Tuesday 26 March 2013

Elizabeth Parker’s Sampler: Trauma and Sewing

One of the most intriguing objects in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is a sampler sewn in 1830 by a young woman, employed as a servant, Elizabeth Parker. The sampler recounts the abuse she suffered, the ‘cruel usage’ of the master of the house, and her subsequent suicide attempt. Her sampler opens with the odd statement: ‘As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely as I might speak to a person’, yet the stitched ‘story’ suggests that Elizabeth Parker could write. It is possible, however, that the kind employer who encouraged her to sew her story wrote this down and Elizabeth copied the shapes of the letters as she sewed. Possibly, Elizabeth’s new mistress knew that her servant needed to express the terrible ordeal she had experienced and record it in a permanent form. This, of course, is conjecture. However, Elizabeth’s moving account indicates the vulnerability of young working-class women employed in households far from their families, as well as the power of needlework as a form of women’s writing.

Elizabeth Parker’s Sampler, V & A Museum Textile Collection

[For an interesting academic analysis of the samples see Nigel Llewellyn, ‘Elizabeth Parker’s “Sampler”: Memory, Suicide and the Presence of the Artist’ in Material Memories (eds) M. Kwint, C. Breward and J. Aynsley (Oxford: Berg, 1999)]

The tiny stitched words read as follows:

As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely as I might speak to a person whose intimacy and tenderness I can fully intrust myself and I know will bear with all my weaknesses – I was born at Ashburnham in the country of Sussex in the year 1813 of poor but pious parents my fathers occupation was a labourer for the Rt Hon the Earl of A My mother kept the Rt Hon – the Countess of A Charity School and by their ample conduct and great industry were enabeled [sic] to render a comfortable living for their family which were eleven in number ... I went to Fairlight housemaid to Lieu. G but there cruel usage soon made me curse my Disobedience to my parents wishing I had taken there [sic] advice and never left the worthy family of P. but then alas to [sic] late they treated me with cruelty to [sic] horrible to mention for trying to avoid the wicked design of my master I was thrown down stairs but I very soon left them and came to my friends but being young and foolish I never told my friends what had happened to me …

After narrating her attempt to commit suicide, Elizabeth Parker ‘writes’:

Oh how can I expect mercy who went on in sin until Dr W reminded me of my wickedness For with shame I own I returned to thee O God because I had nowhere else to go How can such repentance as mine be sincere what will become of my soul ……

The stitching ends here.

Prof Deborah Wynne, University of Chester

Monday 25 March 2013

Textile Gifts

After always admiring the many knitted outfits made by my Romanian student Floarea, she insisted on treating me to this knitted top, similar to the one she proudly wore to college during the week leading up to the half- term break.

Floarea, though young in age, has embraced old-fashioned values – she appears to share the mentality and personality of the traditional ‘Victorian’ housewife, who prides herself on cooking, cleaning, looking after the family and of course, spending copious time KNITTING for her friends and family.

Although I come from a West Indian background where it was cost effective for friends and family to knit and make their own dresses, I somehow never really developed a passion for knitting. Several years ago a friend of mine gave me a few knitting lessons and I must confess that at first I was excited at being able to use both hands simultaneously. Later, I attempted to knit the odd scarf but realised how soon my patience would wane; besides, in my mind I always thought that the end product would probably never look as good as the ones advertised in shops. So I gave up! Yes, I gave up on knitting but not on admiring the intricate details of a knitted garment.

Here is my hand-made top and as you can see, this beautiful, bright red top can be worn on its own or as a ‘throw on’ over another top. It is warm to the touch and I know the love that went into making it. I know Floarea had spent the half term shopping for the right colour and using her time to knit me this blouse when really she should have been working on assignments.

When Floarea presented the top to me, I gasped! I couldn’t contain my delight and the thrill of having my first knitted top added to my wardrobe. There is something very special about having a gift that is ‘home-grown’; that personal touch weaved into the top means a lot to me and it is with deep appreciation that I cherish it and now it hangs freely in my wardrobe, awaiting springtime when it will blend in with all the budding colourful flowers.

