Category: Textile history

Mar 28

Shaping Victorian Bath

 

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I’m late plugging this, but you may be interested in a story I dug up and wrote that was happily featured on the front cover of March 2017’s The Bath Magazine. It recalls what you might call a Victorian corset entrepreneur, a German emigré named Charles Bayer, and the factory he built in Bath 125 years ago. Originally called the ‘Albion Stay Factory‘*, it was a huge success and helped turn around the city’s then slightly dwindling fortunes.

The monumental Bayer building still stands on South Quay, not too far from the railway station. So, if you’re interested in garment history and happen to be in Bath, do wander down and take a look at it – at least from the outside; it’s still occupied by businesses today – though none of the garment-making variety, as far as I know.

And if you happen to be a Bathonian and worked in (or know/knew someone who worked in) the old corset factory, then the Museum of Bath at Work would be delighted to hear from you. The factory closed 35 years ago  (1982), producing foundation underwear right up until the very end, and the museum is collecting and recording recollections of former Bath garment workers as part of its ongoing oral history project.

My grateful thanks to the wonderfully helpful local historian at Bath Central Library (which is currently at the centre of a campaign to keep it in the purpose-built location that so many Bath residents know and love) for digging out a load of old press clippings for me – plus the 1930s brochure mentioned in the article – and also to the Fashion Museum, Bath for allowing me to study a handful of WW1-era Bayer corsets that they happen to have in their collection – which will have to wait for another post to get their airing.

Anyway, here’s the article. Enjoy!

 

*on the eve of the triggering of Article 50 and Britain’s imminent departure from Europe, that’ll be my wistfully subtle Brexit link for this post

 

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Jan 02

American embossed wooden thread reels

 

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The Museum of Haberdashery* –  a virtual, crowd-sourced collection of sewing equipment – needs your help. What do you know about embossed wooden thread reels?

I believe that all these North American (mostly) silk reels date from the earlier part of the 20th century. The brands include some of the biggest names in North American silk thread production: Belding, Corticelli, Richardson, Coats, Clark’s (in various guises and partnerships). What they all have in common is that their reels have embossed, dyed ends rather than gummed paper labels. If you can help at all with the questions below, please do leave a comment.

 

Q1. Were embossed labels a particularly North American phenomenon? 

Q2. When and where was factory-embossing of wood introduced? 

Q3. Was embossing reserved mainly for silk thread reels?

 

It would make sense that the same or very similar technology would have been used for other wooden items such as pencils, rulers etc too. Did thread companies ever employ other companies to emboss reels for them? I’m wondering how expensive the process was, particularly in comparison with gummed labels? It would appear to have denoted a premium product – and would have carried the distinct benefit of never detaching from the reel, so there would have been some branding advantage there. From an online conversation with textile artist Hannah Lamb, I understand that silk producer Lister’s in Bradford, UK, decided to invest in such embossing technology, but I haven’t yet discovered further details. I’d be delighted if you would disclose more here, Hannah, if you could bear to!

So, any enlightenment or thoughts you can offer, fellow antique thread enthusiasts, would be really wonderful. Thank you in advance. And may I take this chance to wish you a very happy new year?  Here’s a close up of one of the more obscure reels in this selection, produced by Berkshire and Becket, a Massachusetts thread company, and featuring the wonderful slogan ‘Bountiful & Better’. Here’s hoping for a bountiful and better 2017!

 

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* You’re warmly invited to use the hashtag #museumofhaberdashery on social media to share you own sewing collection or interesting sewing-related items you’ve spotted on your travels

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May 20

Undressed: a brief history of underwear

 

 

 

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Undressed: a brief history of underwear exhibition at the V&A

 

Undressed: a brief history of underwear is this year’s big fashion show at the V&A. Curated by Edwina Ehrman and sponsored by luxury lingerie maker Agent Provocateur plus make-up producer Revlon, it explores men and women’s undergarments from around 1750 to the present.

Displayed thematically alongside images from the V&A’s extensive archive, the exhibition charts notions of the intimate and private, the healthy and hygienic, the advance of materials and their mastery, and the curious structural re-shaping of the body that has taken place over the past 250 years or so. That covers quite a range of emphatically gendered female silhouettes, from the stately panniered court dresses of the eighteenth century through the exaggerated hourglass figures of the corseted Victorian and Edwardian eras, the flat-chested androgyny of the 1920s to the conical bosoms of the 1950s. Men’s underwear has changed less dramatically over that time, as (by and large) men’s private layers were designed for comfort, not the radical alteration of physiology.

