All 100 pillowcases are now cast and waiting to be sanded and finished later this month. However, my research has continued and uncovered some very interesting pieces of information amongst the archive.
Some years ago when I first began looking in to the use of pillowcases during WW1 I came across an item online that stated that the German army commandeered pillowcases from houses to use as sandbags. Unfortunately I can’t now find the reference or link online or even my notes from then so this may not be a true fact but one that if true would make sense. Pillowcases would be the perfect shape, size and construction to make sandbags.
I have mentioned in a previous post that I have been accessing the files relating to the War Work Depot that operated in Canterbury during the war. One of their roles was to make sandbags and I have been looking for evidence to support this recently. I was thrilled to discover that it was actually the Chapter House that was used as the venue for people to come together to actually make the sandbags and I love this connection to my previous research although it still doesn’t shed any light on whether pillowcases were used as sandbags.
The minute book of the War Work Depot does however have further references to the making of pillowcases and one very interesting reference as follows:
Sept 18th 1915
A request from No.3 General Hospital for 50 red turkey twill pillow cases was granted.
No.3 General Hospital was at Le Tréport, France and I wonder what red turkey twill pillowcases are and what they are for?
Further research does little to answer either of these questions however there are several thoughts based on what I did find out;
- ‘red turkey’ could refer to the colour known as turkey red https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkey_red
- ‘turkey twill’ could refer to the fabric as in twill from Turkey
As for why they needed red pillowcases my thoughts only lead me to one answer – to disguise the blood. Men with head wounds would have been bleeding profusely so maybe they used red pillowcases so they wouldn’t see the blood. I can’t find anything to support this theory so would be wonderful if any historians out there know the answer.
Just when I think I have found out all I can about pillowcases in WW1 something else comes along to spark ideas and send me off down another research road. See…. this is why I love working with archives!
My studio is currently a hive of activity; a great relief after the cold weather making it difficult to work in there. One end is covered in piles of neatly, and some not so neatly, folded pillow cases. the piles are slowly growing and I am waiting for 6 more to arrive in the post today. I feel a little flutter of excitement and joy at the thought of their arrival; is that sad? I really don’t care as you see that’s how it feels when the ideas start arriving and the making begins to take over. Every material, technique and activity take on a renewed significance as they lead you to the final work. At the weekend I got excited about buying a large bag of plaster….and so it goes on. I suspect others will identify with this and maybe it is something we very often won’t admit – the thrill of making which very often follows on from the fear of making, but that’s another blog post.
Back to the pillow cases.
My work at the Cathedral has very much focused on the poppy as I have previously written about and much of my research has been going down this route too. However, although I have made several bodies of work that feature the poppy there was a nagging something (and I can’t think of a work to describe this particular nagging) that was making me want to think around the poppy; not as a literal thing but what the poppy might suggest.
The poppy as a symbol of remembrance is not it’s only associations with war. Opium poppies have long been a cause of conflict and Opium derivatives were used to treat wounded soldiers as pain relief or to induce sleep and although both of the instances do not refer to the red Field Poppy they are relevant in the associations and wider ideas of what a poppy is, does and is used for.
“For almost eight thousand years, the mildly narcotic corn poppy and the morphine-bearing opium poppy have grown alongside each other, united in their dependence on people. This enduring relationship, while still not fully understood, spanned humaity’s transition from early agriculture to urban civilisation: these two poppies were ever present as medicine, religion, literature and art developed, and they can be traced through all these human endeavours”
Extract from ‘The Poppy, by Nicholas J Saunders, Oneworld Publications 2013, p.6
The poppy’s narcotic qualities has meant it has also long been used as a symbol of sleep and death and it is often this aspect that was represented in WW1 poetry. This association with sleep is how I see that the pillow cases are a relevant metaphor for the poppy and have a greater affinity with how I think and feel about the Poppy as a symbol of remembrance.
I have been busy casting the pillow cases. Not in their entirety, but folded and only revealing small details. I love the casting process and see each finished piece as having a triple life; as a sculpture, a print, and a printing plate. The actual process used can be found here and although this was written a few years ago and I have refined the process since then, the basic steps are still the same.
The 3 stages
A few examples of the finished castings. There will be 100 in all which is going to take a while to complete.
Yesterday I thought I was going to write about pillowcases but somehow that didn’t happen and I ended up writing about how I came to the point at which I decided the direction my work was going to take. So here is the follow up post.
Pillowcases have featured in my work since 2012 and it was during a residency at London Printworks Trust, Brixton that I began writing my regular blog; Embroider the Truth and wrote quite a bit about pillowcases. At that time I was visiting the Red Cross archives to try to find out more about Clarice and during one visit discovered an Army Supplies Order Book with references to the supply of pillowcases:
Between Oct and Nov 1914 3,000 pillowcases were issued by the Army
In October 1917 this number had risen to 37,672
It intrigued me where all the pillowcases came from and who made them but at that time I couldn’t find anything further.
