”.

Claudia: It’s a pretty strong statement…

Gill: Oh yeah. Well, the written word can be more powerful than the spoken in some cases. And I think if you use a hard written word in conjunction with what is perceived to be a gentle craft, it can be quite powerful as an image because you’re using something that is deemed to be domestic and genteel. But when you ally it with a really hard word it makes you sit up and look.

I think this really gets to the heart of it –  that we have all these misconceptions about embroidery and its history…

And really… it shouldn’t be a surprise that an Action Group has cropped up. There’s this image of embroidery as all Pride and Prejudice… but those are stereotypes and as an art form it’s always been so much more radical than that. It’s been used by basically every community on earth – by people of all classes – and it has a really long history of being used in protest movements.

Hannah Hill: Textiles has been used in banner making for protesting, whether it’s suffragettes and the women’s liberation movement, or trade unions making banners for protest to go to the streets.

This Hannah Hill, an embroiderer, visual artist and historian. She told me that the power of embroidery is in how personal it is.

Hannah Hill: With embroidery your literal blood, sweat, and tears go into it, you know, because… Just of the nature of it being a little sharp sometimes. So your physical being/DNA is going into your artwork. 

Most of the women I’ve been speaking to for this investigation are in their 50s, 60s, or maybe 70s, but Hannah is in her mid 20s – and she’s one of many young embroiderers helping to change the perception of the craft, sharing her work on social media. 

Hannah Hill: I’ve had people come up to me in clubs and compliment my embroidery. And especially in… I like grime music. I’ve been in grime raves, and I’ve had, you know, young guys come up to me and say, “oh, did you embroider that chicken box?” Or “did you do this?”

And that is evidence enough that embroidery is reaching different audiences. 

Yes, she means chicken box… like the type you would get your chicken nuggets in. She also went viral a few years ago when she embroidered that Arthur Meme – you know the tv animation one with the clenched fist? – and added the caption “When you remember that historically embroidery hasn’t been taken seriously as a medium because it’s women’s work…”

Hannah and her memes are kind of emblematic of this new growing popularity of embroidery among younger people… Added to the fact that more people have taken up crafting during lockdown and it’s had this huge boost from being seen in period drama Bridgerton, it makes it even more frustrating for some members that the Guild wasn’t able to capitalise on this.

This could have been the moment for the Embroiderers’ Guild! And instead we’re here. 

“And now that the report has been delivered the chat facility has been enabled…”

Embroiderers’ Guild meeting

If we jump back into that meeting held at the beginning of March… the one on Zoom, where they’re explaining the situation from the Guild’s perspective… the whole thing has this completely bizarre tone full of subtext and digs.

It gets off to what could be the least tactical opening you can imagine, especially given the strength of feeling that’s floating around. 

The Guild trustees start by launching a scripted counterattack on the “Resistance Group” for damaging the reputation of the charity…

“Of course people are entitled to express and register their views, but these campaigns presented a somewhat biased and certainly incomplete picture. We are aware that over 5,000 people, including the general public and non-members, have supported the petition on 38 Degrees. But to what end?

At a time when the charity has suffered a major loss of members, due mainly to Covid, and desperately needs to substantially increase its membership, this petition carries an inevitable subtext, one that could easily dissuade others from joining, and discouraging those who might volunteer their services.”

Embroiderers’ Guild meeting about the negative impact of the petition

They claim that the Action Group is making a bad situation worse. And even though loads of the information given is useful and important… there’s also quite a lot of snarkiness in the way some of the trustees were speaking to or about members… 

“There was a later question, submitted by Sussex Stitchers. And can I also just comment that these questions come from a branch that held a vote in October 2020 on whether to leave the Guild and become an independent stitch group. They didn’t invite the Guild to address members before holding the vote.”

Embroiderers’ Guild meeting

It feels like… this terrible break up when nobody actually wants it to happen. 

Pamela: And it felt on the morning of the meeting. Very sad. 

This is what one woman, called Pamela, told me – she’s this former headteacher who’s been a branch chair…

Pamela: It felt like it was really the end of an era in a way that was quite unnecessary. And where I felt that wasn’t shared by the trustees who felt that what they were doing was saving the Guild.

And actually what I felt was that what we were doing was killing the important part of the Guild, which is the bit that engages thousands of people every year into this organisation, which is to do with embroidery, but it’s also to do with people and friends and colleagues and people with similar interests.

And that was just being flicked aside with no understanding. I didn’t get any sense of understanding during the meeting of just how devastating what was happening was to people on the ground.

Pamela was so angry that she wrote a letter to the Guild the day after the General Meeting. 

Pamela: I am a mum, granny and friend. I have contributed to every organisation I’ve been a member of. Every member has a similar dynamic life story. We are not useless, freeloaders, or past our best. In all other aspects of my life I feel empowered, driven, and enthusiastic, except when dealing with the CEO and now the trustees of the Guild, where I am made to feel old, useless, part of the problem, and with no options worth listening to. It was clear at yesterday’s meeting that trustees considered branches of the entire cause of all the problems.

By this point in my reporting I had – of course – been in touch with Terry. There were so many accusations swirling about him.

And at first, he agreed – I arranged to go with my producer to interview him at the marina where he lives on his boat. And we also had also lined up interviews lined up with the Guild. 

But this is where things went quite…. paranoid. 

I turned up to my Zoom interview with the Guild…and they told me that they had found out who I was speaking to. Because of this they had decided that they wouldn’t talk to me on the record. The interview is cancelled.

Soon Terry gets in touch to cancel his interview as well – on the same grounds. 

To be honest, at this stage, I start getting a bit obsessed. 

