Ripped at the seams

Tuesday 30 March 2021

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

“This is not an interrogation,” says Susan Weeks to Penny Hill at the start of a podcast recorded in February. And why would it be? Hill is not a politician nor a criminal mastermind but a trustee at a respected charity promoting embroidery, with a large membership averaging 70 years old. Weeks is an embroidery enthusiast who runs a podcast called Stitchery Stories. 

But Penny Hill was on the defensive. Because for the last few months, a fierce storm has been brewing inside the world of British embroidery. Forget any ideas you might have of quiet needlepoint in Pride and Prejudice – or Bridgerton, perhaps. No, this is a world now overrun by in-fighting, rumours and fierce accusations. 

In mid-February, the Embroiderers’ Guild, a 115-year-old charity promoting needlework and textiles, suddenly froze the bank accounts of its 145 local branches and announced that a vote would be held to close them. Local branches are for thousands of women the lifeblood of the charity; where they meet, stitch, share ideas and gossip. But suddenly the Guild was telling them the money would be diverted to the central charity in an attempt to combat a financial crisis made unsustainable by the loss of members during the pandemic. 

Members were shocked; then furious. To them, this was the culmination of a decade of division and dissatisfaction. Because the Guild has been an unhappy place for a long time – dominated by rumours of high executive salaries, sell-offs and supposed mismanagement. Suddenly, these tensions were coming to a head. 

The strength of feeling was summed up by one member, appropriately, through a piece of delicate cross-stitch she’d found online. “WARNING”, it reads in all capital letters. “THIS IS PROOF I HAVE THE PATIENCE TO STAB SOMETHING 1,000 TIMES”. Underneath it, an embroidered skull. 

It’s not an image you might expect to see attached to an embroidery hoop. But it makes a good point. Because this is a story about women who really, really love needlework. Who love the communities they have built up over years and the shared sense of being part of something bigger. Who aren’t afraid to make a stance and make some noise in a fight between cash and craftivism.

And ultimately, it’s a story about some seriously cross stitching. 

The news about the vote crept around the Guild branches slowly at first. Some members simply never received a notice; others hadn’t looked too closely and dismissed it as nothing important. But gradually Facebook groups began to thrum with questions. What does this mean? Can they do this? What can we do? The branches were to many of them a vital social lifeline. 

The answers, it seemed, would come at a scheduled General Meeting, where the rank and file would finally get their say, and the charity bosses would explain themselves. The pressure on all sides built to the point that, according to the charity, 4,000 people attempted to join the online meeting (but only 982 were able to attend due to limits on Zoom). 

In this meeting the trustees of the Guild were to explain the situation: that the charity had hemorrhaged members during the pandemic, tipping a bad financial outlook into an unsustainable one. It was calling in its financial reserves from the branches and proposing a vote to close them so that the central charity could focus on a smaller online offering and avoid liquidation. (The branches could continue independently with a grant of at least £250 to help them on their way.) 

The eventual showdown on 4 March was reminiscent of that viral video of the Handforth Parish Council – perhaps less fiery, but no less tense. Pauline Hannon, a former Guild Chairman from Lancashire, watched the meeting on Zoom from her home while knitting. “I knew I would start shouting at them and they wouldn’t be able to hear me… I thought, just knit.”

And the same was happening behind cameras across the country. To the uninitiated, that might sound extreme, but to understand the role of the Guild is to understand the emotion involved. 

Gill Roberts was taught to sew as a child by her mother and grandmother. Now an accountant with a small business making custom bridal wear, she first joined the Guild in the late eighties. “I have friends I met there 33 years ago,” she explains. “You find someone who has the same interests as you… the same enjoyment in a craft as you.” She describes her branch in Merseyside as vibrant and lively; there’s a feeling of camaraderie and fun. She’s one of 4,700 Guild members in the UK, most of whom are members of a local branch. 

“It gives a sense of purpose… It’s part of the rhythm of your life,” says Pamela Hutchison, a former headteacher and a Guild member from Northamptonshire. During the pandemic her branch has pivoted to Zoom, taking part in activities – including delivering Christmas boxes – to enthuse members but also because they “wanted them to feel that they weren’t on their own.” 