This snippet of information from 6 years ago didn’t even enter my thoughts until sitting on a plane on the way home from Amsterdam.
Contained within the Cathedral archives is a file Cat no. CCA-CC-W/16 which contains letters sent to the Canterbury and District War Work Depot (WWD). The letters are mostly sent from hospitals thanking the WWD for the items they have sent and some are letters requesting items. For example:
30 Flannel undervests were sent to Nackington Hospital
Pneumonia Jackets went to the Military Hospital, Purfleet, Essex
Sheets, bath towels and slippers were sent to St David’s Hospital, Malta
Port Said, Egypt received PJ’s and vests in Dec 1916 and wrote ‘These are particularly welcome just now, as with the vastly increased numbers of patients in the hospital, we have totally been unable to keep pace with the deceased.’
and so the list could go on; 140 letters in total but I won’t list everything here as I may use the list in a piece of work.
However, it is 3 letters in particular that I am interested in
Cat no CC/W/16/5/52 is a letter from the Serbian Relief fund requesting blankets, sheets, pillows and pillow cases amongst other things
Cat no CC/W/16/5/59 is a letter from 26 General Hospital, B.E.F, France thanking the WWD for ‘the jacinette pillow cases’
Cat no. CC/W/16/5/120 sent from the Dane John Hospital, Canterbury thanking the WWD for the ‘linen, sheets, towels etc………Please thank those of your workers who marked the things so beautifully for us; it is such a great help not to have to mark the things here’
I assume this last letter refers to what looks like embroidery on the bed covers as seen here in this photo also found in the archive and one that I have previously written about.
Further research leads me to believe that items collected and distributed by the War Work Depot were either made by hand or donated from around Kent and the references to pillow cases making up part of their consignments makes my thoughts about creating a new installation of pillow cases particularly relevant.
I already had a collection of over 50 pillow cases from my previous project and as before it seems important that they have been hand embroidered or hand embellished in some way through the addition of lace or ribbons. For this new installation I wanted 100 pillow cases and so the search has begun.
Finding old pillow cases to buy can be difficult; charity shops tend to throw them away as they are often stained and therefore not very desirable to others. Ebay is generally a good source but prices can be high so I did a call out on Facebook and Twitter for people to keep an eye out for me. To my delight two Twitter friends; Gail Baxter and Mary Crabb very kindly sent me a wonderful selection of very beautiful pillow cases and the manner in which these were donated feels like a reference to the items collected and donated to the WWD. Thank you Gail and Mary!
I now have almost 70 so if anyone reading this blog can help my quest to have 100 then do please get in touch.
It feels so right that I have returned to the pillow cases for my work at the Cathedral and I will write more about what I intend to do with them and how they connect to my ideas about the Armistice and the poppy in another post
The next thrilling instalment coming soon!
Now the weather has warmed up I seem to be working on numerous projects at the same time trying to catch up. There also seems to be a surge in activity in general following the Easter break. This is all good as it has meant that things have now been (almost) finalised for the exhibition of my work that has resulted from the residency.
Although my actual residency period ended if February I am glad I decided to use the entire period for research rather than trying to make work in response at the same time. I am so glad that I took numerous photos of everything at the time as it has allowed me to go back and revisit and the work I intend to make has changed and developed several times as a result.
I have already written about one body of work in my blog entry ‘Testing Ideas’ written in March when I wrote about the development of a series of flags. Unfortunately, due to issues with fixing the flags in the Chapter House this idea has had to morph into another form and although I will still use the imagery they will be presented differently; more on that another time when I have finalised a few things.
And so my thoughts returned to the research and the feeling that there was still responses as yet unexplored. This coincided with a visit to Amsterdam and the stunning Oude Kerk where there was a brilliant installation by Christian Boltanski
The installation of coats laid in grid form on the floor reminded me of my own work and in particular of Resting Place and my installation of pillowcases. I saw so many crossovers between what Boltanski wrote about the installation, the site of the work and the use of the coats that I spent the flight home deep in thought and searching through photos on my phone.
My thoughts were to create a new installation using pillowcases in the Chapter House at Canterbury Cathedral. My photos of the items I accessed at the cathedral confirmed that this idea would make sense in the context of the centenary of the Armistice and although this blog was supposed to be about the significance I seem to have waffled on about how the idea came to me. Another blog post is needed I think or this will just get too long and complicated. But for now a huge thank you to Christian Boltanski and his work for helping me to unravel my thoughts.