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.

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.

Visit Criminal Quilts (online)

While my Criminal Quilts exhibition is behind bars (in boxes), I have created a free online version of the exhibition. I’ve included lots of high resolution images including details of embroidery, quilting and showing textures and stitches as much as possible. All the exhibition panels, labels and other resources are also on my website for you to explore. There’s also a digital version of the exhibition display book which includes some case studies and historical information. The only thing missing is the surreptitious touching of textiles which you aren’t supposed to do! It also includes work which is now sold and no longer in exhibitions and pieces which haven’t been in all the versions of the touring exhibition. Very soon there will be some brand new work added which is currently in my studio awaiting photographs.

 

 

Don’t forget to visit the gift shop after your visit… There are copies of the Criminal Quilts book, greetings cards with my original digital designs and a handful of postcard packs available too.

There’s also a virtual donation box if you would like to support my future work.

 

Creating Community

I’m always being asked what inspires me, where I get my ideas from, how those ideas go from thoughts to textiles, how I create exhibitions, what my next project will be and so much more…  With this in mind, I have come up with a behind-the-scenes mini magazine where you will be able to find out just those things, and even see inside my studio every month. I’ve created  subscription community in Patreon where you can join up to get monthly updates about what is going on in my studio and in my working life and support my creative practice at the same time. I hope to create a space where I can share more about what I do with the people who are really interested. You can ask for particular themes or stories in my posts and in the magazine. The April issue will cover the development of Criminal Quilts and where that project has come from and where it is going. There’s a sample mini magazine section here to download {patreon news sample} and much more to look at on the Patreon page itself.

There are three different membership levels including a monthly art print posted directly to you as well as the mini digital magazine at just $10 a month and the Cotton supporter level at only $5 a month. This is open to anyone in the world so I hope it will inspire you too.

 

 

 

Refocussing towards social justice

Last autumn, on one of my many long work-related drives, I was pondering what kind of themes I wanted to explore in my work in 2020 and beyond. Two major projects had been filling my brain for months; Criminal Quilts and my personal work exhibitions Emotional Repair and Textile Traces. All of these had powerful, emotive stories at their core, either exploring society and criminal justice (Criminal Quilts) or my own personal experiences in the other exhibitions. There is still more for me to say on all of these topics, but I was feeling very much that I wanted to take my work a step further on than illuminating difficult histories to encompass change and development. Some of my work has been closely engaged with other people, particularly around sharing and collectivism (such as with my Memorial Sampler, a collective memorial of lost loved ones) and exploring stories which touched many people deeply and personally. In my community practice work, the aims are always around improving lives, in one way or another. I love this aspect of my work although it is a lot more hidden and separate from my exhibition output. I have been working towards bringing these two disparate aspects of my practice together, but it is harder than I would have liked to do this.

On my long drive I decided that I had to make a fundamental change to the way I work, to concentrate on making my entire practice, not just my community work, fully engaged with making lives better for those that have their opportunities limited for so many different reasons. I was fired up and excited. And then there was a traffic jam and a roundabout and another hour of tiring driving and probably a distracting bank of wildflowers on the edge of the A50. And I forgot all about this plan. I was just too busy with what needs doing now to think about what I wanted to do in the future. I remembered having had a great idea on the A50, but somehow it had evaporated. I spent most of last winter in hibernation, having worked myself ill, and had 3 months off sick. By the spring I was back up and running but just running to keep up and there was no time for contemplation and imaginative thinking. Then in August this year I went to a talk by Giles Duley which was part of the brilliant Journeys Festival in Leicester. Suddenly, it all came back to me. I had to bring my values, my desire to improve social justice and my politics into my work.

 

My first action was to build more of this social justice work into my next phase of funding for Criminal Quilts in 2020-21. This will be a test project, a move towards where I want to be and hopefully will achieve some of the aims I have set myself. I will be working directly with women in the criminal justice system and with campaigners, activists and others engaged with trying to improve the lives of women caught up in the criminal justice system today. I want to illuminate their stories to create understanding and to make a small difference to their lives through my work as an artist.

This autumn I have also submitted several funding / residency applications around developing this new strand of work and for me to work out how to have the impact I want to have and to create a sustainable business model for my long term creative future. As well as illuminating stories, I want to find ways to have an impact on improving lives, still create powerful, meaningful artwork, and a financial income for me to live on. It’s a challenge but one which I am very excited about. Last week, the day before the General Election, I shared some of these thoughts on my social media, both making a statement about my left-leaning politics and saying out loud that I am going to change the way I work and speak out more. Despite the gloom the result has caused to many in my creative circle, I have been bowled over by the response from other artists and creatives who felt inspired by my words and expressed a desire to shift their work or their life towards activism, social change or just improving things for others, or to be honest about how their political beliefs and values are part of who they are as an artist.

Being political or activist when you run a business which has not previously engaged with these topics feels risky. Should one be neutral? Will one lose customers or supporters? Will people be angry, complain or insult me for my opinions or values? No one wants to enrage social media trolls. But I want people to engage with my work, regardless of how they vote or any other aspect of their lives. I may lose the attention of some followers or fans, but I hope that everyone will stay with me to learn, to understand and to explore alongside me as I navigate this new path. It is not my intention to alienate anyone who does not have the same values or politics as me, I don’t want them to go away but instead I would love it we could all learn something new, see a different side to a story or issue and have our minds opened to new things through the wonderful medium of creative self-expression. Because that’s what art is to me, a way of seeing into different worlds and opening minds.

I don’t yet know what the new work and new business models will look like. I have a lot to learn still and a lot to work out. This will be an ongoing, long term journey. I will be sharing my thoughts on this from time to time on this blog so please join my mailing list for monthly reminders of what I am doing and what I am thinking about.

 

Ruth

Criminal Quilts is back!

After a little pause on Criminal Quilts, I am pleased to say that we are back up and running!  From January I will be working on new collaborations, community work and a symposium taking place in 2020-21. First up though, the exhibition is coming up very soon at Galleries of Justice, Nottingham from 7th December 2019 to 29th March 2020.

Image of textile quilt made from images of women criminals

I have a workshop at the museum in March 2020 which is now open for bookings

Criminal Quilts – Embroidered Images workshop
Saturday 21st March 2020 11am-4pm

Working with Criminal Quilts artist Ruth Singer, you will have the chance to try some of the techniques she uses to create her Criminal Quilts artworks. In this workshop you will learn how to embroider and embellish onto digital prints and screen prints of archive photos from Stafford Prison. You will learn some new embroidery stitches to embellish and transform a black and white photograph into something completely new. Some hand embroidery experience necessary.
Workshop for adults. £59 including all materials and drinks.

National Justice Museum
High Pavement
Nottingham
NG1 1HN

 

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.