The proposed shutdown would change the make-up of the charity irrevocably: women who had dedicated decades to making the branches a success, making friends and building a community were being asked to vote it all away in a matter of weeks. 

But members weren’t just angry about the branches. The announcement had poured salt in wounds that had been festering for years about the way the Guild was being run.  

In 2010 Terry Murphy was brought in as an interim CEO, with the aim of uniting a charity fractured by a previous financial crisis. A former Proctor & Gamble salesman who pitches himself as an expert in pulling companies back from the brink, Murphy was going to do just that: bring about the regeneration of the Guild. But his appointment brought up new problems. 

For example, Tortoise was told he was being paid £9,500 ex VAT per month to help solve the charity’s problems. Public accounts show that he invoiced the Guild and its subsidiary company for £57,852 inc VAT and £62,000 ex VAT in the year ending August 2011. To a charity in a financial crisis, that’s a lot of money. To Pauline Hannon, voted in as Chairman of the Guild just weeks after Terry was hired, that amount of money was “off the radar”. She raised her concerns about the viability of extending such a contract with the trustees and the CEO himself but to no avail: instead, she says found herself being pushed out of the committee. “They got rid of me,” she says. (The Guild has questioned Hannon’s version of events but did not provide an alternative.) 

Terry Murphy

And Hannon wasn’t alone. Clare Jady, an accountant and long-time Guild member who acted as an advisor to the trustees during the 2000s, also had concerns about the amount that Murphy was being paid, and the tax implications of hiring a CEO as a long-term contractor. She tried to raise these publicly, hoping to speak at the Annual General Meeting in 2012, but she found herself blocked from raising the matter. 

For some members – and, to be clear, it is certainly not all members, many of whom have spoken warmly about the former CEO – this dissatisfaction has rumbled on over the decade. The question of Murphy’s salary crops up in sarcastically written meeting minutes and embroidery blog posts. It has become a deeply-rooted bone of contention: the Guild won’t budge, and the dissenters won’t change their minds. 

And it’s not just about the money. Pieces of the historical collection owned and looked after by the Guild were sold off without members being informed. One of Murphy’s family members was hired in a financial position. And there was a feeling that disorganisation at the heart of the charity was exacerbating pre-existing money troubles.

Individually, these problems might have been ignored. But they were coupled with the growing feeling, for some, that the offering from the charity – facing financial stresses and a declining membership – was weakening and the branches were becoming increasingly separate from the centre. 

And it’s important to remember the context: these are women who get together regularly, sit together, natter, and sew – the perfect conditions for a giant rumour mill. 

The Guild and Murphy say that these are totally unfair criticisms. That the Guild’s decline goes back a long time and that as CEO Murphy saved the charity hundreds of thousands of pounds, and that successive boards of trustees have supported him. The trustees says that Murphy “rescued the Guild” and that they are deeply grateful.

But it seems that there was something simmering underneath the concerns about management and money. There were some members who felt dismissed by the people running the charity.

“We were not favorably impressed with him,” says Roberts, of the Merseyside Branch. She describes Murphy’s attitude towards the members as “patronising” and says that “it was almost misogynistic in some respects”. (Murphy responded to these allegations through the Guild. The charity trustees say that “it is sad that some members feel this way” and that “this has not been our experience”.) 

In his newsletter to members when he retired earlier this year, just before the bank accounts were frozen, Murphy jokes about never having picked up a needle. 

It’s a point of perception, but it’s an important one. The Guild was at this stage a charity made up almost entirely of women – being run by a highly paid male specialist in corporate turnarounds. Local members who found their expectations and emphasis on the branches – their beloved communities – to be at odds with the plans from the central office felt belittled. To these women, the branches were the Guild. What would it be without them? So why did it seem like they were always the problem?

It was within the context of this vipers nest of in-fighting that many Guild members found out about the frozen bank accounts and the loss of the branches.

