I was thinking yesterday, on a museum visit, of the power of personal stories in heritage and in art practice. I often use objects as my source material but the stories about real, named women are what has made Criminal Quilts so impactful. It’s been important to me all the way through this 12-year long project to emphasise that the women in the photographs were real, troubled women with multiple challenges in their lives, in a harsh system which tried to remove their individuality in prison. Their stories deserve to be told and remembered. My Criminal Quilts book has short case studies of 37 women and I have added extended biographies to my website since the book was written which you can find below.
Criminal Quilts is my first self-published book and it’s been a joy to share it across the world. It’s 80 pages full of prison photographs, the background to prison photography and details of the 500+ photos of women in the Stafford Prison archive. It also covers all the textiles I made up to 2018 and much more besides. It’s £16 available directly from me here.
I’ve been asked a thousand times how I got into this project and how I got from prison photographs to the quilts and other work I have made over the years. It’s almost impossible for me to define my long, slow working process, but I have been working on ways to share my research and development processes with others. My Maker Membership is designed to do this: helping other creatives who want to build in more research, meaning and connection into their practice. It’s an online group with resources and workbooks to help you define your practice and a friendly group to share and connect with. Members always tell me just how brilliant it is to find your people – others that understand what you are trying to do with your work and are properly interested in your ideas and want to support you to do your best work. I am really proud of this amazing space I’ve created and I want as many of you as possible to benefit from the support and development it offers. I have some free Find Out More events coming up soon but you can always find info here.
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.
In June I will be presenting my research on the clothing worn by women in the Stafford Prison photo albums 1877-1916 (from my Criminal Quilts project) at an academic workshop at Wolverhampton University on Thursday 7th June.
The photographs provide an unique resource for the study of working class women’s clothing and prison issue clothing in the period. Although there are numerous collections of similar photographs very little has been published focussing on women and their clothing. The Staffordshire collections are unusually abundant with nearly 500 images, including some women who appear several times over a couple of decades. Alongside extensive research and the creation of art works inspired by these images and records, I am researching further into the details of clothing and hats which can be seen in the images. Research shows that most of the photographs were taken a few days before release from prison so it is unclear if they would be wearing their own garments or prison-issue.
A considerable number of women are shown wearing woven wool shawls, particularly in the 19th century images, which is fairly common for working women but it is still unclear how many of these are their own clothes or if the shawls were prison issue. Later photographs seem to show standard prison issue garments comprising a gingham apron, high neck collarless bodice and checked neckerchief. In many of the remaining images the women are wearing some kind of dark jacket or coat which may be prison uniform – certainly one or two images show the typical convict arrows on the garment.
Headwear is also intriguing – most of the women are wearing hats and the period range of the photos shows the fashionable development from the 1870s to the First World War.
As part of this research I am looking at comparable images from other collections, including those taken by police, which having been taken at arrest, must show women’s own clothes. There is also a possible connection between certain types of particularly showy clothing which may indicate prostitution. This paper presents the work in progress in analysing the images and comparable collections and draws connections to surviving clothing in museum collections and other resources as well as introducing my own textile work inspired by the photographs.
I’m slightly astonished at the amount of new work I am churning out at the moment. I usually work on one project at a time, but suddenly, this autumn, there are lots of exhibition deadlines which is pressured but wonderful. My latest completed work is for a Design Factory showcase in New York at the Textile Art Center.
Criminal Quilts 2
Criminal Quilts 2
The show opens on 10th October so please do go along if you are in the area. I won’t be there, I’ll be a the Knitting & Stitching Show in London that week. I’ll be spending the next week or so making new pieces for The Knitting & Stitching Show and for The Salon exhibition in October run by EC Arts, and then I have another exhibition at the end of the year at Llantarnam Grange.
“This exhibition features work by 8 contemporary textile artists who explore how stories are represented through their work. Using a wide range of materials, techniques and processes each artist creates unique pieces which on further inspection reveal their fascinating stories.
From life in the sixties to the women and children working in the cotton mills during the 1900s and even King Kong visiting Birmingham City Centre – this work will fascinate and intrigue you!
I’m exhibiting the Circles Coat which was collaboratively made earlier this year, as well as a new commission.
The curator was interested in my Monumental Folly pieces and wanted to commission a piece inspired by the Shire Hall Gallery building. The gallery is based in converted 18th century court building with surviving panelled courtrooms, pastel-coloured plasterwork ceilings, holding cells and a whole range of interesting patterns, textures and shapes.
Normally, details like this would lead my work. I love texture, pattern and detail like this. But when I visited the building, what really struck me – almost haunted me – were the Victorian mug shots of criminals, particularly those with their hands on their chests. I didn’t exactly choose them, they chose me.
Photograps used in the work are courtesy of Staffordshire Record Office.
I have used the motif of hands to create a collection exploring the layers of history embedded within the building and within the lives of the women shown in the photographs. Several of the pieces take the form of miniature quilts which refer back to the domestic lives of these women and I am very much influenced by the types of clothing and fabrics they might have known during their life times. The muted colour palette I have chosen also links to the sepia-toned photographs as well as the structure of the building in wood, stone and lead.
I’m still working on the collection, but I have finished a couple of pieces.
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Background print is an image of Shire Hall, image by kind consent of the trustees of the William Salt Library
Additional photos of all the finished pieces can be found on Flickr.