Apr 26

The big mend’s 4th birthday

 

 

 

 

It’s hard to believe that the monthly mending sewcials I kicked off in Bath four years ago are still going strong. We’ll be celebrating, true to form, with a spot of mending on Wednesday 27th April from 7-9pm.

Thanks to all the people who’ve come along to the Big Mend sessions over the years, especially those who have picked up the pieces and kept it going when I couldn’t (notably Alison, Annie, Su, Lizzie, Divya, Kathy and Hannah) and to the Museum of Bath at Work for generously allowing us use of their wonderful space every month without fail.

We must have repaired approximately 500-1000 garments and household textile items over the years, but have nurtured skills that must have saved many more textiles from the waste stream as the repair know-how has spidered out into local hands and households.

 

Alison busily repairing her backpack. #theBigMend #mending #patching #repair

A photo posted by Scrapiana (@scrapianagram) on

 

Why has it kept going? I can’t exactly say, but people seem to want it and to value its esprit de corps. The sessions, I’ve noticed, provide a contained space where the cultural norms of consumption, ‘fast fashion’ etc don’t apply. In contemplative, collaborative, purposeful activity, we sit and repair, share skills and news and put the world to rights. It feels like a very old activity – and it must be. I’ve just written a piece for Selvedge magazine (issue 70, May/June 2016, the Delicate issue) exploring some of the history of mending. For that, I included evidence of mending from antiquity, and even pre-history. And it makes sense that the act of repair must be about as old as the hills and as ancient as sewing itself. Because making and mending are like chicken and egg; when early man/woman first stitched a pelt together with sinew and thorn needle to make it stay on that little bit better (creating a ‘garment’ rather than just a piece of animal skin), was that not technically a repair? Or an upcycle, at least. Discuss.

 

 

What have we done? At the Big Mend, we’ve contemplated our place in the world and how we’re connected by a long thread to the people who make our clothes. We’ve considered what repair means to us – how it preserves objects that make us feel good, how it prolongs the wearable life of our clothing, how it demonstrates our resourcefulness. We’ve discussed whether we want our repairs to be visible – conspicuous even – or not and what wearing something with an evident repair says to others. We’ve made a stand against the brutality of ‘fast fashion’ – well, we’ve wandered around the city with our clothes inside out for Fashion Revolution Day and spoken to local people and retailers about inhuman factory conditions. Some of us have given up most of our clothing for a while to raise money for garment workers. We’ve planned a project to work with the city’s students on textile waste reduction (which, sadly, didn’t win funding) and taken part in numerous local open days and public-facing events. Now we tend to stick to the monthly meetings only, because we aren’t funded in any way, so the entire venture is one of generosity and open-handedness and has to be dovetailed in with our own demanding lives. I would do more, if I could afford to, but I can’t. However, the monthly session on the final Wednesday of the month is treated as sacred – not to be messed with unless medical emergency or a clash with Christmas absolutely prohibits it.

So, on we trundle. A fourth birthday sounds like a good opportunity for a game of Pass the Darning Mushroom or Musical Mannikins, but instead I’ve arranged for a visit from local tailor, Ben of City Tailors. He will be spilling the beans on some of his professional repair secrets. I’m looking forward to seeing some hard-won artisanal textile skills in practice – probably rather more deft and invisible than most of ours. Join us, if you can. Everyone is, as ever, very welcome to attend. All we ask is a small donation to help towards museum costs. So, please grab a tired textile to bring along and we’ll do our best to help you revive it.

 

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Jan 05

In with the old

 

IMG_7715

Floral scrap from a 1979 Sanderson furnishing cotton called ‘Border Incident’

 

Happy new year! You’ll find this a largely resolution-free, reflection-empty zone, which may come as some relief. It’s going to be a full-on 2016 for me, and I won’t have much time or opportunity for making. But I do need to carve out a little stitching in order to preserve my wellbeing. Rather than rushing headlong into something new, I’ve decided to finish some of the things I’ve already started. And this old hexagon patchwork quilt top is top of my list.

I started it, oh, twenty-something years ago, and can’t quite remember why the project lost steam – something to do with having children, perhaps…? Culled from 228 scraps (so far) of mostly vintage furnishing fabric (Sanderson etc) interspersed with rows of unbleached calico, it’s been packed away in three house-moves and lived deep inside a box for much of that time. I had it draped over one side of our sofa for a while (see below), the backing papers still basted in place around the edges, waiting patiently for the stalled process of precision tessellation to resume. And there it sat for another year or two. Well, enough’s enough; if this baby could talk, it would be crooning this little number at me.