I spent three hours yesterday poring over the exhibition with as great an attention to detail as I could muster. Photography is strictly not allowed there, which is wonderfully good discipline in that it forces you to really look closely and observe – though it’s undoubtedly frustrating when you have a blog post to illustrate. 

What struck me right away was how the prosaically personal and the fantastically erotic rub shoulders; there is underwear here that is worn quite unselfconsciously, and then there’s ‘private’ wear that is worn to be seen in. In the former category are the simple, functional body-covering shifts or chemises made from linen (and later cotton), the direct descendants of medieval base garments; the shift’s function was to provide a protective, comfortable layer between body and outer, non-washable clothing. And it needed to stand up well to a boil-wash – the presence of embroidered initials remind us that these items would receive the attentions of a professional laundress. Lingerie, as it developed in the twentieth century into flimsy silk and lace concoctions, provides an example of the second type of underwear, worn with display very much in mind.

And the second thing that struck me was the advance of technology through the centuries. Underwear has represented serious engineering kit requiring earnest hardware: hooks, eyelets, buttons, strings, whalebones, busks, pins, horsehair pads, metal hoops, elastic panels and more, to contain, attach, raise, lower, restrain, shape, frame, bulk out and sculpt the body. You wouldn’t want any of this to give out on you at a critical moment – a wardrobe failure representing a kind of social death, if not a literal one; a few very unfortunate women did actually meet their maker wearing unwisely voluminous crinolines, though many more must have accidentally displayed their drawers (and blushes) to the world sitting down a little carelessly. 

 

What I really liked…

My personal highlights included:

Stays  – the forerunner of the corset and such beautiful things. The exhibition includes several examples such as a very ‘real’ rough-and-ready pair worn by of a working woman from Whitby – complete with pin hidden inside one panel (just visible on an accompanying x-ray). And also busks – made of wood or bone – which would have kept the centre front straight and rigid. These were often personalised with carving and would have been given as love tokens – appropriately, lying close (as they did literally) to the wearer’s heart.

Men’s shirts – these were considered ‘underwear’ in the eighteenth century because worn next to the skin. Indeed, it would have been considered indecent to show one’s shirt sleeves in public. And that fact alone provides the perfect excuse to view this scene again with a renewed sense of its Regency shock-value (though Darcy’s lake swim was a BBC elaboration and not included in Jane Austen’s original book).

Maternity gear – there were some great examples of how women managed pregnancy and breastfeeding while retaining the various fashionable lines of the nineteenth century. For example, there’s an 1820s empire line day dress with slits in the bodice to allow breastfeeding, plus a 1900 maternity corset with side-lacing to accommodate a growing belly, and poppered openings to enable infant feeding.

Rear view – several items illustrated that exaggeration of the bottom in the form of the bustle, back when a woman would presumably have asked her friend: ‘Does my bum look big enough in this?’. If not, the answer might well have been the lightweight and collapsible Keelapso bustle, which is illustrated in the exhibition by a delightful contemporary advert, or a striking black-and-white striped cotton crinolette with a scalloped black braid edge – quite beautiful enough to wear as an outer garment today by someone bold enough. You’ll find it, featured in detail in Eleri Lynn’s Fashion in Detail (see below).

Rational dress – women’s growing activity in the later nineteenth century led to the advent of various items of ‘sportswear’, including specialist corsets for riding, cycling and golf (which were sometimes a little shorter and made of more robust materials) as well as the rise of the bloomer. 

Jaeger – founded in 1884,  Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System Co Ltd ushered in a craze for wearing wool next to the skin, on the grounds that animal fibre was superior to plant matter, cotton being the default textile for underwear at this time. Wool underwear was favoured by many explorers, including Ernest Shackleton. George Bernard Shaw (GBS) was a big fan too; his Jaeger wool undershirt is included in the exhibition, alongside a picture of him in his Jaeger combinations.

