Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Nest of Jumpers

As the due date for the arrival of my daughter came closer, friends and family started to knit.  People who I didn’t know could knit would shyly produce some wonderful little garment into which hours of hard work and love had obviously been poured.  Knitting is not a skill I possess (although I do keep trying!), so I was touched and taken aback with the time and effort that went into each gift.  As the baby grew, so did the collection of various knitted goods that my Mother in particular made for me.  As these inconceivably small jumpers started to appear, I couldn’t believe there would be a tiny someone filling them soon:

Close to my due date, my Mom arrived with what she (rather appropriately) called ‘the nest’:

Inside the nest was a collection of knitted jumpers that my Grandmother had passed down to my Mom.  All brightly coloured, all beautiful and knitted with a skill that was far beyond me:

I guess like most new Moms these days, I had allowed myself to get caught up in the materialism of the moment: we must have the latest this, the baby will surely need that.  All those bright, white, perfectly manufactured cardigans and babygrows seemed so enticing.  But receiving these jumpers gave me pause for thought.  My Mom had often spoken about the ‘strong women’ in our family, generations of working class women who raised large families, worked extremely hard, and endured.  Our little family (myself, my sister, my Mom and Dad) were quite transient (being RAF and living all over the world during most of my childhood), so these ‘strong women’ from Wolverhampton were quite distant figures to me growing up, grainy images in photographs.  But these treasured little things had been saved for the next generation and were now being passed down to me, and it made these women suddenly very real.  I was impressed with skill and care that went into each garment; these women were raising families, and sometimes working more than one job outside of the home, but they still found time to produce something beautiful:


To me, these jumpers represent a line of women who were capable, hardworking and loving.    They reminded me, at a time when I was embarking on my own journey as a mother, that behind me, and behind my daughter, is a loving family.  As a tiny person, my daughter wore all these jumpers, and when she got too big for them, I carefully stored them back in the nest, ready for someone else to wear.

Dr Georgina O'Brien-Hill, University of Chester

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Cushion

S&J, 28th April 2012
Better known as ‘The Lovely Cushion’, this was made for us by a friend. When we celebrated our handfasting and civil partnership, we were very clear that we wanted an occasion that was as self-made as possible. We ordered quantities of flowers to arrange in the house, and made our own bunting to decorate the garden. My sons were ushers, barmen, and general entertainers. Friends and family brought food, booze, love, good wishes for the future, laughter…and this beautiful cushion.

I love its wonkiness, its imperfection. I don’t know what it looked like in the original vision of its creator, but, for us, it encapsulates that day, and our relationship, perfectly. Spookily, it’s almost identical to a photo of us, walking towards the stone circle where we held our handfasting. Stitching is always potentially subversive, being a ‘women’s tradition’; I love the fact that the colour scheme is based on Suffragette colours.

What is it about textiles made by hand that’s so redolent of intent, so meaningful? For me, it’s the idea that someone spent the time and energy thinking about it in the first place, then sleuthed about to pick up pertinent details about the clothes we’d be wearing, picked out the thread to represent the colours of our hair and the fabric for our outfits, then made it, stitch by stitch. Materialising intent, quite literally. It sits on our sofa, centre stage – we even took it on honeymoon with us. Our hands, stitched together, will survive us. When my grandchildren own this cushion, they can make their own stories about it for their children. It says, ‘this was ours. Now it belongs to the future.’
Jen Davis, University of Chester
The Maker’s story
I've always tried to make home-made gifts when I have the chance, and have mucked around with sewing, embroidery and various other crafts since I was a child. I was largely taught by a childhood friend whose family was much more 'crafty' than my own, but I'm not particularly good at any of it - my enthusiasm always exceeds my ability. Nonetheless, I enjoy throwing myself into projects, some of which are ridiculously ambitious (I once re-upholstered a couch on a whim, entirely by hand), and almost all of which outstrip my actual skills.

I decided to embroider/applique a cushion for you and Sally because I'd recently enjoyed making one for my mother's sixtieth birthday. I love customising things - even if the end result is a bit wonky, it always feels more special than a generic gift.

The fabric pieces for the applique were from one of the trendy craft shops that has sprung up around Islington, and were chosen based on the information I'd managed to wheedle out of Sally re. the colour of the corsets and skirts that you and Sally were going to be wearing on the wedding day. I bought the cushion itself from a tiny local haberdashery in London, which is one of my favourite places to shop - it's not one of the trendy new craft places at all, but a very dingy joint run by a grumpy old man. And the overall purple and green colour scheme is the colours of the suffrage movement, which felt appropriate for a lesbian wedding.

It took a few nights of happy sewing to complete, and (as always) turned out nothing like the image I'd had in my head - I think the figures ended up being oddly unflattering to both of you, and the colour scheme looks a bit bonkers! But I enjoyed the process, and it was made with much love.
Dr Francesca Haig, University of Chester

Monday, 25 February 2013

A Piece of Veil.