 

IMG_5579

Slung for years over a sofa, unfinished

 

Those who’ve tried the very traditional method of English pieced patchwork (or EPP, also known as mosaic patchwork) can confirm that this kind of stitching is a slow and painstaking business. There’s no rushing it.  You have to take it just one piece at a time, cutting out your backing papers accurately, then covering each one with fabric, folding the edges over smartly to get those sharp, precise sides as you baste/tack them down in order to create the best possible fit between pieces. But joining each hexagon to its neighbour – seam by hand-stitched seam, two together with right sides facing – is simple and pleasantly mindless once you get going.

Or possibly mindful.

As more and more practitioners are pointing out, slow hand-sewing of seams brings its therapeutic rewards. Whipstitching hexagons together is a very absorbing, relaxing thing to do. For me, it works wonderfully to dispel anxiety and level my mood. And for those hung up on ‘wasting time’ (and who therefore might not go for a colouring book, say), EPP is ultimately a productive process too – if you ever get around to finishing whatever you’re making, that is…

It’s worth pointing out here that there is a certain leeway in the creative EPP process – it can be totally ‘hap’ and random: a pure product of the hand-stitched moment, joining piece to piece as you happen to pick them up. Or you can focus on a meticulous and fussy-cut result, carefully selecting fabric colour and design and pattern placement, forming your hexagons into clusters of rosettes etc – as I’ve tried to do here. 

Here’s the backstory. When I started this project, I wanted to create something that looked a couple of hundred years old – at a superficial glance, anyway. I was studying patchwork history at the time, and this kind of patchwork goes back to the earliest documented days of the English craft in the 18th century. This was also during IKEA’s ‘Chuck out your chintz’ period, so – because I’m perennially contrarian – I think I probably made this as a direct, defiant response. I don’t remember being influenced by any particular quilt, but by an amalgam of fabrics and 18th and 19th century styles. I wanted to convey something of that time when the new printed cottons were so treasured that your middle-class leisured lady patchworker would want to make the very most of every scrap and display each motif to optimum dazzling effect. And then I re-found my diary from 2011, with a distinctive V&A quilt on the cover which looks very, very similar to mine. But the diary was obviously produced many years after I’d started this quilt. It’s possible that I could have spotted the same one in a book somewhere and filed it away in my subconscious. Anyway, it was very spooky to note the similarity. There’s more about that particular quilt (which is dated 1797-1852) over on the V&A site.

Back to the business of finishing, as I said, I have 228 pieces joined together, including 19 seven-hexagon rosettes. I estimate that about 500 pieces will be needed in total (and another 20 or so rosettes) to create something close to a full-sized quilt top. I’m setting myself the goal of adding just one hexagon a day, which (at the moment) seems manageable. I’ll try to come back with periodic updates. There are more pictures of my quilt so far over on my Instagram feed.

What kind of unfinished craft business do you have lying around? What do you think prevents you from completing it? And what is stopping you from ditching it altogether? If you’d like to join me this year in completing something you started a while back, do leave a comment and, if relevant, a blog/social media link below. I’ll be happy to cheerlead and provide encouragement. 😀

IMG_7738

Floral motif (maker unknown) from my 25-year-old unfinished quilt top

 

 

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Dec 04

Gifts for stitchers

 

Spanish lace pins from Merchant & Mills

 

I’ve been collecting stocking-filler ideas to delight the enthusiastic stitcher in your life. What you choose will depend on the nature of the recipient’s stitching and crafting interests, the size of their stocking, plus the depth of your pocket. But I hope there’s something in here for everyone.

I won’t apologise for piling in with suggestions for buying new things (though not everything on this list is) because a) I always find these lists interesting when other people put them together, and b) I would argue that good sewing tools are a worthwhile investment and will make any creative efforts more effective – which can’t be a bad thing.

 

 

Under £5

 

  • Superior needles, such as these presented in a John James needle pebblehandy little ergonomic cases with needles geared for particular craft purposes and made by one of the best needle manufacturers in the world, established way back in 1840. They sell at a very reasonable £1.39 a pop too. Or you could break the bank, relatively, with these Merchant & Mills betweens that are packaged quaintly in a little stoppered bottle at £4 and are ideal for quilters.

 

 

Merchant & Mills betweens

 

Upcycled crockery buttons by SisterZart on Etsy

 

  • I reckon that a vintage darning mushroom, preferably showing the needle-scratched patina of years of previous repairs, will slip happily into the toe (or heel) of any stitcher’s Christmas stocking – though I may be biased. I have several to choose from for an unbeatably modest £5 each, so please get in touch with me if you’re interested and I’ll send you details of what’s available. I also have some choice, collectable specimen for a little more.

 

Darning mushrooms

 

  • Or how about these pretty Laine St. Pierre darning yarns by Sajou? Just £2.75 per card here from Loop, and such a wide and sumptuous colour choice makes moth-holes almost a pleasure to repair. Or they can simply be used for embroidery projects. 

 

Laine St. Pierre darning yarn by Sajou, available from Loop

 

  • Beeswax is an effective traditional thread conditioner meriting a place in any sewing box, and it’s especially good to have some in a pretty shape like this, though you should be able to find a no-frills, inexpensive bar of the stuff in your local hardware shop which will do the job just as well. For more details on how it’s used, read my old blog post (‘Waxing Lyrical’) over here.
  • Special pins. High quality pins, such as these extra-long glass-headed ones, should do down a treat (glass-headed ones are so much nicer to use and don’t melt when the iron accidentally touches them), or go for just about anything from the Merchant & Mills selection, though be warned that all but the black safety pins come in above the £5 mark. If your stitcher works with light, fine fabrics, some fine brass pins (which won’t mark the fabric) would be an excellent choice too.
  • Unusual stuffing materials, such as natural wool noil (there’s a UK supplier here) or ground walnut shells – with which to stuff pincushions etc – would make a thoughtful gift for someone who likes making those small items, or might want to make a pincushion for their own use. OK, so they are sotto voce gifts which might not elicit actual squeals of delight, but they’ll definitely be appreciated further down the road. Both of these fillings make excellent conditioners for needles and pins, gently cleaning, sharpening, and oiling them to keep them functioning optimally. If you want ground walnut shells, I can provide you with a packet for just £2.50 – please get in touch.
  • And finally, pretty Liberty lawn bias binding always comes in very handy for dressmakers etc. The one below is currently selling at £2.60 per metre.

Liberty bias binding from sewingbox.co.uk

 

Under £10

 

English Stamp Company

 

  • Medical forceps. Yes, this might seem like quite an odd one, but these medical/laboratory implements can be really handy for makers. This little pair of moschito forceps will hold something tight – rather like an extra hand – while you use your original two to sew.
  • Merchant & Mills‘ long and slender black entomology pins (£6) make a real statement (and work well for those fine fabrics too), as do their short, fiery, red-headed Spanish lace  pins (£8) shown at the top of this article, all the way from the oldest pin factory in Spain.
  • if you’re buying for someone who works on fiendishly small stuff, or whose eyes are going (like mine), these rather sinister steampunk magnifiers would make an unusual gift, and they’re currently selling at less than half price.

Above £10 (and all the way up to ouch…)

 

  • Ernest Wright scissorsthese stork embroidery ones are like stitcher’s catnip and will probably win you undying gratitude, if there is sufficient delivery time before Christmas (and be warned that leads on these can be long). But such is Ernest Wright’s exalted reputation that a promissory note might just do the trick (but make it decent pen and ink, for goodness’ sake!).  At £27.50, the price is admittedly ouchy, but these are fantastic implements by the last traditional scissor cutlers in Britain (based in Sheffield, of course) and should genuinely last a lifetime – they can be repaired and sharpened later down the road. I’d be absolutely thrilled with any of the Ernest Wright range, and am confident that any other stitcher would too. Ernest Wright will also give you old pair of scissors a complete overhaul for just £10. The scissors obviously have to be of a sufficient quality to begin with to make the expense and effort of a revamp worthwhile. I have been collecting together my shabby antique and vintage pairs for future renovation. Note that pinking shears are beyond their scope.

Classic Ernest Wright stork embroidery scissors

 

  • A bespoke rubber maker’s stamp at £24 from the English Stamp Company in Dorset (along with a stamp pad plus some really nice labels) would make a very welcome gift indeed. The English Stamp Co is a family business which has been making high-quality bespoke rubber stamps from its Dorset base since 1992.

English Stamp Company’s bespoke stamps

 

 

Silk threads from the Silk Mill

 

 

Silver pig pincushion from the Silk Mill

 

  • Or this Wallace Sewell mending kit from Ray Stitch.
  • Softtouch spring-loaded pinking shears. If your giftee likes making things that require an awful lot of cutting out (bunting, for example) then they should really appreciate these by Fiskars at about £22 – they’re extremely helpful for avoiding painful blisters and RSI, and they work equally well if you’re left-handed.
  • For something really unusual and purely decorative, Becca of Alterknitive makes gorgeous little maker’s sterling silver charm bracelets to order – just look at the crochet-hook closure, and the wee darning mushroom! If you want to spoil someone rotten, email Becca (beccaATalterknitiveDOTcoDOTuk) for further details.

 

Charms sold separately and include tiny darning mushroom

Individually crafted sterling silver maker’s charm bracelet from Alterknitive

 

So, that’s the end of my sewing eye-candy. I have not received any payment at all (in money or in kind) to mention any of these products – I place them in front of you out of honest admiration. In the end, you can’t beat the straightforward pleasure of using really good sewing tools, and listed above are some of the very best. If you have further suggestions to add to this list, I’d be delighted if you’d leave a comment. And may you, and the stitcher that you love, have a very merry and joyful Christmas and a highly creative 2016!

