Category: Textile history

Aug 23

Laura Ashley stories

 

Laura Ashley fans, this week’s your last chance to catch the exhibition at the Fashion Museum. But there’s good news for anyone owning a vintage ’60 or ’70s Laura Ashley dress: you can get into the expo FREE this weekend if you wear that dress along! 

I must mention the retrospective just one more time to share with you some of the background stories of the dress loans. One of my favourite elements of the exhibition was the stories behind the dresses: who owned what, when, and why. I’m a sucker for social history, so this aspect really floated my boat. Many of these stories were shared in the display cards, and in the accompanying booklet (see below). I’ll retell a few here to whet your appetite.

 

Joan Gould and Ruzi Buchanan, LA launch

Joan Gould and Ruzi Buchanan with their dresses at the Laura Ashley expo launch

 

The pinafore-over-maxi was a key Laura Ashley look in the 1970s. Joan Gould (left) bought hers when working as a copy-editor on scientific journals in London. She tells a great story, recounted in the exhibition booklet:

‘I wore the red dress with green Anello and Davide button shoes with flesh coloured tights, no jewellery. This was my “party dress” in the early 1970s when I was in my early 20s. I bought it from the Fulham Road shop where the changing room was downstairs. There were a few cubicles, but on Saturdays it was so busy everyone just removed clothes in the area outside the cubicles in a seething, hot and bothered mass of partially clothed young women and piles of billowing clothes. Anyone seeing an item on someone else would grab it to try on themselves when they saw it had been rejected. A few boyfriends would sit upstairs on a sofa in the window, glassy-eyed and exhausted, saying “looks lovely” to the stream of young women staggering from this underworld.’

 

Beverley Peach, a former landscape architect and now volunteer at The Bowes Museum (where the exhibition will relocate from September), made this skirt from patchwork pieces bought in the Bath store in 1975 for the outlay of 50p. Here’s some of her story, again taken from the exhibition booklet:

 

‘The skirt is made entirely from remnants that were all different shapes and sizes. From the age of about 15, I made most of my own clothes. Fabric was cheap and my mum taught me how to dressmake. For a teenager in the 70s there were few shops with acceptable, affordable clothes. Chelsea Girl was a revelation! …

I remember the skirt taking a long time to make. I spent evenings sewing when I worked as a nanny in Spain during the summer of 1975, between school and university. The skirt went with me to university in Newcastle. Everything travelled in a large blue trunk, which still holds all the clothes I can’t bear to part with, including the patchwork skirt.

I wore the skirt with a white cheesecloth shirt and a long blue corduroy jacket, both of which my daughter now wears.’

 

Patchwork skirt

Beverley Peach’s patchwork skirt, 1975

 

Patchwork Laura Ashley skirt

Beverley Peach’s patchwork skirt

 

 

Rose Gollop, whose picture is on this Fashion Museum press release, wore Laura Ashley on her wedding day, and her dress stands prominently at the entrance to the exhibition.

 

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Rose Gollop’s wedding dress

 

‘I was married on 11 August 1973, two days after my 21st birthday. I spent very little time looking for the dress. I didn’t want anything traditional and knew that I was likely to find what I wanted at Laura Ashley. I was lucky to live near the Bath branch, which is where I bought it…

In keeping with the non-traditional theme, I wore nothing in my hair, a simple “daisy chain” bead necklace, and Greek strappy open-toed sandals that I bought in a hippy-type shop at the top of Park Street in Bristol. Unfortunately, the formal flowers that my parents persuaded me to to have did not really complement the overall look! I would have preferred to go out into the fields and gather up natural flowers. I had no bridesmaids, and was slightly dismayed to find that my new mother-in-law had made matching lime green frilly dresses for her three little grand-daughters, so that when they stood together – and near me – they did indeed look like bridesmaids.’

 

Do you have a Laura Ashley story to tell? The exhibition may be leaving Bath, but the Fashion Museum would still love to hear it. Take a moment and share.

 

Laura Ashley A Romantic Heroine celebrates 60 years of the Laura Ashley label. The exhibition is on display at the Fashion Museum, Bath, until 26th August 2013, then at The Bowes Museum, County Durham, from 21st September 2013 to 5th January 2014.

The booklet accompanying the exhibition features an introduction by Rosemary Harden and Joanna Hashagen, and contains several of the dress-owners’ personal stories. It is still available at the Fashion Museum shop price £5.99, while stocks last. 

Laura Ashley The Romantic Heroine - exhibition booklet

 

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Aug 13

Laura Ashley the Romantic Heroine

 

 

With apologies to Jane Austen, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a girl who grew up in the 1970s must have been in want of a Laura Ashley dress. Last month I went to the opening of a stunning new landmark exhibition marking 60 years of this major fashion label: Laura Ashley the Romantic Heroine. And it helpfully confirmed my theory.

