I just finished my last piece for the Tangled Yarns show! Well …. I wouldn’t mind going back over a couple of works, and I already have ideas for more work, but there just isn’t enough time for new pieces, and better not risk overworking any of the completed ones. The last work was an embroidery piece on a patchwork fragment I found in one of the Textile Society‘s Antique Textiles Fairs.
There was something about this piece, a faded, threadbare part of a larger patchwork, that I found immediately intriguing. I was wondering who had made it, and when. I asked the vendor when she thought it dated from, and she said “Victorian”. I thought that was quite funny because after all, Queen Victoria’s reign lasted for over 60 years. To my mind, the patchworked patterns looked more modern, but I am not an expert. Also, many of the patterns are classic shirting stripes which probably changed little over decades if not centuries. Anyway, I bought the fragment, and after a while the idea of doing some kind of embroidery on it crystallised.
But I didn’t want to do that without having a better idea of when it was made. Fortunately textile historian Dr Philip Sykas from Manchester Metropolitan University agreed to take a look, with the proviso that these kind of cottons are notoriously difficult to date given the longevity of the patterns and the well-worn state of my fabric. Watching him examine the piece of cloth was fascinating. He had a kind of zoom magnifying device that was connected to his computer and as he passed it over a section of cloth we could see a mega-magnified image of of that section on the screen. This allowed him to gather much more information on things like stitch length and quality, weave, colour and fading.
But as always the expert’s real skill lies not only in gathering information, but also in being able to interpret it it. For example, I also had noticed that there were pieces of patchwork with the same pattern but in different colour ways, but I hadn’t drawn the conclusion that therefore, the fabric swatches were most likely from a cloth merchant’s or garment maker’s ‘out of date’ sample book. The magnified view confirmed that the stitching was made on a sewing machine; the quality of the stitch suggests that it was worked by a skilled seamstress who may well have been a professional machinist, but was doing this patchwork at home, in her own time. It is impossible to tell what the original intended use of the patchwork might have been because I only have a fragment of it. In the end, taking clues from pattern, stitch and fabric type, Dr Sykas thought that this piece was most likely made in the early 20th century. This was exciting – I now had a much more specific time period to trigger my imagination.
When thinking about women in the early 20th century I almost immediately thought of the suffragettes. Maybe because they had been in the news so much this year, but also because for me there is a logical progression from women’s economic empowerment through participation in the workforce to the political empowerment the suffragettes were fighting for.
When talking about work in the (female-dominated) textile industry, whether in 19th century England or 21st century Bangladesh, the need to highlight bad labour practices sometimes risks drowning out the fact that for many of these young women from poor, disadvantaged backgrounds a job in a textile factory was and is a much-valued opportunity to earn their own money and gain a measure of independence. However, prior to universal suffrage this empowerment remained limited: a woman may have been able to make decisions about how to spend her hard-earned wages, but she she had no say in the political process.
Therefore, with my patchwork piece I wanted to make a link between the fight for decent jobs and the fight for political equality. I had been looking at the suffragists’ history in the Museum of London and the People’s History Museum in Manchester as well as in books on the movement; I was particularly intrigued by the contrast, in my 21st-century eyes, between the quaint, old-fashioned look of the marching women in their long frilly frocks and wide-brimmed hats, and the bravery and radicalism of their actions. In the end I decided to adorn my patchwork piece with appliquéd letters spelling out a popular suffragette banner slogan that still feels very relevant today: “Deeds Not Words”.
For the letters I used fabrics from the other works in the exhibition – bringing all my tangled ‘yarns’ together in the last piece. At least that’s the idea!