 

 

 

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Dec 02

Kintsugi at the Pitt Rivers Museum

 

I posted about kintsugi (literally ‘gold join’ or ‘golden joinery’) a couple of years back and wanted to share this lovely film made for the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford  – which, if you haven’t visited, is an absolute treasure house packed with the most extraordinary cultural artefacts. It’s well worth a special trip.

It’s wonderful to watch these beautiful repairs being worked by skilled Japanese craftsmen, seeing how they use processed tree sap and gold dust to create the join. In fact, while glitter is being applied by fractious toddlers (and likely their even more fractious parents) to a gazillion Christmas cards worldwide, it strikes me that this calm little film makes the perfect Advent antidote to the season’s relentless juggernaut. Maybe one of the Wise Men brought kintsugi know-how along along with his gold from the Orient for the Christ Child…? I know, that would be an anachronism, because kintsugi is only a few hundred years old, but it’s a very nice thought.

What if we considered giving the gift of repair this Christmas? We could offer to repair something treasured for someone, instead of buying something new…? Or give the gift of mending in another way? – a beautiful darning kit, for example. Or possibly by spending time with someone who is themselves a little broken. 

I’d love to have a go at this myself. Would epoxy glue and a little gold powder paint do the trick…? Have you attempted repairs on crockery or ceramics? If so, how did it go? 

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Oct 28

Jeans patch tutorial

 

 

My instructions for working this jeans knee patch technique have just gone up on the Sewing Directory site over here.

It’s a ‘tidy’ repair and so might not be to everybody’s taste. But here’s my elevator pitch. Mending, in general, offers bite-sized opportunities to test out a variety of needlework techniques. This repair is a great way to practise how to control a smoothly curved edge which is well worth mastering. Curve control is a type of fabric manipulation that’s used a lot in dressmaking (creating armholes, necklines etc) and in all kinds of other sewing projects (toy-making, soft furnishings etc), so it’ll stand you in good stead.

 

 

In technical sewing jargon, this is also an example of ‘reverse appliqué‘ – because the patch goes beneath the damaged area rather than on top of it. So, you neaten the worn area and turn it into a kind of window, behind which your patch sits.  This repair is worked by hand, because it tends to be tricky to get a sewing machine into the restricted area of a jeans leg and (to my thinking, anyway) isn’t really worth the fuss of getting your machine out. But it doesn’t take very long to work, so please have a go. You should find that the resulting patch is smooth against the skin and comfortable to wear, while also feeling robust and secure. And if you try it and like it, then please come back and let me know! 

 

DH's jeans finally get patched. #mending #mendingpile #patch #denim #jeans #bankholiday

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Oct 15

Spiced apple cake

 

Apple+cinnamon+walnut+cardamom+sesame cake. #gardenapples #speltflour #spelt #comfortfood #autumnbaking

A photo posted by Scrapiana (@scrapianagram) on

 

It’s at about this time every year (mid-October) that the eating apples I lovingly picked from the garden tree back in August or September start to become a nuisance. Now shrivelling and/or rotting in little yellow heaps around the kitchen, they are attracting fruit flies and exuding the vague waft of ethanol decay around the house.

But, before jettisoning the wizened lot to the compost heap, this spectacular and comforting autumnal apple cake is the perfect use for at least some of them. I found the parent recipe in one of the Moosewood cookbooks about 15 years ago, and have experimented a little over the years with both the ingredients and the method. I love the use of warming cardamom as well as the more conventional cinnamon to spice the apples, and the fact that the cake is crispy on the outside (thanks to a sesame seed crust) and really succulent on the inside (the apples and oil see to that). I’ve chosen to use spelt for the less gluten-tolerant, but any general purpose flour will do. Sunflower oil is both an economic fat and also makes that ‘cream fat and sugar’ stage really quick and easy. An electric mixer is helpful; though it’s possible to work this by hand, but your cake probably won’t be quite as light. Peeling, coring and chopping the apples can take a while, but you can do that a day ahead and refrigerate your apple/spice mix until you have time to use it.

