Guess who’s coming to dinner? Ethel Tweedie’s celebrity table-cloths

Guess who’s coming to dinner? Ethel Tweedie’s celebrity table-cloths

Following a recent blog post featuring a suffragette signature handkerchief, I became curious about the origins of what is collectively known as ‘signature cloths’. Just when did signature cloths become ‘a thing’ and what was their purpose?  Rozsika Parker, author of The Subversive Stitch, describes signature cloths as a ‘female social tradition by which guests would embroider their signatures for their hostess to commemorate their visit’ – that is, a cloth guest book.

Ethel Brilliana Tweedie – adventurer, writer, needlewoman and hostess extraordinaire

Te Papa holds a set of four extraordinary signature table-cloths of this nature. They were created by Ethel Brilliana Tweedie (1862–1940), a successful journalist, novelist, travel writer and artist, who loved to entertain and wield a needle and thread.

Herbert Gustave Schmalz painted this portrait of Ethel Tweedie, who was also known as Mrs Alec Tweedie or Mrs Alec-Tweedie, in 1894. At the time she was 38 years old.

London born and bred, Ethel first began collecting signatures as a well-heeled, newly married woman in 1887. Ethel recalls that once she and her husband, Alexander (Alec) Tweedie, were wed they ‘began at once giving many dinners, luncheons and other functions’ at their Regent’s Park home. Emboldened by the ‘precocity of youth’, Ethel ‘conceived the idea of coaxing the many delightful men and women of note who dined with us to pencil their signatures upon the table slips.’ She then embroidered over the signatures, doodles and sketches, with brilliant red thread.

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A dynamic social whirl

The table-cloths record a veritable who’s who of London at the time. An incredible array of artists, singers, actors and actresses, writers, politicians, scientists, lawyers, military men and explorers accepted the Tweedie’s invitation to dine, and left their signatures behind. Guests of note include writers J.M Barrie, Bram Stoker and H G Wells; inventors Hiram Maxim, Guglielmo Marconi and John Swan; artists Walter Crane, John Lavery and Linley Sambourne; and explorers Mary Kingsley, Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott just to name but a few. The table-cloths just fizz with talent, creativity and humour.

Sadly, Alec Tweedie died in 1896. Following his death, Ethel had to downscale and her table-cloths were put away. To make ends meet, she took up her pen and became what she described as ‘a professional scribbler’. She eventually began to entertain again, albeit on a smaller scale, and her table-cloths returned to pride of place.

Ethel’s table-cloths in print

Following nearly 40 years of entertaining, Ethel published a book on her signature cloths in 1916, regaling tales of the many guests who swapped stories, ideas and opinions, and no doubt argued, over her lively dinner table. One of my favourite vignettes is a sketch of an elegantly dressed man declaring ‘Wot Rot!’

What dinner party conversation riled up this well dressed gent?
What dinner party conversation riled up this well dressed gent?

My Table-Cloths; A Few Reminiscences can be read online or in Te Papa’s rare book library. We hold an inscribed and annotated copy.

Te Papa’s annotated copy of Ethel Alec Tweedie’s book My Tablecloths: A Few Reminiscences

Ethel’s bookplate was designed by one of her dinner guests – Walter Crane, a well-known illustrator, designer and painter. In her book Ethel describes him as ‘a delightful companion’ who ‘told good stories and wore wondrous art ties, and had a strange little weakness – strange indeed, for a Socialist – the desire for a title’. Crane’s bookplate design references Ethel’s career as an globe-trotting travel writer. He has fittingly signed both the bookplate and Ethel’s table-cloth with a drawing of a crane.

Under Walter Crane’s artistic signature is that of A. Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

From London to Wellington

Ethel wrote My Table-cloths in the midst of the First World War. When her manuscript was being prepared for publication she received news that her son had been killed in action. The book is dedicated to him. As a child he used to sit beside her as she stitched the cloth. She concludes My Table-Cloths with the following words:

‘And now we must fold up the roll of friendship, pregnant with sweet memories, and slip it away into a drawer, between lavender bags and rose leaves, to rest in peace till happier days when a great universal peace shall o’verspread the world, and men and women will seek to build empires and not destroy them. Lie still, dear table cloth of cherished memories.’ 

