Tagged: Bath

Apr 13

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched!

 

 

The American Museum

The American Museum wakes up for another season

 

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

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

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

 

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched - & Patched!

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched! poster

Glad rags

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

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

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

 

Christening robe, c. 1890 c/o Jersey Museum

Christening robe, c. 1890 c/o Jersey Museum

 

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

Daffodil dress. Image c/o The American Museum

Daffodil dress. Photo credit: the American Museum

 

Sad rags

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

Jet pins

Jet pins

 

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

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

 

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

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

Quilts

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

 

Ellen Bryant's 1863 log cabin quilt

Ellen Bryant’s 1863 log cabin quilt

 

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

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

 

Christmas Bridge appliqued quilt

Christmas Bride appliqued quilt

 

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

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

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

 

Poignant needle

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

Embroidered tablecloth, World War II

Embroidered tablecloth, World War II

Postpartum pincushions

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

Welcome little stranger pin cushion

‘Welcome little stranger’ pin cushion

 

Tonsorial textiles

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

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

Curator Kate Hebert

Curator Kate Hebert

 

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

 

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

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

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Nov 16

Support SecondhandFirst Week

 

 

SecondhandFirst Week

SecondhandFirst Week

 

Tomorrow (today if you’re reading this on the email feed) marks the first day of #SECONDHANDFIRST Week, 17-23 November 2014.

The week aims to encourage people to commit to sourcing more clothing and other resources second hand. It’s organised by TRAID, the charity doing tireless work to ensure sustainable and ethical practices in the clothing chain. It’s hoped that this will become an annual event.

Here in Bath, the Big Mend is delighted to be acting as a partner organisation, and we’ve arranged one of our Flash Mend events* in Bath Central Library on Monday 17th November. We’d love it if you’d join us any time from 1-4pm with some hand-held mending: darning would be ideal as we’ll be hoping to quietly impart mending skills to passing library users. If you’re in Bath and would like a quick darning lesson, come down and say hello, pick up a darning mushroom and try out some stitches with us.

Here are ways you can support the week:

 

Flash mend event

A Big Mend Flash Mend event

 

*Mass mending events in public places

 

 

 

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Nov 09

Kaffe Fassett at the American Museum

 

My blog is still on life support, but I couldn’t resist popping back to take you on a brief tour of the Kaffe Fassett exhibition at the American Museum, Claverton Manor, Bath.

I squeaked in at the tail end of October, just before it closed. Perhaps it’s cruel of me to tantalise you with images of the King of Colour’s show that you now have no hope of seeing, but maybe you’re far away and had no chance to visit anyway. Or maybe you got there and are happy to be reminded of your grand day out. Whatever the case, I hope you can enjoy these images. Did you catch the exhibition? What was your favourite area or thing on display?

This huge tree hung with pompoms and lampshades was really stunning. It was a magnet for small children: delightedly scurrying about beneath it, batting at the yarn balls.

Bececked tree at the Kaffe expo, the American Museum, Claverton Manor, Bath

Bedecked tree at the Kaffe expo, the American Museum, Claverton Manor, Bath

 

The pictures don’t do the original concept justice as the fabric on the shades had faded considerably over the 6 months of the exhibition. You have to wonder how long it took the team to set this up last March; I assume it was a cherry-picker job. It makes me want to do something similar (though on a much smaller scale) with this year’s Christmas tree, possibly even decorating a tree outside, for a change. How about you?

Pompoms and lampshades

Pompoms and lampshades

 

Here was a rendition of Kaffe’s studio, complete with painting area on the left.

Studio area

Kaffe’s studio

 

A blazing yellow area.

Cushions, cats and cardigans

Cushions, cats and cardigans

 

A tactile section.

Please touch! I appreciated this.

Please touch! I really appreciated this touch.

 

Glorious needlepoint.

Kaffe cabinet

Needlepoint cushions

 

Plenty of vegetation.

Kaffe veg

Vegetables and flowers

 

Some nods to items in the museum’s collection.

Early American portraits

Early American portraits

 

Beautiful neutrals.

Tumbling blocks

Tumbling blocks

 

And a wall of Kaffe quips and wisdom.

