Tagged: V&A

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.

 

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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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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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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