Reflections on first archive trip: Part 1

From the 4th to 7th December 2018 I visited the V&A archive at Blythe House for my first research trip. I was so caught up in trying to work out my approaches to the objects (and a little overwhelmed by the whole experience of being in a new working environment) that I neglected to keep any notes on my thoughts while I was there, so I will attempt to do so now.

For this visit I concentrated on two small objects – one an unpicked coif (T.12-1948) that is in relatively good condition and the other a small sampler (T.230-1929) that was spotted by chance by one of my V&A advisers when it was out for another appointment.

This sampler is unusual as it appears to be a much later example of the blackwork technique, possibly 19th century. It makes use of 2 additional thread colours along with black – a pink/red and a pale green (of course these colours may well have faded) – which my adviser said that she had not seen used in earlier pieces. I was struck by two things that support the later date of this object. Firstly, two of the patterns appear to employ a shading effect through the use of different thread weights – a common technique in modern blackwork but one I have not yet seen in the earlier examples.

T.230-1929: close up of shading effect through the use of different thread weights

Secondly, the formal way these patterns are worked and the fact that it is a sampler of JUST patterns – I have not seen an earlier example that has no overall motif. Of course, it may simply be that no early samplers of abstract patterns have survived – testing stitches on scraps of fabric is a common practice among embroiderers and there is no reason to assume that it is a recent one.

T.230-1929

Regardless of its date, the sampler does present a possibly key point of reference for my research. One of the concerns I have about this project and the making of the reconstructions is the manner in which the embroidery is worked – or the ‘stitch path’ – is a vital element of retaining something of the essence of the original objects.
A stitched surface is NOT a flat pattern but a network of paths above and behind the surface of the cloth – a network in a space. To my mind, the underside of the embroidery is as important as its right side – there are multiple ways to work a piece of embroidery and its on the underside that the instinct and skill of the embroiderer is most visible.
So trying to record these undersides I feel is important. However, having now looked in closer detail at some of the 16th century pieces it has become apparent that tracing these thread paths is going to be difficult, in part due to the colour of the threads (black thread is tricky to see) and a certain amount of ‘matting’ that has occurred over time making the individual threads merge into a fuzzy mass but also because some of the earlier pieces are much more ‘free-form’ in the way the patterns are worked.
What this later sampler offers is a reference point, it’s lighter colour and relatively good condition of the threads along with the more structured working of the patterns give me something I can base the development of a ‘stitch path’ on. I don’t want to rely on just my own technique, so I’m treating this particular object (along with any other suitable examples I find) as a ‘codex’ on which to start building my reconstructions.

T.230-1929 (Reverse)

The second object is an unpicked coif. A coif is a type of head cloth or small close fitting cap, of which there are several examples in the V&A collection. Many have been unpicked and laid out flat (it is assumed so they could be used as decorative pieces in later periods). This particular piece is in fairly good condition and is small enough to be studied closely. The main motif is worked in split stitch and plait stitch, with infills of pattern worked in (rather free form) running stitches.

T.12-1948

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