Laura Ashley the Romantic Heroine - image c/o Fashion Museum

Laura Ashley the Romantic Heroine – image c/o Fashion Museum

 

I never actually owned a genuine Laura Ashley dress* but I’ve rarely felt so personally invested in an exhibition.  Laura Ashley was the designer who dominated my formative years. I blogged about that unbearably brown-Draloned decade and some Laura Ashley fabric scraps last time, in case you missed it. It’s really the early ’70s that I’m talking about, when Laura Ashley was in her creative prime. This was when I was developing my sense of what being a woman was about, and Laura Ashley’s designs grew to dominate my internal landscape, her patterns virtually etched on the inside of my eyelids. 

So my heart was seriously aflutter when I arrived at the Fashion Museum  last month for the exhibition launch. Despite the heat (Britain was still in the grip of an atypical heatwave) there were quite a few others who appeared to share my enthusiasm. The high-ceilinged Assembly Rooms – the Georgian setting of so many dances and assemblies and home to the museum since 1969 – were packed. I gratefully accepted a glass of something cool and sparkling. Looking around, the crowd was largely female and of-a-certain-age. As we awaited the speakers, we fanned ourselves with our invitations, like so many Jane Austen heroines. 

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After an introduction by a council official, legendary Fleet Street fashion journalist Felicity Green rose to recount her Laura Ashley memories. Now in her eighties, Green explained how Laura Ashley dresses gave British women just what they wanted in the early ’70s: a non-threatening response to Quant’s ’60s Youthquake mini. The mini had forced the wearer to be somewhat confrontational and angular, whereas Laura Ashley’s layered, pleated, gathered and ruffled styles wrapped women up in what Green described at the time as ‘soft-core femininity’ (Daily Mirror, 1st January 1970).  What did women want? They wanted an escapist, wholesome Romantic idyll. Most of all, to feel comfortable and unashamedly feminine. Laura Ashley happily supplied all that.

Green explained that one special thing which set Laura apart was her husband, Bernard Ashley. Green was not easily intimidated, but had she been rather frightened of Bernard, she confessed. He did not suffer fools and was very sharp-witted on the business side. Green also knew Mary Quant and Barbara Hulanicki (the designer behind Biba) and their husbands, who, by contrast, were totally charming but lacked Bernard’s business orientation. Both Quant and Hulanicki subsequently lost their trademarks, and this was the crucial difference between them and Ashley.  Thanks to Bernard’s nous, Laura Ashley became the first truly international label.

Turning to the exhibition itself, Green bestowed the strongest praise: “Unparalleled,” she said. ‘Truly a combination of fashion and style and presentation. Outstrips the V&A.” High praise indeed for curators Rosemary Harden and Ian R .Webb.

As we listened to Felicity’s fascinating memories, I spotted this young woman in a gorgeous floor-sweeping vintage Laura Ashley swan-print strappy summer dress. She told me later that it had been her mother’s.

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Guest wearing her mum’s original ’70s dress

Then we filed into the exhibition itself. The first sight to greet us was that distinctive lower-case logo, plus a row of simple, serene cream and white dresses.

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Entrance to the exhibition

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Serene white

 

We turned the corner to face the breathtaking spectacle of almost 100 dresses.

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Laura Ashley The Romantic Heroine

 

What strikes you immediately is the pastiches of various periods: this Regency style, that Victorian governess outfit. You could see how Laura was influenced by what must then have been on TV at the time, which historical serial was capturing her (and the nation’s) imagination. Laura had such an uncanny ability to capture the zeitgeist. And her interpretation of the styles is so interesting: she wasn’t copying those earlier styles, but borrowing elements to make very wearable dresses.

 

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High necks, pleats and lace frills

Some of the high collars looked a little uncomfortable, at least from the vantage point of a very hot summer’s day.

Beccy and I at LA launch, July 2013

Beccy (right) and I, thoroughly engrossed

 

There is no glass between the visitor and the exhibits, and it’s very tempting touch; all that cotton certainly screams “FEEL ME!” It’s quite special to be able to get so close to exhibits like this.

Early on in the exhibition are Laura’s first dresses dating from the ’60s. Recognisably of the period, but distinctive Laura Ashley tones and prints.

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A row of 1960s dresses

 

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Regency-style ruching

 

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The Governess look

 

I persuaded my friend and neighour, Beccy, to join me at the exhibition. She has just established re-be, a business selling upcycled clothes for children, and an early Laura Ashley dress had featured as the makeover target in her range, so I hoped that she’d find the exhibition both useful and interesting.

