Thursday, 21 May 2020

‘These Boots were made for Walking’: What Women Wore to Walk

Women’s clothing has often restricted their ability to walk freely and such clothing has then impacted on their freedoms in other areas of their lives. This blog post will discuss how some women overcame these restrictions.

Dorothy Wordsworth walked every day around the Lake District with her brother William and their friends, and then wrote about these walks in her journals. Dorothy and her friend Mary Barker were the first women to both climb and write about Scafell Pike. This walk was re-enacted in period dress by Dr Jo Taylor, Alex Jakob-Whitworth and Harriet Fraser in 2018 (exactly 200 years after Dorothy). I have been in contact with Dr Taylor from the University of Manchester as I was interested to discover how restrictive she found the period costume to be. Did it hinder her walking in any way? She told me: ‘We got caught in a storm that day on Scafell…The men, whose historical clothes were much more closely related to modern walking gear, wanted to go on – but wearing a long skirt is like wearing a kite; the women were being picked up, and it felt pretty hairy at some points to be blown quite significantly around the paths along some of the ridges.’ 

Figure 1

Corsets were another item of clothing which women wore and which restricted their movement. Figure 1 shows an advert for an ‘Athletic Girl Corset’. The development of special clothing for sport was an area of controversy as a passive lifestyle for women was seen to be more genteel. The design of female clothing was confining as rapid motion, ample waists and the raising of arms above the head were considered unfeminine so sleeves were cut to inhibit movement, corsets became tighter and petticoats more voluminous. Women’s clothing usually made them unable to engage in any activity more rigorous than a sedate stroll. So-called ‘walking dresses’ were part of a lady’s wardrobe from early nineteenth century, but their design permitted only the most leisurely of paces. In the mid-nineteenth-century, when outdoor exercise began to be more popular, women still wore ordinary clothing that interfered badly with their freedom of movement.

Figure 2

In the early 1850s, Amelia Bloomer tried to persuade women that beauty and utility in dress were not incompatible, and to adopt a form of Turkish trousers worn beneath a knee-length skirt (Figure 2). The bloomer costume was far too revolutionary for the time and the few brave women who wore them in public were ridiculed. The wire cage and crinoline introduced in the mid-1850s made walking in long skirts easier but expanding circumferences, sometimes to as much as 5 yards, impeded ease of motion. Dr Taylor experienced this problem first-hand on her re-enactment walk. The dresses of the 1870s and 1880s, with tied-back skirts and bustles, had smaller circumferences, but also a train that swept the ground and leg-of-mutton sleeves that restricted arm movement. In the 1890s, although daytime clothing was reduced in weight and complexity, ordinary skirts remained long, and ‘sensible’ walking outfits were 3.5 yards wide and hung to the ankle.1  During the Edwardian years, the reaction against the New Woman and her unconventional attitudes produced one of the most restrictive fashions of all time, the hobble skirt, whose exaggerated narrowness at the knee barely permitted a single step and more than offset the advantage of a slightly raised hemline (Figure 3).

Figure 3

One of the famous advocates for reform in women’s dress was Ada Ballin. She attacked ‘outmoded’ and ‘tyrannical’ ideas about dress.2  In relating health to dress and physical exercise she recounted the story of: 

a Gentleman of scientific frame of mind, who determined to make the experiment of walking in petticoats in order to estimate the disadvantage under which women labored in regard to dress. He walked for a mile up a hill; but was so exhausted by the endeavor that he gave up with the remark that women must be stronger than men or they would never be able to stand it.3  

Another advocate for dress reform was Martina Bergman-Österberg. She was a Swedish-born physical education instructor and women’s suffrage advocate. She advised against corsets and required functional dress for ordinary wear and exercise and advocated the wearing of gymslips for sport. Old students recalled that when going to matches they were called ‘those dreadful girls’ by ‘men who don’t know how troublesome skirts are and by women who don’t know how delicious it is to be free of them’.4

