In 1936, May Morris wrote a letter to the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, which read, "I'm a remarkable woman, always was, though none of you seemed to think so." Straight to the point, and a tad tongue-and-cheek, this quote is now proudly displayed across the wall of the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, East London. And as time has passed, this quote has become even more relevant. Although she was a major player in the Arts and Crafts movement, few people know of her great achievements to this day.
Born on March 25th, 1862, May Morris was the youngest daughter in her family. As a young girl, she learned to embroider from her mother and her aunt Bessie Burden. Talented from a young age, she went on to study textile arts at the South Kensington School of Design from 1880 to 1883, and later became the Director of the embroidery department at her father's enterprise, Morris & Co., at just 23 years old. From 1885 to 1896, she was responsible for producing new patterns and designs for wallpapers and fabrics, all while supervising a team of outworkers and in-house embroiderers. Despite these high expectations, she did it all with confidence in her craft and successfully fulfilled orders for high-end clients, like the Countess of Rosslyn and Lady Trevelyan.
Although her expertise was clearly in embroidery, her talents and hard work did not stop there. Morris also created ceramics, table glass and jewelry—which would later be left to the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
While her artistic achievements made stride in women's history all in it's own, perhaps one of her greatest accomplishments was founding the Women’s Guild of Arts. She founded this guild alongside Mary Elizabeth Turner in 1907—during a time when other art guilds did not allow admittance to women. Championing women's rights was a major move at the time, and she continued to campaign for raising the professional status and bargaining power of women working in arts and crafts.
Morris passed away in 1938, and soon after, the Arts and Crafts style became outdated and replaced with Modernism's sleek, clean-lined style. Embroidery has made its comeback with nostalgic subjects and custom feel. Whether it's contemporary hoop art or the ever-classic monogram, we all have May Morris to thank for her fearless attitude in proving that women have a voice in the arts.
Feeling inspired? Watch how to embroider a set of dinner napkins: