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23 Sep 2020

The Hill House: antimacassars

Colourful antimacassars on the back of a high-backed couch.
Antimacassar on the back of the settle in the drawing room at the Hill House
The antimacassars at the Hill House are some of the most beautiful and ornate items in the collection. Our visitors are often drawn to them because of their bright, bold patterns, but are not always sure of their purpose … so let’s talk about antimacassars!

Antimacassars are pieces of cloth placed over the backs of chairs to protect them from grease and dirt, or simply as an ornament. The name also refers to the cloth flap ‘collar’ on a sailor’s top, which was used to keep Macassar oil off their uniforms. Macassar oil was an unguent (ointment or lubricant) for the hair commonly used by men in the early 19th century. It was often made with coconut oil or palm oil, combined with ylang-ylang or other fragrant oils. The fashion for oiled hair became so widespread in the Victorian and Edwardian period that housewives began to cover the arms and backs of chairs with a washable cloth to prevent the fabric from being soiled. Around 1850 these started to be known as antimacassars.

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh designed and made a set of three antimacassars for the settle (a high-backed chair designed to protect the occupant from draughts) in the drawing room at the Hill House. We moved the original antimacassars into a controlled display cabinet on the first floor of the house, but have replaced them with beautiful replicas which were researched and made by textile experts. These particular designs are quite unlike anything that would have been found in a typical drawing room of the time. Margaret used bold colours, combining dots and stripes to produce the double-sided coloured panels of interwoven fabrics, which include silk and velvet. The design also features a central yin/yang symbol, made by winding black or white thread around small balls of silver paper.

Two high-backed chairs facing a cube-shaped table. The light is streaming in through a window and casting geometric shadows on the floor.
Two high-backed chairs in the drawing room with antimacassars designed by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh

The high-backed chairs in the drawing room also have antimacassars, designed in the shape of rose leaves. These are a fantastic vibrant green, with black embroidery and decorative blue beads shaped like dewdrops, harmoniously bringing design and practicality together. It’s likely that the materials Margaret used were bits and pieces of fabric and ribbon from her sewing workbox, which is now in the archives of the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow.

Detail of a high-backed chair with an unusual antimacassar in the shape of a stylised green rose leaves, with blue beads.
Detail of the antimacassar on one of the chairs, showing the blue dewdrop beads

Margaret studied drawing, watercolour painting, metalwork and embroidery at Glasgow School of Art. Jessie Newbery had started teaching embroidery there in 1894 – it was the first course of its kind and set the pattern for teaching embroidery in Scotland.

Arts & Crafts principles were at the heart of Jessie’s teaching, and like Margaret she believed that design and beauty were important in everyday life. So the next time you visit the Hill House, make sure you take a moment to discover our antimacassars – they may be small in size but are mighty in story!

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