Figure 4

But what about when they got older and wanted to play sport professionally and in a public arena? Many women were successful mountaineers, but as this is a physical activity it must have been very difficult to participate in long, heavy dresses. For those who chose to wear dresses to climb, there were a range of possible skirt-related incidents to bear in mind. The Matterhorn’s Col Felicité was named after Felicité Carrel whose 1867 attempt at the summit with her father was thwarted when her skirts ballooned in the wind and it was too dangerous to go on. This is similar to the problems that Dr Taylor encountered on Scafell Pike. A common compromise was to wear a skirt or dress when leaving the hotel, then rip it off at the base of the mountain and climb in more sensible clothing. One woman who did just that was the Irish pioneer of mountaineering, Lizzie Le Blond (1860-1934). She set off on a traverse of the Rothorn, came down the other side and realized that her skirt was still on the summit. As the Alpine Club did not admit women members, she formed the Ladies’ Alpine Club in 1907. She moved to Switzerland, wrote seven books on mountaineering and made twenty first ascents, conquering peaks no one had climbed before. Abandoning mid-1880s convention, she was often known to climb in trousers. The Second President of Ladies’ Alpine Club was Lucy Walker. She was a British mountaineer and the first women to climb the Matterhorn – she was wearing a white print dress (Figure 4). Fanny Bullock Workman was an American mountaineer who climbed mainly in the Himalayas. She wore skirts whilst cycling thousands of miles across Europe and Asia, climbing peaks and negotiating crevasses. The photo shows her on Silver Throne Plateau (21,000 feet) holding a ‘Votes for Women’ newspaper (Figure 5). This clearly shows the link between walking and women’s independence.

Figure 5

Clothing has often hindered women’s freedom to exercise how they choose. Dress has restricted both women’s physical and social freedoms. By throwing off their corsets and finding more comfortable clothes to walk in, women had gained the independence to express themselves more freely in society.

1Kathleen E, McCrone, Sport and the Physical Emancipation of English Women, 1870-1914, (London: Routledge, 1988), p.217.
2Ballin, quoted in Cunnington and Mansfield, English Costume, (London, Faber, 1973), p.333.
4Ann Pagan, St. George's Chronicle, May 1894 quoted in May, Madame Bergman-Osterberg, (London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1969), p.45.

Naomi Walker, May 2020.

Special thanks to Dr Joanna Taylor from the University of Manchester for her helpful emails.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Reading recommendations and volunteering opportunities

Here are a few book recommendations to help keep your mind off the COVID-19 lockdown.

For those of you who are interested in books which relate in some way to textiles and/or clothing, here are a few suggestions:
·         Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale (1910): This novel focuses on the lives of two sisters in a provincial draper’s shop, offering a considerable insight into the importance of such shops in Victorian communities. One sister manages the shop, while the other sister runs away to Paris. Lots of references to clothing and fabric in a novel which is a masterpiece.
·         Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967): This is set in Australia in 1900 and concerns a group of schoolgirls who visit an enigmatic local landmark, the Hanging Rock. Some of the girls are mysteriously ‘lost’ and if you are interested in the history of clothing and its cultural significance, then this novel offers a fascinating read. There are wonderful images of girls freeing themselves of their corsets as they climb.
Still from the 1975 film version of Picnic at Hanging Rock
·         Colm Toibin, Nora Webster (2014): Set in 1950s/60s Ireland, the novel is focused on the recently widowed Nora. There’s lots of references to clothing and home dressmaking. A wonderfully evocative novel.
·         H.G.Wells, Kipps (1905): You may have seen the film version, but the novel offers a negative view of the drapery trade. Kipps, a young draper’s apprentice, hates the fabrics he has to sell, dreaming of a more adventurous and ‘manly’ career. Nevertheless, H.G. Wells was himself a draper’s apprentice as a teenager, and he certainly knows a lot about fabrics.

Poster for the 1941 film version of Kipps

Hillary Lette:  I am totally engrossed in Threads of Life by Clare Hunter - it has even stopped me knitting! What an AMAZING book, on so many levels.

Wendy Riddick: The book I’m reading at the moment is The Golden Thread: How fabric changed history by Kassia St Clair

Rosamond Peet: I have at last started to read the book my sister gave me to enjoy on winter afternoons and evenings.  It is Alexander Mc Call Smith’s reworking of Emma but brought up to date.  He certainly has brought his clever wit to the work, but so far I am in the early chapters so I will have to see how it progresses.  I feel at the minute it centres on Emma and Isabella before the Austen story starts.  Other than that, I have lots of books to reread on my shelves and some that have been unread and really I should put my head into some French literature and exercise my brain, but not Proust.  Marcel Pagnol is nice to read to perhaps I shall start there.

Janice Knight: I couldn't resist replying to your email about books when I saw your reference to Barbara Pym. I've almost finished all my books from Oswestry library with no chance of getting any more in the foreseeable future but I was lucky enough to find a Barbara Pym I hadn't read in a charity shop a few days before our enforced self-isolation. So I'm really looking forward to reading Excellent Women.
As for suggestions, I always find Tracy Chevalier books worth reading especially for their references to art/textiles:  Girl with a Pearl Earring (Vermeer); The Lady and the Unicorn (tapestry); The Last Runaway (quilting); A Single Thread (embroidery).
Poster for the 2003 film adaptation of The Girl with the Pearl Earring
The last library book I read was, surprisingly by a male American author, but is well worth reading: The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash (the story based on truth of the fight for equality and fair pay in the cotton mills of USA in the 1920s so vaguely to do with textiles).

Elaine Rowland: I'm currently reading Millions Like Us, Virginia Nicholson's study of women's lives during World War II. I have already read and enjoyed her books about the 1950s and the inter-war years (both of them were referenced in my dissertation), but reading this one at present serves as a useful reminder that being forced to stay at home and sew is hardly the greatest hardship ever encountered.

Ann Martin: I'm reading books about the detective Vera as on TV. (Anne Cleeves, Vera Stanhope books).

Darcy Lear: I thought I’d let you know that I’ve just read A Single Thread by Tracey Chevalier. A definite link to craft and textiles! Some time ago I read a book called Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson - a social history covering the period just after the Great War. It looked at the issue of ’surplus’ women, the many who’d been trained only to fulfil the career of wives and mothers and who now suddenly found themselves without husbands and in need of jobs to support themselves. Tracy Chevalier’s novel explores that idea.
I’ve also thought of another novel I enjoyed ages ago with a textile theme running through….Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood…..a theme of quilts and quilt making running throughout.

Sharon Forsdyke: Reading recommendations: Carola Dunn’s ‘Daisy Dalrymple’ series and I’m bingeing on Agatha Christie’s Poirot books.

Volunteering opportunities:

Maralyn Hepworth: Friends of Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings have now set up and extra Volunteers facebook page where people can post. If you have any interesting snippets about anything to do with the Flaxmill, it would be great to share.  I have posted about the dye planters there, all ready to go when it re-opens to the public, and spinning wool for an 18th century shawl. Others do research and random other things!!!  

Debbie Marais: Here's a link for a volunteering-from-home opportunity:

Here are a couple of links to patterns: crochet tutorial - not quite the 6.5cm required but could add a second layer of double crochet all round or use bigger wool and hook

How to crochet a simple heart measuring about 2 inches by 2 inches. I hope you enjoy! (^-^) Written version: Instagram: Website: Facebook: Patreon:

Monday, 6 April 2020

Textile Therapy: Craft ideas for the Covid-19 Lockdown

Now are in 'lockdown' and unable to do our usual activities, many people are appreciating the therapeutic value of crafting. Here are some suggestions:

Hillary Lette
Last autumn I went to Blists Hill and saw a blanket that gave me some inspiration as a change to the knitted square blankets I had been making for the dementia ward at the hospital. So, I started knitting diamonds as opposed to squares. They don't take very long, use up any left-over wool (even tiny bits long enough to do a couple of rows) and when stitched together look kind of quilted. 

I join them into bigger diamonds of 9, which makes sure that the colours can be very random, and also makes it easier to put them together. When it comes to the edge, as you can see in the bottom right hand corner, I am finishing it off with black triangles to make it a regular rectangle shape. Just in case it helps, I use Size 4 needles, knit in rib, increase up to a 25 stitches, then start decreasing.  I think it is the rib that makes it look as if it is quilted. Very much a work in progress, and will be for some time.  Most of the wool comes from charity shops, so it is a win win situation. My fingers are busy, and the charity shops benefit.

