In Part I of ‘Update on upcycled silk scraps’ I wrote about my research in preparation for making a wall hanging to be considered for the exhibition ‘Norwich Shawls: Past Glory, Present Inspiration’.
Ruminating on the harsh and often poorly paid lot of the Norwich weavers, I didn’t want my work to focus purely on the beauty of the Norwich shawls nor particularly draw attention to their privileged owners.
With this in mind, I decided to work in the ‘folk’ medium of rag rug, hooked textiles. Rag rug making was a domestic craft, a necessity practiced in Victorian Britain by the poor, working class. Cloth was never wasted. Clothing was restyled, mended, patched, let down and taken up, and cloth was reused and recycled until unwearable when the ‘rag’ was prodded or hooked into rugs.
Having chosen the medium I had to decide on the design. I could have simply worked up a design based around the famous boteh – tear drop or Paisley shape (known in Norwich as pines) or used the traditional shawl colours, particularly the rich madder red, in an abstract piece. However, this felt like a more remote and detached response to the weavers’ and dyers’ skills, and offered no hint as to the conditions of theirs and others’ lives associated with the making of the shawls.
After much thought I chose to illustrate an almost faceless, maid servant holding out a shawl for her mistress. I hoped that by choosing to depict a lady’s maid, emerging ghost-like from the background, the viewer would feel the contrast between the luxury shawl and the grey life of Victorian working folk and be less interested in the wearer of the shawl. After all, it would have been one of a lady’s maid’s duties to care for the shawl.
I think it is difficult to be inspired by beautifully crafted work and not think about the people who made it. In the 21st century it is natural to consider the makers as well as the patrons. Here is my finished work.
I am guessing that most of the lucky Victorian owners of these shawls never gave a second thought to the people that wove them, but hopefully they were at least kind to their own maids.
As I mentioned in Part I, photographs were not permitted at the exhibition, but I did manage to sneak a few shots, apologies, not all in focus.
Postscript – I recently found this Review by Nicky Eastaugh of the 2016 exhibition.