Looking back, I realise how a knitted top managed to open a wonderful window for me to get to know Floarea better both as a student and to some extent on a more personal level. I’m always interested in the culture of other countries and now I know a touch more about Romania; suffice to say, I was smiling like a Cheshire cat when I shared my account on meeting with the Romanian essayist and novelist Norman Manea, whose book, The Black Envelope, is a brilliant read! 

Well, thanks to knitting, other students have expressed interest and moreover, I’m hoping that Floarea will set aside her somewhat modest nature and perhaps one day, showcase her finery online!


Elizabeth Negus, Head of English at Barking and Dagenham College, London

Monday 18 March 2013

Jane Austen, Needlework and Dress

Many women writers of the past were skilled needlewomen. Jane Austen was no exception and she records her needlework activities, including making her own clothes. Edward Austen-Leigh wrote in 1870 that, ‘[H]er needlework both plain and ornamental was excellent […]. She was considered especially great in satin stitch. She spent much time in these occupations, and some of her merriest talk was over clothes which she and her companions were making, sometimes for themselves, and sometimes for the poor’ (Memoir of Jane Austen, p. 98). There is a patchwork quilt made by Jane Austen at Chawton House Museum, along with some items of her clothing, including a white pelisse. Austen’s love of clothes is evident in her letters to her sister, Cassandra. This is a good example of her enthusiasm:

Jane Austen’s Cloak

‘My Cloak is come home, & here follows the pattern of its lace. – If you do not think it wide enough, I can give 3d a yard more for yours, & not go beyond the two Guineas, for my Cloak altogether does not cost quite two pounds. – I like it very much, & can now exclaim with delight, like J. Bond at Hay-Harvest, “This is what I’ve been looking for these three years”. I saw some Gauzes in a shop in Bath Street yesterday at only 4d a yard, but they were not so good or so pretty as mine.’  (2nd June 1799: in Selected Letters (ed.) V. Jones (OUP, 2009), pp.31-32)

Jane Austen’s illustration in the letter of the pattern of the lace on her cloak.
Yet Austen could be wary about expressing an interest in clothes in her novels, knowing that society viewed fashion as trivial and a sign of vanity, as this quotation from Northanger Abbey suggests:

‘Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Catherine knew all this very well; her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject only the Christmas before; and yet she lay awake ten minutes on Wednesday night debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of the time prevented her buying a new one for the evening.’ (Northanger Abbey)


Pride and Prejudice (1813)

The Drama of Costume

Jane Austen’s novels have been the source of numerous ‘costume dramas’, film and television adaptations which showcase the ‘otherness’ of the past by means of the characters’ dress. The pleasure in costume which fans of Austen adaptations experience is celebrated in the 1995 BBC series, Pride and Prejudice, where the opening credits focus on beautiful and sensuous fabrics, while a needle is shown busily at work:
This adaptation was renowned for a moment of undressing which gripped the media’s attention for some time, when Mr Darcy (played by Colin Firth), plunged into a lake wearing only a shirt and drawers.

This, of course, was not a scene depicted by Austen, who rarely describes clothing in Pride and Prejudice, let alone the discarding of clothes. However, we often read a screen adaptation through its presentation of costume, and in the 1990s viewers may have wanted to see Mr Darcy as having qualities of the ‘new man’. The 1940 MGM film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with Laurence Olivier as Mr Darcy, says more about mid-twentieth-century depictions of ‘the gentleman’, than about Regency styles of masculinity:
It is interesting to ponder why Austen spends so much time describing sewing, clothing and fashion in her letters, and so little time discussing these topics in most of her novels. This is rather different from the women writers of the Victorian period, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell in particular. As I research my book, Literary Fabrics: Texts, Textiles and Costume Dramas, I will be giving this distinction some thought.
Prof Deborah Wynne, University of Chester