Wendy Riddick

I have been keeping myself happily occupied with working on the small pieces and research for my Attingham Park four panelled screen and my family piece called ‘DNA’. Unfortunately, the screen itself, which is in progress and already has some applied pieces on, is down at my studio. My last outing too Attingham was with the Friends of the  the Flaxmill in March just before everything shut down which has given me some more inspiration to work from.

The ‘DNA’ piece is based on my own family members that share my DNA. I have been drawing family members past and present in a sketchbook, transferring the images onto fabric which is then stitched with my hair. I have been saving my hair for this project for some time. This week I have been stitching the manipulated pieced silk bases which they will be applied to. I have a very large family with some interesting stories. My cousin has been doing research into our family tree and I have the family albums here fortunately to work from.

Rosamond Peet

I wonder how far I will get with my project. I have started to work on a tapestry cushion cover for my first grandson to mark his birth - ….4 years ago??!!  I have had some design help from my very talented sister (thank you Hester) and am doing William the Whale squirting his friend Huffin the Puffin, the intention being to use his initials W and P as a sort of rebus.  I think it was a device the Tudors liked.  Fortunately I went to Abakhan to buy more wool before they closed for the time being.  So far only William and Huffin are stitched.  I want to do Holly the Honeybee on a poppy for my grand daughter I wonder how old she will be when it is finished??

Ann Martin
Just showing what I'm up to craftwise. I'm spinning recycled jeans from India mixed with raw cotton and on another wheel I'm spinning merino mixed with silk. I'm also knitting socks and a jumper and needle felting.

Daphne Wiggett
I do knitting for the homeless; the neonatal unit, & for refugees. Anything is appreciated. 

Free patterns are available online also wool needles etc . Folk may not realise that patterns: wool:needles & knitting info. can be found on line. There is a site "knitting for charity " which could be useful. We could become a new circle. ..maybe called the Knitwits! !

Georgina Spry
It would be worth looking at the Facebook group creating in the teeth of corona created by one of the ladies in my north wales Feltmaking  group. It’s taken off massively ans has lots of posts every day:

Sharon Forsdyke
I managed to set up a WhatsApp sewing group... It went really well.  Here are some photos of e knitted puppets made by one member and a collage of my work:

Ann Gibson
I have been knitting a cushion cover and here is a detail:
And the pattern:
Allow 3 balls of 100g double knitting wool. Size 4 needles. To fit a 16 x 16” (40x40 cms) square cushion (will vary according to tension).

1         Cast on 200 stitches (sts)
2         Work 30 rows in moss stitch (knit one, purl one first row; purl one, knit one second row)
3         Next row: work 20 sts moss; 60 sts plain; 40 sts moss; 60 sts plain; 20 sts moss
4         Next row: work 20 sts moss; 60 sts purl; 40 sts moss; 60 sts purl; 20 sts moss
5         Repeat last two rows for 88 rows (making 90 rows in total)
6         Work another 30 rows in moss stitch
7         Next row: cast off 100 stitches; knit remaining 100 stitches in moss stitch
8         Work a further 30 rows in moss stitch (to form inside/outside flap of cushion) and cast off
9         Fold and stitch up sides to form cushion shape, leaving flap to fold inside/outside
1       Attach buttons and button loops                                                                               amg/24.3.2020

Monday, 30 March 2020

Behind the Scenes at Attingham Park

Holly Kirby, a National Trust curator at Attingham Park, has kindly explained what essential work is currently being done in the House during the Covid-19 closures. Usually, the Easter period is a very busy one at Attingham Park, but at the moment Holly works alone in large empty rooms protecting the textiles. 
Here is Holly in a 'selfie' taken in the Sultana Room at Attingham Park

This is what Holly’s working life is like at the moment:

We have been cutting down on the number of staff in on any one day and working a distance apart to minimise the risk of the virus spreading. We are fortunate that Attingham is large enough that we can easily find separate areas to work in! My typical week involves 2-3 days taking care of the collection at Attingham and the rest of my work is done from home.
The closed Drawing-Room

