Criminal Quilts : Sketchbooks

In between archive visits I have begun working on a sketchbook to gather my thoughts and ideas for the new work I intended to make for the Criminal Quilts exhibitions starting in summer 2018 – which is suddenly really quite soon!
I’ve created a sketchbook for sharing with people when I do talks about the project and during archive workshops starting in January. It is very much a working sketchbook; a gathering of ideas, inspiration, notes, thoughts, colours, textures and details but it is also intended to be shared, used and probably included in exhibitions so I have taken care to make it look really nice!

I’m working in a large format spiral bound sketchbook with brown kraft paper pages which is robust, easy to display, has capacity for expansion and the colour fits with the project. As I discussed in a previous post, I am finding the photo albums themselves very inspiring – the layers of papers, the damaged leather bindings and the marbled endpapers which feel like a little incongruous in their luxurious feel.

I’m also working on colour palettes to bring through the work, much of it inspired by sepia photos, cyanotype prints and my early pieces taking colours from the Shire Hall court buildings themselves and most recently I have been working on ways of creatively interpreting the data which the research is uncovering.  My next post will explore the growing data collection in more detail.

You can keep up to date with the project on Twitter @criminalquilts or on my personal Instagram feed (which also includes a lot more besides!)

Criminal Quilts: Cataloguing the photo albums

During November I went through all eight photograph albums from Stafford Prison to record all the women featured in the photographs. The photographs begin in 1877 and continue until early 1916. The style of photography changes dramatically during this period as does the clothing worn by the women. The first set of images 1877-81 are all pasted alongside a written record giving details of each individual and a little information on their crime, trial and other convictions. The women are shown sitting down with their hands in their laps or enveloped in a large shawl.  Many of the women in this album are photographed wearing a medallion with their prison number. Apart from the prison number medallion, these images look more like informal portraits than any of the later images.  There about 100 records of women in this album. All the later albums just have photographs with a name, prison number and date of photography with no further details.

The album covering 1883-1887 contains the images which I used as inspiration for my previous Criminal Quilts, focussing on the hands, which in these photos are placed on the chest. It seems that hands were included prominently in prison photographs for a few years as hands, particularly damaged or missing fingers, could act as identifying features. This album has 12 photos per page including  about 130 women in total.

The 1893-1896 album shows a change in the way prisoners were photographed. The early photos are taken face on but with a side mirror intended to capture the woman’s profile, though this is fairly unclear in most of the images. Their hands are still shown but by the end of the period this album covers a new style of photography has taken over with a profile image alongside the facing front photo, without hands. These photos, although less intriguing and personal than the ones with hands, still show clothing, and particularly hats with great clarity. These are black and white rather than sepia so also show a change in photographic technology. In most of the later (side on) images, women are shown without their hats and many are wearing prison uniform as shown below (arrow showing on her shoulder in the profile image).

Two albums cover 1897-99 and only contain 21 photographs of women. Why there are so few remains to be discovered as I do more research. These images are similar in style to the previous album although most of them are wearing hats.

Moving into the early 20th century the style of profile and face on images continues and the wearing of hats varies. In the last album 1911-1916, the hats are so impressive and stylish it is easy to be distracted by them and forget these are prison photos. A number of women are wearing similar outfits of gingham apron and mid-colour shirt with white collar and checked neckerchief which is surely prison uniform. A few older women are still wearing a Victorian bonnet rather than the modern large brimmed hat.

 

In all there are around 500 photographs of women in this collection of albums. I had initially intended just to focus on the earlier, Victorian-period albums where the hands are shown but I have decided to extend the research to all the women in these albums right up to 1916 as they are so intriguing and fascinating. A handful of women also appear across a number of albums and add depth to the stories I am aiming to tell with this project.

In the next post I will be showing the other side of the project – my own creative work developing alongside the research. You can follow the project research on  Twitter @criminalquilts where new blog posts and snippets about the project will be shared.

 

Criminal Quilts research blog : photo albums. 