 

Apple cake to be. #bundtcake #caketin #sesameseeds #applecake #bakeyourgarden #autumnbaking #funnel

A photo posted by Scrapiana (@scrapianagram) on

Ingredients

  • 6 or 7 (500g) small eating apples – the average garden eating apple is perfect – equivalent to 3 cups of chopped apple
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 4 or 5 green cardamom pods, equivalent to 1/4 teaspoon of ground cardamom
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 375g (3 cups) spelt flour
  • 1 teaspooon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 400g (2 cups) brown sugar 
  • 350ml sunflower oil
  • 3 eggs
  • 100g (1 cup) walnuts (or you could use pecans, almonds etc)
  • 3 tablespoons apple juice (or milk or water)
  • 1 teaspoon of butter (or a dollop of vegetable oil) for greasing your tin
  • 3 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • icing sugar with a little cinnamon added, to dust finished cake (optional)

 

Apple cake. #applecake #apples #gardenapples #lowfoodmiles #cinnamon #cardamom #spices

A photo posted by Scrapiana (@scrapianagram) on

 

Method

  1. Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees.
  2. Grease a 10″ bundt tin and scatter sesame seeds in the bottom, turning the tin until the seeds have all stuck. Set aside.
  3. Peel, core and chop the apples, placing them in a medium-sized bowl as you go.
  4. Grind the cardamom pods in a mortar and pestle, discarding the husks.
  5. Add the spices and vanilla to the apples and stir. At this point, you can cover with cling-film and store for a day, if need be.
  6. Sift together the flour, baking powder and bicarb into a medium bowl.
  7. Place sugar and oil into the bowl of mixer and beat until creamy. Don’t worry if it doesn’t get creamy – just ensure that you give it a good couple of minutes of vigorous beating as it’s this stage that’ll give lightness to your eventual cake.
  8. Now add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each.
  9. Add the flour mixture, just mixing until it’s all incorporated (this is when you don’t want to knock out all that air you’ve just worked in…).
  10. Add the apple juice (or equivalent).
  11. Fold in the apples and walnuts.
  12. Dollop your mix into prepared tin and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or till a knife/skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.
  13. Allow to cool 15 minutes in the tin before turning out onto a rack to cool; it will be heavy so move it with care.
  14. When cool (if you can wait that long…), move your apple cake to a cake plate and sprinkle with cinnamon icing sugar before serving.

 

 

 

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Aug 27

A nifty fifty

 

There’s no getting away from it. I’m 50. Well, how on earth did that happen…?

I’ve rounded the corner and am most definitely vintage now: absolutely midway between BNWT (that’s ‘brand new with tags’) and antique. But I’m holding up pretty well, though I say so myself. If I had to grade my condition as an antiquarian book, I might flatter myself with a VG (very good): my spine is still straight, nobody has scribbled on me, but I’m looking a little careworn, my edges bumped. You don’t live this long without collecting a few knocks.

There seem to be several approaches to facing these bigger, rounder numbers which I’ll summarise as:

( Read more )

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Apr 14

How I gave up clothing

 

 

Six Items Challenge

My Six Items Challenge

 

A really big thank-you to all who sponsored me to give up most of my wardrobe for the Six Items Challenge, a ‘fashion fast’ for Lent. You raised a rather wonderful £114.31 for Labour Behind the Label, an organisation working hard to highlight the perils of fast fashion. So thank you. Over on my Instagram feed I’ve posted a few rather monotonous pictures charting what I wore: @Scrapianagram. If you thought about sponsoring me but didn’t get around to it, there’s still time.  And it’s for a tremendous cause. Here’s the link.

 

What is fast fashion?

The Six Items Challenge is an annual event organised by Labour Behind the Label to highlight the problem of ‘fast fashion‘. And what a problem it is. Our increasing reliance on cheap clothing makes it almost a disposable commodity – we can afford to wear this stuff once and pitch it, not even bothering to to give it a wash. One of the hidden impacts of such cheap clothing is the meagre earnings of many garment workers worldwide, living on so little (£1.50 a day isn’t unusual) that they don’t have sufficient money even to eat properly, let alone clothe themselves – oh, the irony. Organisations such as Labour Behind the Label help garment workers worldwide gain fair conditions and a living wage.

 

Why did I take on this fashion fast?

Well, it was the least I could do, really. Coping with a pared-down wardrobe from Ash Wednesday till Easter isn’t a major deprivation. It wasn’t as if I was committing to working a 100-hour week. Or earning £1.50 a day. Or starving. I hoped to challenge myself, and to help raise a little awareness, maybe.

 

How did I feel about this before I began?

Honestly? As a relatively pampered Westerner, I was quite daunted by the prospect of limiting my wardrobe to just six essential pieces, excluding underwear, accessories, sleepwear, performance sportswear etc. It seemed so restrictive. I anticipated feeling hemmed in. I expected to find it difficult, to fantasise about what else I might be wearing. I thought I’d miss my jeans. I imagined I’d run into personal hygiene problems. Yes, the prospect didn’t exactly fill me with joyful anticipation. Who on earth enjoys giving anything up anyway? We all want more, right? Why am I even doing this with problems of my own? Charity begins at home and all that. That’s pretty much how I felt.

 

So, what was it actually like?

Well, the 6 weeks were full of surprises.

( Read more )

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Apr 13

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched!

