On 20th April I’m giving a talk for a symposium at De Montfort University, Leicester. The programme is full of fascinating talks and presentations about biographies through objects. My presentation description is below. The event is free and all are welcome.
Emotional Repair: personal stories in cloth and stitch
My artist practice is entirely tied up with my first career in museums. Since my Museum Studies MA 25 years ago, I have been intrigued by our reverence for objects and the power of objects both to fascinate us and to embody stories. This has become a fundamental part of my research-led textile practice, in which I often work with historic garments as source or material. My work stems from my museum training of exploring objects from different angles and my passion for textiles and the stories we create around them. My artistic practice is counterpoint to museum practice by considering irreparable textiles as valuable. My work with old cloth is a thoughtful and considered interpretation of conservation and preservation methodologies and practices.
In this paper I plan to present two bodies of work which come from the same core interest in how cloth holds life stories. Garment Ghosts is an ongoing body of work created from badly damaged and irreparable antique clothing, to which I give new life by remaking. I unpick clothing and textiles beyond repair and the fragmentary cloth is brought back to life through trapping the disintegrating garment between transparent layers, keeping the outline of the piece but also opening up seam allowances and pleats to take the fabric back to its original form.
Imprint is a commission to make a new piece of work inspired by a family textile collection, where I was asked to preserve the garments intact which presented me with an intriguing challenge of working with a textile collection without cutting anything. Unlike much of my work using garments divorced from their humans, I had a clear provenance and stories to go with these pieces. I created an archive box of small pieces telling stories of damage, use, fragility and human experience.
Commissioned artworks in response to a family textile collection
This project has been one of my slowest ever, but it’s finally coming together. Months ago I was commissioned to make a new piece of work inspired by a family collection of textiles and clothing. It’s been tricky all along because the client wanted the textiles back intact so I couldn’t cut and stitch the cloth into something new so that limited my options. Intriguingly, the client also doesn’t want an artwork back so I suggested creating works which could be scanned / photographed so she can have a digital version. In many ways an open brief is harder to work with than a very tight brief. Too many options can be quite overwhelming so I struggled for a while to work out what to make. But it’s up and running now and nearing completion and I’m very happy with what I’ve done.
I decided to make a series of small pieces presented like museum prints or drawings in an acid-free box. The client has worked in archives for many years so the connection made immediate sense. I’ve used print, drawing and photography techniques to create an archive of the collection without using any of the textiles in an irreversible way. As time has passed, the client is actually happy for me to use the textiles as I wish but I’ve gone down the route of preserving them so although I’ve done a little stitch work with some smaller textile pieces, no scissors have been involved and everything I have done is reversible, like in textile conservation – a regular source of inspiration to me.
Until I decided to stitch a few of the textiles, this project was more like a museum project – creating work inspired by but not using this collection and that’s been enjoyable and challenging for me. I’ve never done anything like this before, using a personal / family collection of treasures and stories which have huge importance as a group. I think find it particularly fascinating as I don’t actually have a family textile collection of my own. The museum / archive / stories aspect of this project has given me a lot to think about and a lot of reflection on my own future work in collaboration with museums, and maybe with other family collections.
This project forms part of my research and development for my new long-term creative work around evidence and absence, looking at histories and objects, movement and loss. I’m hoping to show the finished work in an exhibition next year. All along, I’ve been sharing the development of this work with my Maker Membership group over the last year or so, as an example of how I go from idea to finished work. This project has been particularly relevant to our earlier theme of Objects where I shared my experience of working in museums early in my career and now working with museums (and old things) as my inspiration. These resources are still accessible for all members of the group too. Find out more about membership here.
What family archives / textiles collections do you have? Do they inspire your creative work? Or don’t know where to start? I’m open to similar commissions with other family collections of textiles and clothing, it’s been so much fun to explore new ideas.
It’s been fascinating recently seeing smocking pop up in my Instagram feed. It feels like there’s been a flurry of new interest in this old technique recently.
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.
I first experimented with traditional English smocking for my book Fabric Manipulation, and of course, being me, did quite a bit of research too. With most of my textile history research, my focus is on learning the technique, seeing historical examples and then experimenting to understand it myself. I love to then break the rules, try new approaches and see where the technique takes me. A few years ago I was involved in an academic research project to explore how smocking might be revived in contemporary practice, could it be mechanised, how could it be adapted to make it easier. It was fascinating.
I used smocked fabric to create these two experimental pieces in concrete during my collaboration with Bethany Walker which remain some of my favourite works we created. We went on to use the ideas from this to create Urban Growth with a group of young people.
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 18th century 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.
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.
Part-worked smocking on light wool fabric, mid-Twentieth century
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.
Sewing 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.
As English 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 which explains the basic technique. Do join my mailing list to hear about any workshops or online classes in this technique, and also have a look at my Textile Study Space where I share textile technique snippets.
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.
My love of corded and stuffed quilting runs very deep. I first taught myself the technique about 15 years ago after seeing it used in 1930s couture garments at the V&A when I worked there. I later discovered the Tristan Quilt, a 14th century trapunto quilt, which is in the V&A but it wasn’t on display while I worked there. Over the last few years working as a professional artist / maker / tutor and writer of books, I have continued to explore trapunto / corded quilting as much as possible. I have covered the technique in basics in my first book Sew It Up, and then in much more detail in Fabric Manipulation. I have also taught the basics of the technique to hundreds of people, including for the last 10 years at Festival of Quilts. I’ve continued to research the technique by visiting museums and arranging store visits to see original pieces (mostly 18th century), and collected old quilting books which occasionally mention the technique. I have already created a very brief history of the technique which is online here, and have copies of the two main books on the subject, but there is much they don’t cover which I want to explore.
I’ve now received a small professional development grant from The Textile Society to take this research forward on 2020. I will be visiting museums, exploring online catalogues and reading books to create a list of corded & stuffed quilting in collections in the UK, and start working towards a book which will cover both the history and the contemporary practice of this wonderful, under-appreciated technique. If you have any examples in your personal collections or know of any in museums, please do get in touch.
The two photographs are my own pieces made for publications, inspired by historic examples. I will be teaching the techniques again at Festival of Quilts in 2020 and will be running a masterclass at some point in 2020-21 too. Please join my mailing list to be first to receive workshop and talk information.
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.
Criminal Quilts exhibition returns to Staffordshire from 25th May – 7th July at The Brampton Museum and Art Gallery, Newcastle-under-Lyme. The museum is free entry and is open Monday to Saturday – 10am to 5.30pm, Sunday – 2pm to 5.30pm, Bank Holidays 2pm – 5.30pm.
I will be giving a talk and tour at the museum on Wednesday 3rd July at 2pm.
This exhibition also includes the original criminal Quilts miniature pieces made for Staffordshire Arts and Museums service plus the new Prison Apron shown below.
Thread: Contemporary Textiles Exhibition At Rheged Art Centre
This exciting group exhibition of innovative and unusual textile work includes a group of my Precious Object tools.
The exhibition opens on Friday 3rd May and continues until Sunday 30th June. 10am – 5pm and free admission. There is a preview event on Thursday 2nd May, please contact me if you would like an invite to this.