The Lethbridge Sisters – inspiring designers a century on

The Lethbridge Sisters – inspiring designers a century on

The industrious Lethbridge sisters

Earlier this year Te Papa was approached by Red Strand Design. Based in Cork and London, the company specialises in design-based cultural and education projects. They invited us to take part in Passion & Legacy, a project inspired by the incredible stitch work of the ‘Lethbridge Sisters’, Julia Baroness Carew (1863-1922) and Lady Jane Cory (1865-1947). Te Papa holds nine of Lady Cory’s magnificent embroideries.

The glamorous Lady Jane Cory (nee Lethbridge) as painted by A. Basébé, 1895. Museum no. M.10-2010. Given by Mrs Mae Sibbald. Collection of Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

The sisters trained at the Royal School of Needlework in London, and are renowned for the quality and scale of the embroideries they produced for their Irish and London homes. Of their work, a neighbour, Edward Richards-Orpen, recalled, ‘To see them bending over their remarkable tapestry work was clearly pre-Raphaelite at best; the astonishing industries of [the sisters] has to be seen to be believed.’

‘Flora’ was embroiderd by Lady Jane Cory in 1909. Edward Burne-Jones created the original design for Morris & Co. The design was reworked in the 1890s by Morris’s head designer, John Henry Dearle.

A book and international design project

The sisters are the subject of a forthcoming book by Dr Lynn Hulse, former Archivist at the Royal School of Needlework and Editor of Text (the journal of The Textile Society), and in turn the Passion & Legacy project. Students, mixed media practitioners & stitchers from around the world are invited to respond to the Lethbridge sisters’ embroideries, and can choose from two archival references – Julia Baroness Carew’s Tree of Life panels which are housed at Girton College at Cambridge and three of Lady Jane Cory’s embroideries in Te Papa’s collection. The National College of Art & Design in Dublin, RMIT in Melbourne and Massey University, Wellington and several guilds have already signed up.

Massey University students sketching Lady Cory’s Pomona. Courtesy of Massey University.

Seeing is believing – Massey University textile design students at work

In March we were delighted to host a group of fourth year textile design students from Massey University, who came to see Lady Cory’s embroideries at close quarters. The group spent two hours studying and sketching.

Students from Massey Univesities
Fourth year students from Massey University’s textile course discuss and sketch Lady Cory’s complex embroidery of Dante and Beatrice. Courtesy of Massey University.

Following their visit, the students have been working through a series of exercises to create contemporary embroidery designs inspired by Lady Cory’s work. These have included developing a three part colour palette, trialling different stitch techniques and fills, and experimenting with both hand and digital embroidery. Their aim is to create a collection of three embroidered swatches, one of which will be entered in the Passion & Legacy project; and working in pairs, to produce two embroidered dresses. We can’t wait to see the results!

The Pomegranate Tree  is Lady Cory's largest embroidery. It is based on a design by Nellie Whichelo.
The Pomegranate Tree is Lady Cory’s largest embroidery. It is based on a design by Nellie Whichelo. Courtesy of Massey University.

You can follow the Passion & Legacy project via their blog and Facebook.


  1. I like Red Strand because they care about the creativity and uniqueness of every one of their projects, making people feel drawn.

  2. What a great project!

    I see that Red Strand has rebranded Te Papa as The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongare.

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