Criminal Quilts Case Study – Fanny and Ada Riddle

Criminal Quilts is my an exhibition, research project and book.  The textiles I have created are inspired by the stories of women who were photographed on release from Stafford Prison between 1877 and 1916.

I was fascinated when I first saw the photographs from the 1870s where the women have their hands on their chests. This was in case of missing fingers which would be used for identification. This is the first time prisons took photographs of prisoners to identify them if they offended again. They are usually photographed in their own clothes so we get to see what they really looked like. Photographs of working women are very rare so these are very special images of women who wouldn’t normally have photographs taken.

Find out more in the online exhibition of Criminal Quilts including a film and all the exhibition text. My Criminal Quilts book covers the photo albums in detail, includes many more case studies, a background to women in prison in the 19th century and is illustrated with my textile works. It is available in my online shop along with cards, books and artworks.

This is the first in a series of case studies of some of the women recorded in the prison photographs.

Fanny and Ada Riddle

Sisters Fanny and Ada Riddle were born in Rutland to a family of labourers. In 1881 they were both at school but later worked as servants in Handsworth, Birmingham where some of their family also lived. They seem to have lived in Loughborough at one point but by 1895 were living in Birmingham. Both were able to read and write which is very unusual in the records of women prisoners.

This photograph was taken on 1st January 1895 when they were both released from Stafford Prison. Fanny was 21, Ada was 20. Fanny was convicted of obtaining money by false pretences. We think Ada was convicted of the same crime at the same time. Over a few years they were often convicted together for thefts of food, clothing and other small items for which they received sentences of 21 days to 3 calendar months.

Despite their respectable clothing and jobs, life was clearly difficult for them. Our research shows that their mother died in 1888 when they were 15 and 16 years old which may have been when the went out to work. By 1901, they were both in the Wolverhampton Union Workhouse, and Ada had a one year old illegitimate baby son with her, called Victor. Both of them worked as laundresses in the workhouse. Their family are quite easy to trace and both of their older brothers worked as postmen and were married with children. Sadly it seems their family were unable to support them and keep them out of the workhouse. I can’t trace either of them after 1901 but Ada’s son Victor does appear in records as emigrating to America as an unaccompanied child and seems to have family in Canada too. Fanny and Ada’s father remarried and had another young family in Handsworth and one widowed son lived with them too, but there is no sign of Fanny or Ada returning to live with them. They may have been cut off from their family because of their criminal records.

I have made a couple of small commissioned pieces featuring Fanny and Ada by customers who were touched by their story. I am happy to make commissions using other photographs from Stafford Prison or your own family photos.

Digital Print on Textile

My artist statement says that I prefer to use old cloth in my work, enjoying the history embedded within the textile, and I have tried throughout my 15 years of practice to use sustainable textile techniques. It isn’t the whole story as I do also use digital print on new fabrics for specific projects.  I wrote a book in 2007 about sustainable textiles and home sewing. It wasn’t that long ago, but things have moved on so fast that I didn’t even cover digital printing as an option for craft stitching, as it wasn’t commercially available on a small scale then. Since then I have used commercial digital print services for school projects, commissions and in Criminal Quilts. Commercial digital print is now available in small quantities on sustainable fabrics and for Criminal Quilts I used fine wool to make the shawl below and for the library commission I used organic cotton. It is a great way to use designs created by participants in workshops and projects, even if their work is on paper not textile. I also used digital print for the Harefield Hospital Centenary Quilt, working with groups to select and print their own images of the building as well as scans of archive documents and photos.

On a much smaller scale, I have also used home printed textiles for smaller pieces including in Criminal Quilts. These small pieces of fabric are printed on my ordinary inkjet printer which works just fine for small projects. I have used ready-prepared fabrics bought online for workshops but for my own work I prefer to use fabrics from my own stash including organic cotton, silk organza and vintage linen.  I used to teach workshops on printing textile on a home printer which was exciting but chaotic as one printer between 12 people is not ideal! I’ve now condensed the information into a PDF which is available in my online shop for £5. This also includes a section on creating scanner collages which you can print on textile or paper which is a really fun at home activity if you have a scanner / combined printer / copier. 

 

 

This is a shortened version of a longer blog post about my use of digital prints which is available to my Patreon Cotton love subscribers for $5 a month. Cotton supporters get 2 blog posts every month while Wool supporters at $10 a month get a digital monthly mini magazine and 5% discount on anything from my online shop. Silk supporters get all the treats as well as a mini print posted directly to you every month, and 10% off shop purchases.