Thursday 14 March 2013

The ‘Grandma Blanket’

This hand-made blanket is one of my most treasured possessions, despite its various holes and wonky sections.
My grandmother (whom we called ‘Manma’) taught me to knit when I was very young – apparently I was pretty keen on knitting when I was little, but as she lived several hours’ flight away, I fell out of practice and forgot entirely how to knit. When I was in my twenties and wanted to learn again, I had to start from scratch. My best friend and housemate Maree had been teaching me how, and I ‘d stumbled my way through a scarf or two, when the news came that Manma was dying.
I flew up to Queensland to nurse her during her final weeks. After the first few days, I decided that the many hours of sitting by her bedside might be a good chance to practice my rediscovered knitting, so the next morning my great aunt Audrey (Manma’s sister, with whom I was staying) drove me to a craft store on the way to the nursing home, and I bought some wool, intending to make a scarf.
As soon as we arrived at the nursing home that morning, it became very clear that Manma had taken a dramatic turn for the worst – her breathing was laboured, she was in and out of consciousness, and she died within several hours.
As I sat by the body that afternoon, I again felt the urge to knit – partly to pass the time, and partly as a way of honouring the woman who had originally taught me how. I couldn’t remember how to ‘cast on’, so I had to phone my friend Maree, who patiently talked me through the process as I sobbed and fumbled.
Over the next few days, in between making funeral arrangements, notifying the family, etc., I found the knitting to be really soothing, and my great aunt Audrey was able to advise me when I got muddled or dropped a stitch.
As soon as Manma had died, I’d decided that rather than a scarf I would make a blanket as a special memento. It was to be made up of small squares of various colours. This project went on for the next year or so. Many evenings, if Maree and I were at home, we’d knit squares as we chatted or watched TV. The little piles of knitted squares became a fixture on our coffee-table.  I posted some of the wool back up to Queensland, and my beloved great aunt Audrey knitted a few squares (despite her arthritic hands) and posted them back down. My sister Clara also knitted several squares.
When we finally had enough squares, Maree’s grandmother Nell kindly offered to help with sewing the square together.  When I moved to England in 2007, I brought with me a big bag full of the knitted squares, many of them paired up by Nell. Over the next while, I completed the blanket, laying out the squares on the floor of my Chester flat and finally sewing together all the various pieces. The blanket is my favourite thing to cuddle up in on a cold English night, particularly when I’m missing my family in Australia.
A year or two after that, Maree had moved to England to study for a year, when her grandmother Nell died suddenly. I lent Maree the blanket (which we’d come to call ‘the grandma blanket’) and she kept it with her for the rest of her time in England. Maree was on the other side of the world from her family, and couldn’t attend Nell’s funeral, but she found the blanket was a comforting reminder of her grandmother’s kindness.
Every time I snuggle into the blanket, I think fondly of those who contributed to it, and of what it signifies: the passing on of love, skills and generosity between generations, and the astounding network of support that has been provided by the women in my life.
Reading Sarah’s entry on this blog reminds me that that these textile stories seem very often to be about the network of friendships, family and support between women. Indeed, when Sarah was staying with me recently and had forgotten the piece of knitting that she likes to carry with her as a comforting habit, I found a square from the blanket (not all of them had fitted into the final shape) and gave it to her. It felt right that Sarah, who has become a wonderful friend during my time in England, should be drawn in to this network of friends and family.
Dr Francesca Haig, University of Chester

Tuesday 12 March 2013


He stands by his bed that he’s covered with washed socks

And couples them, folding black with black, black with black,

Coupling and folding, coupling and folding, coupling and folding,

Until he can throw them, one by one, into the drawer.

He does this every three weeks, or every sixteen days if it’s winter.

He usually does this with a smile, but sometimes he doesn’t.