The photographs which have formed the source material for Criminal Quilts are held in bound albums in Staffordshire Record Office. The albums are part of a large collection of archives from Stafford Prison and I’ve been working my way through each one in the last couple of weeks. The images I am working with date from 1878-1915.

As well as the intriguing photographs of women, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the albums themselves. They are large bound books with hundreds of pages. Some have damaged spines showing the binding. Some covers are badly damaged too, showing layers of leather and board.

The albums have marbled endpapers and indexed pages, buckled pages and damaged corners. The materiality and weight of these albums adds another dimension to the stories of the women whose images are contained within. 

I am hoping to bring in the physicality of the albums into the new work in make as the project develops, in the form of artist-made books with hand printed and stitched pages.

 

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Antique textile repair

Alongside my own original creative work I occasionally get the pleasure of a repair job on an antique textile. I love being able to explore the insides, the seams, the reverse and the construction of the stitches. This is an ecclesiastical stole, still in active church use despite being about 100 years old.

The silk was shredded in the most vulnerable areas which I have covered in fine nylon tulle. Working from the back I repaired the damaged embroidery by tacking it down using matching threads. The back of the embroidery is joyfully colourful and messy and a glorious art work in its own right.

There’s so much to learn and to enjoy in close observation of skilled (and sometimes not-so-skilled) making. I started my working life aiming towards working with antique textiles in museum and had the pleasure of working with some really special textile and fashion collections before I diverted into other directions. Later, when I was no longer paid to work with textiles I spent my days off researching medieval textiles and still often yearn for those days of quiet study in museum store rooms. I make sure that in my own contemporary work I do get to work with museum collections and have my own small, growing museum of interesting textiles which inspire.

I’ve repaired some pieces of my own extensive antique textiles collection and plenty of vintage clothing and am happy to take commissions for interesting repairs. 

Smocking

Smocking Past & Present

One-day workshop with Selvedge. Saturday 24th June, 2017. Selvedge Shop, London. £120. Book here SOLD OUT

Traditional English smocking has a very fine history from farming smocks of the mid-19th century to to Aesthetic Liberty gowns of the late 19th century as well as a revival in the 1970s. In this workshop we will learn the basics of traditional English smocking using variety of classic stitch patterns and try out some contemporary, experimental variations in unusual materials and new stitches to create highly original textile art.

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A short history of smocking

Smocking, like so many textile techniques, has a rather secretive history. From what I can find out, the technique of smocking is often confused with the garment called a smock. For centuries, women’s main undergarment was a nightdress-like linen smock, which could be decorated, were she wealthy enough, but often was not, and there’s not much evidence of this garment being decorated with actual smocking. There are a number of Tudor portraits which appear to show smocking on smocks necks and cuffs but it is impossible to say for sure if they really are made by smocking – which is a decorative stitching on top of previously pleated or gathered fabric.

This Spanish child’s smock, dating somewhere between 1700-1800 has what looks like proto-smocking; gathers overstitched with black thread for decorative effect. The garment most commonly called a smock nowadays used to be called a smock frock, which sort-of helps distinguish it. This practical, although decorated, garment developed during the 18thcentury as a protective, enveloping apron-like shirt worn by manual and agricultural workers to keep their clothes clean. It may well have developed from the voluminous, washable, linen undergarments that men and women continued to wear to keep their outer clothes clean from body odour and sweat.

Smock-frocks as we know them now, are made from rectangular pieces of cloth (no curves so no fabric waste) with gathering to create shape. Gathering pulls in the fabric which is then released below, to create an easy-to-wear and practical smock. Smocking itself allows the fabric to stretch a little which would also increase wearing comfort. In addition, smocking creates a thick, dense fabric full of small air pockets which act as insulation – a welcome benefit in outdoor work, as well as the protection of thicker layers.

As with many other practical garments, they could be embellished and embroidered. When smocks first began to have decorative stitching is unknown, but those that survive from the early 19th century can be stunning. Of course, the finest ones that were looked after are the ones that survive, and the every day ones, worn out and threadbare, would have been recycled rather than preserved, so we tend to see only the best examples.

