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.
14 thoughts on “Update on upcycled silk scraps – Part II”
Interesting one! As you say, the makers of and carers for such things would never have owned them, unless they eventually received a worn hand-me-down. I trust you get to wear your own scarves!
I have a selection of my work, mostly from years ago, that I wear. And, scarves that I made for my late mother which I couldn’t bring myself to send to the charity shop with the rest of her clothes. I wear the odd one, but she was a golden colouring and her colours don’t particularly suit me.
I admire the scholarship and thought you put into your work and I like it very much both for the visual of it and the message.
Thank you. I think I got a little too ‘political’ for the exhibition, but I was very indignant when I read of the atrocious conditions some of the weavers and their families had to endure. Too much obvious 21st century sentiment I think.
Maybe the exhibit wasn’t looking for that angle, but I liked it, I think too often we forget what cost material possessions have in terms of their makers, as well as their buyers. And I related what you said to how differently we look at clothing today, when it is so cheap and disposable, as opposed to that time period, when stealing a cloak or the like would have you jailed or transported or whatever. Sobering to think how hard people worked to have so very little.
Some fascinating history unearthed in your research Agnes.
Thanks. It was very interesting rooting around finding out the social history behind the shawls.
I never cease to be amazed by your inspiration and artistry. I particularly love the first sketch, but the finished article is very arresting.
Thank you. I must say that if I was doing it again I would make the whole thing a lot more messy. It is not a delicate medium and I think the finished piece looks too clean and tight. I don’t personally like it. Maybe one day when I have time I might pull it around and transform it.
A really interesting and thought provoking post. It looks as though reflecting on social history is having a real impact on your work.
Thank you. I think that a scarf has a primary function as an item of clothing and can be decorative too. Whereas a wall hanging is in most cases purely decorative and for me on this occasion I had to find some meaning to what I was making (if that doesn’t sound too pompous).
Not at all. You seem to be finding increasing connections between your art/historical knowledge and your own creativity and developing your distinctive voice as a result.
Thanks for the encouraging comment. It often feels like an uphill struggle at the moment.