She brought the little outfit along, and how fabulous to find a sister-dress to the one she’d upcycled! Before you get upset, the purple object of her upcycling had been her business partner’s mother’s dress (following?) and had been ruined before Beccy’s scissors took to it.

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High necks and frills

re-be reinterpretation of vintage Laura Ashley dress

re-be reincarnation next to identical dress in different colourway

I was drawn to this grass-green pinafore, partly because I recognised that pansy fabric, partly because I made something very similar (but with long sleeves) from a commercial Laura Ashley pattern about 10 years later. This one had a great story attached. It was chosen by Alpen to use in their advert when they launched the breakfast cereal in Britain. At the time, all things continental were in favour (I remember the ‘continental quilt’ or duvet arriving in the ’70s, ousting the tradition British two-sheets-and-a-blanket combination). The slogan for the advert reflected how well Laura Ashley’s wholesome image dovetailed with the new breakfast cereal’s image: ‘more natural goodness every morning’.

Alpen dress

The Alpen dress

And then there were some extraordinary offerings, much more on the psychedelic end of the spectrum than I would have thought possible. My photos don’t quite capture their shock value. In real life, those checked fabrics really zing.

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Psychedelic checks

My only disappointment was wandering a little later up to the Bath shop, the first Laura Ashley shop to be opened outside of London. They had a lovely window display; note the same fabric used here as in that Alpen pinny.

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Current display in the Bond Street branch of Laura Ashley in Bath

But there were no nostalgic Laura Ashley goods to be found inside. What a pity.For those itching to get their purses out, there is a really nice little exhibition booklet available which can be purchased at both the Fashion Museum and The Bowes Museum for about £5.

This compelling exhibition set Laura Ashley much more firmly in context for me. She plugged right into the early ’70s hunger for the wholesome. I can see now how much she drew on historical styles, but without slavishly copying them; the dresses are not made in a historical way, but are her interpretations. But I was surprised to see how many of the fabrics were much brighter, the designs more eye-popping than I’d remembered. I can’t wait to visit it again and really hope that you’ll get a chance to see it for yourself. 

 

Laura Ashley A Romantic Heroine celebrates 60 years of the Laura Ashley label. The exhibition is on display at the Fashion Museum, Bath, until 26th August 2013, then at The Bowes Museum, County Durham, from 21st September 2013 to 5th January 2014.

In my next post… some personal Laura Ashley stories from women who loaned their dresses to the exhibition.

 

*though I did make myself a couple from a purchased Laura Ashley pattern

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Aug 06

Scrap of the week #31

 

These mid-1970s Laura Ashley scraps were the first materials I handled, shaped and stitched when learning to sew as a girl. I pulled them out of the Scrapiana archive after seeing the wonderful Laura Ashley The Romantic Heroine exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath recently. The exhibition made me feel deeply nostalgic for 1970s Laura Ashley fabrics and dress designs, which is ironic because Laura Ashley traded heavily on nostalgia herself, so I effectively entered a state of meta-nostalgia (nostalgia for nostalgia) from which I fear I may never emerge back into the 21st century.

I seem to specialise in unlikely survivals, and these Laura Ashley scraps really shouldn’t be hanging about intact still, 40 years on. There is no decent explanation for it. I may as well tell you that Peter Capaldi swung by in the tardis and dropped them off. But, for whatever unlikely reason, they remain with me still. Mostly unused. And I’m very happy to be able to show them to you.

Early 1970s Laura Ashley factory offcuts

1970s Laura Ashley factory offcuts

 

They were probably bought in the Bath shop which opened its doors in 1971. This was the first Laura Ashley shop outside of London, and it soon acquired a legendary status.

Bath was a fairly frequent destination for family outings when I was a girl; sometimes we’d go to the American Museum or the Museum of Costume, the previous incarnation of the Fashion Museum, then just a few years old. Bath was not quite the tourist hub it is today, and it actually looked pretty shabby back then, though one couldn’t help but be struck by its elegant (if very blackened) stone architecture.

Looking at these scraps still fills me with a kind of feverish excitement, depositing me right back circa 1973. Laura Ashley had such an exhilarating aura of  elegance, sophistication and wholesome escapism, so unlike anything else I can remember from the period, though I didn’t get out much in middle childhood. Anyone under thirty might find it hard to imagine, looking at these little brown fragments, how they excited such admiration and longing. Maybe you just had to be there, with rocketing inflation, the 3-day week, the sexual revolution, the perennial fear of Soviet invasion (not to mention nuclear annihilation), doing your best to block it all out with your tranny tuned to Radio Luxembourg under your brushed polyester bedclothes. No wonder we were so ready to lap up The Forsyte SagaWar & Peace, The Onedin Line, and Upstairs Downstairs on the TV.

