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Last Friday I braved the distinctly un-British Mediterranean heat and headed up to the Smoke to spend a day in the company of V&A treasures. Get comfortable, it was a long day so this is a long post!
The morning passed treading well-worn (yet always fresh) paths through the galleries and halls of the main building. Via 13th century arches, Florentine gothic balconies and Japan kimonos, somehow I always end up in the theatre section which in the past has been something of a retreat for me. I switch off in there as you would in the real theatre, marvelling at the concepts and the mechanisms put into place to create the fantasy. This time around I spent some time gawping at the iconic original costumes worn by Adam Ant, Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page (Page: skinny, Goddard: muscly thighs), and just around the corner like a curator’s version of Stella Street, was Kylie’s touring dressing room, all shiny and sheepskinny and lipstick scrawled mirror messages.
I’ve had the hots for all things miniature recently, so the scaled down stage sets got me going too, they’re small works of art and engineering in themselves.
Lunch in the stunning cafe is always a glamorous affair, like I’ve been invited to dine by a Victorian nobleman. The main room was full so I ‘slummed’ it in the decorative William Morris room.
The courtyard defined the phrase ‘sun-drenched’ and was full of children playing in the fountains and coffee-drinkers escaping the hot hot London pavements. I was about to join them but decided to pop into the bookshop for 5 mins (bought a fashion measuring tape … still not exactly sure what it is but it was sale-cheap at a fiver), only when I came it out was bucketing it down – a much more typically British weather day after all then. Took that as my cue to get going and squelched off to my next appointment … the Clothworkers Centre for the Study & Conservation of Textiles.
The Clothworkers Centre is in Blythe House near Olympia, a tremendous red and black early Edwardian building with more than a few hints of Victoriana linger. It started out life as a Post Office Savings Bank, was closed in the 1970s and seemed destined for something hideous until art and culture saved the day. Nowadays it’s shared by the V&A, The British Museum and the Science Museum, where they store their smallish sized archived treasures (those which won’t fit into the museum or are waiting the opportunity to see the light of day again when the curators decide they’ve been hidden for too long).
I’ve wanted to visit this place for a while but wasn’t sure I could justify the research criteria (which would ensure a free visit), yet couldn’t get enough people together to justify the non-research viewing fee, so I leapt at the chance when I saw Loraine McClean‘s email via the Knitting History Forum inviting anyone interested to come along. Loraine had been in contact with the Centre to request certain items prior to the visit – it was a wishlist which made my mouth water, but we weren’t expecting them to produce everything on it. To our surprise most of the items were laid out in front of us when we walked in, carefully wrapped in tissue paper and laid out on display tables. Suzanne Smith, the forensic-glove toting Centre Manager, was a fantastic guide, allowing us to examine the pieces at our leisure but readily available for questions, or to help if we wanted to see different parts of the items.
We had to sign a photography non-disclosure document which ensured we wouldn’t publish our photographs with the public unless it was for education reasons, so sadly I can’t share my images from the afternoon with you, but most of the items are on their website so I can link you to those. The first couple of items were stitch samplers created in the first half of the 19th century using incredibly fine needles and yarn. This one was decorated with ribbon at the edges, approximately 20 sts to the inch (80 sts over 10cms) – it was amazing to see familiar stitches (lace, feather and fan, even cables) created in such fine detail, reminds me of what can be done with different time expectations and patience.
Next up was a breathtaking Dutch petticoat, knitted between 1700 and 1750. Knitted perfectly in the round, measuring 305cm x 76 cm, and decorated with animals and birds, trees and plants, we marvelled at how long this must have taken, what (and who) it was made for, and whether or not the creator would have worked from a chart or simply a drawing – none of the motifs were repeated. There were similarities to Asian prints in the decoration which we thought might have provided some inspiration, and the more you look at it the more detail you see. It’s knitted entirely in knit and purl stitches, with the occasional eyelet for an animal eye. Excellent knitter Emma Vining has previously viewed this petticoat and carried out an experiment, knitting up one of the motifs to explore the design and construction.
I’d requested a couple of items – a Maria Luck-Szanto dress and the original 1927 Schiaparelli cravat jumper. The latter is so well documented, but as I haven’t yet braved the Armenian knitting method I was keen to see the fabric and the original size of the garment. I’ll save the Maria Luck Szanto dress for another post as she’s such a fascinating subject!
Next up was this beautiful 19th century Shetland Knitted Cape, such an incredible example of knitted Shetland lace. I’ve been inspired by Sharon Miller’s Heirloom Knitting recently (it’s pretty hard to get hold of, I was lucky enough to find a copy in the library), so it was great to see this concoction of lace stitches blended together to create such intricate fabric.
Finally, we had a chance to go through the pages of this Stitch Sample Book, created by a Elizabeth Hume between 1825-1874. The samples mostly refer to Knitting, Netting and Crochet Book, the best-selling volume of patterns by Mrs Jane Gaugain published in 1846.
Such an inspiring day … if your creative juices are jammed or if your enthusiasm for all things textile and/or knitted is waning, I recommend this shot in the arm! If you’re interested in finding out more about what the Clothworkers Centre does, they’re holding an event in October: ‘A Year At Clothworkers’ – Suzanne will be introducing. I’ve bought my ticket already – save you a seat?!