DURING the First World War, shellshocked and wounded soldiers were taught embroidery as therapy. Bradford-born Louisa Pesel, a distinguished textile artist, helped them design and embroider what became known as the Khaki Alter Cloth. Originally used at services at the city’s Abram Peel hospital, it is now part of Bradford Cathedral’s collection of embroidered religious robes and altar cloths.

Now Louisa appears in A Single Theatre, the latest novel by Tracey Chevalier, who wrote international best-seller Girl With A Pearl Earring.

Born in 1870, Louisa was the eldest of five girls living at Oak Avenue, Manningham. She attended Bradford Girl’s Grammar School and studied textile design at the National Art Training School (later the Royal College of Art), under the direction of Lewis Foreman Day, a significant figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement who, in 1900, recommended she be appointed a designer at the Royal Hellenic School of Needlework and Lace in Athens. Louise quickly established herself there and was appointed Director until 1907.

In 1907 she returned to Bradford and helped set up the West Riding branch of the Needlework Association. In 1910 she was commissioned by the V&A Museum to produce samples of historic English embroidery stitches. By 1914 she was given an Award of Honour by the Worshipful Company of Broderers (the term broderers refers to early, usually male workers, in embroidery).

During the First World War Louisa taught embroidery to Belgian refugees in Bradford and at the close of the war she was involved with the Bradford Khaki Handicrafts Club, established in 1918 to offer occupational therapy to soldiers, set up with the support of Abram Peel Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital. The club, based in Foster Square, had a restaurant, games room, and library. Louisa taught soldiers to embroider as therapeutic distraction from war trauma.

In 1920 Louisa was elected the first President of the Embroiderers’ Guild of England. She moved to Hampshire, teaching embroidery to the wives of unemployed men, and later to Winchester to work at the Cathedral, training a team to produce embroidered cushions and kneelers. Hundreds of volunteers worked on the project from 1931-36, producing 360 kneelers, 62 stall cushions, and 96 alms bags. In 1934 Queen Mary visited the Cathedral for a viewing. In 1938 Louisa was appointed Mistress of Broderers at Winchester Cathedral and her embroidered work is still in use today.

During the Second World War she organised embroidery kits sent to allied prisoners-of-war in Europe via the Red Cross. She wrote books on embroidery, travelled the world for inspiration, and after death in 1947 her textile collection was bequeathed to the University of Leeds. Now in the ULITA Archive of International Textiles, it consists of over 400 items.

In A Single Thread fictional character Violet Speedwell, a lonely single woman, is drawn to the company of embroiderers at Winchester Cathedral. She learns to cope as an independent woman and thrives under the guidance of the inspirational Louisa Pesel. Visit notjusthockney.info