My Shop

Since my Textile Traces exhibition has closed, I have been doing a little studio housekeeping and sorting out a lot of work which needs to find a new home! My online shop has had a facelift and is starting to fill up with prints, textiles, collaborations, textile jewellery and other treasures appearing from the archives of my life, as well as books, cards and postcards.

 

Some of the listings are new work created in the last year or two including my stitch meditations which are framed without glass so are perfect for posting. Other pieces were made some years ago and are on sale at greatly reduced prices starting at just £45. 

Quilt Blocks are just £10 each though you may want a few to make a striking display.

My Narrative Threads booklet is reduced to £6 including UK postage and there is also the option for overseas posting. Other pieces may not have overseas posting options but please do get in touch as I am more than happy to give you a price for shipping anywhere in the world.

There is a lot more to come over the next few months and major updates will be added in September. To find out when new stock is available, please join my mailing list where the first notifications will be announced. I will also be doing some flash sales on Instagram and Facebook so please make sure you are following me to find out when they happen.

 

 

Museum Purchase

Two of my recent artworks have been purchased by museums this year. I started my professional career working in museums, after doing a Masters Degree in Museum Studies. Museums are still my favourite places to spend time, particularly in textile and social history collections. I left my museum career aged 30 in 2005 to pursue my ambition to make a living out of textiles. Over the subsequent 14 years, I have worked in partnership with museums and heritage collections many times and still get a thrill of excitement when I discover new objects, collections, personal and community stories and buildings. I have created commissions using archive materials for Harefield Hospital Centenary Quilt, made textile collections inspired by my own family history and used antique textiles to tell the stories of how we do and don’t treasure historic clothing in my Garment Ghosts series. Museums and heritage suffuse my work, they are inseparable to who I am as a person and as an artist. Having work in museum collections, to be preserved forever and accessible to researchers and historians and textile enthusiasts is a real honour.

Memorial Sampler: Gawthorpe Textiles Collection

I am particularly delighted that Memorial Sampler has been purchased for the Gawthorpe Textiles Collection. I have spent time at Gawthorpe doing research in their collections several times and exhibiting there in 2018 was a highlight of my professional artist career. The Memorial Sampler is a deeply emotional piece of work, gathering the names of loved ones who have died. I started with a couple of my own and then asked on social media for contributions. I added these to the piece during the exhibition when I worked in the gallery on Meet The Artist days. I also asked for contributions from visitors to the exhibition over the 3 months it was on show, and after the exhibition I slowly stitched in all of those names too, adding up to over 100 personal memories. It has been an honour to be trusted with these precious memories and to be able to bring together all those lost loved ones. It seems fitting that this piece will be preserved in the collections which inspired it.

 

Criminal Quilts, Repeat Offender; The Brampton Museum

Criminal Quilts is a textile and heritage project created by me in partnership with Staffordshire Record Office. The project is centred around the stories of women photographed in Stafford Prison 1877-1916. Our research project gathered together over 500 mugshot photographs of women and I created a series of textiles inspired by the stories. This project grew out of an earlier commission for Shire Hall Gallery which has also been purchased by Staffordshire County Council museum collection.

 

Repeat Offender is a screen-printed textile piece, printed on vintage cloth, created with the support of University of Wolverhampton Textiles and Fashion team. Purchased by Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council for the collections of The Brampton Museum, Staffordshire. This piece is part of Criminal Quilts and was purchased for this collection because the woman featured, Agnes Herrity was from Newcastle-under-Lyme. Agnes quickly became one of the stars of the Criminal Quilts project, as she features several times in the prison mugshots.

This quilt is made from screen printed cloth using an image created from this 1897 photograph of Agnes Herrity. She was photographed (on release from prison) five times between 1897 and 1910. She lived in Newcastle-Under-Lyme. Agnes clearly had a hard life, living in slum housing and making a meagre living. She was convicted regularly of drunkenness, theft and assault. I have used screen printing because it uses photographic process which reflects the historic photographs. The use of repeating images refers to Agnes’ repeated prison sentences. Screen printed by hand on modern linen, antique printed cotton, vintage cotton and new cotton hand printed with marbling design taken from the endpapers of one of the prison albums. It is backed with an old shawl, reminiscent of those seen in many of the photographs. 

 

 

Commissions

In recent months I have completed a couple of commissions.