Corsets – often with impossibly tiny waists, and in sumptuous colours and fabrics. I really appreciated the hand-stitched corded quilting on an an early (1825) version. The fuchsia corset on the front of the exhibition catalogue (below) illustrates the two-part front-fastening busk, first introduced in the 1820s, an advance that allowed women to dress unaided for the first time – before that, you needed someone else to lace you up. Curious to think that putting on your clothing before that (at least, for women) had to be a collaborative act. 

 

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Undressed – image from the exhibition poster and catalogue

 

The advance of materials – periodically, new materials have revolutionised how underwear works. Nylon, for instance, made it easy to wash and quick to  dry – and did not require any ironing. And the advent of Lycra in the 1950s made a huge difference to what structural garments could achieve. Hello girdle!

If I had any quibble with this show, it was that I found some of the contemporary inclusions alongside the historical garments slightly arbitrary. I would, for example, rather have seen display space in the early cabinets devoted to more of the deep historical stuff (more shifts, more stays, more busks and some jumps, maybe) than a selection of contemporary bamboo knickers featuring days of the week; these might instead have been grouped into a section illustrating the growth of ethically produced, sustainable underwear in the modern era.

I really like to view things in the order that the curator/s intended, so found the large print accompanying spiral-bound guide (free to use within the exhibition) very helpful and would recommend that any visitor takes that round with them.

 

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Victorian advert for a collapsing bustle

 

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London until 12th March 2017. Entry standard price: £12. Accompanying catalogue: £10. 

Underwear: Fashion in Detail by Eleri Lynn (first published 2010),  a wonderful book featuring 120 objects from the V&A’s collection, is available at a special exhibition discount (£20, down from the usual £25). 

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Jan 05

In with the old

 

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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.

 

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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. 😀

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

 

 

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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.

 

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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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Mar 30

Swaddling bands

 

 

For Mother’s Day, and at the end of Museum Week, I bring you a vision of babes past c/o the V&A which I visited Friday.

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Italian swaddling band in the V&A

 

This Italian swaddling band, dated 1600-1625, is made of linen with an embroidered cutwork border. Its display card offered some almost contemporary (1671) advice to mothers and nurses on how best to dress newborn babies c/o midwife Jane Sharp: ‘lay the arms right down by the sides’, and then wrap them in bands of cloth ‘that they might grow straight’.

 

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C17th Italian swaddling band, V&A

 

Leafing through my trusty Shorter Oxford English Dictionary I find that swaddle is first found in Old English as a noun for a length of bandage used to wrap an infant. The verb swaddle followed in Middle English. I’m not sure if it helps them grow straight, but very small babies do seem to enjoy the restriction of being tightly bundled. Perhaps it reminds them of the cramped conditions they left behind in the womb?

If you’re counting back from the Feast of Christmas, Mothering Sunday (the 4th Sunday in Lent) often falls around the the Feast of the Annunciation (25th March). And, still in the V&A, my eye fell on this rather comical painted and gilded oak sculpture representing my favourite archangel, Gabriel.

 

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C15th oak Angel Gabriel in the V&A

 

The display card explained that he’s from Northern France, dated 1415-50, and probably comes from an altarpiece. His orientation is unusual because ‘Gabriel usually approaches from the left’. I’ve never noticed the left-ness of Gabriel’s approach to Mary in fine art but will look out for it from now on. He does look a little hesitant (a bit like the apologetic demeanour of the vicar in BBC’s Rev. series which, I’m pleased to note, is now back on our screens). Gabriel is, incidentally, the patron saint of journalists and communicators, and this Gabriel looks like he understands only too well the concept of shooting the messenger.

 

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French C15th oak Gabriel in the V&A

 

On this trip to London, I also visited the Clothworkers’ Centre, the V&A’s new state-of-the-art facility at Blythe House, Olympia, West London. This is where the museum now stores the majority of its textile collection – some 100,000 objects, everything from buttons to carpets – and where items can be accessed for study by groups and individuals. The public can tour the centre on the last Friday of the month, though pre-booking is absolutely essential. I found my visit quite awe-inspiring, though (very sadly) I’m not allowed to show you any of my pictures. But next week I’ll share some pearls of wisdom gleaned during the informative tour – not least how best to combat those dreaded clothes moths.

 

 

 

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Mar 20

Would the real Mrs Beeton please stand up?

 

 

I’ve been reading a biography of Mrs Beeton, arguably the nation’s first domestic goddess. The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton by Kathryn Hughes was published by Harper Perennial in 2006.