Ashley Chantler, In Praise of Paving (The Alternative Press, 2003)

Monday 11 March 2013

Edith Wharton and the Doucet dress

Edith Wharton to my mind is one of the most important writers of fashion not just because of the liberal attention to details of dress  which makes her writing so appealing but because her works are littered with shoes, gloves, parasols, hats  and, of course, yards and yards of sumptuous fabrics. Details of dress for Wharton are not merely about reflecting a character nor about a careful reader charting the changes of fashion’s nuances, rather an outfit has the level of presence to change the narrative action. Lily Bart in The House of Mirth only has to contemplate the outfit she has selected the previous night for the wooing of Percy Gryce on an unaccustomed visit to church to change her course. Lying in bed on the sunlit morning:

‘A small spark was enough to kindle Lily’s imagination, and the sight of the grey dress and the borrowed prayer –book flashed a long light down the years. She would have to go to church with Percy Gryce every Sunday. They would have a front pew in the most expensive church in New York, and his name would figure handsomely in the list of parish charities.’

She soon misses her appointment with Percy Gryce and adorns an alternative outfit for a more pastoral affect in her meeting with Lawrence Seldon at a ‘charming spot’ on a ‘rustic seat at a bend of the walk’:

‘assuming a dress somewhat more rustic and summerlike in style than the garment she had first selected, and rustling downstairs, sunshade in hand, with the disengaged air of a lady in quest of exercise.’

So I expect nothing less of this author of fashion than her being one of the first mentions I can find of a fashion designer in fiction:

‘Out of spirits? Why on earth should you ever be out of spirits? Is your last box of Doucet dresses a failure, or did Judy rook you out of everything at bridge last night?’
Lily shook her head with a sigh. ‘I have had to give up Doucet; and bridge too – I can’t afford it.’

For me this is a significant move in the literature of fashion suddenly it is the name rather than the detail which tells us all we need to know. Jacques Doucet (1853-1929) was born into a family Rue de la Paix business of fine linen and lingerie. He opened his salon selling evening gowns in 1871. Maison Doucet specialised in pastel colours and using lace, ribbons, beading and embroidery so that the dresses appear ethereal compared to more recent fashions.  There was also a move towards the more upright figure line so when whole dresses were made out of gros point de venise lace with floral designs the fluidity of the body and the lace intertwined.

Doucet was also a man who claimed a literary and artistic eye with Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ on his hallway wall and two libraries. It is not insignificant to me then that Wharton chooses Doucet to name in her fiction and that she herself dresses in Doucet to entice the literary eye of Henry James a writer whose attention to detail of dress is often overlooked. That she suggests he didn’t notice her – that the dress had somehow failed to draw his eye – is to me or at least  I would like to think an elision, an autobiographical literary sleight of hand – how could he not have noticed a tea-rose pink Doucet.

For a long time there seemed small hope of his ever figuring there, for when we first met I was still struck dumb in the presence of greatness, and I had never doubted that Henry James was great, though how great I could not guess till I came to know the man as well as I did his books. The encounter took place at the house of Edward Boit, the brilliant water-colour painter whose talent Sargent so much admired. Boit and his wife, both Bostonians, and old friends of my husband’s, had lived for many years in Paris, and it was there that one day they asked us to dine with Henry James. I could hardly believe that such a privilege could befall me, and I could think of only one way of deserving it — to put on my newest Doucet dress, and try to look my prettiest! I was probably not more than twenty-five, those were the principles in which I had been brought up, and it would never have occurred to me that I had anything but my youth, and my pretty frock, to commend me to the man whose shoe-strings I thought myself unworthy to unloose. I can see the dress still — and it WAS pretty; a tea-rose pink, embroidered with iridescent beads. But, alas, it neither gave me the courage to speak, nor attracted the attention of the great man.  (Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance.)

And years later when he does notice her, through her short story ‘The Line of Least resistance’ is it perhaps because Mr Minton felt ‘hot and grimy in his yachting clothes he had worn since morning’. James does after all end his first letter to her ‘Youth is hard - & your needlepoint, later on, will muffle itself in a little blur of silk.’

