Leeds Market and City Museum

When I’m visiting somewhere new, I take a multipronged approach to trying to uncover the local craft scene. The first stop is usually Ravelry’s wonderful Yarn Shop finder, an essential part of planning any local roadtrip. Digging into the forums for local groups can be a great way to discover more hidden gems as well, particularly as there are a lot of long-running craft shops that predate the Internet and still don’t have a web presence.

The second part is usually hammering my search engine of choice with the names of various crafts and the city. This often has varying levels of success, as again, it is dependent on the shop having a good online presence. Yelp can be really useful when there’s a local crafter who has put up their ‘top 10’ list of places to see. Unfortunately, it’s only as useful as what people have contributed and it’s not so popular outside of big cities.

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This week’s adventure was to Leeds, home to the Royal Armouries Museum (not to be missed) and a historical centre for the wool trade. If you don’t have a car and aren’t planning on venturing much further than the city centre, Leeds conveniently has rather a lot of crafty goodness one place, Leeds Kirkgate Market.

Inside the market, there are at least three fabric shops, two places to get wool, a beading shop even a shop with a lovely range of upholstery fabrics. When you think you’ve been around the market once, go around again just to make sure you haven’t missed anything.

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Although you won’t be finding any indie-dyed yak/vicuna/silk art yarns here, you will find a lot of bargains. One of the larger craft shops also has the most awesome and unusual selection of trimmings I’ve seen in a while. They also stock a variety of counted cross-stitch and tapestry kits too. It can be a bit hard to find some ‘big name’ suppliers, like DMC threads, but there are cheaper alternatives if you want something to play with or need something a bit more affordable.

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Often, city markets are dingy, forgotten places loaded with cheap tat that you’d never want to buy. However, Kirkgate Market manages to feel very spacious inside, despite the crowds, and the gorgeous 1850s building has been well-preserved. Kirkgate Market is also the home to the iconic British brand Marks and Spencer’s first stall. They still have a stall there today and if you really are an M&S fan there’s even a heritage trail you can take across Leeds that explains more about the retailer’s history…

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If you’re in the centre, it’s worth popping over to Leeds City Museum while you’re there. Considering that admission is free, even if you can only manage a short visit, you may as well take a look. There are some nice exhibits and you can probably see the whole thing in under an hour, perfect for squeezing into a busy day touring the local fabric shops.

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At the moment, they have an interesting exhibition on Asia which bravely tries to encompass quite literally all of Asia into one room. I’m not entirely sure what the theme was supposed to be but there were a few interesting, modern textile pieces.

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Uchikake, Japan (1930 – 1960)

The rest of the museum is a hodgepodge of eras and ideas but still has a few eye-catching pieces. It was hard to miss this glorious piece of textile art by the Concord interfaith group. Concord are an organisation to bring together members from the whole spectrum of faiths, to Buddhist to Pagans to Jews. This particular piece is made by the ‘Women Peace-ing Together’ group and there are some great photographs of it being constructed on their website.

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As part of teaching each other various skills, they had also produced a sketchbook to document various techniques used in the final piece with some gorgeous samplers in it as well.

Being a city museum, a large focus is on local history. At the moment, there’s an exhibition on about World War I, focusing on the stories of local residents and how their lives were torn apart by the events that occurred. There are some more light-hearted exhibits though, featuring some of the hats and goodies sold at local department stores and a few of the classic, vintage Singer sewing machines.

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Hat from Marshal & Snellgrove (1955 – 1965)

One of the things that did surprise me about the Leeds City Museum was the ancient world exhibition. Alongside Roman and Greek artefacts, there’s a surprising variety of Ancient Egyptian pieces, including a whole mummy. As well as pots and stonewear, there were some lovely examples of the netted beadwork that you see so commonly in Ancient Egyptian jewellery.

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Bead netting for a mummy

Much of Leeds’s prosperity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was because it was one of the centres of cloth making. Many of Leeds’s transport routes, including the Leeds-Liverpool canal and its extensive railway system, stemmed from the necessity of being able to move the cloth woven in Leeds to other parts of the country for trade.

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The museum has a lovely exhibit explaining the cloth-making process from sheep to shawl along with hordes of historic tools of the trade and a very adorable miniature model of a spinning wheel. Leeds is particularly famous for its woollen cloth and, if you have a bit more time around the city, you can still visit some of the mills that helped the expansion of Leeds during the Industrial Revolution.

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I’m starting to really like museums that do just seem to be a total mishmash. Leeds City Museum may not be home to the biggest and best, or oldest and rarest of items but there’s a lot to see and to be learnt from the exhibitions. A very cost-effective amount of fun!

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