Hiram Maxim drew his most famous invention on Mrs Tweedie's table-cloth - the Maxim Machine .
Hiram Maxim, an American living in London, drew his most famous invention on Mrs Tweedie’s table-cloth – the Maxim Machine which he invented in 1884. His company was later absorbed into Vickers, Ltd., of which he became a director.

How then did Mrs Tweedie’s treasured London table-cloths come to rest in peace, minus the lavender and rose leaves, in Wellington, New Zealand?

Ethel passed away in April 1940, at the age of 78. In her will she made it known that she wanted certain items of lace and embroidery, which she had collected on her many travels, to be gifted to ‘the overseas Dominions’.  As a letter written by Ethel to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1927 testifies, her philanthropy was partially motivated by the fact that both of her sons ‘had fallen for this country’. She therefore, ‘wanted to give everything I could to the country for the furtherance of education’ (V&A object file MA/1/A313). Her eldest son had died in 1926 in an aircraft accident while serving in the Royal Airforce.

Ethel was no stranger to New Zealanders. Her travel exploits and opinions – on everything from butter-making to female gamblers – were reported in New Zealand’s newspapers, and her articles from various English magazines syndicated. Her famous signature table-cloths even received press in this country. A traveller until the end of her life, she visited New Zealand in 1936 and 1938. Despite having loudly complained about New Zealand’s tourist prices, she obviously maintained a soft-spot for the country.

The beginnings of a new collection

Following news of Mrs Tweedie’s bequest, the New Zealand High Commissioner in London engaged the Royal School of Needlework to advise on the selection for the Dominion Museum. Ethel’s niece, Joyce Goodbody, however, had the final say.  While the table-cloths are not listed in the surviving correspondence, it appears that they arrived in Wellington in August, 1940 with the rest of the consignment, which included the magnificent crucifix below, currently on display in the exhibition European Splendour. Ethel’s bequest marked the beginning of the museum’s Textile and Period Costume collection.

Orphrey cross, 15th century. Silver, silver gilt, copper, silk on linen. Bequeathed by Mrs Ethel Alec-Tweedie. Te Papa

We are preparing Mrs Tweedie’s table-cloths for photography for Collections Online so that all of the signatures can be zoomed-in on and deciphered, so look out for them and make sure you have a Dictionary of Biography at hand. The cloths certainly make for addictive, and envy-inducing reading. I am still on the hunt for Bram Stoker’s signature.


  1. One of your header images shows her own signature only a little separated from that of Percy Anderson (the painter and theatre costume designer). Percy painted two known portaits of her. Walmart (I don’t know where the original is!) sell a canvas art print entitled ‘America as I saw it 1913’ of her standing formally and she also used a watercolour of herself on a page called ‘Gambling Women’ in The Tatler dated Wednesday 3 October 1906.

  2. Claire, what a great project to research all those famous folk. This reminds me of when I was at art school and we would have dinners with artists who ‘doodled’ on the newsprint table-cloths. Sadly, probably consigned to the bin.
    I also discovered a bit more of my family history after seeing the embroidered linen in the Gallipoli exhibition, which has a family name on it.

    1. Author

      Isn’t the Maheno embroidery a treasure? There was much excitement the day it was discovered in one of our storage drawers. It’s origins remained a mystery until my colleague traced it back to the Wellington Returned & Services Association who then decided to formally gift it to Te Papa. Sad about the art school doodles. I have a salvaged napkin tucked away somewhere 🙂 All the best, Claire

  3. A fascinating story . How wonderful it has been preserved for we stitchers who have followed Ethel. Thanks for posting it.

    1. Author

      Great to hear that Ethel has a fan-base of stitchers!

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