Dr Sarah Heaton, University of Chester

The Lightfoot Letters - The Poet

The Letters
In the early summer of 2009, I attended a day organised for poets by Anne Sherman, Arts Development officer for Cheshire East. She had arranged for two artists in residence for the day and one of them was Maria Walker, whom I had never met before. We were sent outside to write an observational poem and I included Maria in mine because she was so absorbed in her work and was beaming with pleasure as she sewed.

Summer Song
After Walt Whitman

The sewing machine chugs its rhythms as the seamstress smiles.
Outside the woodpigeons baptise the morning in liquid croons.
Spires of lavender describe the wind like artists’ brushes.
The sun bleaches everything bone white.
A red bicycle rests against glass walls, doubled.
A single vulgar dandelion bursts through wood-chipped beds.
In the powder-blue sky, the sun is an ode to summer.
Sage spreads its spicy flavour on squeezing fingers.
Inside the seamstress sews on, her work is her song.
Her cottons and silks and pins scatter round her as she sings.

Over the lunch break I looked at the displays of the two artists and noticed Maria’s had a bundle of letters tied up in pink ribbon. The name on the envelope was Lightfoot, which is my maiden name, but the address was Manchester so I thought nothing of it. Maria had produced a body of work based on these letters, including some fabric shoes embroidered with words from the letters, a number of pictures and a framed set of spoons with words from the letters written on them.

I told Maria I had included her in the poem, we swapped business cards and agreed to keep in touch. Soon we were collaborating: she was using my words on her artwork and sending me artwork which I wrote poems about. We are similar in age and background and interested in many of the same things, such as recycling and reusing old materials, and in working class history, particularly that of women. We decided to meet up again so I could see the artwork properly, at Castle Park Arts Centre in Frodsham. Maria explained it all to me: how she had bought the letters in an antique shop thinking to cut them up to use in artwork. She had decided they were too good to destroy but felt reading them would be intrusive. Eventually, she did read them and was moved by them. She gave their name again and I told her it was my maiden name. She then mentioned Widnes – my home town. It began to look like it might be my family, but I knew there were lots of Lightfoots in Widnes, so I did not get too excited. I asked her for more details and she told me the address was 19 Russell Street, Farnworth. That was the house where my father was brought up with his five siblings. A few first names confirmed the link.

We were very spooked and had to sit down for a minute and take it all in. The odds against this happening must be very long indeed. Maria and I felt a huge responsibility towards these precious documents. We began to plan the next steps in bringing these letters to light for the general public, using our combined art forms. Maria was bowled over to have found the family they belonged to, as she had always hoped to share them one day, knowing they would be important.

On First Hearing of the Letters

for Maria Walker, textile artist

First the artwork with the letters
printed behind photographs
of a different family, enlarged,
framed in a gallery, palimpsests.
Words from the letters
are embroidered on a corset,
traced on shoes, painted on spoons.

A bundle of letters, the artist explains,
bought for the stamps but too good
to cut up. From Widnes (my home town)
a family called Lightfoot (my maiden name).

Not necessarily my family, but may be.
Then the names Frances, Ada, Dorothy:
co-incidence too great. We stand
awed, making webs intricate as old lace,
beautiful as buttons, miraculous as bread.

She has already used my words
to embroider on her art, but I was the follower.
The letters came before me into her work.
They have travelled through time and space
to find me, tied with pink ribbon,
bringing me my father, lost so long ago.

19 Russell Street was in a row of terraced houses in the Widnes village of Farnworth. The present day Russell Court is on the same site. My grandfather Peter Lightfoot (1880-1968) worked at Gossages soap factory. My grandmother was Ada nee Woodward (1882-1933). She suffered from asthma and died at only 51, ten years after the letters were written. My father was one of seven children: William, Frances, Peter (who died as a baby) my father Peter, Vincent, Ada and Dorothy. At the time of writing the letters, Frances was living with her aunt in Manchester, most likely in service. The various family members wrote to her and she kept their letters all her life. My father was born in 1911, so he was 12 when most of the letters were written in 1923.