We are working through each room giving the items a deep clean and condition check. We do things like vacuuming textiles, waxing furniture and dusting paintings from the orange scaffolding you can see in the Picture Gallery photo.
The Picture Gallery

Then we cover each item to protect it from dust whilst we are closed. It brought back memories getting out the gingham dust sheets and making acid-free paper ‘hats’ to cover collection items. Last time we did this was in 2012. As we’ve been open longer in winter it hasn’t been necessary to close the house down properly for a while. Many of the gingham covers have been specially shaped to fit specific items of furniture and when they’re in place it looks like everything has been spread with jolly picnic cloths! 

The Dining Room table looks spooky with items covered in white paper – it reminds me of Miss Havisham’s wedding feast!
The dining-room looking like Miss Havisham's wedding feast

We would like to thank Holly for kindly sending the account of her working day along with these wonderful photos. I'm sure that you all, like us, can't wait to be able to visit National Trust properties again.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Hidden Stories from a Costume Collection: Revealing Historical Treasures at Wrexham Museum, 29th February 2020

There was considerable excitement at Wrexham Museum on 29th February 2020 when people gathered for a unique occasion. The purpose of the event was to reveal some of the costumes which had been bequeathed to the museum in the 1980s but which had never been on display. Hidden Stories from a Costume Collection’ was co-organised by Professor Deborah Wynne, Wrexham Museum and the costumier and fashion designer Ruth Caswell.  The day began with Deborah interviewing Ruth about her long career as a designer and costumier, focusing on her work in Vogue and the costumes she created for the films Elizabeth, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, and Shakespeare in Love, as well as her current work running masterclasses for young students interested in a career in textiles and fashion.
Ruth Caswell being interviewed by Deborah
Ruth created the costume worn by the Duke of Anjou (above) in the film Elizabeth (1998)
Ruth made this costume worn by Eric Cantona in the film Elizabeth
The 'bird dress' designed and made by Ruth. 
This featured in Vogue in December 1971, photographed by Norman Parkinson. It was voted 'Fashion Photograph of the Year', 1971.

After the interview, Ruth opened the first storage box to reveal one of the costumes, which we named 'the governess dress'. It resembled the gowns worn by Charlotte Brontë in the 1840s. 
Photo:Wrexham Museum
As the box lid was lifted, one participant exclaimed, 'It's just like Christmas!'

Photo:Wrexham Museum
Ruth, assisted by her daughter Amy, mounted the 'governess dress' and it was brought to life.
The next garment, a late-Victorian gown with a bustle, made from a beautiful dark purple velvet, was revealed and we all were able to see the complicated structure inside the bodice. Ruth explained how the dress was constructed and, from the label, that it was made in Chester.
Ruth and Amy set about bringing this dress to life by mounting it on the dummy and showing the complexity of the details, such as the buttons and the magnificent bustle.
Photo:Wrexham Museum
This is the third dress to be revealed, and participants were able to get up close to examine the detail of the fabric and the ways in which it had been altered to fit different wearers.
Ruth was inspired by George Richmond's portrait of Charlotte Brontë depicting her wearing a ribbon at the neck of her dress. Ruth recreated this effect on the 'governess dress'.
George Richmond's portrait of Charlotte Brontë 
Ruth revealing how undergarments are important to the shape & fitting of the dress.
All three dresses displayed.

Feedback from participants was very positive. Here are a few sample comments:
  •         ‘Another inspiring and informative textile day. So many aspects in design, construction, dyes, stories. Thank you.’
  •     ‘INSPIRTIONAL! A fascinating and informative day and to see such a wonderful collection up close and with Ruth whose knowledge is phenomenal. I loved it and to have it in Wrexham. Thank you.’
  •      ‘It has been an absolute privilege today to be part of this costume story! The whole unfolded with professional grace as Ruth broke us into the subject so well – sharing the rich textile career she has enjoyed and is enjoying! Ending on the subject of the museum costumes was a perfect lead into the museum’s costume collection. It was so natural but carried us on an informed story of each dress. Thank you all!’

Ruth's masterclasses inspire a younger generation to consider careers in fashion and costume design.