As the shockwaves spread throughout the members, some decided that they were going to make a stance.

By Guild standards, Teresa Harvey is a relative newcomer – joining only in 2017. That wasn’t going to hold her back. Together with a group of other members she organised a Zoom meeting and contacted over 30 branches. They formed a WhatsApp group and started organising a petition, sending letters and emails to the Guild and contacting a barrister. 

They wanted the voices of dissatisfied members to be heard. They weren’t going to be stitched up. 

This resistance group also started some “craftivism”, embroidering a square with a word describing how the actions of the Guild made them feel. With her new razor-sharp focus on organising, Harvey’s word – shattered – had a dual meaning. The group eventually sent the project as a video submission to Grayson Perry’s Art Club on Channel 4. 

For some people, one word wasn’t enough. Gill Roberts, the member from Merseyside, embroidered a full piece and shared it with her followers on Instagram. She didn’t hold back: “angry, disgusted, ignored, disdained, robbed, cheated, furious, deceived, patronised, vengeful, livid, victimised, incensed… F-blank-blank-C-K-E-D… and finally unsurprised.” The words are accompanied by a panel that reads “EG” – or Embroiderers’ Guild – “ripped in pieces”. 

Art by Gill Roberts

It might seem unexpected but it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Action Group and this type of craftivism cropped up so quickly. In the UK embroidery has traditionally been a prim and proper by-word for womens’ marriageability – think Pride and Prejudice – but those limited stereotypes are misplaced, and often subverted. Textile arts have been a form of rebellion, a method of communication, and a way to mark or record the lives of women when the written word wasn’t an option. 

The associations of domesticity have meant the craft has been dismissed or seen as unimportant by the wider art world, says artist Hannah Hill. But textile art and needlework have long been the activists’ medium of choice: “whether it’s suffragettes and the women’s liberation movement, or trade unions making banners for protest to go to the streets.” Needle and thread have been used to get the job done – then easily rolled up and squirrelled away should the moment demand it.

An embroiderer, visual artist and historian in her mid-twenties, Hill has seen an increase in embroidery as a form of modern protest during lockdown in particular – as normal methods of being heard have been curtailed. Hashtags full of embroidered swear words and political statements swamp Instagram. 

Embroidered “Arthur” meme by artist Hannah Hill, which went viral

Hill is one of a new generation of embroiderers who are helping to change the perception of the craft – stitching self-portraits, memes and irreverent illustrations that would make your Grandma blush. Together with a general public cooped up during a pandemic and the release of the risqué – and embroidery-filled – period drama Bridgerton, textile arts have enjoyed an increased profile of late. 

For many members, this new boost made the Guild’s crisis even more frustrating. This was the moment for embroidery. 

And so came the General Meeting. The Action Group had hoped to use the Zoom call as their chance to make a stand – to ask the hard questions and finally get some answers. 

But, as it turned out, this was not the moment. The meeting was a one-way Zoom call. It became a showdown of a different kind; a masterclass in subtext and digs from some of the trustees towards the members. Nervous and reading from scripts, trustees opened the meeting by chastising the Action Group for their public petition – which had by this point garnered over 5,000 signatures. (Is there a more tactless opener given the strength of feeling already involved?)

And although the information they provided was detailed and helpful, and the explanations largely sensible and reasoned, and the apologies well-meaning… for many members one thing stood out: the blaming of the Guild’s financial position on the members themselves, and the failure to fully acknowledge the magnitude of the decision they were asking people to make. 

The General Meeting on Zoom, Terry Murphy bottom right

“We were killing the important part of the Guild…. which has to do with embroidery, but it’s also to do with people and friends and colleagues,” says Pamela Hutchinson. “And that was just being flicked aside… I didn’t get any sense of understanding during the meeting of just how devastating what was happening was the people on the ground.”

When I ask Eva Cantin, a member of the Guild for nearly 20 years, whether the General Meeting helped to calm some of the frenzy and help repair the relationship with some of the  branches, she hoots with laughter. “Absolutely not,” she says. “If anything, it did more damage.”

