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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 Needlework Whitelands College

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 by Annie Hewins 1879

Sampler made by Annie Hewins, 1879. It shows a combination of darns, damask darns, patching, decorative borders and buttonholes. All made by hand

Tailored buttonhole by Annie Hewins 1879, Whitelands College Collection

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.

Sleeve with darning detail, Whitelands College Collection

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.

Miniature Knitted Sock, Whitelands College Collection

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.

Detail of sampler made by Witteridge, Whitelands College Collection

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.

Whitelands College Collection Sample Garment

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).

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When the textile conservator of the Fries Museum in The Netherlands, Gieneke Arnolli, invited me earlier this year to visit their archives, I just couldn’t wait for my next trip to my home country. Her description of their textile collection made my mouth water and my fingers itch, as it contained many knitted items and darning samplers; what’s more, there were even knitted darning samplers!

Last week I finally got to visit Gieneke. There was so much to see and talk about with her, that I don’t quite know where to start with sharing it all, so today I’ll give you a general impression, and will write some more about particularly interesting items in two follow-up posts.

Fries Museum Mystery Gloves 1783

Mystery Gloves from 1783 – the initials read AI. The A is typical from Friesland, with the cross bar on top, but this is also seen in Scottish cross stitch samplers

These gloves are very special in many ways, as they were the reason Gieneke and I got in touch to start with. They arrived in the Fries Museum collection by way of a collector of curiosities. He probably bought them in some antique shop, and that’s all we know about them for certain. They have elements of a number of knitting traditions from a number of countries: the seeded stitch pattern and initials are like gloves from Sanquhar and The Dales from the UK, the Nordic star or rose could be from a Scandinavian country, the shape of the letter A is particular to Friesland and Scotland, and the embroidered loops are reminiscent of the elaborate decoration found in textiles from the Baltic states.

Fries Museum Floddermuts Fries folk costume

The Frisian ‘floddermuts’ – part of the traditional folk costume for women

The Fries Museum has a large collection of traditional Frisian folk costumes. One part of the women’s outfit was this skullcap, which would be worn over a bronze, silver, or gold head ornament, which sometimes covered almost the whole skull. Traditionally they were made from bobbin lace, procured from Belgium or France. At the beginning of the 20th century it became difficult to source the amounts of lace needed for the floddermuts (the ruffled neck part can contain well over a meter of lace) and knitted lace was a good substitute. In other words, there was no knitting tradition for these mutsen in Friesland, and they were made to emulate the bobbin lace. Many of them show patterns I recognise from Shetland lace knitting. This floddermuts was knitted with sewing cotton, using knitting needles probably smaller than 1mm! I particularly like the little bobbles in the diamonds on the back of this floddermuts. They are so round and full, they look like the muts is studded with pearls.

Fries Museum boys night caps

knitting is for boys – knitted boys night caps

In order to keep warm during the cold winter nights, everybody wore night caps. Traditionally, girls wore night caps made from woven fabric with delicate lace trimmings, and boys wore knitted night caps. Here’s a selection of them, mostly knitted by hand, but the Fries Museum also has some crocheted and machine-knitted examples.

Fries Museum doll's gloves

Miniature mittens for a doll

The Fries Museum also has a large collection of dolls. Most of the dolls were not to play with, but for girls to learn to knit and sew. Most of them have all the garments that make up a typical outfit of the period the doll is from. It allowed girls to practise the various needlecrafts and the construction of garments, from socks, underwear, petticoats, to shirts, jackets and coats. I loved these miniature mittens for a doll, in a jolly orange colour, and the loopy trimming at the edge.

Fries Museum knitting samplers

Yards and yards and yards of knitting samplers, some measuring more than 5 meters

There were drawers full of knitting samplers. They were used to learn stitches, and as an aide-memoire to remember their construction – in a way they’re personal stitch dictionaries. Susanna Lewis’s Lace Knitting Workshop on a knitting sampler held in an American museum was part of the inspiration for my Curiosity Cabinet of Knitting Stitches, so it was very nice to see some of these objects for real.

Fries Museum Knitted Mitaines

Mitaines kept your lower arms warm

Gieneke is particularly fond of the knitted mitaines. The fashion of the time (we’re talking very roughly 1750-1850 – I’m not a fashion historian and I didn’t manage to take notes of every single item I saw) dictated dresses with sleeves to the elbow, so to keep your arms and hands warm in a house without central heating, women usually wore mitaines, wrist warmers, or muffs. The pair on the right is particularly beautiful, with the pointed shape to cover the back of the hand, and this shaping is repeated on the thumbs.

Fries Museum Woven Darning Sampler

A woven darning sampler, although the second darn on the top-row emulates a knitted fabric – klick on the image to see it enlarged

When Gieneke opened the drawers with the darning samplers I got very excited! So far I’ve only seen these on-line and in books. It was a very special moment to be able to examine these up close, and see the back as well as the front. The darning samplers were part of most girls education. They taught them how to mend household linen in a large variety of weaves. These were executed in coloured threads (often silk or cotton) on a fine linen fabric. The colours would help see the beginning darner what was going on, and get a better understanding of the construction of each darn. Ultimately, the aim would be for these darns to be made in the same colour thread as the item to be fixed, so the repair would be nigh on invisible. However, I find these samplers in their many colours very beautiful, and I can only imagine the patience required, and undoubtedly the frustration felt by the girls who had to make these samplers. Interestingly, Gieneke pointed out that although most girls were taught these skills, leading to beautiful samplers, most real-life darning on the clothes in the collection was never executed with the same attention to detail. Clearly these women had better things to do than spend hours and hours darning a hole on a skirt.

Fries Museum knitted darning samplers

Can it get any better? Knitted darning samplers!

And after the drawers of woven darning samplers, Gieneke opened the drawers with the knitted darning samplers! What I really like about these, is that many of them were done on actual socks and stockings. Undoubtedly the girls first had to knit the stockings, then divide them into squares with the red thread; each square would then give them an area to practice a particular darning technique. It’s worth zooming in on this image (you can do this by clicking on it) as you will see that every sampler here not only has darns and repairs in red thread, but also in white or cream, rendering them almost invisible.

There are some interesting things to observe about the darning samplers, so keep an eye out for my follow-up blog posts, where I will discuss the woven and knitted darning samplers in a bit more detail.

With many thanks to the Fries Museum and Gieneke Arnolli for allowing me to take pictures and giving me permission to share them on my blog.

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