Because the thing I can’t really get over… is that what we are talking about here is a charity about textile art and members who really care about it. And there’s so much toxicity that I can’t get access. 

Over the next couple of days we have these back and forth negotiations… 

And it turned Terry into this “white whale” in my mind – I’d had sightings and I was so close to him but he slipped through the net.

By this point I’d heard so much about him. And the two sides are just… completely different. The trustees are adamant that the questions about Terry and about the wider mismanagement of the Guild are just untrue and unfair. Those that support Terry and support and the Guild disparagingly refer to the people raising this sort of complaint as the “Anti-Terry” brigade.

This is really divisive stuff. Terry calls it disingenuous. And I tell the Guild and Terry that I know there are two sides to this. But without an open and frank interview it’s hard to properly see their side – and I want to.

But to do that, I can only work with what I can get. One thing I did have that could help me find the truth in this snake pit of conflicting accounts… was the accounts. 

So I spent ages on Companies House, and eventually I asked for the advice of a charities expert. 

Claudia: It would be really useful if you could introduce yourself for the podcast and then we can just drop it in. 

Angela: Hi, I’m Angela Kail. I’m the director of consulting at New Philanthropy Capital, which is a think tank and consultancy for the charity sector.

I was hoping that Angela might be able to help me to make some sense of this. Are the members right to be outraged? 

Claudia: How does a wage like this, so generally around £90-100,000 a year, stack up for charity of this size? 

Angela: So I think the question of a charity of this size is a little bit interesting. So do you include the branches within it, or do you sort of exclude them and say they’re sort of separately run?

If you exclude them… then it’s a lot of money for a Chief Exec, more than you would expect. If you include them then I say it’s, you know, it’s probably around £10,000 more than you would expect. But certainly, I think, for a charity that’s obviously in the financial position that it’s in – quite a worrisome financial position – it’s a little bit more than I would expect. 

I think the fact that he was a contractor over that period is strange. And one of the things that is quite hard to tell from the accounts is if he is a full-time contractor or a part-time contractor? If he’s full-time then the salary is, as I say, a little bit high. If he’s a part-time contractor, then it’s very high.

“Hi Terry, it’s Claudia from Tortoise. How are you doing?”

Claudia calling Terry

Obviously trying and trying with Terry and the Guild. But though they were talking to me, they were still refusing to do an interview on the record. 

So I tried the next best thing – I found someone who had managed to get the Guild on the record to talk about all of this.

Susan Weeks: Hello, anyway. Thank you for getting in touch. 

Claudia: Yeah, thank you for agreeing to chat to me. 

Susan is a Guild member who runs a popular podcast called Stitchery Stories. Recent episodes focus on, for example, cross stitch flowers and tudor embroidery. 

In an episode released before the General Meeting called “Embroiderers Guild in crisis” – she spoke to Guild trustee Penny Hill.

So, as I say, Penny’s one of the trustees of the UK Embroiderers’ Guild, and last week members received a notice of a General Meeting which outlined the financial difficulties…

Susan Weeks on the Stitchery Stories podcast

You get the sense of how fraught this thing is for people on all sides. The heightened level of distrust and bad-feeling that’s flying around. 

In the podcast episode, Penny Hill makes it clear that the branches can choose to go independent and will get a £250 grant to help them start up again.

And she says that this was the only choice the trustees had. The charity has lost 1,500 members during the pandemic – and they’re a small team… That’s actually something I spoke to Angela, our charities expert, about. 

Claudia: I mean, now there are only four trustees and I think at one point there were 12. That suggests that there is a lack of engagement, maybe lack of interest, in the head office aspect of this. 

Angela: Yeah, and I find that surprising to be honest. 

So the fact that there is no trustee for branch membership is quite worrying in that… But it’s really difficult because it’s essentially a network charity all over the country with some quite harsh decisions to make. How does a four or five person trustee board make all of those decisions as well as keep the membership happy?

So I feel like the trustees that do exist probably worked really hard. But possibly not at quite the right things. 

To me it seems that no matter how hard they are trying, the trustees and the CEO have allowed this deepening sense of “us versus them” to permeate the Guild. It was clear at the general meeting, it’s clear throughout the accounts. In fact, when we put some of these questions in writing to the trustees they said that they have tried to improve fundraising and replace trustees and keep the charity going, but that change can only happen if there is a sufficient willingness to do so from the membership.

They might be right… but it’s not exactly an attitude that’s going to bring people along with you for the ride. 

Basia: Claudia, oh my god. The sharp end of the lovely world of embroidery. Okay so in the end you never quite caught your white whale but it’s just clear that this whole thing is a totally toxic mess. 

Claudia: I know. Did I tell you that I have literally taken up embroidery in the process of making this podcast?

Basia: You didn’t! I can see remnants of your attempts around the podcast studio. 

Claudia: I will finish it one day….

Claudia: However you look at it, the past decade in the embroiderer’s guild has been consumed with infighting and tension. 

In the end, I think, the story of Terry Murphy and the sewer’s uprising is about cash vs community. About how when you really love something – as the members love sewing – a male “changemaker” swanning in, never having picked up a needle, is an affront to the things they hold dear. 

Because in the end, these women are losing something that matters. A charity that was already struggling has cracked under pressure of the pandemic. And the answer it came up with was to rip itself apart at the seams. 

Susan: People have said all this about embroidery. Yes, all this about embroidery. Because it’s something that people love. And that’s what happens isn’t it, you know…

This podcast was produced by Hannah Varrall with original music by Tom Kinsella

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Ripped at the seams

Ripped at the seams

The century-old embroidery charity at war with its members – and the lengths they will go to save it

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