 

 

The American Museum

The American Museum wakes up for another season

 

‘Hatches, matches and dispatches’ is old newspaper slang for the births, marriages and deaths columns. You’ll also hear it used to refer to baptisms, weddings and funerals, the corresponding services offered by the Church. Now the American Museum in Britain, located idyllically on the southern outskirts of Bath, has tweaked the term for its latest exhibition, Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched! This exhibition, which runs through the year until 1st November 2015, brings together textile artefacts interwoven with life’s great rites of passage. And, as plenty of those textile items have been created using patchwork (and the museum has a fine permanent quilt collection), that’s where the ‘patched’ comes in.

Some artefacts have also been borrowed from exhibition partners the Beamish Museum, Jersey Museum and Art Gallery, the Quilters’ Guild, and Jen Jones’ collection in Wales, and so the sourcing reflects a mixed provenance from both the United States and the British Isles. But it’s the cross-cultural universality of the human condition which draws them all together, and there are plenty of poignant human-interest stories behind these objects, as curator Kate Hebert explains: ‘the personal and sentimental connections, the stories of the individuals that are linked with these objects, are what I have found so moving.’

I went along for the press launch early last month when spring was still struggling to assert itself and the banks of daffodils were only just beginning to open outside in the beautiful grounds. But there was plenty of stitched brightness and vitality to view within the exhibition. Here’s a taste of what I saw.

 

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched - & Patched!

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched! poster

Glad rags

Life’s big milestones are usually associated with looking your best,  so it makes sense that many of the textile objects featured in the exhibition are items of clothing (a subject I was possibly over-engaged with when I attended as I was in the middle of a ‘fashion fast’ – more of that in another post). Christening gowns, christening bonnets, baby slippers, bridal gowns and shoes, black clothes worn when an official period of mourning was enforced, even clothing worn by the dead to be buried in – modern day grave goods, you might call them – feature here.

The displays are subdivided into three grouped sections (‘Hatched’, ‘Matched’ and ‘Dispatched’), but I’ll dot back and forth between them for this post.

In the ‘Hatched’ section cascades of handmade broderie anglaise in a row of Christening gowns caught my eye. The christening gown took over when swaddling fell out of favour in the eighteenth century. Then gowns became longer and longer, an opportunity to display one’s wealth and status in the finest detail, all located at the front, of course, where it could be shown off. In a cabinet of baby bonnets, I spotted a cap with the tiniest imaginable white French knots – alas, my phone wasn’t up to capturing them. I was also drawn to a pair of 1930s silk baby slippers with padded soles worked very effectively in a hatched trapunto pattern of quilting, using coloured yarns which were just visible through the silk.

 

Christening robe, c. 1890 c/o Jersey Museum

Christening robe, c. 1890 c/o Jersey Museum

 

One of the wedding dresses on display was worn in 1887 by Agnes Lucy Hughes, the first mother-in-law of Wallis Simpson.  But most eye-catching is the daffodil dress (see below) embroidered by Henriette Leonard for inclusion in her bridal trousseau around 1892. Tragically, Henriette died before she was able to wear it; her brother persuaded her to take a tour of Europe shortly before her wedding, and during the trip she took ill with the flu allied with ‘nervous exhaustion’ and died. The pristine condition of the dress suggests that it was never worn and got packed away as a family memento.

Daffodil dress. Image c/o The American Museum

Daffodil dress. Photo credit: the American Museum

 

Sad rags

In the ‘Dispatched’ section there’s quite a bit of mourning garb, much of it nineteenth century and frequently featuring jet. As a Victorian female mourner observing a strict code of mourning etiquette, your yards of black crepe would be held together in part by ‘jet pins’ (actually ‘japanned’ or enamelled metal) so as not to allow the unseemly glint of frivolous silver caused by a regular steel pin.

Jet pins

Jet pins

 

Strict observance of an official mourning regime in Britain appears to have been relaxed during the Great War. Then the massive death toll in the trenches would have required so many to wear mourning garb that civilian morale would have been too sorely tested.

There’s a tradition in Wales of knitting stockings to be worn after death. Similarly, some women quilted skirts to be buried in. The late nineteenth century Welsh skirt below is a rare survival, made by two sisters who somehow left it behind when they moved house.

 

Welsh quilted burial skirt, nineteenth century, courtesy of Jen Jones

Welsh quilted burial skirt, nineteenth century, courtesy of Jen Jones

Quilts

Finely detailed items to adorn the home have often been made in response to a birth, stitched by a young woman in anticipation of her marriage, or by a mourning widow to mark the sorrowful departure of her life’s partner. The American Museum is justly famous for its quilt collection, and you get a chance to see a few of their gems showcased here in this exhibition.

