THE LINEN GODDESS
Born Sheila Thorpe in Balham, London, her parents were Edgar, a quantity surveyor for London Transport and Barbara Sykes, a secretary.
She was educated at the Nonsuch Grammar School, then the Lycee Francais in London and then went to Hammersmith College of Art. She was always particularly interested in embroidery.
She got a part-time job working in a department store in London. There she met a smooth-talking customer who persuaded her to come to Durban, South Africa with him.
She immediately abandoned her course and she sailed to South Africa with her new found friend. She made sure she had a job lined up for herself – in Windhoek, Namibia. But the journey didn’t quite go as plan as she began to realise this man was a charlatan. Whilst on board ship she also met Leslie Paine, who was also going to Namibia, to work at mining iron ore. The two of them got on extremely well.
When Sheila got to Durban she contacted an old school friend. This acquaintance had heard of the reputation of the man who had journeyed with her – and she warned Sheila off him.
Alone in Africa, she then travelled up to the remote northern part of Namibia, where she met up with Leslie again.
She finally started her job as a translator in Windhoek, but later than was initially intended.
Sheila and Leslie married two years later in 1953, and returned to the United Kingdom where they had four children, Denzil, Rosamund, Morwenna and Imogen. They lived in Cheshire, then Surbiton in Surrey and finally in Blewbury in Oxfordshire. There they bought a plot of land and built their own house, called ‘Morters’.
Whilst living there, Sheila enrolled at Oxford Polytechnic, where she took a languages degree.
In 1974 Leslie was unexpectedly, and shockingly, killed. He was a passenger on the Turkish Airlines plane (Flight 981) that crashed in a forest outside of Paris on the 3rd of March that year. 346 people were killed. It was at the time, the world’s worst aeroplane disaster.
Sheila was devastated. She immediately bundled all four of her children into the car and set off to drive from England to South Africa. They drove through war zones and deserts. She later admitted it was her way of coping with grief, but also a way of diverting the children.
Sheila was in her early forties – and she realised she had to rebuild her life.
Sheila got herself a job teaching Modern Foreign Languages at Oxford Polytechnic, and it was now that her interest in textiles began – the artistic side of her that had been undeveloped since her time at Hammersmith.
Her home at Morters was already beautifully adorned and furnished – and she began to collect English samplers. From there the search for textiles just widened.
During holidays, and later when she retired, Sheila would just take herself off on journeys around the world in her search. She would always take a small bag which contained a bottle of vodka, a toothbrush cut in half (to save weight) and very little else. She set herself a maximum of 6kg (so she could bring home lots of fabrics) She always travelled alone.
She went to the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram Mountains, Siberia and throughout Africa and Central Asia. She went to Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and China – amongst others. She was in Afghanistan when the Taliban were in power (the first time). Often all of these were very dangerous places.
She searched for textile patterns, new materials and studied the history and traditions of textiles. She built a reputation as an expert on Islamic art. And when she returned home, her small bag was always full of the things she had bought, discovered or even just photographed.
And in doing this she discovered a new career – as a writer. She became acclaimed as a writer on textiles. She wrote two books for the British Museum, one on the textiles of India and Pakistan, and a world encyclopedia on embroidery. She also wrote the acclaimed book ‘Amulets: A World of Secret Powers, Charms and Magic’.
She also became noted for her travel writing. She published a trilogy on her search for an embroidered motif that was called ‘The Linen Goddess’, that can be found from the Greek Islands to high in the Himalayas. The trilogy was ‘The Afghan Amulet’, ‘The Golden Horde’ and ‘The Linen Goddess’. The last title became a nickname often applied to herself.
She believed the motif (looking like a woman wearing a triangular skirt), was of an ‘Earth Mother’ that had been taken by the conquering armies of Alexander the Great into Central Asia. No scholar disagreed with her.
In 1980 she saw a wonderful dress for sale in a London shop. Multi-coloured, it was richly embroidered and decorated with suns, coins, shells and zips, with an amulet and 647 triangles carefully sewn onto the frills. It said the dress was from ‘Kohistan’. She had no idea where that was – an neither had anybody in the shop. “Afghanistan, Pakistan or Tajikistan”, she was told. So, she set off to the Hindu Kush to find the origin.
She was smuggled into the war zone that was Afghanistan by the Mujahideen, hidden under the folds of a burqua. And eventually she located Kohistan, in the Swat Valley of Pakistan.
In 1996 she was the subject of a television documentary, travelling around Yemen.
She was well-known for having, “an eye for colours and textures.” And she was always beautifully dressed herself.
But what mattered most to Sheila was the social significance of the embroidery. She would mix with tribal peoples, usually women, in their own homes. They could not converse but,” Between them embroidery became a common language.”
She could travel into women’s communities around the world, often forbidden to men. She learned their textile secrets. She was a thorough and meticulous researcher, taking extensive photographs, recording all the dyes and materials used, the cost of the fabrics and the name of the producer. All of these were kept on a massive card collection back in her home.
She was a real risk taker. Once she was getting off a bus in a remote area and she pushed in the back. She fell backwards and split her head open. The wound was sewed up by a local doctor. When she returned home she had it checked out and it was found it had been sewed using sisal, a rough carpet fabric.
In 2012 Sheila started having back problems during a Nile cruise in Egypt. It was discovered she had fractured her back. After recovery she decided it was time to end her travelling around the world. She was 80-years old.
Her son in law, Nick Fielding showed an interest in her textile collection so she trained him up as her successor. He was stunned and impressed by her ethnographic research – everything recorded precisely – every single detail. He admitted she was feisty and opinionated and could easily take against somebody with the smallest sleight. But he said without these characteristics she could not have achieved what she did.
She was made an Honorary Member of the Oxford Asian Textiles Group.
In 2017, the Pitt Rivers Museum held an exhibition of her photographs entitled ‘Embroidered Visions (Photographs of Central Asia and the Middle East’. There was a book to accompany the exhibition.
Almost simultaneously, the Pitt Rivers put on another exhibition of her textiles entitled ‘Stitch of a Symbol’.
She decided it was time to sell her vast collection of textiles but was extremely disappointed when no institution was willing to buy it. Instead, it went to private auction at Dreweatts Auction House, Newbury. The British Museum bid purchased some of the items.
She donated her collection of over 3,000 photographs to the Pitt Rivers.
RIP – Rescuing Islamic Patterns