Kaffe quotation wall

Kaffe quotation wall

 

Meanwhile, back in the main house (Claverton Manor proper, rather than the modern exhibition building), there were a few Kaffe touches on display for the determined visitor. It was fascinating to see the spreads and colourway varieties for a selection of printed textile patterns – apologies for the quality of the image.

 

Design sheet

Design sheet

 

But I was really smitten by these quiet inked line drawings of the museum’s room sets. Kaffe is an old friend to the museum and worked these in the 1960s, when the museum was brand new. Astonishingly little has changed in those room sets (which illustrate America from its early colonial days). As a Penn Dutch girl by ancestry, I loved his rendition of the decorative tinware, particuarly that perky coffee pot. And how fascinatingly un-Kaffe is this absence of colour? – not to mention un-Penn Dutch.

 

Kaffe's early work for the American Work, 1960s.

Kaffe’s early work for the American Work, 1960s.

 

In the museum’s Penn Dutch room, the mass of highly decorated stuff can be riotously hard to swallow, but the beautiful folk-art lines of those plain tinware cookie cutters are delicious in their simplicity and always draw me back.

 

Penn Dutch artefacts from the American Museum

Penn Dutch artefacts from the American Museum

 

And then home

And then home

 

That’s all for now, though I’m hoping to be back here more regularly soon. Meanwhile, I’m now signed  up on Instagram and find that an interesting place to post. Please join me. 

 

 

 

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Jun 04

Green your wardrobe

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Tomorrow is World Environment Day. To honour the occasion, I’ve arranged a little ‘flash mend’ here in Bath to try to raise a awareness about where our clothes go after we’ve done with them. I’ve called it ‘Green your wardrobe!’

I was pretty shocked to discover that so many unwanted textiles here in Bath get tossed straight into our regular bins (9 out of 10) rather than into the green recycling boxes (just 1 in 10). All the more shocking as we generally have a pretty good record of recycling things around here. I don’t know how much clothing is donated to local charity shops, though I suspect it’s a huge amount; that would be really interesting to know.

I’m hoping that our little mending ménage tomorrow can underscore some of the many alternatives to plain old wasteful binning tomorrow, one being the loving repair of our well-worn textile favourites. If you fancy joining us, that would be wonderful. We’ll be at the top of the escalators in Bath’s Waitrose at 1pm. You won’t be able to miss us: we should be wearing something green and carrying magenta darning mushrooms! Bring along something to mend, if you can. The idea is that we will gently darn and patch around our cappuccinos, space in the cafe allowing. If it’s crammed to the gunwhales, we might adjourn to the library next door – for a spot of silent slip-stitching, obviously. We should be there till a little after 2pm so just pop in for a moment or two, if you can.

And here’s a two-sided poster I drafted for the occasion. Feel free to share, if you like. Click on the top right arrow if you need to print.

 

 

green your wardrobe poster

green your wardrobe

 

 

PS Yes, yes, I know that this isn’t the promised Clothworkers post. The fatal error is that nobody pays me to write this poor, bedraggled and neglected blog. But soon…

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Mar 25

Mend with Mother

 

 

Minolta DSC

Mend with Ma this Wednesday

 

The Big Mend this month will have a Mother’s Day theme. So there’ll be FREE CAKE for all mums this Wednesday 26th March at the Museum of Bath at Work, Julian Road, Bath7-9pm.

We’d also love it if you’d come along and share your mending memories with us. Memories of watching things repaired at mother’s knee, perhaps; memories of Granny darning, maybe. We will be beginning to record mending memories in our imaginatively titled Mending Memories Notebook and warmly invite you to add yours.

I’m aware that many of us don’t have mothers (myself included) but I hope that won’t deter anyone from coming; there’ll be FREE CAKE for motherless souls too… :*-)

If you are in or near Bath and haven’t attended one of the Big Mend sessions, here’s how it works. We always meet on the last Wednesday of the month to tackle whatever’s in our mending pile – or, at least, a small portion of it. Tools and materials* are laid on, as far as possible, though you might want to bring along matching thread, or the perfect button, if you’re picky about such things. Or your sewing kit, if you’re attached to your particular needles, sewing scissors etc. There’ll be advice and suggestions on how you might go about your textile repair, if you’re stuck. We don’t charge, as such, but ask a minimum £2 donation to help cover the museum’s costs.