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Hughes’ biography of Mrs Beeton

 

As recent events have served to illustrate, the life lived behind the edifice of a lifestyle brand is rarely as it appears, and this book has been an eye-opener. Some interesting things I’ve discovered about Mrs B:

1. Isabella Beeton’s image was the first ever photographic portrait accepted by the National Portrait Gallery. Maull & Pollyblank’s 1857 plate, which the NPG accepted from her son Mayson in 1932, reveals a slim, striking 19-year-old Bella, not the stout, flour-dusted matriarch with a rolling pin that you might have imagined. Mrs Bridges from Upstairs, Downstairs she definitely was not.

2. Her first baby died a few months after birth, very likely of syphilis: a disease which she appears to have contracted from her husband in the early days of their marriage.

3. Bella’s husband, Sam, originally a printer by trade, made a killing publishing an unauthorised British edition of Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, exploiting a time when there was no copyright agreement between America and Britain. He and Bella together proved cunning publishing entrepreneurs, successfully exploring the new markets, trends and opportunities created by an expanding middle-class in Victorian England.

4. Bella Beeton was far from an experienced cook when she took on writing the Book of Household Management.

5. Which is why she plagiarised widely yet skilfully for the book; all this is documented in fascinating detail by Hughes.

6. Elizabeth David was particularly galled by Bella’s light-fingered borrowings from Eliza Acton.

7. Bella liked her red wine.

8. She had a great eye for fashion and pioneered the popularising of dress patterns  in the ‘Practical Dress Instructor’, a regular feature in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, capitalising on the boost to sewing created by the recent invention of the sewing machine.

9. She died very early, age 28. But that didn’t stop the ‘Mrs Beeton’ brand marching on. And on. And on.

10. Without her able management, and with the encroaching symptoms of tertiary syphilis, Sam went to rack and ruin after Bella’s untimely death.

She certainly packed a lot into her short life. I’d recommend this biography: snappy, witty, sensitively written, and especially riveting if you’re interested in publishing and journalism (particularly the history of lifestyle publishing, cookery writing and fashion journalism), and if you want an insight into the burgeoning Victorian middle classes and what made them tick.

 

 

 

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Feb 22

Sarah Campbell talk

 

 

Earlier this month I attended an illuminating talk by textile designer Sarah Campbell (half of the celebrated Collier Campbell partnership) at the Fashion and Textile Museum. Sarah has a display there showcasing recent solo work (post-2011) created for WestElm, M&S etc: From Start to Finish is located upstairs, next to the Artist Textiles exhibition.

Sarah Campbell display

From Start to Finish

 

Sarah spoke to an audience of teachers (mostly) on the subject of being commissioned as a textiles designer with insights distilled from her long and fruitful career. She explained, through numerous examples, how the commissioning process can go smoothly and frequently not-so-smoothly, how briefs can be understood or misunderstood, how relationships with clients can be sweet or turn sour based on a variety of factors, how vigilant one must remain on matters of copyright and licensing.

I was particularly interested to hear about Sarah’s tools of the trade. She favours gouaches (any brand will do) and wallpaper lining paper for rough drawings (she describes it as having a “soft, sweet surface”, and it’s cheap, of course, which removes any anxiety over using up precious materials). Her work station is never without a squeezy bottle of water, and a bowl of discarded paint chips/tabs (used for meticulous colour-matching) which Sarah thriftily re-uses to create greetings cards. She keeps copious notebooks, in a variety of sizes, many of which are mounted in the display here.

Sarah Campbell display

From Start to Finish displays

 

And she’s never without an ordinary fountain pen, used both for drawings and notes.

 

Textile design by Sarah Campbell.

‘Mariposa’ bed linen design for M&S, 2013

 

As a stitcher, I enjoyed hearing about Sarah’s happy collaboration with West Elm on a project for “the Holidays” (in the American sense of Christmas etc) where one of her tiny gold and silver designs was interpreted by the company in sequin and thread.