Laura Ashley fabric, early 1970s

Laura Ashley print of mythical beasts

 

I still love almost everything about these Laura Ashley pieces. The sturdy texture of the 100% cotton, a world away from my purple manmade sheets of the time (which crackled with static and snagged against my toenails when I rolled over). I love the earthy, hippy hues, giving the impression that they’ve been dyed with the products of a hedgerow, though I’m very sure they weren’t. I love the small-repeat designs in just two restrained tones, the pseudo-medieval, mock-oriental and Victorian-style motifs. These fabrics seemed so sophisticated, so opulent, yet incredibly safe and modest too. It was a compelling mix for a young girl.

But possibly most of all, I love the fact that Laura Ashley was selling these as genuine manufacturing offcuts: pieces culled from dresses made in the Welsh factory. No pre-cut patchwork squares from virgin metres of cloth in those days. I wish there could be more conspicuous selling of designer wastage today. Shall we start a campaign?

The dresses themselves would have been beyond the budget at the time, so scraps were all I could reasonably aspire to. These scraps date from when the company was still very much Laura’s baby, and I can easily imagine (though it’s purely my fantasy) that every piece of cloth still passed under Laura’s gaze for a final quality check. I’m sure it didn’t really, but her spirit is very much here. 

1970s Laura Ashley pansy design close-up

Print S105 featuring a triangular pansy motif

 

Laura had a keen sense of thrift and strove to avoid waste when pattern-cutting. One of her early designs was an oven glove, made from the wastage created by the scooped neck of a gardening smock. And it’s easy to imagine how her unwillingness to see such offcuts go to waste, plus her love of patchwork (notably sparked by a WI exhibition in the early ’50s) informed the decision to package them up and sell them.

Any pattern-cutters out there care to tell me which garment pieces you think these were cut from? Is that plum ‘C’-shape from a neckline, the comma-shaped piece from an armscye?

1970s Laura Ashley fabrics

1970s Laura Ashley factory offcuts

 

There’s a great story related by Meirion, one of the Welsh factory stalwarts, in Anne Sebba’s biography Laura Ashley: A Life By Design published in 1990 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson:

Once I cut the neckline wrong on three hundred dresses and I thought at first I’d just keep quiet and fill the gap with lace. But, of course, she would have noticed so I told her and we turned the scoop to our advantage. In future that style always carried the “wrong” neckline. All she said to me, very calmly, was, “Remember, you can always learn from your mistakes”.

And speaking of mistakes, here’s some of the patchwork I made from these offcuts, way back in my very earliest needle-plying days. Don’t look too closely at the stitching.  And how many shades of brown can you include in one piece, anyway? The cushion was well loved, but this wasn’t my finest hour. The item with the smaller piecing is a bag, with every hexagon stuffed. Not sure why I thought that was a good idea.

Laura Ashley patchwork items

My early Laura Ashley patchwork

Laura Ashley and me

Don’t look too closely at the stitching

 

Hexagon patchwork also features in the current exhibition. There’s a cover pieced by Rosemary Harden, the director of the Fashion Museum, and a vibrant patchwork skirt made by Beverly Peach. Now, I don’t remember Laura Ashley producing particularly bright fabrics, but I realised how wrong I was when I visited the exhibition. More about that (and some surprisingly psychedelic offerings from Mrs Ashley) very soon. 

1970s Laura Ashley patchwork

Spare hexagons

 

In my next post: a report on Laura Ashley A Romantic Heroine which celebrates 60 years of the Laura Ashley label. The exhibition is currently on display at the Fashion Museum, Bath, until 26th August 2013, then at the Bowes Museum, County Durham, from 21st September 2013 to 5th January 2014.

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Jul 29

Scrap of the week #30

 

I’m cheating here as this isn’t a scrap of fabric, as such. But it could be. One day.

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Raw fleece after a couple of washes

 

There’s an #onlyinBath hashtag on Twitter. It usually describes the quaint and curious things which could only occur in this rarified, picturesque location. And the subject of this post qualifies. Because there can be few cities where sheep are still grazed within spitting distance of the most splendid stone crescents (I know at least two such locations within the city). And possibly even fewer where the owners of said sheep can’t find takers for the resulting fleeces, even when giving them away. We live in a crazy mixed-up world, folks!

The prospect of a shedload of free Bath fleeces proved too much of a lure for me this week. My gain is yours, however, because I’m giving most of them away, in turn, to the first people who come forward.

