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 event Textiles and Dress from Below: Ordinary and Everyday Textiles and Dress in Museums and Historic Houses looks at every day clothing and textiles across a broad spectrum. The event is open to all and tickets are £20
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.
This research will also be presented in the Criminal Quilts book to be published in August 2018
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!)
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.
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.
You are invited to join me at Staffordshire Record Office for the launch of a new phase of my project Criminal Quilts on Friday 8th September. Find out more, see artwork from 2012-2015 and explore the original archive photos.
My new exhibition Fragments is now open at Minerva Arts Centre, Llanidloes, Wales and continues until 16th September 2017.
The exhibition includes several new pieces of work inspired by quilt history and some older pieces which fit into the same theme including my paper quilt, the Criminal Quilts : Hanging and Star Quilt. The new work has developed from my research visit to see the quilts in February this year combined with my own collection of old and worn patchwork, plus at least a decade’s fascination with old quilts and their history.
Quilt Association collection
Two previous blog posts explore the process in more detail and all the pieces in the exhibition are described here.
This month’s Sew Sociable will be all about old textiles. I’ll be giving a talk about my love of antique textiles, about museum collections, about my own collection of textiles and how I take inspiration from them to create my own textile art. Anyone coming to the event is enthusiastically encouraged to bring along their own historic textile treasures to show to the others. I hope I’ll be able to to identify things, or at least tell the owners something about them, and offer advice on looking after them. I’ll also be bringing along books about antique textiles for you to browse.
What to bring?
Quilts, handkies, embroideries, tablecloths, vintage clothes, handbags, trimmings, haberdashery, old sewing books… anything textile related is welcome!
Sew Sociable October with Ruth Singer
Sew Sociable is a free monthly event for all stitchers. There are talks, events, activities, competitions and lovely food and drink in St Martins Tea & Coffee House, St Martin’s Square, Leicester city centre. Antique textile Sew Sociable takes place on Friday 17th October 7.30-10pm. The venue is easily accessible by train and bus for those coming from out of town, and there is parking nearby too. All welcome, even if you haven’t been before.
Details at Chateau Dumas
Dragon embroidery (collection of Ruth Singer)
Chinese embroidered bands
Silk handkerchief with label
Lace and ribbons