 

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WestElm holiday designs

 

It’s evident that Sarah still relishes the nitty gritty of textile design, such as devising a clever repeat. And she is tremendously hard-working and prolific, as this relatively recent accumulation of work testifies. You can catch a glimpse of her at work, paintbrush in hand, in this short film about The Collier Campbell Archive book, which was published by ILEX press. Sarah also tweets and blogs

 

And this was my blog post about the National Theatre’s 2011 display of gems from the Collier Campbell archive in which I first realised the connection between the names Susan Collier and Sarah Campbell and those iconic Liberty prints.

 

From Start to Finish is on display adjacent to the Artist Textiles exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum until 17th May 2014.

To find out more about talks, events and workshops etc run by the Fashion and Textile Museum and short courses run in association with Newham College of Further Education, just click on the links provided.

 

 

 

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Feb 17

Art by the yard

 

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Lanz dress featuring Picasso fabric, 1955

 

I’m standing in front of a red dress by Lanz of California, 1955. Featuring nipped-in bodice, square neckline, half-length sleeves, gathered mid-length skirt and a dainty white lace trim, it has an approachable Sound-of-Music quality. On closer inspection, the white-scribble printed cotton carries the distinctive mark-making of Pablo Picasso.

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Lanz dress using Picasso ‘Notes’ fabric

 

A few yards away is another 1955 dress, this one with a bolder fish design, also by Picasso. The streamlined chic cut is signature Claire McCardle, the doyenne of modern American fashion.

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Claire McCardle dress for Townleys using Picasso ‘Fish’ fabric

 

Astonishingly, these special dresses aren’t behind glass. I could (but wouldn’t) touch. In the low light I lean in to examine the texture of the cotton fabrics. To think that these were designed by Picasso himself. Not a design interpreted by someone else from his painting, but actively intended by the maestro to be roller-printed onto cotton textile. And then worn by ordinary everyday people, everywhere.

I’m at Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol, a new exhibition tracing the history of 20th century art in textiles. The location is Zandra Rhodes‘ Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, South London. Artist Textiles showcases over 200 rare items, a lot from the private collection of guest curators Geoff Rayner and Richard Chamberlain. It’s a rare opportunity to see these works as many have not been on public display before. And the roll call is extraordinary: Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dalí, Sonia Delaunay, Raoul Dufy, Barbara Hepworth, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso, Ben Nicholson and Andy Warhol.

Picasso cotton scarf, 1951

Picasso cotton scarf designed for the Berlin Peace Festival, 1951

 

Art by the yard was what Dan Fuller of New York-based Fuller Fabrics had in mind when he launched his Modern Masters project. His vision: to sell fashion yardage by famous artists on a mass scale for just $1.50 to $2 a yard. He managed to secure an extraordinary group of modern painters including Picasso (who jumped on board, it seems, because the project dovetailed with his own political belief that art should be accessible to the masses), Joan Miró, Fernand Leger, Marc Chagall and Raoul DufyHere’s a 1955 print designed by Joan Miró, entitled ‘Farmer’s Dinner’. The maker of the dress isn’t specified.

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Dress from Miro fabric, Fuller Fabrics, 1955

 

Again, it’s good to be able to get close to these textiles.

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Joan Miro textile design ‘Farmer’s Dinner’

 

You can’t cover the subject of fine artists and textile design without mentioning nineteenth century English artist, political theorist and textile designer William Morris. Morris saw the production and mass marketing of textiles as a way to combat the elitist tendency of art: “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.” Into the early 20th century, the Fauvists, Futurists and Constructivists took up textile design, graphic design and book illustration as legitimate – in fact, important – areas for their artistic endeavour.

 

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But the story told by this exhibition effectively starts in the 1940s when the relationship between artists and textiles became particularly close and fruitful, paving the way for Fuller and others.

With post-war Britain on its knees, textiles were central to national recovery efforts. An export drive was directed with the American market very much in mind. Zika Ascher, the London manufacturer of luxury textiles, cajoled Henri Matisse and Henry Moore into designing scarves and fashion yardage to aid the recovering couture industry. It wasn’t necessarily an easy sell; Picasso turned him down, and Matisse didn’t say yes straight away. This little film, Fame in Fabric, made by Pathé in 1945, shows Ascher searching galleries for suitable artwork, gives a glimpse of the screen-printing process, and shows some of the finished textiles and scarves being modelled. 

