Embroidery is seen in Netflix Regency series Bridgerton as a genteel pursuit, but the UK’s Embroiderers’ Guild (EG) has become embroiled in a bitter internal row over proposals to try to save the 115-year-old institution from liquidation.
A combination of lockdown and Bridgerton have boosted cross-stitch kit sales by 545% at Hobbycraft, yet the guild is struggling financially because of its ageing membership and falling sales of its magazines.
EG, a charity whose patron is the Duchess of Gloucester, aims to promote and preserve textile art and has about 145 branches across the UK.
But many of its 4,200 members feel stitched up after branch bank accounts were frozen in February to divert money to pay head office debts as part of a proposal by the guild’s trustees to save money by changing the way the organisation operates.
But a petition with 5,288 signatures claims that the plan to close branches and turn them into “independent stitch groups” separate from the EG has not been undertaken with enough consultation. The new groups are due to get help setting up, including a minimum £250 grant – but many members claim it is not enough. The petition adds: “Now, with so many people feeling isolated and with mental health issues, is not the time to force branches to close and redeploy branch funds.”
The trustees, however, said that last year the guild lost 1,500 memberships – mainly due to Covid-19 – cutting its income by about £57,000.
Combined with the result of its consumer magazine, Embroidery, no longer making a profit and sales of Stitch magazine falling by 47% over a decade, its most recent accounts show the EG Group’s deficit at £67,305 for the year ending 31 August 2019, down from a surplus of £129,844 the previous year.
In an effort to avoid potential liquidation, the trustees want to refocus the guild on new opportunities – online courses, a virtual community called ThreadIt, and looking after its historical collection – so they have asked members to vote on their proposals.
At a meeting held on Zoom on Thursday, the trustees acknowledged the proposals were a shock but said that as a charity they were being held accountable. A total of 4,000 people tried to attend the meeting but were prevented because too many were trying to join at the same time, with just 982 succeeding. The meeting is available to view online.
Trustee Alex Messenger said of petitions on social media to try to stop the proposals that while “people are entitled to express and register their views … these campaigns presented a somewhat biased and incomplete picture … It is so sad that this enormous swell of feeling and energy has been used in a destructive way and to the detriment of all.”
Artistic director and trustee Anthea Godfrey said it was “a very difficult decision for all of us” but said the trustees were “charged under charity and company legislation to manage the affairs of the guild”.
She added that the trustees, who are volunteers, were aware the proposals “would anger and distress many members” but said there had been previous consultations and initiatives to try to boost volunteers and membership.
But some members were angered by the tone of the meeting and said they felt the proposals were being presented as a fait accompli with more financial detail needed before they could vote.
Trustee Amanda Smith said for technical reasons the voting deadline had been extended until 10 March and that the Duchess of Gloucester had asked to be informed of the outcome of the meeting.
Speaking after the meeting, trustee Penny Hill said: “We are working to preserve the legacy of our 100+ year-old organisation, including the preservation of its remarkable collection of over 5,000 pieces of embroidery. Among this collection are historical and significant pieces acquired throughout the lifetime of the guild.
“The proposal being put to members seeks their support for organisational changes to enable the guild to continue and build on this legacy.”
This article was amended on 5 March 2021 to update details about the grants based on information provided by the guild after publication.