In early 1924, Frances was called home from Manchester because her mother could no longer cope with looking after the house and the children. However, after Frances came home, things became more and more difficult. The family suffered crippling poverty and there were only two wages coming in, with Frances unable to work while she was managing house and children and caring for a sick mother. Both William and Frances had been to grammar school, but my father, who had passed the 11+, was told he could not go and had to leave school and get a job. He already worked as a delivery boy for the local grocery store, Bridges, and before that had done some farm work for which he was paid in food. He was a very bright boy and it always galled him that not getting an education past 12 years old had hampered him in life, particularly when William and Frances did very well for themselves later. The letters, then, come from a time of innocence before things went badly wrong for my father’s family. He is happy and enjoying his childhood.

The family writes of many things; Willie's traumatic tooth extraction; the 1923 election with Widnes' first Labour candidate; skating on the frozen pond; how difficult it is to get the washing dry; lectures at Gossages; gossip about people in the village; household chores; what they were having for supper, and how different things were where Frances was staying.
As Ada, my grandmother, became increasingly ill, she had a bed downstairs. Ada died in the February of 1933, the year my father was married. No-one from his family came to the wedding, because my father married a Catholic and changed his religion. His family were staunch Protestants. They may also have been in deep confusion and mourning because of Ada’s early death. There was a ten year silence from the Lightfoots, and it was Frances who broke it, turning up on the doorstep to mend the breach.
The letters have survived because Frances kept them carefully all her life. There is no chance of recovering the letters she wrote, so we have only a one-sided correspondence. The letters must have been part of a house clearance after Frances died.
I was taken to visit my Lightfoot grandfather and his second wife at 19 Russell Street, usually by dad, only once by my mum, when grandfather was thought to be dying. He did not, and lived on to 1968. Both he and Ada are buried in the same grave in St Luke’s Church graveyard, Farnworth, Widnes. Until the letters turned up, I had no keepsakes except a few photographs. I will always be grateful to Maria Walker for rescuing them. The artwork she has created, inspired by them, documents exquisitely what it was like to be a working class family in the 1920s and makes a beautiful addition to the letters. Maria created a book cover for the exhibition book, which was the first time she'd designed such a thing. She should do more: I really love her cover collage.
The book is available at a cost of £5 from Erbacce Press, or direct from Angela Topping. It includes most of the letters themselves and ten poems.

By Angela Topping (poet)


Buttonholes and Patching

This textile story is about my Great Grandmother Mabel Naylor and a sewing sampler that she created one hundred and twenty two years ago when she was 19 years old.  If you look carefully, you can see, very faintly, her initials MN in minute cross-stitch on the enlarged photograph of the sampler.

Mabel Naylor’s family was thoroughly Yorkshire.  Her father Matthew Naylor was born on November 9th 1833 in Halifax and married Eliza (maiden name not known) in 1860 after which they moved to Bingley. Mable had three siblings. George, the eldest was born in 1861 but only lived until he was 18. We don’t know the cause of his death. Then came Matthew Henry (1863) and Charles (1866). Tragically both these brothers were killed in the school playground when a boiler exploded in 1869. They were aged just 6 and 4.

My Great Grandmother was born on May 19th 1872 and lived until she was ninety-nine.  Mabel trained as a primary school teacher and the 1891 census records her as being a pupil teacher in Haworth.  This is the same year she painstakingly created this incredible sewing sampler.

I recently learnt that the later years of the 19th century saw a move away from embroidered samplers to plain sewing samplers just like this one.  They were often made in lessons taught in school that showcased the maker’s needlework skills such as hemming, gathering, darning, buttonholes, patching and simple embroidery.  All these skills are evident on this sampler.  I do wonder if Mabel made this piece to demonstrate these needlework skills to her pupils?