 

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Henry Moore scarf featuring standing figures, Ascher Ltd, 1940s

 

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, New York textile converter Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics captured the zeitgeist in a confident, post-war, modernist America, engaging several prominent Surrealists including Dalí and the Franco-Hungarian painter and graphic designer, Marcel Vertes to create a range of headscarves. Dalí’s c.1947 design, ‘Number Please?’, used artwork originally created for a 1946 Disney cartoon, Destino. The film was never released.

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Dali design produced by Wesley Simpson, c. 1946-7

 

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‘Flower Heads’ design by Marcel Vertes

 

Back in Britain, long-established Lancashire cotton goods manufacture Horrockses Crewdson & Company Ltd  set up fashion subsidiary Horrockses Fashions in 1946. It snapped up British artists’ offerings, including designs by Alastair Morton and Graham Sutherland. In the 1950s, the Horrockses dress came to epitomise the English cotton summer frock, worn by everyone including the Queen, Princess Margaret, and prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn. 

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Horrockses Fashions’ frocks

 

I was taken by the snowdrop print. Interesting that it was used horizontally.

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Horrockses’ snowdrops print

 

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Horrockses dress

 

Perhaps my favourite design of all featured was this 1951 fashion border print designed by Ken Scott. Entitled ‘A Fish is A Fish is A Fish’, it looks remarkably fresh and modern.

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‘A Fish is a Fish is a Fish’ by Ken Scott, c. 1951

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‘A Fish is a FIsh is a Fish’ by Ken Scott

 

Upstairs at the exhibition, the story continues into the 1960s. In 1963, two major Picasso projects launched; one for White Stag après-skiwear, one for Bloomcraft Fabrics, producers of furnishing textiles. A Look magazine feature (December 1963) about the Bloomcraft project  claimed, slightly mischievously, that the maestro’s designs were suitable for every form of interior decoration except upholstery: “Picassos may be leant against, but not sat on.”

 

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Bold Picasso designs for Bloomcraft Fabrics, 1963

There was so much more upstairs, but I had Sarah Campbell’s talk to get to – which will fill another post – so I whizzed past the Andy Warhols.

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Andy Warhol print, ‘Bright Butterflies’

 

And zipped past an appealing section of whimsical New York book illustrations. On a day of transport disruption  (I’d walked from Paddington to Charing Cross to catch the overland train to Bermondsey – greater love hath not textile-phile), I was drawn to this 1952 border print, ‘Paddington Station’ by Saul Steinberg. Not so far off the real thing, though the trains have changed. This would make a cracking skirt for the First Great Western corporate summer uniform, don’t you think?

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‘Paddington Station’ border print by Saul Steinberg

 

'Paddington Station'

‘Paddington Station’ – a 1952 design by Saul Steinberg

 

Back soon with a write-up of the Sarah Campbell‘s talk. It will feature work From Start to Finish, an exhibition of the prolific textile designer’s recent work (post 2011) which will be also be on display at the Fashion and Textiles Museum for the duration of  Artist Textiles.

 

Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol runs until 17th May 2014 at the Fashion and Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey Street, Bermondsey, London, SE1 3XF. Nearest overland train station: London Bridge. The museum has a pleasant cafe, Teapod@FTM, offering a selection of hand-made cakes, salads, soups and stews. FTM also has a shop selling products by up-and-coming design talent, plus vintage and new fashion-related books.

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Oct 11

She stoops to conker

 

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Picking up the gleaming treasure under horse chestnut trees (Aesculus hippocastanum) is irresistible at this time of year. You’re never too old for your inner child to spring into squirrely action and pocket a few.

 

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Residents of Britain might think of the horse chestnut as a native tree, but it’s really a naturalised immigrant, originating in the Balkans and imported from mainland Europe around 1550-1570. Imagine Shakespeare seeing it as the latest faddy garden ornamental! When we lived in London, my husband and I used to tandem down the Chestnut Avenue in Bushy Park under its broad canopy of horse chestnut trees. In full flower, they are a spectacular sight, and the park has a festival each May to celebrate the showy white candle-like blossoms.

The trees there might not be looking quite so magnificent these days as some have fallen prey to several forms of destructive blight. It’s estimated that 10 per cent of British trees are now affected, those in London suffering more than most. There were no conkers at all at Kew Gardens in 2006. Unthinkable! More about the various pests and pathogens attacking horse chestnuts over here.