These fleeces were sheared from their sheep at the end of June. Some are black (-ish), some white (-ish). They are raw, so you’ll have to clean them up, which is messy and requires a washing space the size of a bathtub (in fact, a bathtub will do nicely) and an alarming quantity of washing-up liquid. But I think it’ll probably be worth it, especially if you want to try your hand at spinning. I’m aiming to create the most wonderful natural stuffing imaginable. That’s the plan, anyway. So far I’ve washed a small portion (see image above) to get a feel for it. My hands are lovely and soft from the lanolin, but the fleece is still full of foreign bodies – mostly of vegetable origin, but some of sheep origin, if you get my drift. It’s obviously a long game.

Sheep and their wool have a long history in this city, of course. From the 13th century, Bath was renowned for its fine woollen cloth, and wool wealth built the early city. You can find out more about this history at the Museum of Bath at Work. Here is one of their displays.

 

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Wool display at the Museum of Bath at Work

 

The Museum of Bath at Work also kindly hosts the Big Mend, a free monthly mending social which you’ve probably heard me mention before. If you live in/near Bath and ever find yourself with more holes in your favourite garments than you know how to handle, bring them along on the last Wednesday of the month, 7-9pm, and we can help you sort them out. The next meet-up is this Wednesday 31st July. This is the room we work in. It’s light and spacious. Do join us!

 

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The mezzanine level at the Museum of Bath at Work

And if you’re interested in a FREE raw fleece, do leave a comment below or email me. I can’t mail it, so am requesting only local takers, please. First come, first served.

 

 

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Mar 11

Scrap of the week #29

 

After a relative dearth of scraps, here’s a whole slew to make up for it. I hope you can handle  all the excitement!

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Rail fence quilt top

This exuberant patchwork quilt-top was made by my Pennsylvanian grandmother. It’s a simple machine-pieced single quilt top which was not completed.

It isn’t fancy: a thrown-together-fast strip pattern called ‘rail fence’. Each little strip measures about three inches by one.

To make rail fence, three strips are joined to make one square block. The blocks are then arranged (one vertical, one horizontal, etc) and joined into strips, the strips then joined to build up the entire quilt top. Simple, but lively. It seems to me that the  placing and piecing haven’t been sweated over too much: this is a hap quilt, the pieces falling pretty much where they will. The lines of stitching are a little rough-and-ready too. But Nana had plenty of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and didn’t have time to spare on perfectionism.

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Rail fence patchwork

The workmanship and provenance may not be grand, but these scraps are like little jewels to me. I know that some of them came from humble feedsacks. Others were cut from plain fabrics bought by the yard. I’m sure Nana would have kept precious scraps a long while. She grew up on a farm, one of fourteen children, and resources were scarce. I think she’d have been conservative, therefore, so maybe some of these fabrics date to way back whenever. She worked in a shirt factory for a while (in the 1910s, I think) so I wonder if any of these could be shirt offcuts.

My mother used to tell me that some of these prints featured in her childhood clothes from the late 1920s and 1930s. Other scraps are a little later. I don’t know exactly when Nana made it; it could possibly date any time up to the late ’70s. I’m not sure precisely when she stopped sewing; she had bad arthritis in her hands and I think she’d stopped for a while before she died in the 1980s.

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Rail fence close-up

A few people have suggested I complete this quilt. But I’m reluctant to. I feel that the WIP tells its own special story and has its own value; I’m reluctant to meddle with this time-capsule. But I’d love to ask you: if it were your grandmother’s handiwork, what would you do? Finish? Or leave it as is? And why? Have you finished off your own grandmother’s (or your mother’s) quilt? Did you feel you owed that to her? All valid points! Please do take just a moment to share your thoughts. I love to hear them. Thank you!

 

 

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Nov 11

Selvedge Winter Fair

 

Yesterday I had a really magical day in London at the Selvedge Winter Fair.

It was my first time at a Selvedge event though I’ve been hoping to get to one for years. Selvedge magazine — in case you haven’t encountered its square format, matt paper, and distinctive print scent — has to be the read of choice for the textile cognoscenti. It’s always creatively stimulating and often delightfully obscure. The visuals are exemplary, and the tone of the text is knowledgeable, direct and unpatronising. Published six times a year, Selvedge is available infrequently enough for you to work up an appetite for the next issue, and to make the £9.95 cover price just about affordable (though, of course, you get a better deal if you subscribe).

So eager was I to be at the head of the queue for the Winter Fair’s 10am start that, blearily clutching my Earl Grey, I caught the 7.13 train from Bath Spa. The fair, by reputation, fills up fast, so getting in early to a relatively uncrowded hall is worth making the effort for. It wasn’t just the fair; I was looking forward to meeting up with a handful of friends there too. And, according to plan, there were just a couple of people ahead of me when the doors opened.

