A new exhibition looks at a prestigious city college that schooled generations of women in the vital skills of homemaking
THE stitches are tiny, the thread delicately teased into detailed patterns in a labour of love that surely no busy modern woman would consider worthy of her precious time.
Yet when young Maud Pentland sat down to create a cotton chemise with its pretty lace inserts, intricate embroidery and minute rows of pintucks, it was under the watchful eyes of strict tutors at an Edinburgh college dedicated to turning out young ladies with vital domestic skills to last them all their lives.
The Edinburgh College of Domestic Science tutored Maud and her fellow students in all they needed to know for their journey into womanhood – such as how to wash heavy blankets and polish silver, millinery, embroidery and beading. They learned how to upholster furniture, create a show-stopping dish of cucumber and tomatoes suspended in aspic, to scrub steps and, most important for those who embarked on its year-long bride’s course, how to be the perfect wife.
Maud died in 1968 aged 73, but her lovingly created chemise – found in her loft along with other beautifully worked items from her time learning the crafts of womanhood – now hangs in a sealed glass cabinet at the Museum of Edinburgh, in the Canongate, part of an enthralling exhibition dedicated to the college but which also shows how women’s lives have altered down the years.
It’s also sharp reminder of how many of the long forgotten housekeeping skills Maud and her alumni honed at the Atholl Crescent college – such as repairing clothes and cooking with homegrown ingredients – are increasingly relevant today as cash-strapped families strive to find new ways to eke out what they have.
Still, few of today’s hard-working women juggling family life around a career could begin to imagine the nightmare endured by the female students on days when the lesson turned to washing heavy woollen blankets by treading on them in a bathtub filled with cold water, outside, without their stockings on and watched by the smirking lads from the Civil Service Training College opposite.
Or, for that matter, ironing classes when shirts were to be pressed using heavy flat irons heated on a range stove without singeing the crisp cotton and with perfectly turned up collars . . .
The college went on to become Queen Margaret University, where students today take courses in the likes of business management, biological science, performing arts and nursing.
But back in 1949 when Geraldine Martienssen, now 79, arrived as a naïve teenager, the focus was on far more “homely” studies.
“It was very prestigious,” recalls Geraldine, who has loaned the museum’s Stitching Times exhibition a stool she upholstered in 1950 while at the college. “It was quite expensive to attend – more expensive than university.”
Geraldine, who lives in Merchiston, was sent there by her mother after leaving St Margaret’s Convent School for Girls in Whitehouse Loan without any domestic skills. “I couldn’t even boil an egg,” she laughs, “so my mother said I’d better go to Atholl Crescent.
“We did a bit of everything,” she recalls. “Cooking, housework, dressmaking and upholstery. One of the most important things was learning how to trim and operate a paraffin lamp – turn it up too fast and the glass will break – and how to clean stainless steel around a fireplace. They even taught us how to sweep a chimney.
“I learned how to scrub the front step using some kind of white chalk powder and using a particular circular movement and how to draw up a housework rota of jobs for each week. For spring cleaning, you had to set aside a whole day for polishing the silver.”
Housework – with none of today’s labour-saving devices and modern cleaning products – was just one element of college work. A vital part of running a successful house was keeping the family fed and smartly clothed.
“We learned every kind of stitch. And we did two terms learning plain cookery and one of high class cookery,” recalls Geraldine, who appears, smiling, alongside her fellow students in a 1950s black and white photograph in the exhibition. “The plain food was things like mince collops - mince with a special kind of toast that you dressed the dish with. We’d just come out of rationing, so food was very basic.”
Indeed, even the high class cookery element of the course owed more to inventive use of everyday ingredients than tickling the tastebuds: “The fancy dishes often consisted of an awful lot of aspic jelly,” groans Geraldine, who went on to work as a manager at Crawford’s Tea Rooms in Princes Street.
“We’d line little dishes with aspic jelly then add pieces of cucumber and tomato juice and then leave it to set before turning it on to a plate.”
And what did it taste of? “Not a lot,” she laughs, “but it looked nice.”
The exhibition includes copies of the students’ recipe books, equipment such as a special saucepan for turning out perfectly round poached eggs and a dish for baking snails. There are examples of beautifully stitched garments, beadwork and half-finished millinery along with the green, blue and white striped blazer worn by students and the blue “mob” cap donned during cookery lessons.
Examples of work by former students include Leith-born Maud Pentland’s chemise, samples of her embroidery and millinery, found by her daughter Margaret Donaldson, 79, tucked inside a box in her mother’s loft. “My mother was sent to Atholl Crescent to learn cookery and needlework, probably as preparation for her becoming a teacher,” says Margaret, who lives in Aberdeen. “The detail on the garments is amazing.”
On a wall hangs a crisp linen embroidered table cloth, recently stitched by some former students as part of a project aimed at exploring the college’s role in women’s education and the Suffrage movement.
In one glass cabinet is an oval rug made from strips of cloth, the kind of thing Christine Brydon’s mother Margaret Ross made when she was a student at the college. Christine, who followed her mother there in the early 60s, likens it to a “Swiss finishing school, very posh, very Victorian”.
“It was very prestigious,” she adds. “You were expected to do learn to do things properly.”
Christine, 63, who lives in Clovestone, completed a three-year “degree” course in institutional management, a career-orientated course which led to her working in Marks & Spencer’s staff canteen in Princes Street before running hospital linen services in London.
Yet she recalls lessons still being focused on general household chores, such as how to make a bed with sheets folded into crisp “hospital” corners and laundry lessons spent bent over double sinks wringing clothes through a mangle or treading blankets in bathtubs.
“We also learned life skills, like how to be organised and how to make things from scratch,” she adds. “Today women don’t know how to do basic things like stitch on a button, or cook using ingredients from the garden, never mind make their own clothes,” she adds. “What we learned at Atholl Crescent, many women today probably wish they could do.”
• Stitching Times, an exhibition which explores the work of the Edinburgh College of Domestic Science, is at the Museum of Edinburgh until January 28, 2012.