 

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If you’re lucky enough to find any conkers, what can you do with them? First, do nothing but admire the shoe-shine perfection of the russety globes, fresh from their acid-green spiked casing. Next, according to Roald Dahl, utter the greeting “Oddly, oddly, my first conker” thereby seeing off any misfortune heading your way in the coming season. It’s worth a try.

 

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Uses

Insect/spider deterrents.  There’s been a lot of talk about this. Giles Deacon, fashion designer and insect enthusiast, reportedly recommends conkers as a natural moth deterrent (Daily Telegraph, 18 April 2012). Their brown skins contain a compound called triterpenoid saponin which wards off these pests. Worth trying.

 

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The idea is to scatter them liberally in corners, and tuck them in with your woollies etc. You could drill holes and hang them on strings or wire if you want a more decorative approach. But I wouldn’t bother. Especially as their plump sheen is so short-lived and the shrivelled version is best kept out of sight. Do they also work as a spider deterrent? I’m not sure, but what’s to be lost by trying?

Horse food?  That old chestnut! No, don’t try this at home. When eaten by horses, horse chestnuts produce tremors and lack of coordination. Though deer, cattle, sheep and squirrels are not affected by the toxins – that saponin again – which would destroy our red blood cells if we consumed them. The nuts are, though, harmless to handle.

Grinding up horse chestnuts and and boiling them in water appears to make them just about edible for horses, but hardly seems worth the effort. The name may originate from the nuts being used to create a medicine for equine respiratory disorders. 

Pile cure. The mind boggles, but apparently horse chestnuts have astringent and anti-inflammatory properties. They contain a glycoside – esculoside – which has been shown to shrink distended veins. It need to be pulverised and processed into some kind of cream first,  and then applied topically. Commercial forms of this cream are available.

Fabric soap/bleach/whitener. The saponin in horse chestnuts also performs as a whitener, traditionally used to bleach flax, hemp, silk and wool in places such as France and Switzerland. Scientifically speaking, it’s the aesculin or esculinic acid – a glucoside – in the inner bark of the horse chestnut which has ultra violet fluorescence, acting as an optical whitener. More about that over here. If you want to try this at home, you need approximately 20 horse chestnuts per 6 litres of soft water. The method sounds a little complicated. And before you rush off to discover it, the brightening qualities of horse chestnut extract may wash out and are sensitive to light, so proceed with caution.

Conkers. If the tree isn’t native to Britain, the game played with the fruiting body certainly appears to be. It was first recorded on the Isle of Wight in 1848, but was described by the poet Robert Southey in the 1820s as played with other types of nut. The World Conker Championships were established near Oundle, Northants in 1965 and take place on the 2nd Sunday of each October. I could add a lot more but the game boils down pretty well to: a) drill hole in conker; b) thread onto string and knot well; c) find opponent with same; and d) get walloping.

Doll furniture. This idea of making little tables and chairs from conkers appeared in the 1965 (obviously a good year for conkers!) Puffin book Something to Do. All you need is a few pins to make legs plus back and arm supports, and some scraps of wool. Think The Borrowers meets Mid-century styling. I’ve had this book since childhood and remember having a go at these, probably over a long, wet weekend. As far as I can recall, the furniture had all shrivelled and the pins rusted by the end of Sunday. A little disappointing, but fun while it lasted.

 

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Finally, a couple of noteworthy horse chestnut trees for you. Here is officially Britain’s biggest horse chestnut tree, down in Hampshire; we’re talking girth, not height, with this giant measuring in at a over 7 metres around its bole. And Anne Frank described her inspirational view of a horse chestnut tree in her diary entry for 23rd February 1944 (see below). The beleaguered tree sadly blew down in August 2010, but 11 offspring saplings survived it. They are all destined for meaningful sites of remembrance: one is destined to be planted at the site of 9/11

 

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I will think of Anne Frank the next time I pick up a conker, and feel profoundly fortunate.

 

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PS  The title of this post alludes to She Stoops to Conquer, a play by Oliver Goldsmith. First performed in 1773, it’s a prototypical RomCom. Here’s a little film about Mark Thompson’s 18th century costumes for Jamie Lloyd’s 2012 National Theatre production. If you like corsets, not to mention pleated ribbon embellishments, you’ll be very happy. Enjoy your weekend, and remember that love conkers all… 

 

 

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