We know very little about Mabel’s day-to-day life as a pupil teacher except that she was skilled at needlework.   These photographs are enlarged to show the stitching in detail.  In reality, the stitches are tiny and beautifully precise. 



When I look at this sampler - that has survived numerous house moves since her death in 1971, stored in boxes, attics and garages I can’t ever imagine producing something like this myself.  I have not inherited Mabel’s needlework skills or patience but I do appreciate how precious this sampler is and hope that one day my grandchildren might also look at it and be in awe of their great, great, great grandmother’s skill.


        Mabel Nyler 1948. Aged 76


 Lucy Clough, University of Chester



Wednesday 6 March 2013

Rupert the Bear

My youngest son’s favourite soft toy was a Rupert Bear which had been passed down to him from one of his older cousins.  Rupert wasn’t in the best state, but after a few repairs, especially to his legs, he went everywhere with Ste.  When Ste was 3/4 years of age he got a severe case of the mumps and was feeling very sorry for himself.  Rupert wasn’t very well either, so I suggested we made a sleeping bag for him out of an old cot cover so he had somewhere cosy to recuperate. This then started a turn of events, started by me, I think, involving Rupert.  Each Christmas for the next few years Ste/Rupert would expect a present from Father Christmas, so I would make an item of clothing ranging from a jumper, pyjamas, and hat a scarf and wrap it up.  One year Rupert got a backpack (this was actually a key ring, but it did the job perfectly) in which was kept a little teddy I made out of felt and a tiny brush and comb.

When I think about Rupert all these years later, it brings a smile to my face.  I still have Rupert, sleeping bag and clothes tucked safely in a cupboard and perhaps oneday Ste might ask where he is.

Jen Mawson

Tuesday 5 March 2013

The Lightfoot Letters - The Artist

My story starts not with a textile item but with a bundle of old letters that have taken me on an amazing textile journey, and one which is by no means complete.

In 2006 I bought a bundle of old letters from a Cheshire antiques centre.  The letters were tied together with a faded pink ribbon and at £3.25 they were a real bargain, so I gave them a home. 

My initial intention was to cut the stamps from the envelopes and use them as collage material in my artwork. However when I got them home and started to read them, somewhat guiltily at first, I realised that I had discovered a treasure trove and my scissors were not allowed anywhere near them.

The letters were dated from 1923 and 1924 and had all been written to a Frances Lightfoot who was living away from her family with her aunt in Mossley, Manchester, The letters were written by various members of her family who lived in Farnworth, near Widnes, and they told the story of everyday life for a working class family. Mostly the letters were written by Frances’ mother, Ada Lightfoot, who kept Frances informed of all the local gossip, the antics of her younger brothers and sister and wrote copiously about the ordeal of doing the washing in the harsh winter of 1923. Other letters were written by her father Peter, her three brothers (Willie, Peter and Vincent), and her two little sisters ( Ada and Dorothy), although the latter were written on their behalf by their parents. The letters included stories of trips to the dentist, ice skating on frozen ponds, Christmas parties at school, killing pigs, mending boots and having to use a knife and fork at a hotpot supper whilst preferring a spoon.

These letters provided me with much inspiration for my textile art as I created art which was based on  the stories I discovered in these letters. As I read the letters certain phrases jumped out at me and it was these phrases that informed the work I created. I was moved by the numerous accounts of the minutiae of everyday life ,in particular the arduous task of doing the laundry and keeping her children clothed and warm, which Ada shared with her absent daughter. Instead of making the actual collages I had originally intended I created digital collages from the scans of the letters, incorporating  lines from the letters, images from my own personal photographic archive and items such as buttons, lace and stamps from the period. For example, I used a photograph of my own mother, taken in 1925, to represent little Dorothy, of whom Ada writes “she is delighted with the photograph of her with the nice frock”

 Doing the family’s washing in the harsh winter weather took up most of Ada’s week, suffering from what I now know to be bronchitis, she had to get help from her sons to put the clothes through the mangle and sometimes Peter, her second eldest son would stay off school to help her.

