Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Sewing Your Past

7th June 2016

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.