Criminal Quilts research – October 2017

The research and development phase of Criminal Quilts is now well underway. I have been spending time in residence at Staffordshire Record Office exploring archives and finding out what resources I have to explore during this project and planning what the workshops for volunteers and participants will involve.

Stafford Prison photograph albums from the late 19th and early 20th century form the basis of the entire project. For several years I have been creating work around a handful of photographs of women with no additional information about them at all. One of the aims of this new funded research project is to explore the full collection of photograph albums and trace stories through the records.

There are 10 different albums dating from 1877 to 1915 which gives me a broad window of exploration beyond the Victorian and well into the 21st century. I have begun by cataloguing the women who appear in the photographs. The albums just contain photos, and in a couple of cases, indexed pages of named but very little detail. Each image is marked with the prisoner’s name, a date (of photograph, I assume) and a number. In this first phase I am making lists of all the women (about 10-15% of the total in each album I estimate) and noting name, date, number, approximate age and a detailed description of the photograph. I’ll then be able to cross reference between the albums to see who features more than once and then find out more about them via the written documents which I have yet to explore.

Already I can see women who appear several times over the years. I have identified prison uniforms and what I suspect is prison-issue clothing. There’s also a very clear timeline of fashion, particularly in hats which almost all of the women are wearing. These photographs are known to be a rare record of working class women’s clothing but I am already realising it is going to be difficult to be sure what is prison issue and what is personal property, particularly in the later images. There are also some really lovely shawls appearing which may well inspired new work.

I have a lot of additional research to do about the background to prison identification photography, about prison uniforms and a lot of cross referencing to fashion history in general before I can draw any conclusions about what their clothing says.

The albums themselves are impressive and inspiring objects with marbled endpapers, damaged spines and hand written text. I’ll be exploring the albums in more detail in the next post.

 

There are still spaces for volunteers to work with me on this project during 2018. Find out more here.

Criminal Quilts exhibition is available for touring in 2019 onwards.

Images of archive material courtesy of Staffordshire Record Office. Project funded by Arts Council England with Staffordshire County Council.

 

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