The Chelsea Town Hall location was a new one for Selvedge, much bigger than those previously used. It is grand and capacious and did the job, though the lighting in some areas left something to be desired.

As I wandered around I was a little starstruck by some of the craftspeople and their beautiful wares, many  familiar from the pages of the magazine. Ellie Evans pincushions, for instance. They are marvellously weighty in the hand, being full to the brim with emery.

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And I have long been drawn to these felt clogs, spotted on the Selvedge Drygoods stall…

Selvedge Winter Fair 2012

Julie Arkell had a stall. I didn’t speak to her, but one of the joys of an event like this is being able to deal directly with the designer/maker, to hear unmediated how they have created an item you are interested in buying. That is a really charming experience. As was getting to spend so much time with talented and delightful fellow visitors Ruth, Alison, Jo and Jo’s sister-in-law. Thanks to all for hanging out  — I really had the best time.

Having resolved not to buy anything, quite predictably all of my good intentions went out the window in the face of such extreme textile temptation. Most of my purchases were gifts and I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but here are some of the things I enjoyed seeing:

Abigail Brown‘s birds

Dyed blankets from Sasha Gibb

Knitwear by Di Gilpin

Knitwear with scrap textile strips by Mary Davis

Welsh loveliness from Damson & Slate

Upcycled blanket wares from Matilda Rose

Painted textiles from Emma Bradbury

The redwork embroidery of Stitch by Stitch

However, rest assured that I’ll be able to show you some more Selvedge Winter Fair delights in tomorrow’s Scrap of the Week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sep 18

Scrap of the week #23

 

London Fashion Week is just ending. It’s not something I pay close attention to at all as I’m obviously not a dedicated follower of fashion; if you’ve met me you’ll know that the way I dress is almost 100% sale or second-hand, frequently with a subtle got-dressed-in-the-dark twist. But on Saturday I met someone who made me think hard about fashion and how little we, the end consumers, know about our clothes and how they are made.

I was running a mending event in Wiltshire when a man wandered over and picked up this piece of denim from my heap of scraps.

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Sandblasted denim scrap

 

The scrap came from a pair of my youngest son’s cast-off Gap jeans. He’d successively holed, ripped, then outgrown those jeans, and I eventually cut them up for patchwork. This scrap now sits in a small cardboard suitcase of denim pieces which I lug to the Big Mend and back every month, just in case anyone wants a worn, soft denim patch to repair their jeans with.

The man looked closely at the scrap and, after a moment of scrutiny, said in a thick Middle-Eastern accent: “Yes. Sandblasted.”

He then went on to tell me that he had worked in a Turkish jeans factory in the 1990s, sandblasting garments to fade them fashionably. The work had damaged his lungs. Permanently. Living and sleeping in the sandblasting part of the factory (not unusual for migrant workers) hadn’t helped. He only retains about half his original lung function. It is not a reversible condition. Many of his co-workers and family members have died of the lung disease silicosis. Sandblasting is such a pernicious process that it was eventually banned in Turkey a few years ago. But the fashion for the worn jean continues, and so does sandblasting – but in other less regulated places, such as Bangladesh.

The fashion in the West for the pre-worn is curious. Why, when we can’t bear to allow our bodies to show any vestiges of age, do we want our clothes to look prematurely old? I can remember the time when all jeans were as stiff and unyielding as they were deep blue. You had to work at wearing them in, like a stout pair of leather boots or a Brooks bike saddle. Fading, similarly, was achieved only with time, wear and washing. But on the upside, in contrast to most of the ones you get today,  your jeans lasted intact for years. I wondered if I’d imagined the former ruggedness of jeans (a kind of false denim-memory syndrome) until I found an old scrap of a pair I’d owned as a teenager. I’ve kept it, absurdly, in the materials lugged from home to home over the years – retained because it still bears my embroidery stitches (a bit of belated Flower Power). That denim is truly rugged. They really do not make them like that anymore.

That said, a few companies (like the Hiut Denim Company) now specialise in making robust denim jeans once again, jeans with a conscientious provenance too, but at a price. Perhaps this is the right price, the price free of needless exploitation and pointless disease. Very nice if you happen to have £130+ available to spend on jeans. But what about those who can’t afford it? What to do?

One thing is to learn to detect the sandblasted finish and simply not buy it. Should you even buy sandblasted jeans second-hand? A moot point. The charity shop can seem for clothes what the money-launderer is for immoral earnings, displacing the context, cleansing the sins of production. But, of course, it doesn’t really.

Another thing you can do is ask your favourite jeans manufacturer/s whether they still use sandblasted denim. If so, where has it come from?

