Wednesday, 2 July 2008

On Second Thoughts - Jan Messent

In October 2006 I had a phone call from Jan Messent, which led to my inviting her to our EG branch meeting. She was impressed by our friendliness and joined as a member. Since then I have been privileged to get to know her better and delighted to learn that because of us she started to embroider again.

She generously agreed to speak to us. I notified other branches about Jan’s talk and we were impressed to have 22 visitors as well as most of our members, to hear her. Many of us have at least one of Jan’s embroidery and design books and some may have a ‘Mills and Boon’ written by her under her pen name!

There was a wealth of treasures on the tables around Jan when she began to speak and she used slides to illustrate her journey as an embroiderer and designer. Having trained as a teacher, she taught art, English and history in a secondary school before marrying and having three children. She wished to stay at home to look after her family, but like many women, wanted to contribute to the family purse and made clothes, soft toys and embroidered items for sale. Having lived in the north, she moved to Reading in 1971 and joined the Reading Branch of the EG where she met enthusiasts like Val Campbell Harding, Sheila Paine, Kit Pitman and others who encouraged her to exhibit and gained her commissions.

Jan’s whole life had been ‘going off at tangents’ she said and this was primarily because she needed to make money for the family. So she began to give talks, did drawings for Search Press books and then started a series of very successful design books published by Batsford between 1980 and 1996. Her interests were wide and varied from Embroidery in Architecture to Embroidery and Animals. At the same time Jan became involved with the Knitting Craft Group (KCG) pioneering freestyle techniques, which we saw illustrated by slides. She was photographed in an impressive knitted coat on a precarious wooded slope, made fascinating crochet and knitted panels and experimented with combining colours and patterns of knitting and crotchet on canvas.

Jan’s husband, following ill health, took early retirement and they moved north to a spot where she could see the vales of Yorkshire and he could see his native Lancashire hills. Then followed Jan’s very successful time as a top embroiderer. She was in great demand to lecture in the UK and abroad and write and this necessitated producing samples of all types. She had many on display for us and we were able to admire them after the talk.

In the 1990s her love of history led her to research more about the Bayeux Tapestry and she arranged to make the missing 8 feet that had disappeared from the end of the tapestry. Having a commission from Madeira Threads, who provided plant-dyed yarns and linen gave her time to gain an insight into how the work was produced. In 1997 the tapestry was launched and it was taken to Falaise to show the French. Then followed more lecture tours and another commission from Madeira to write a book. For those who have seen ‘The Bayeux Tapestry Embroiderers’ Story’ we can only marvel at the hours Jan must have spent drawing all the illustrations and hand-writing all the text. It is still available from bookshops.

Her love of the NE with the legends of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne inspired her to design and hand embroider a series including a large wallhanging, two cushions and samples of Aedgyth’s sleeve and Aelfreda’s gown. These were also on display for us to enjoy. All are lovingly stitched and appliqu├ęd in soft silks and cotton on silk, linen, cotton and paper.

About 1996 Jan began writing ‘Mills and Boon’ novels, which have an historical background and to date has had 17 published and still has several more in the pipeline. However, she warned us that they were not suitable for people who did not want to know what went on behind the bedroom door!!

Recently Jan has produced exquisite note books, which were on display. Her recent one was written whilst on holiday in Crete, where she visited the Knossos site. Before leaving home she coloured the pages of her notebook using paint, water soluble pencils and gold powder to provide an interesting background for her drawings and reminiscences. So this remarkable lady still works incessantly, writing, drawing and stitching and we thank her again for enabling us to share a wonderful afternoon with her.

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