The more is most definitely the merrier, so if you like the idea then please share this post with someone else who you think might appreciate it. Thanks. Oh, did I mention the FREE CAKE?

 

*we’re always happy to accept donations of sewing tools, haberdashery or scrap materials that we can use for textile repairs. If you have anything that you think might be suitable, please get in touch.

 

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Feb 23

Scrap of the week #36

 

Here are several scraps sneaking in together as #36.

I was delighted to have a huge bagful of fabric scraps donated recently for use by the Big Mend. Here are just a few, washed and pressed and ready to go. There’s a ’70s duvet cover (purple flowers), ’70s pillow case (yellow flowers) and an old tablecloth (brown flowers). All of these had been carved up for the upcycling exploits of the previous owner. Underneath that is a length of late ’60s/early ’70s furnishing fabric. They will all be available to use for patching at our skills-sharing repair socials (or sewcials, if you like a cutesy handle).

The Big Mend sessions are open to everyone and anyone to come along with their mending pile and get guidance on how to work repairs. I give my time and skills freely (as do all the generous people who help me run the events). We see all sorts of people turning up to do everything from sewing on a button to repairing the seat of their favourite jeans. Tools and materials are mostly laid on gratis, again by yours truly. Which is why it’s particularly lovely to receive supportive gifts such as these. All we ask of attenders is a very small donation.

Did you know that you should always pre-wash fabrics* before using them to patch clothes or linens? At least, for anything that you intend to wash once it’s repaired. If not, the patch will likely shrink and detach from the garment it has been applied to. Such textile-repair wisdom was once commonplace, so much so that Jesus used it as an analogy in a parable to explain how he saw the meeting point of the old and new kingdoms:

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” Matthew 9:16-17

So, pre-wash your patching fabrics. You heard it here last.

 

*at least, when using natural fabrics – polyester, nylon etc won’t be so prone to shrinkage

 

The next Big Mend session at the Museum of Bath at Work takes place on Wednesday 26th February, 7-9pm. Besides these fabrics, there will be various materials to try your hand at working golden mends

We could always do with more sewing materials and tools, so if you happen to have anything you can donate to continue our skill-sharing in the community, please get in touch. Thank you.

 

Scraps for patching repairs

Patch-worthy scraps for the Big Mend

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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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Aug 03

Join the chicks @theFarm!

 

 

I’m delighted to be working with some excellent creative people (plus a few chickens, geese and dogs) on brand new project, @theFarm.

You can let your imagination run wild and your talents go free-range from this September when the the first @the Farm courses and workshops go live. It’s the place to learn a new craft skill, or spruce up an old one, with the very best hand-picked tutors in an ancient honeyed stone farmhouse in Wiltshire, just 20 minutes from Bath. Gorgeous lunches and refreshments are laid on within the workshop fee too. And parking is easy and ample. Could it get any better? I don’t think so.

To give you a small taste of what you can learn, there’ll be upholstery and lampshades c/o Joanna, who is also the clever lady who devised our photoshoot.

There’sdarning from me. My swift introduction to the subject, Strictly Come Darning!, has been favourably reviewed in Simply Knitting and Simply Crochet. I have sessions currently booking on Wednesday 11th September, Friday 11th October and Wednesday 13th November .

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Darning at the Farm

 

And I can also familiarise you with your sewing machine: the one you bought ages ago which has been gathering dust ever since. Or the one your grandma handed down to you, maybe rather like the one below. Whatever its age or make, bring it along to have its mysteries revealed at my one-day event, Get to Know Your Sewing Machine. You’ll also make a satisfying first project to take away. Dates: Monday 23rd September, Monday 14th October, and Saturday 23rd November.

Singer 99k, 1946

Allow me to introduce you to your sewing machine

 

Emma (pictured darning with me above) is the lovely boss and total organisational whizz, and the lady you speak to to make your booking.  Early Bird offers on these autumn courses end 23rd August, so get on the blower (01225 783504) or pooter (emma@at-the-farm.co.uk) before all the other chicks scratch over the best pickings. And don’t forget to sign up for @theFarm‘s monthly newsletter – if you can’t find the link, send Emma an email and ask to be put on the mailing list. More exciting tutors and workshops will be unveiled in due course, so keep your eyes peeled.

Hope to see you @theFarm very soon! Wellies not obligatory.

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