Thursday 14 February 2013

Textile Stories: The Fabric of Everyday Life

Textiles tell stories…

From the clothes we wear to the fabrics we use around the home, textiles say something about the way we see ourselves and the stories we want to tell.

The ‘Imperfect’ Firescreen by Deborah Wynne

A few years ago I bought this firescreen from a junk shop, a simple wooden structure with a glass front which protects a tapestry. As soon as I noticed the stitched design, I felt intrigued about its creator and wondered what story lay behind its creation. It obviously was not made in a factory; its imperfections testify to that. Yet the imperfections of its design are what make this object fascinating to me and I often find myself wondering about the story behind this intriguing object.

The stitched design is based on the image of two deer at rest in a moorland landscape; however, between each of the animals rises an enormous vase of flowers which appears to float in the sky above them. An odd combination indeed! Some of the flowers in the vase are incomplete, the ones at the top left and top right of the firescreen do not even have stems and seem to float strangely above the rest, like comets in the sky. Clearly, the needleworker was uncertain about which design to produce, but instead of unpicking one before starting on the other, the vase and the landscape seem to compete for the same space. Why?

Many, many questions have been prompted by this object, especially in the summer when, as it conceals my empty fireplace, the firecreen takes centre-stage in my living room. Is the design unfinished because the stitcher ran out of thread and simply couldn’t be bothered to complete the project properly? I think that a more likely explanation is that something happened to prevent this needleworker completing the design. Did a loved one preserve the textile as a relic of a deceased relative, spouse, or friend, and was unable to bear altering their last piece of needlework? Why has this stitched fabric been so carefully preserved within an ornamental firescreen when its design is so confused and the piece unfinished? Was it once on display in a sitting room as a fond reminder of someone who liked needlework? How did the firescreen end up in the junk shop? Is the needleworker now forgotten? Was the person who had preserved this relic now dead?

I often wonder who took the trouble to preserve an unfinished piece of work (some might call it ‘flawed’), as the central design of a firescreen. The confused and unfinished design spoke volumes to me, largely because I can identify with someone who can’t make up their mind about what to create: I am currently knitting a cardigan and can’t decide on the front panel, I am wavering between a V-neck and a button-up-to-the-neck design. This vacillation from one plan to another has often led to the creation of many oddly-shaped garments in the past. The creator’s indecision, captured in the contradictory design of the firescreen, is a mystery, making this object unique, very far removed from the ‘perfection’ of machine-made, mass-produced items.

I discussed the ways in which textiles convey stories in my recent book, Women and Personal Property in the Victorian Novel (Ashgate, 2010). Below is an excerpt discussing Dickens’s Bleak House, and his depiction of Esther Summerson’s handkerchief. This is seen as valuable by many of the novel’s female characters, because Esther has embroidered it herself, with her own name:

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