By the end of the 19th century, the smock was out of favour – many agricultural workers having had to move to cities and work in factories, for which a flowing garment was impractical. Just as the farmers’ smock goes out of style, the technique of decorative smocking starts to come intostyle in fashionable circles.

The women of the aesthetic movement (closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites) took to wearing loose-fitting, ‘healthy’ garments which didn’t require the wearing of a corset. The style of flowing and comfortable garments were heavily-influenced by smocks, along with other styles of dress, and it was unsurprising that smocking was also used to create shaping and decorative effects. This velvet example at FIT is stunning.

Smocking from dressmaking book

Smocking from dressmaking book

Smocks were also popular for aesthetic children’s wear, judging by this Liberty of London child’s smock, a fancy silk version of the traditional rural garment. Patterns using the techniques appear in women’s magazines too, such as this smocked bag from a 19th century magazine.

In the early 20th century, smocking appears in women’s magazines and sewing manuals on garments, domestic textiles and children’s wear, such as this example from the Women’s Home Companion, 1916. The 1930s and 1940s were the heyday of patterns and innovative stitch development along with some stunning uses of the simplest honeycomb stitch pattern such as this velvet dress by Maggie Rouff. As with many crafts, smocking was revived in the 1970s when such delights as the smocked plunge-neckline swimming costume was created….alongside Victorian-esque party dresses for women and girls, made popular by Laura Ashley. It is also sometimes seen on folk or traditional costume from Europe. This 19th century Russian blouse makes beautiful use of shaped smocking on the cuff.

True smocking is hand stitched, and incredibly time-consuming to prepare. The reverse fabric is marked with regular dots (for which embroidery transfers were produced) or marked with a grid, then regular stitches are made right across the piece to create completely even rows of gathers. The decorative stitches are worked from the front side and can be as simple as honeycomb stitch (my personal favourite) or covered with complex and varied designs.

Faux smocking using shirring elastic came in during the smocking craze in the 1970s, and it is this much-faster technique that became most commonly used for women’s and girl’s dresses, including many of the Laura Ashley classics.

American or Canadian smocking is a different technique altogether. This type of smocking is all worked from the back, with the gathering and decorative pattern-making all rolled up into one. The earliest example of this technique that I have ever seen is on an 18th century French dress, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ruth Singer smockingSewing manuals of the 19th and 20th century don’t seem to include reverse / American smocking, so it may be that it was fairly unknown to the amateur sewer, and only occasionally used by the professional. It became very fashionable in the 1930s and 40s and had a renaissance in the 70s.  The most popular use of this technique was on cushions square, bolster and round cushions in synthetic velvet from the 60s and 70s.  There’s no shortage of brilliant patterns for products using American smocking, some of which I have gathered on my Smocking Pinterest board, along with other historic and contemporary forms of smocking.

The acknowledged expert at making this American smocking fashionable today is Nitin Goyal, a London-based designer who creates stunning silk cushions, bedspreads and scarves using some amazing variations on the technique. I believe the work is made in India. His work is now thoroughly copied and new American-smocked cushions can be picked up in many high street shops.

Smocked pendant by Tinctory

Smocked pendant by Tinctory

As far as English smocking goes, perhaps the best use of the technique is Tinctory, who makes stunning textile jewellery using circular English smocking. I am lucky enough to own this piece.

As smocking is such a time-consuming technique, it doesn’t seem to be used that much in clothing, but it does sometimes still appear in couture, like this Versace piece, which is glorious at odds with agricultural smocks! If you are intrigued by these gorgeous techniques, please have a look at my book Fabric Manipulation.

This article first appeared on Mr X Stitch.

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Harefield Centenary Quilt

The centenary quilt I made for Harefield Hospital last year is now on permanent display in the hospital’s main reception area.

harefield-quilt-in-situ

 

The quilt was created during a number of workshops for staff, patients and local community to celebrate 1o0 years of care on the Harefield Hospital site and uses archive and donated photographs, nurses uniforms, patient quotes, natural dyes sourced from the grounds, digital and screen print and lots of hand stitching.