The museum’s textile collection was started by John and Joséphine Bowes, who were pioneers in the field of textile collecting. They began acquiring 'antique' textiles to furnish their own homes, which led to the formation of one of the largest and most significant European collections in Britain. In buying for the Museum, they chose to represent all textile techniques and all the European centres of production, from the 15th to 19th centuries.
The collection includes a wide range of tapestries, and a collection of needlework seat covers. Other types of European embroidery include ecclesiastical examples from fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, seventeenth century English work and embroidery from the East. The Bowes’ also collected carpets, woven textiles and lace.
Later collections represent more regional themes: a large collection of quilts, part of a larger collection of quilted, patchwork and embroidered bedcovers, and flat-woven carpets, with examples from the nineteenth century carpet weaving industry in Barnard Castle.
The Bowes Museum now houses The Blackborne Lace Collection, containing important study collections and the remaining stock of nineteenth century lace dealers, Anthony and Arthur Blackborne, given to the Museum by their descendants in 2006. It includes many rare pieces including a cavalier’s collar of English needle lace from around 1635, making this one of the largest and most important collections of lace in the world.
In 2007, an important collection of vestments and textiles came from St. Clares Abbey in Darlington. They were donated by the order of the Poor Clares, who had brought them from Rouen, France, where the community ran a school for English Catholic girls, from 1644 to 1793. After the French Revolution the sisters were evicted from their monastery and returned to England.