And finally, you can consult one of the organisations working to eradicate sandblasting.

I felt rather humbled to learn so belatedly about the distress caused by those distressed jeans, to hear first-hand from a sufferer about the perils of sandblasted denim. It’s not the price I wanted anyone to pay, not for a pair of jeans.

 

 

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Apr 08

Easter scraps

 

I have a basketful of textile-related Easter scraps for you to enjoy.

The  Cambridgeshire town of St Ives traditionally held its famous medieval cloth fair over Easter. The fair was established by royal charter in 1110 and was, in its heyday, one of the largest in Europe. It sold everything from fine silks and brocades (several kings bought their textiles there) to the coarsest linen and hessian. The purveyors of the latter were based in St Audrey’s Lane, giving rise to the word ‘tawdry’ (referring to cheap and gawdy finery) or so the story goes, though I suspect OED lexicographers might well roll their eyes and dispute this. I think I can state with some certainty, however, that it was this St Ives (rather than the Cornish one) which gave rise to the rhyme ‘As I was going to St Ives I met a man with seven wives’.

Edwardian bonnet

Overhauled Easter bonnet, c.1909

 

For centuries, new clothes worn at this time of year appear to have symbolised the spiritual renewal of Easter, as well as reflecting the irrepressible regeneration of spring. The superstitious belief that neglecting to make some kind of change to one’s clothing could encourage lasting misfortune seems to have been widespread. It is corroborated by this eighteenth century English doggerel:

‘At Easter let your clothes be new, or else be sure you will it rue.’

And wearing new clothes to church at Easter became viewed as essential to ensure good fortune; this made it a particularly fortunate time of year for tailors and cobblers. For those who couldn’t afford to replace what they wore, alterations and embellishments – a new lace trim, for instance – were viable options. Here’s an entry from Samuel Pepys‘ diary for 30 March 1662 (Easter Day):

‘Having my old black suit new furbished, I was pretty neat in clothes to-day, and my boy, his old suit new trimmed, very handsome.’

In Wales, at least one new item of clothing, preferably brightly coloured, was to be worn on Easter day. It was also traditional to baptise children today, their new clothes suggestive of the new character they would assume.

The custom of clúdóg was observed in Ireland; children visited relatives or godparents in their best clothes, carrying woollen stockings in which gifts of raw eggs, cakes and sweets were placed. The youngsters would then wander out to find a spot for some al fresco egg-cooking and a picnic. Knowing how often it rains in Ireland, one wonders how much success they met with. Eggs were also boiled with laundry blue to colour them, or with onion skins (to turn them yellow), before painting them.

In Brittany, new clothes, coifs and shoes were worn to mass, and hard-boiled eggs given as presents in knotted handkerchiefs.

A vestige of this focus on new or overhauled clothing has come down to us with the notion of the Easter bonnet, often embellished to excess with ribbons, frills, flowers, etc, even if that too is pretty much a distant memory. Thank goodness Irving Berlin immortalised it thus. Enjoy your eggs!

 

 

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Feb 28

Red petticoats

Portrait of Daisy Grant, the artist’s daughter, wearing red petticoat and grey gloves, 1857

 

It’s a leap year. This fact probably hasn’t escaped you. If it has, make the most of your double dose of St David’s Day daffodils. As I’ve mentioned before, the 29th February was traditionally a date when convention was overturned and a woman was allowed to propose to the man of her choice, but only (according to one source*) if the woman in question was wearing red petticoats.

I hadn’t heard about the red-petticoat proviso before today, nor the price any chosen man was obliged to pay if he wished to decline: a pair of gloves for Easter, or a silk gown.

Reference to red petticoats always takes me back to that scene in The Railway Children (the flannel petticoats portion is about 7 minutes 20 seconds in).  Flannel was a soft plain- or twill-weave wool or cotton cloth used for underwear, especially petticoats. There’s a scarlet wool version available to American re-enactors over here (you have to scroll down quite a way). Red flannel petticoats were very much in vogue in the 1860s  (Queen Victoria may have favoured them) and remained popular throughout the rest of the Victorian period. But they tended to be bulky and by the 1890s were considered more functional than fashionable. Their appearance in E. Nesbitt’s 1906 storyline (worn by children who find them hot and cumbersome, and readily tear them up to avert disaster) reflects a certain humdrum utility. Incidentally, Edith Nesbitt overturned a few social norms herself; she was a political activist who cut her hair short, took up smoking, got married when 7 months pregnant, and may have had an affair with George Bernard Shaw – though not necessarily in that order.