 

Ellen Bryant's 1863 log cabin quilt

Ellen Bryant’s 1863 log cabin quilt

 

One of my favourites is the stunning log cabin top shown above, pieced around 1863 by Ellen Bryant in  preparation for her marriage in Londonderry, Vermont.  Over three hundred log cabin blocks (each 4 and a half inches square) have been arranged in a variation known as ‘barn raising’ or ‘sunshine and shadow’. This eye-popping quilt has an even more intricately pieced backing created by Ellen’s sister, not finished until 1886. Evidently the resulting quilt – a sororal labour of love – took over two decades to complete.

And another favourite from the permanent collection is the Christmas bride. The appliqued holly leaves have faded over the years, as greens tend to do, but the red berries and festoons remain surprisingly bright. Insider tip: you may still be able to find a tea towel bearing this design in the museum shop.

 

Christmas Bridge appliqued quilt

Christmas Bride appliqued quilt

 

With my interest in mending, I was glad to see Bertha Mitchell’s quilt, made from dress and furnishing fabrics to celebrate her sister’s wedding in 1899. Bertha worked as a seamstress, repairing clothes in Keswick Boarding School.  You’ll find a close-up picture of that quilt over on my Instagram feed.

A very special cot quilt is featured here, on loan from the Quilters’ Guild, but unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of it. It’s the earliest piece on display (1700-10) and is a white, whole-cloth quilt, densely quilted by hand.

There are also a few mourning or memorial quilts on display, a couple dating from the American Civil War era (see ‘Darts of Death’ on my Instagram feed).

 

Poignant needle

And then there was possibly the most moving item of all, a simple embroidered tablecloth – its very ordinariness adding to its poignancy. The signatures of female friends and American servicemen stationed at Cheltenham during the months leading up to D-Day are partly embroidered. But some remain in the pencil. Helen Slater, the embroiderer, was working them in a variety of bright colours, but she stopped part way through one signature, and her needle remains lodged in the fabric. She couldn’t bring herself to finish the project after she heard that her fiancé, Jack Carpenter (his name embroidered in red) had been killed in action. She put the cloth away with a book (The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) that he’d given her just before he left for the D-Day landings, and she cherished them both for 70 years until her own death.

Embroidered tablecloth, World War II

Embroidered tablecloth, World War II

Postpartum pincushions

I like a nice pin or several and so made a beeline for a couple of exhibits featuring pins. For the diehard haberdashery enthusiast, besides the jet pins mentioned above there’s the museum’s own 1821 baby-welcoming pincushion made of silk and steel pins. This pincushion, which has just been restored (the silk had shredded and the stuffing been lost), reminded me of a couple in the 2010 V&A exhibition of quilts, though those were dated a little earlier. Pincushions with elaborate patterns and phrases marked out with pinheads were popular gifts for new mothers. However, it was considered bad luck to gift such a pincushion before the birth, as that might sharpen the pains of labour. The museum notes explain that in colonial New York, births were announced by hanging pincushions on door knockers – a practice which apparently fell out of favour after the safety pin was invented in 1878.

Welcome little stranger pin cushion

‘Welcome little stranger’ pin cushion

 

Tonsorial textiles

Grim though they might sound to us today, mourning rings made from the deceased’s hair were popular on both sides of the Atlantic during the nineteenth century. The eagle-eyed visitor to this exhibition will spot fascinatingly intricate rings and brooches delicately woven from human hair. I didn’t get a good shot of them, sadly, as that part of the exhibition was dark, but do look out for the rings ingeniously formed to resemble tiny buckled belts.

There’s a lot more to see than I can show you here, but you can find a few more images over on my Instagram feed. And let’s not forget the person who put it all together: Kate Hebert, new in post as the American Museum’s curator. Congratulations, Kate!

Curator Kate Hebert

Curator Kate Hebert

 

Finally, a quick update on last year’s immensely popular Kaffe Fassett exhibition. I’m reliably informed that there is now a permanent Kaffe boutique at the museum, so whenever you time your visit you can always get your fix.

 

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched! runs till 1st November 2015 at the American Museum in Britain, Claverton Manor.  There will be a talk by Edwina Ehrman, Curator of Fashion & Textiles at  the Victoria & Albert Museum, this Thursday 16th April 2015. Check out the museum’s website for other associated events.

Running alongside this exhibition is Spirit Hawk Eye, a celebration of American native culture through the portraits of Heidi Laughton.

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Feb 18

Giving things up

 

 

 

Today is Ash Wednesday and I’m fully embracing the give-something-up for Lent concept this year. As a slightly rusty Anglican, I really appreciate this opportunity afforded by the Church calendar for a period of quiet reflection. So, to cut to the chase, I’ve decided to give up two things: most of my wardrobe, and social media for the next 40-odd days.