It may not look very much but this small piece of material is a powerful reminder of all the women that stand round me in my life and are my strength. It was given to me wrapped round a bouquet of handpicked flowers. My friends had insisted on a night together before my wedding. We watched the sun set over the river drinking wine, eating beautiful food and talking. Amongst all the gifts, ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue and a silver thruppence in her shoe,’ was this extra, the just in case the hand-stitched cushion didn’t make it in time present, given to me privately in the kitchen at the end of the night. The back-up present. My friend explained to me that the bouquet included some rosemary and lavender for remembrance and memory, which had been at the centre of her own wedding bouquet in memory of her father and it was hand-tied in a piece of her veil. Having spent hours browsing beautiful images of weddings and trying on some amazing dresses nothing had seemed quite right but this small piece of fabric and those flowers told me what my wedding was about. So I went back to my first dress, in the vintage shop, a worn before beautiful 1930s style evening dress, and I took in the piece of veil. I now knew how to make this dress, which would have been danced in before, my own, with a hand-stitched and beaded ‘veil’ flowing from the shoulders – I wasn’t being given away and I wanted to walk in hand-in-hand with my husband-to-be and daughter – so the veil came from my shoulders and stood for the strength all these women give to me every day, for their conversations, for their tea and biscuits, for the glasses of wine and for the holding on to each other.

 In my bouquet and amongst all the flowers, put together on the morning of the wedding with my friends, with the sea salted rain lashing against the Georgian house teetering on the edge of Anglesey, was the lavender and rosemary making sure my mother was there with me every step of the day and it was wrapped in my friend Sarah’s piece of veil.

The beautiful hand embroidered cushion which was finished by another friend, just in time, made up of: something new, the cushion; something old – a vintage handkerchief; something borrowed - my friend’s time embroidering; something blue - the thread. It is now cuddled by my daughter every evening when she snuggles up on the sofa.

Dr Sarah Heaton, University of Chester

Across Generations: Textiles and Memory

Clive Regis, 56:

Many years ago, maybe 1987 or 1988, my daughter Amber, who was 6 or 7 at the time, gave me this felt comb case: a functional little green and brown number with “DAD” stitched into the green side. If I remember rightly (which is a rarity these days), it was a Father’s Day present. I vaguely remember that little face looking up at me to monitor my reaction to the obvious hours of painstaking needlework, and, knowing Amber at that time—she could knock things over just by looking at them—the several impalings on the needle I’m sure she endured. It’s been with me ever since: in my bedroom, bathroom, and ever since 1998 in my motorcycle tank bag—a personal reminder not to go too fast, but also an essential item of biker equipment for restyling that condition called “helmet hair.” It still has the original comb, but probably because my hair line rapidly receded around this time and so did the workload on the comb. A work of art, I’m sure you will agree?
Amber Regis, 31:

I have only the vaguest memory of making this comb case. I’m pretty sure it’s the last surviving relic of my brief stint as a Brownie in the 1980s; we had been taught a few basic stitches, and here I put them to good use to make a Father’s Day present. I have long since forgotten these needlework skills, so I’ll pause here to let you admire the photographic evidence of early promise and wasted potential (and I’m sure you’ll agree my blanket stitch edging is rather impressive).

Memories of creation might be few, but as an object this comb case is deeply, viscerally familiar. My Dad has kept it all these years, but it’s not been hidden away, put in a draw or box, wrapped in tissue paper. I still associate the comb and case with his shirt or jacket pockets when he used to come home from work, and as motorcycling once again became a passion in his life, the comb and case went with him in his bag. Over the years I’ve often spotted it on sideboards and kitchen counters, a reminder that I was once much younger and smaller (and better at needlework), but also that my Dad has held on to a piece of that childhood.
Now, I’ll let you get back to admiring my blanket stitch.

 Amber Regis, University of Sheffield 

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Textile Stories

Saturday 15th June 2013
English Department
University of Chester

Do you have an item of clothing which tells an interesting story? Have you ever made an item from or with textiles which means something special to you? Are you aware of an interesting local textile treasure? Do you find the clothing of the past of particular fascination? Are film and television ‘costume dramas’ compelling viewing because the ‘drama of costume’ offers added pleasure? Do you just want to find out more about textiles, fabrics, clothes and costumes and their remarkable stories in fact and in fiction?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, then contact Deborah Wynne ( for more information and a ticket to this free one-day event. This study day is open to all who are interested in the ways in which textiles tell stories, whether family histories or personal narratives, or the tales told in local and wider communities.

There will be a number of activities and talks including:

’Down Memory Lane: Yorkshire’s Heritage Examined through Clothing’
Lynne Webster and David Backhouse (The Yorkshire Fashion Archive, Leeds)


‘All that Glitters…: The 5th Marquis of Anglesey’s Clothes and Costumes’
Viv Gardner (Emeritus Professor of Theatre Studies, University of Manchester)


‘Reading Miss Havisham’s Dress: Screening Great Expectations
Amber Regis (University of Sheffield) and Deborah Wynne (University of Chester) 

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: