Recently, I was invited to deliver the keynote speech at Cultures of Repair: Past and Present, a one-day conference to conclude A Remedy for Rents, an exhibition of darning samplers from the Whitelands College Collection.
Curated by Vivienne Richmond, head of Goldsmiths History Department, A Remedy for Rents showcased a rare collection of exceptionally fine needlework by working-class women in the last quarter of the 19th century. As students at Whitelands College, the first all-female teacher training college, now part of the University of Roehampton, the women were training to teach in elementary schools for working-class children and their needlework focused on the production and repair of simple garments and household textiles.
Remedy for Rents offered a rare opportunity to see needlework by non-elite Victorian women, but illuminates also the history of working-class dress, female education and gendered roles, experiences and expectations in 19th-century Britain and beyond. If you missed this exhibition, then you will have a second chance to catch it again, see details at the end of this post.
Photography credit: all the images I’m showing here were taken by David Ramkalawon, and all items belong to the Whitelands College Collection, University of Roehampton, and are used with kind permission.
Note: simply click on an image to get a closer view of the exquisite needlework
Specimens of Needle Work, Whitelands College K.S. 1902. This unassuming leatherbound book contains a stunning collection of extraordinary needlework
The items on display are of an an amazingly high quality, and provide me with a lot of inspiration, and something to aspire to. The book shown above holds page after page of darning samplers and plain sewing samplers, each and every one of them showing the very best needlework.
Sampler made by Annie Hewins, 1879. It shows a combination of darns, damask darns, patching, decorative borders and buttonholes. All made by hand
Close-up of one of the buttonholes from the sampler shown above
Whereas most of the darning and embroidery samplers I’ve seen from the late 19th century are no longer of the finest quality displayed in work from earlier centuries, the work displayed by the teachers in training at Whitelands College is an exception, and it’s almost inconceivable that they were all made by hand. I’m particularly fond of the many fancy handworked buttonholes; I’ll be giving them a go when the opportunity arises.
I’ll share more images from the needlework on display throughout this post, but I’d also like to share with you the one-day conference. Vivienne Richmond talked about past cultures of repair. Needlework was a respectable way for a woman to earn some money, both teaching it, or providing needlework as a service to other households. Obviously, learning needlework is a very hands-on approach, and the Whitelands College Collection is a prime example of the students’ work. If you want to know a bit more about this, then I can recommend the blog posts I wrote about darning samplers from the Fries Museum (parts 1, 2, and 3). She also touched on the Make Do and Mend campaign of World War 2, and all those middle-class women who, with the very best intentions, wanted to teach working class women on how to mend their clothes and to be careful with resources. Needless to say their reception was rather mixed, as for working class women making do and mending was already part and parcel of their lives.
One of the many practice pieces: a sleeve with cuff, ruffle, patching, darning, and stitching
After learning about repair in the past, we moved on to a number of artists and makers who use repair as part of their practice:
Lizzie Cannon has a background in geography and as a result her artwork reflects her keen sense of space and place. She gathers discarded items which get augmented by adding other elements, often using embroidery techniques. Her ongoing project Mended Leaves investigates how mending reflects, and sometimes accelerates, decay of delicate structures. The threads used to mend the holes in the leaves are carefully matched with the leaf is still fresh, but later contrasts with the changed colour once the leaf has dried.
Katherine May works as a designer, researcher and facilitator tracing the threads that weave together textiles and society. Through research and making she explores the origins of materials and the story of techniques. Her projects often reflect specific social contexts and emphasise participation through the dressing or inhabiting of these spaces, that she uses as a platform to engage people in an imaginative and sensory relationship with cloth. This was seen in Water – Colour a site specific installation where a ritual of practice evolved through indigo dyeing on site over 2 months. With her work she aims to expose the relational aspects of textiles and subvert prevailing processes of value production.
Ruby Hoette works independently as a designer/curator/researcher exploring fashion in context through the intersection of theory and practice. Her projects reveal patterns of use and often investigate the construction of value and meaning in fashion. The WORN_RELICS project was launched in 2008. It is an interactive online archive in which the stories and memories attached to garments can be collected and shared. The project explores the idea that clothing acquires value over time through being worn. It is a platform for the communication of the creativity and innovation that can be found in the diverse ways we interact with clothing in everyday life.
Many items were made on a miniature scale. They’re easily confused with dolls clothes, but their main purpose was to learn all the different sewing techniques and construction of all manner of garments. This lace sock measures no more than 4.5cm (less than 2in) in height. I guesstimate it has about 60 stitches in the round.
Those of you who have been following my blog, may have noticed that many of the other artists and makers’ themes and interests are reflected in my own practice, so my keynote speech tied it all nicely together. I spoke about my love of old sewing and needlework books; my issues with using the phrase ‘make do and mend’ in the 21st century, when many people make the choice between replacing or repairing; aspects of Japanese crafts such as boro and sashiko, but at the same time trying to bring things back to local culture; learning from studying samplers (see links to Fries Museum above); and my bottomless mending basket at home.
A darn made to emulate a jersey (machine knitted) fabric, which is made by stem stitching over foundation threads that go across the hole
I also discussed my shift in focus, or end point, of a garment. If I aim to wear clothes for a long time, than I will have to acknowledge that they will need some repairs at some point. With that in mind, when I make my own clothes, a garment isn’t really finished when I cast off that last stitch, or sew in some ends. I know there is more work to be done down the line. So those finishing touches are not final, but merely one of the stops on the journey of the garment’s life. To me, making and repairing are no longer discrete activities, they belong together, and the boundaries between the two are blurred: repairing is making.
A miniature undershirt as a way of learning all aspects of technique and construction of undershirts
If you want to catch Remedy for Rents at Roehampton, then please know that they don’t have a webpage for the exhibition yet, but in the meantime people are welcome to contact Gilly King: Gilly.King@roehampton.ac.uk for further information. The exhibition is opening there on 14 May, 2016 and running to July (actual closing date tbc).