It’s hard to overestimate the bad feeling and the paranoia that has – somewhat unexpectedly – made its way through the heart of this charity devoted to textile art. It’s clear that there are two sides to the story, and that they are wildly different accounts. 

But on finding out who else was being interviewed for this piece, the Guild trustees and Terry Murphy cancelled their scheduled interviews and, although they have remained in touch, have declined to speak on the record.

We put our questions to them in writing and their responses remained opaque. But the charity’s trustees are clear that the concerns raised come from a small faction of opinionated people, and that their queries and criticisms have been answered multiple times in the past. Murphy has called their complaints “disingenuous” – highlighting his branch tours and open question and answer sessions; the Guild has reiterated its strong support for the former CEO, pointing out that successive Boards have similarly supported him and his programme of regeneration. The trustees say that they do not want to rake over these past conflicts and would prefer to look to the future, and focus on making the charity a success. 

It’s an understandable position but without an open and frank interview, it’s hard to see the other side of the story clearly. Are the members right to be outraged? 

Angela Kail, director of consulting at New Philanthropy Capital, which is a think tank and consultancy for the charity sector, explains that for a charity of this size, the CEO’s salary is somewhat higher than expected – especially if you take the running of the branches out of the equation, and if Murphy was working part-time. And it’s “strange” to have a CEO who was a contractor for a decade. 

It’s also surprising that there are currently only five of at least ten trustee positions filled. “The fact that there is no trustee for branch membership is quite worrying,” explains Kail. The financial and legal trustee position also remains unfilled.

The Guild is a network charity spread all over the country. “How does a four or five person trustee board make all of those decisions as well as keep the membership happy?” It’s clear that the trustees who are currently in charge are working hard – “but possibly not on the right things,” says Kail. (The Guild says it has repeatedly tried but failed to attract volunteers for trustee roles.)

Still, it’s not hard to empathise with the position of the trustees, who are volunteers, Guild members themselves, and liable if things go wrong. The charity they inherited was already struggling financially with an ageing membership, a declining income from magazine sales and a waning interest from the members who are supposedly invested. Add to that a pandemic that has drained 1,500 members to the tune of £57,000 and it’s clear that tough decisions needed to be made. 

It’s possible that the future charity, more focussed on online ventures and streamlined without the cost of the branches, will have a better chance at succeeding. The vote passed earlier this month with 88 per cent of members who voted choosing for the branches to be cut from the Guild (1.4 per cent of ballots were spoiled or abstained). Some of the Action Group have accepted that their efforts might be better placed making these new independent networks a success. Others are considering their next move.

Still, there is a world where this could have been a win-win – for both Guild and members. It feels shortsighted that more emotional effort was not invested in bringing the people most devoted to the charity along for the journey. It’s created a further uphill battle for an organisation already under siege. There is no more money for a replacement CEO – instead, the charity will rely on more volunteers. Already hard to come by, that pool looks likely to shrink. 

And even if the Guild is doing everything it can, the level of toxicity involved shows that something is not working. At the very best, the exercise was a PR nightmare. At the worst, it was the outward expression of a charity that was already eating itself whole. 

The past decade in the Guild’s history has been consumed with infighting and tension and grudges. And the response from the members to the closure of the branches – the stitcher’s uprising – is at its heart a battle between cash and community. Because when you really love something – as the members love their branches – a male “changemaker” swanning in never having picked up a needle is an affront to the things they hold dear. 

Really, it’s a lesson in the things that matter. The framework of a charity might prioritise its aims and its objectives over its members; the trustees might rationalise their renewed focus as a venture that better suits the modern world. But it seems clear that the heart of the charity, really, was the people involved on the ground – the ones who raised money through raffles and workshops and cake sales to keep things afloat. Who came up with ways to engage their local communities in embroidery, and who dedicated years of their time to crafting something that was bigger than the sum of its parts. 

These women are losing something that matters. And, in time, it might end up that the Guild has lost something too.

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.

Pictures courtesy of The Embroiderers Guild, Gill Roberts, Hannah Hill and Mr Stevers

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