Sunday, 31 May 2015

A Textile Story by Grace Woodger

by Grace Woodger

'Millie!' Frances exclaimed. 'What ever have you done?'
            Mildred looked up from the drawing room floor, gesturing helplessly to the quilt on the ground before her. One corner was badly burned, a good few inches of fabric eaten away, and the surrounding squares were singed and stained with soot.
            'Grandmother's quilt, Fannie. Look at it. Mother will never forgive me.'
            'How ever did it happen?' Frances asked. Mildred shifted uncomfortably, avoiding her sister's eye. 'How did it happen, Millie?'
            She sighed. 'Well, if you must know, I was using it as a cape.'
            'A cape?'
            'Yes. And as I turned around the corner flew upwards and landed on the grate, and the edge caught alight. I managed to stamp it out, but I'm afraid it's quite ruined.'
            'Why on earth were you using Grandmama's quilt as a cape?' Said Frances, incredulous.
            Mildred raised her head defiantly, her cheeks flaming. 'I was re-enacting Lancelot and Elaine.'
            'And does Elaine require a cape?'
            'No, but Lancelot does.'
            They stared at each other for a moment, the ruined quilt on the ground between them, before Frances' shoulders began to shake, no longer able to contain her laughter.
            'One day, Mildred,' she laughed. 'You will begin to act like a woman of eighteen, rather than a boy of twelve.'
            'When that day comes, Frances, you have my permission to put me out of my misery.' Her sister retorted, her eyes shining in the dim light from the fire. Sighing heavily, Frances knelt on the floor beside her, picking at the burned edge.
            'Oh, Millie. Look at it.'
            Mildred nodded. 'And she was always so proud of it.'
            'Who, mother?'
            'No, grandmother. She sewed it herself, remember?'
            Frances smiled. 'Yes. No wonder it's quite so threadbare, poor old thing.'
            'Wasn't that a part of her wedding dress?' Mildred pointed to a square.
            'Yes, I think so. And this was one of grandpapa's old work shirts. Quite a lot of these things were his.'
            'And now I've ruined it.' Mildred said, her voice wavering. Frances took her hand.
            'No, not at all. Grandmama made it to tell the story of her and Grandpapa. That story will always be there. Every square is a part of them, as long as we're here to remember.'
            Suddenly, Mildred looked up, wiping her eyes on the back of her hand as she scrambled to her feet. 'Fetch your sewing kit.'
            'Does mother still have the old baby blankets?'
            'Why, yes, but...'
            'I'm sure I can find some of mother's old things. She must have lots we can use.'
            Frances stood up. 'Use for what, Mildred?'

            Mildred beamed at her. 'We can repair it, Frances. Add our own squares to replace the ones I burned. You're right, I haven't ruined their story. I've merely added another chapter.'

Friday, 15 May 2015

Patchwork Pieces By Debra Roberts

As a collector of fragments of old fabrics, I am inspired by material values that enable narratives of the past to be visible in the present.  Cloth holds aesthetic and functional values; however, it is preserved for many other reasons, not least the emotional values that are invested in it.  Cloth connects us physically with both tangible and intangible histories, and patchwork quilts are significant objects of history, legacies of fashion, design, process; that tell of family connections and cultural values.

The illustrations below show a small collection of patchworks, all works in progress, pieces that remain unfinished.  Sourced from Antique Fairs, they hold no personal history or connection.  It is what the pieces were originally, that interests me, clothes, furnishings that are no longer useful or fashionable, as pieces of fabric, they are still worth recycling. 

They form part of a research project, to analyse the fabrics, to understand the dates or period when they were produced, and how the designs were printed.

However, whilst a lot of information can be gleaned from the surface of the fabric about the design process, the patchwork pieces are rich in narrative – in this instance – there is much information held on the reverse of the patchwork.

The first image is taken from a patchwork that is in 2 parts – you can immediately see the quilt pattern, on the reverse, the template papers are still in tact.  The papers are cut out of Journals, Catalogues, Hand written notes and letters, dating from 1864-74.  There are references to agriculture (details of calving breed lines), investments, Church records, medical forms, and laundry lists – all quite commonplace.  There is also a reference to Dyrham Park, Gloucester.
There are snippets of handwriting, such as: “…for…sending with….is to resume….it will come…my dear thing…..” Words crop up such as ‘fatigue’ ….

The scraps of information are frustrating, as you instinctively want to know more, but the information has been cut off.  There is the dilemma – the papers should be left intact, as part of the history of the patchwork that should not be removed; however, there is also a strong temptation to take the papers out, and piece together the snippets in an attempt to discover more.

Questions arise – are the paper fragments of the same historical period as the fabric?  Who made the quilt? What do all the agricultural references indicate? 

The second quilt is also unfinished; it shows simple squares of cotton and cotton chintz.  

The fabric is in good condition, there is a developing quilt pattern, and the paper used is largely thick brown paper.  Interspersed between the brown papers are random squares of writing, beautiful copperplate.  There is a postmark, Worthing 67, and an old red stamp, the letter is addressed to Linfield, Wescott, Dorking.  There is a reference to ‘Georgie’.  There are a number of clues to be resolved. 

The final patchwork piece is in quite poor condition, the silk fabric is beginning to split.  There is a clear quilt pattern.

The paper inserts are a mixture of handwritten notes, postcards, journals.   There are references to Chorley Hough, Chorley, John ….of Preston, Birmingham.  There are 2 postmarks, one barely legible but the word Leeds is quite clear.  The second postmark is very clear, Kettering 9:45pm, Au 20 96.  Another date is discovered – 1899.

This may help to date the fabrics and quilt; alternatively, this may be a store of discarded papers that have been used at a later date. 

There are mixed values evident here, the backs of the quilt pieces, ostensibly of no aesthetic value, hold significant clues, key to deciphering the history and constructing the narratives.  Fabrics are reworked to form new patterns, and the material has a prolonged and useful life.  More so if the quilts had been completed. 
Also evident is the skill and craftsmanship  - each piece is carefully cut and pieced together with exquisite hand stitching.  We become aware of another existence, another hand; we see evidence of decisions being made, choices in colour, fabric.  We become aware of a specific point in time, an event. 

These pieces have been kept, perhaps as reminders of the makers.  They have been preserved in drawers, boxes, suitcases, waiting for the next stage.  The next chapter will reveal more information, helping me detect and analyse the origins and authenticities, delve into the past to reconstruct the history and construct new narratives.    

About the author: Debra Roberts is Senior Lecturer in Printed Textiles & Surface Pattern Design, and on the MA Creative Practice at Leeds College of Art.  Her research interests lie in collections, archives, history and narrative of cloth.  She collects fragments of cloth as inspiration for surface design, and to understand the various processes involved in the production of the design.  As an 'archaeologist' of cloth, she uses the collected fragments to inform the design process, but also to enable a reconstruction of history and narrative, a connection to the past, and an insight into values of production.  Her practice encompasses natural dyes, silk screen print and hand stitch, and these methods are used alongside digital technology, as a means to respond to, interpret, and analyse.  Through these reconstructions she enables