Sewing Your Past

Rachel Morris

Where do you keep your past, how do you remember it, and would you care if you forgot it?

There is probably no art form as human, as personal, as full of memories and stories as the textile arts.

Or so I think as I stand in Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire on a damp, green, chilly summer’s day.  There are hundreds of textiles here and every one of them has a story sewn into it. The result is like a museum of stories.

Textiles and stories have gone together ever since Helen of Troy wove the story of the Siege of Troy (and put herself into the action) whilst watching the battles unfold outside her window. And textiles have been woven through the history of Gawthorpe Hall ever since Rachel Kay Shuttleworth, the bossy, well-meaning, talented daughter of the 19th century owner, decided that the craft skills of the local women were dying out and that it was her job to save them.  Trying to save a world is how lots of museums begin. (And it’s not surprising that many museum directors have been wilful and dictatorial – if you don’t believe me read Frank Atkinson’s biography – he was the man who built Beamish – because how else would they get anything done?)

The Hall has Rachel Shuttleworth’s desk, her chairs, her letters and diaries and collection of fabrics – the robes and shawls and bedspreads, all examples of quilting, crocheting, weaving, embroidering and making lace.

Rachel Shuttleworth didn’t want to make a museum;  she wanted to create a working tool for people to learn from.

She didn’t believe in ropes or barriers or glass in front of objects. She doubted the power of sight but believed in the power of touch (although this is an anathema to many museum people). And she collected through a network of friends and by the exchange of gifts.

She also understood the power of story, was known to be a great raconteur, and collected the stories of all her objects, writing them out carefully in her habitual green ink.

So now in the same spirit there is a new textile exhibition at Gawthorpe that celebrates the story of mending – not discreet, disguised, hidden mending, but bold mending that turns repair into an art form and tells a story.

Step into the room and you will see that beside each garment there’s a story.

So next to a family quilt, belonging to Coreen Cotham are the words: ‘This quilt was made by my father’s mother in 1964 as a wedding gift for my parents. Its backing holds the secret of its warm weight: leftover scraps of tweed and heavy, worsted gathered together by my tailoress grandmother. This is my favourite part of the quilt, its muted tones quietly functional beneath the breezy gaiety of the other side. The repairs i have made to this worn old friend are as decorative as they are practical. My stitches celebrate my granny’s creativity borne out of necessity.’

And next to a Japanese Boro Jacket, with big, bold repair stitches snaking their way down the spine of the jacket: ‘This is a Japanese Sahiori ‘Boro’ jacket, with plain, cotton sleeves.  I bought it from a friend who had found it in a Japanese market almost 20 years ago, and swapped it for English patchwork quilt, something the lady owner had always wanted.’

And next to the Wrangler Jacket, belonging to Angela Maddock, where the repairs have been carried out by means of a cloud of bright stitches:  ‘Worn by a brother, repaired and worn by his sister. This denim Wrangler is one of three jackets inherited on my brother’s death in 1982. Early on the right cuff separated from the sleeve. I chose not to repair it, believing that the separation was evidence of his wearing and separation. Then, caught on a door handle, it ripped. Stitched with colourful threads and patched with the trimmed edge of an embroidery worked for my son, it is our continuing bond and a celebration of his life.’

It’s the first person stories, human, poignant and direct – the ‘I’s’, my’s and we’s – that make this exhibition work.

It would have died a death in the usual, third person, museum-y voice.  It wouldn’t even have worked if the curator’s voice had book-ended the first-person stories.

In the Museum of Marco Polo’s on-going quest to find the perfect relationship between a thing and its words, this could be a contender.

The image at the top of the page is of Rachel Shuttleworth’s desk at Gawthorpe, as laid out by Metaphor, the  Museum of Marco Polo’s sister company.

Gawthorpe Hall is just outside Burnley in Lancashire.  You can reach it by car, or by train and then bus.  The exhibition on Mending is open until the 19th June 2016.  Even after it closes the permanent exhibitions will remain open.

What We Have Lost

Stephen Greenberg

Malcolm Maclean grew up in Uig in the Outer Hebrides.  I grew up in north London. We are around the same age.  Malcolm grew up hearing and speaking Gaelic.  I heard Yiddish from the old people from the old country and cockney in accents that have vanished from London.  He saw the Co Op van come over the hill for the first time, bringing baked beans and condensed milk. They had delicious milk straight from their cows, but that’s the power and lure of modernity, that it tells you that you need something you don’t.  It starts with tinned milk and ends up with genetically modified crops.

Lately I heard that Vivien Sansour is creating the Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library, a seed bank of the last plants that sustained a landscape for thousands of years. According to the Observer’s Peter Beaumont ‘a form of farming that informed both Palestinian culture and identity – seeping into the language, songs and sayings – has increasingly come under threat from a combination of factors, climate change, Israeli settlement, and agricultural companies’ marketing of hybrid varieties to farmers’.

Here’s an irony of language and seed.  There is no difference between saving seeds and saving words, and no price we can put on that saving, whether it be Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, Gaelic, hardy fennel or chard.

My grandfather Dave was in awe of the Co Op form of modernity.  His was a rags-to-comfortable story.  I remember his excitement in the early 1960’s as he watched London’s Centre Point, an office building that remained empty for years going up from his small workroom factory in Soho when it was full of small, rag-trade workshops.  To people like my grandfather, Modernism was a visceral compulsion, a secular belief system.  It occurred to no one to question progress.

Modernism’s latest organising principle, neo-liberalism, has been devastating for intangible heritage.  A photo taken in 1900 of the school room at St Kilda has more children than in the current primary school in Uig, although Uig is not an outcrop 40 kilometres into the Atlantic but on the west coast of Lewis. It is more than a warning of what could happen to so many Gaelic communities.  Spending time in the Hebrides I am convinced that we can only sustain these communities in the long term through subsidy.  They need good and regular bus services, affordable rentable housing and high-speed broadband. Then it will be possible to work in Stornoway and commute from across the island, the school roll will increase and with it Gaelic culture. Otherwise Lewis and Harris will become mini Long Island’s, seasonal wildernesses for the wealthy.

If we do not hear Gaelic, even if like me we don’t understand it, then we lose a thread to the stories and fables, and to the toughness and strength that built the ships, locomotives and railways across the Empire, sailed the merchant navy and died in droves in Flanders. And we’ll lose a way of living just at the moment when it can  move from subsistent to sustainable, with exciting and simple technologies that Malcolm’s grandparents couldn’t dream of – double glazing, wind power, insulation, refrigeration – the best of modernity.

The Yiddish language miraculously survived fascism, one of modernity’s other destructive political systems. It survived because of writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer writing in New York in a Yddish Daily newspaper and in novels, and above all because of a charismatic Rabbi in Brooklyn who revived Hassidism from a handful of Holocaust survivors into a world movement.  It was saved by a diaspora in a landscape of the mind, of places and fables that were no more – not in the shtetls of Eastern Europe.

The Heritage Lottery Fund pays for buildings but not for running bus services.  Soon we will not know who we are, only what a search engine knows that we like, whilst the words and seeds that transformed Mesopotamians into farmers, town planners and philosophers, and Gaelic woven together with Welsh, Norse, Cornish, the seeds of our rich, cultural diversity, will be carried away on the wind.

The image is of the St Kilda Mail Boat – the main method for hundreds of years by which the islanders of St Kilda stayed in touch with the rest of the Hebrides.