I hope that summoning up the mental image of Jenny Agutter de-petticoating herself before swooning on a railway track has made any male readers of this blog (in the unlikely event that they exist) very happy.  I also hope that you enjoy your leap day, ladies. Please remember to propose responsibly.

 

 

* Maypoles, Martyrs & Mayhem by Quentin Cooper & Paul Sullivan, Bloomsbury, 1994

PS The portrait above belongs to the Scottish National Gallery, its purchase aided by the Art Fund in 2005.

 

 

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Dec 15

Christmas at War

I’m going to be making-do-and-mending with the Museum of Bath at Work this Saturday, helping them to celebrate a World War II-style Christmas. Pop by between 10am and 4pm on Saturday 17th and you’ll likely find me wreathed in brown-paper chains with a ton of darning mushrooms and other selected vintage notions, including some gorgeous Fair-Isle knitting patterns. The museum’s usual entrance fee applies, but you’re guaranteed to really get in the mood; re-enactment group the Blitz Buddies will be there, and I hear there will be music and dancing to make the experience come alive. Incidentally, this event kicks off the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Bath Blitz next year. Bath was bombed as part of the retaliatory Baedeker raids on 25th and 26th April 1942. You can find out more at the Bath Blitz Memorial Project. If you have memories of Bath during the war, the museum would be delighted if you’d come along on Saturday and share them.

The Christmas at War organisers have broken it to me gently that I’m expected to dress the part. I’ve decided to go land-girl style, sporting a Fair-Isle tank top. Fair-Isle knitting was a great way to use up stray odds and ends of yarn (one had to unpick worn-out knitted garments and re-knit) but its popularity during World War II possibly owes as much to an interesting rationing loophole: whereas knitting wool was rationed (two ounces of knitting yarn took one precious clothing coupon), mending cards not exceeding one ounce were exempt. Yarn producers cottoned on to this and duly produced mending cards in an array of colours to meet the demand. Cunning, eh?

Mrs. Sew-and-Sew darns

There were, of course, five Christmases celebrated while the nation was at war. The festivities of 1939 weren’t so different from those pre-war, though new blackout restrictions ended the sight of lit Christmas trees in front windows. Rationing hadn’t kicked in yet, and people spent quite freely on gifts, in spite of the Chancellor’s injunction not to be wasteful.

1940 was the first real wartime Christmas. Britain was under siege. The Blitz had kicked off in London in September, and November had seen the devastating bombing of Coventry. Food rationing had begun in January. Practical Christmas gifts were in: gardening tools, books, bottling jars and seeds, with the most popular gift that year being soap.

Clothing and textiles were rationed from June 1941, and food rationing increased to its peak by Christmas. Petrol and manpower shortages prevented home-delivery of shop goods, so people now had to carry their purchases. Wrapping paper was very scarce, and toys were in short supply and (when they could be found) shoddily made and expensive. Home-made or renovated gifts were the thing. Yet this was an optimistic time because, with the Allies now in the war, Brits felt they would definitely beat Hitler.

By Christmas 1942, two popular gifts had succumbed to the ration: soap and sweets. In order to prepare for the festive season, food coupons had to be saved for months ahead. Homemade decorations were the order of the day; the Ministry of Food made the helpful suggestion that, though there were ‘no gay bowls of fruit’, vegetables could be used instead for their jolly colours: ‘The cheerful glow of carrots, the rich crimson of beetroot, the emerald of parsley – it looks as delightful as it tastes.’

Christmas 1943 saw shortages at their height. There was little chance of turkey, chicken or goose, or even rabbit. Much Christmas food was ‘mock’ (i.e. false): mock ‘turkey’ (made from lamb) and mock ‘cream’ and ‘marzipan’.  Make-do-and-mend presents were the order of the day; magazines printed instructions for knitted slippers and gloves, brooches made from scraps of wool, felt or plastic, and embroidered bookmarks and calendars.

Mending threads

Vintage mending threads

Christmas 1944 was probably the least joyful of the entire war. People had hoped it might be all over by Christmas, after the Allied Normandy invasion of June,  but mid-December saw the Ardennes Offensive with thousands killed on both sides. German air attacks (now V1 and V2 rockets) began in June, with 30 hitting England on Christmas Eve. One surprise benefit of the pilot-less doodlebugs was that blackout restrictions could be lifted, so churches lit their their stained glass windows for the first time in 4 years. DIY gifts were once again a necessity; the book Rag-Bag Toys gave instructions for making a cuddly pig from an old vest, and a doll from old stockings.

The unconfined joy of VE Day 1945 suddenly makes a lot more sense to me. I think I will be relishing my Christmas turkey and tree lights as never before this year!

The Museum of Bath at Work can be found on Julian Road (the Lansdown Hill end), tucked behind Christ Church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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