 

The large panel is worked onto blue linen with scraps of antique fabrics including 18th century tapestry, 19th century embroidery and 17th century brocade. I’ve added lots of hand embroidery details and several found objects embellished with hand stitch and silk threads. The objects include medieval metal detector finds including belt ends and buckles. I love these little details and the historical stories in the textiles, all of which are meaningful to the customers.

 

Another commission made last year.

This piece is more focussed around textiles and sewing, with thread winders, tape measure, thimble and some of the customers’ own handmade buttons and reflects their love of colour! This one is mounted on cream wool felt.

 

Commissions like these cost £350-£500 depending on size, complexity and materials (plus framing, I use bespoke, solid wood frames without glass). Smaller pieces are also an option with just one or two elements.

If you would like to discuss a commission please get in touch for a free discussion.

Precious Objects

I’ve got some new work for sale on Made by Hand including embroideries of my grandad’s gardening tools as well as a saw, a spoon and a couple of lovely plastering trowels. Prices start at just £41.

Other pieces from this collection can also be purchased from my solo exhibition Textile Traces in Cwmbran, South Wales (until 20th July), and in the group Thread: Contemporary Textiles in Penrith, Cumbria (until 30th June). I also make to commission using your own treasured tools or rusty heirlooms, or can source something specially for you. Find out more about the Precious Objects collection here.

Fragments – Researching a new series of work

Small fragments of cloth combined to make a greater whole. Each stitch, each thread, each moment of the maker contribute to a broad canvas of narrative.

I have been invited by the Quilt Association to showcase some work in their summer show and chose to spend time developing new work inspired by their collections. Fragments is a series of work in textile and mixed media developed from my research with these quilts, from years of considering antique textiles and the stories they hold and from my desire to express my thoughts about museum collections through making.

For me, the joy of this collection is that it is mainly rescued quilts – saved from charity shops, from life as dust sheets and from languishing forgotten and unloved in garages. This collection does not aim to be a representative array of fine Welsh quilts it merely (and importantly) aims to save old quilts so others may study and enjoy their making. While the quilts vary enormously in age, provenance, quality and condition, they share a defining characteristic of narrative. Many of the locally-made quilts come with priceless stories about their making or their family history (accurate or otherwise) and those which do not have equally exquisite (to me at least) stories of tragic retirements in sheds and subsequent rescue. The stories which these quilts embody interest me as much as the cut of the cloth and the finesse of the stitching.

The quilts speak of poverty and extravagance, of luxury and desperation, of comfort and of tragedy.  They tell stories not just of their making but of their long lives. Some have been repurposed to catch paint or oil spills when handmade quilts had no charm or value. Some were made from the humblest of materials to keep loved ones warm and were never intended to be preserved, admired or studied. Others have had harder lives in the more recent past – badly repaired and hacked about or nearly ruined by machine washing with the best of intentions but with the most damaging effects.

 

To quilt enthusiasts, my preference for the discoloured reverse, the wrecked by laundering, the oil and paint-spattered and the pieced army blankets may be puzzling. But I am not a quilter, not a quilt scholar (except I admit of trapunto quilting) and I do not look at these pieces of old cloth as a someone who wishes to chart the piecing pattern or pass judgement on the number of stitches per inch. The humbler the better for me. The feel of the quilt is most important to me. What it says about those who made it, bought it, sold it, used it, abused it, preserved it and mended it interests me far more. My training in museum work taught me to look at objects from every angle, exploring every possible story to understand the thing as a whole, not as a purely visual object. As an artist I choose to look from one very specific angle and to explore that rich seam of narrative in as much detail as I can. I am interested in sharing, through my making, how these quilts make me feel.

I will be sharing the development of this work over the next six months on the blog and social media. You can also keep in touch via my email newsletter once a fortnight.

Alongside this new work I will also be showing my Fine Art Quilt Masters winning piece and other pieces from the Criminal Quilts series. The exhibition takes place at Minerva Arts Centre, Llanidloes, Mid Wales 5 August 2017 – 16 September 2017. I am also running a three-day Summer School on Experimental Quilting 31 August 2017 – 2 September 2017 (full details to come shortly).

Ruth Singer Criminal Quilt

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.

Urban Growth Project Launch

My collaboration project Interlace was recently commissioned to create a new public artwork with young people in Leicester.

Bethany and I worked with 8-13 year olds in January and February this year to design and make a set of concrete and cloth tiles inspired by the urban environment to be displayed at Makers’ Yard studios in Leicester. We are launching and celebrating the project on Tuesday 7th June and all are welcome to join us.

 

Launch poster