Six Items Challenge

From today, I’ll be on Labour Behind the Label‘s Six Items Challenge for the next six weeks. This is a ‘fashion fast’ to draw attention to the perils of fast fashion. I certainly have plenty of clothing in my wardrobe that I don’t wear. How much clothing do we all really need anyway? What does ‘fashion’ mean to me? Is the 4-6 week fashion cycle one that I care about or have any relationship at all with? Do I like or care for what’s ‘bang on trend’? Do I want people to live and work in terrible conditions to supply me with cheap, disposable clothing that’s ‘bang on trend’? All these questions are ones that I’ll be thinking about over the next few weeks while on the Six Items Challenge.

Taking part means that I’ll have to stick to a basic wardrobe of just six garments, not including underwear, accessories, or high-performance sportswear. I’ve found simply preparing for the challenge challenging enough; picking out my essential wardrobe has been tricky. I somehow resisted the sartorial advice of my 15-year-old son to purchase myself six onesies and have instead selected:-

  • 3 cashmere tops, one grey, one black, one red (all bought secondhand a while back)
  • 2 wool pinafore-type tunic over-dresses, both black (both sourced secondhand a while back, again), and
  • a wool cardigan (bought new several years ago), grey with giant comedy buttons
My only six garments for the next six weeks

Only six garments for the next six weeks

 

I’ll be going without, but all that cashmere is hardly hair-shirt. It should feel soft and non-irritating against my skin and hopefully keep me warm enough (I was warned by a previous year’s challengee that things can get chilly). The pinafore-type dresses mean that I can layer up, and wear a variety of tights underneath, hopefully allowing me to dress up or down to suit the occasion. I can ring the changes and jazz up a rather neutral palette with various accessories too. And the cardigan will hopefully keep making me smile – those buttons are enormous and very silly. The laundry element of the challenge scares me more than slightly; if you happen to see me IRL over the next few weeks, please approach with caution, and possibly with a fragrant nosegay to hand. I can well imagine quite rapidly resorting to this kind of thing. But let’s hope not.

If you’re intrigued, would like to know more, and possibly join me (which would be wonderful), here’s the link to challenge page. You don’t have to do it for the entire six weeks. Adjust to fit.

If you’re feeling flush, then it would be great if you’d sponsor me. I didn’t realise until I’d already signed up that there’s a sponsorship element to the challenge. I don’t anticipate getting anywhere near my £500 target, but it would be really good to be able to help Labour Behind the Label with their sterling work empowering garment workers around the globe – standing up for the victims of not just Rana Plaza but so many other appallingly exploitative situations. I’m hugely grateful to those who have already stepped up to the mark and helped me to help them. Thank you so much.

I must flag up online friends taking part, particularly Catherine Hopkins who’ll be reporting on her progress throughout.  You can keep tabs on the challenge on social media by looking out for the hashtags #sixitemschallenge and #labourbehindthelabel. You’ll also find things posted on the Six Items Challenge Facebook page.

And Labour Behind the Label’s Fundraising Director, Rebecca Cork, will be joining us at the next meet-up of the Big Mend at the Museum of Bath at Work next week, Wednesday 25th February from 7pm. So if you’re in Bath, please come along to hear a little about what Labour Behind the Label does. Then we’ll be mending, as usual. No need to book and no charge, though a small donation to help towards museum costs is welcomed.

Sponsorship page

My sponsorship page

 

 

Farewell, Social Media

After a discussion with some Christian friends the other night about what we’d all be giving up (or possibly taking up, or doing differently) for Lent, it occurred to me that the thing that would really give me withdrawal symptoms was probably not abstinence from tea, coffee, alcohol or chocolate but social media. And so, with not a little irony (as we are just entering the Chinese Year of the Sheep), I’ve decided that from today I will cease from public bleating. I will not be blogging, micro-blogging, posting, reposting, tweeting, retweeting, sharing, over-sharing, tagging, hashtagging, rehashtagging, artfully filtering photos, liking, linking, commenting, hearting, poking, pinning or replying for the next six weeks. Instead, I’ll be doing everything IRL and one-to-one, mostly in the flesh: meeting up with friends and family in person, catching up on the phone (remember that?), having proper conversations, reading books, doing any necessary shopping in bricks-and-mortar shops, watching movies, attending services, mending (including at the Museum of Bath at Work on 25th February – do join me if you happen to be around), gardening, engaging, exploring, planting, thinking, meditating, walking, contemplating, writing and working very, very hard. But no more of the Penn Broadcasting Company. No more glib narcissism. I hope to be more generally on receive than transmit. In short, I shall be hunkering down and keeping mum. Enjoying the quiet. I’m just sorry that this coincides with when I might be tweeting etc in support of Labour Behind the Label’s challenge, but I’m sure they’ll understand. I’m happy to engage in email correspondence, so if you have reason to get in touch then please do so.

Roll on Saturday 4th April. And wish me luck.

Buttoning up for the foreseeable

Buttoning up for the foreseeable

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