This blog post was written by Catherine Monaghan, an MA Library and Archive student who is currently on placement at the Co-operative Archive cataloguing Co-operative Women's Guild Collections.


Women were always seen as powerful influencers within the co-operative movement as primary spenders and encouraged to 'come and shop' and to show their support for the movement.  However, some women felt they could be doing more: The Co-operative Women's Guild developed as an auxiliary organisation of the co-operative movement. This was a group for working class women to come together and talk about the movement, how they could contribute and to educate and support women. The Co-operative Women's Guild was a key part of the movement but also a group within their own right. You can read more about the origins of the Co-operative Women's Guild in an earlier post on this site. 

A craft competition for members of the Co-operative Women's Guild judged by the Birmingham Co-op Society c 1970s MWG-2

Crafts have always been involved in the Co-operative Women's Guild. Many women in the early days of the guild brought crafts such as sewing or knitting with them to lectures and meetings because they felt they had to be doing something more than just listening to the meeting's speaker. Even after women become more comfortable with being able to just sit and listen, crafts still stayed an important part of the Guild’s activities. Common activities undertaken at meetings were arts and crafts, usually either ones brought by the members, or ones that they were taught in a session. As the Guild grew, crafting and needlework became a staple of meetings and celebrations.

Midlands Poppy

While cataloguing sections of the women’s guild collections, I found records of different crafts done by members of the Co-operative Women's Guild.

Poppy Embroidery from the Ward End branch of the Co-operative Women's Guild. MWG/2/36

Each section of the guild had a different flower as their symbol.  They were often added to textiles like tablecloths and the banners that were used in marches and to decorate the halls where they met. There was also a garden where the different flowers of the sections were grown and a pamphlet at the archive lists all the sections flowers and what they represent.

A page from the Women's Co-operative Flower Garden Pamphlet featuring the Midlands Poppy

The Midlands flower was the poppy for courage and within the Midlands Co-operative Women’s Guild collection I found a delicate needlepoint of a poppy. This was something made by a member, possibly as a celebration of their involvement in it. Its beautifully made and is still in great condition, showing that an incredible amount of care must have been put into it.

Yorkshire Pride

In the Yorkshire Region Co-operative Women's Guild collection there is a cross stitch made by the Grimsby branch in 1993 to celebrate 100 years since the Congress when the Guild was founded. It was made as a way for the maker to join the celebration of the centenary and to show their appreciation for the Guild. The image is full of symbols such as the 'woman with the basket' used as the symbol for the guild, the rainbow and also a dove of peace which shows the makers knowledge of the movement.  As it has been made into a card, it suggests it wasn’t something the maker intended to keep, but something to give away.

By looking at these crafts, it shows the fun these women could have at meetings, as well as showing the care and investment of these women into the group and the crafts they created to celebrate the Co-operative Women's Guild. They would have taken hours to make and would have to be a conscious choice to spend the time on it. Spending this much time shows how much they cared about the guild and is a great way to understand how much the guild meant to these women.

An embroidery to celebrate 100 years since the CWG inauguration at Congress. YCWG/3/1/62

Carry on Crafting

Even though the guild waned in membership and eventually closed in 2016, this method of using crafts as associated with women's issues and as form of subversion still exists. at a recent event where Central Co-op honoured a forefather with a re-dedication service, the group wore knitted white poppies. The white poppy was first developed as a peaceful commemoration alternative in 1933 by the Co-operative Women's Guild.

Groups such as Trailblazers! Women of Greater Manchester use crafts to showcase trailblazing women of greater Manchester. Another example is the Cotton Queens project by Bolton at Home and the Centre for Worktown Studies, University of Bolton, where they used crafts such as sewing to show the history of women working in cotton mills. 

Trailblazers Display March 2024

Being able to see these pieces made by these women, using techniques and ideas we still use today and being able to see and hold things directly made by the women involved in the movement helps to humanise the movement itself, and to makes the women seem more real. It is easy to read about the Co-operative Women's Guild and what they did in the past and appreciate and respect their actions while still feeling separated from them. While directly holding things they made, especially ones that could easily be made today, it provided me with a much stronger connection to those women.

All images are from the Collections at the Co-operative Archives.