“The Washing Gets Me Down” is inspired by Ada’s references to the ordeal of doing the laundry which took her the best part of a week, and for this work I have used a image of my husband’s grandmothers, one of which was never seen without an overall.

The next part of my story recounts a series of events that cumulated in a chance meeting, and an amazing coincidence. My work was being exhibited in 2010 at Macclesfield Museum where it was seen by someone who was looking for a textile artist, who worked with text, to be an artist in residence at an event for creative writers and poets. At this event I met a poet called Angela Topping with whom I made an initial connection, partly because she had included me in one of the poems she had written on the day, and partly because we realised that we were both interested in the condition of the working class woman and that we shared a common creative language. Angela’s poems made reference to the singer sewing machines, knitting, handbags, gloves and dresses, which also appeared in my textile art.  Our decision to collaborate came quite soon into our acquaintance, she sent me her poems and I sent her images of my work.

“Make me a Dress” was initially an unfinished sample depicting my grandmother sewing at her Singer Sewing Machine. Angela had just written a poem called ‘Paper Patterns’ which was inspired by an image of a corset I had made from sewing patterns. The first line of her poem, “Make me a dress the colour of the sky just after a June sunset” finished my work off nicely.

Angela and I met up again a few weeks later as I wanted to show her my work which was now being exhibited in Frodsham, and it was there looking at my work, answering Angela’s questions that we became increasingly aware that our connection was becoming more intertwined. As I talked about the letters and the family in them, Angela realised that I was talking about her own family and the letters had been written by the grandparents to her Aunt Frances. There were even a couple of letters written by her father to his elder sister. The atmosphere was electric, cold shivers ran down our spines, as they still do even today when I recount the event to people.

Once we had recovered, over a cup of hot tea, our decision to collaborate became set in stone,. We planned to stage an exhibition that would be a fusion of textile art and poetry, telling the story found in the Lightfoot Letters. We approached the Brindley Arts Centre in Runcorn, as this was the nearest gallery to Widnes, where the letters had originated, and received an enthusiastic response to our proposal. The exhibition ‘’The Lightfoot Letters” was held in August 2011, just one year after our initial meeting and my body of work grew from 8 pieces of work to 60, each one recounting a particular aspect of the story to be found in the letters and responding to the Angela’s poems.

As I was still particularly interested in the stories about the washing and clothing  I decided  to explore this theme further and create an installation based on Ada’s washing line with garments, each one recounting a particular aspect of Ada’s story. I began researching into the type of garments which would have been worn by working class families in the 1920’s and realised that their garments would be far removed from the ‘flapper’ styles we think of when we think of the 1920’s , In the particular the garments worn my children would not have changed much since the Victorian era. I derived much of my research from the pattern cutting books, used in schools at this time,  to teach young girls the skills of home dressmaking, such as Needlework and Cutting Out by Agnes Walker and Needlework, Knitting and Cutting Out by Elizabeth Rosevear. Since I wanted to cut text into the garments on Ada’s washing line I used these books to re-create garments from the period which I could them cut into without a guilty conscience.
Another exciting aspect of our collaboration was that I was now able to use Angela’s images of her family in my artwork. Imagine my excitement when I was able to re-unite a photograph of the  each of the family members with their actual words.
I particularly enjoyed re-uniting Peter Lightfoot with his words about preferring a spoon to a knife and fork at a hot pot supper he was attending, and Ada Lightfoot with her moving words to Frances. “Doesn’t a pussy cat even cry if one kitty is lost? Is not a Mammy lonely when the girlie is away?”.

 I have now made over sixty pieces of work and my body of work is still growing. There is not space here to talk about every piece of work but there is an opportunity  for you to see the exhibition again at Sale Waterside Arts Centre , Sale, Manchester from the 18th May to the 28th September 2013.

Maria Walker, Textile Artist