Prints Charming

Apologies for my lack of posting the past few weeks, I've been beading frantically to make a deadline (and caught the beading bug; I'm still beading! Hopefully I will soon be able to share an example of Victorian cross stitch beading here).

But by the weekend, all the beading had been taken care of, and it was a glorious Saturday. Pip and I took a trip down to Borough Market to sample veggie pie and mash and posh ice cream in the spring sunshine, en route to the Fashion and Textiles Museum to visit the exhibition Artist Textiles. Artist illustrated fashion is another bug I've caught lately (see my last post for proof!), and so I was keen to catch this exhibition, which encompassed artists from Picasso to Warhol. I hoped I would find inspiration for my summer dream project; creating frocks from textiles I've designed myself. And I wasn't disappointed, although I can't say I think much of Picasso as a textiles designer; his designs were too cluttered, clashing, and indistinct for my tastes, with slightly bizarre subject matter (or maybe it's just me who doesn't fancy being bedecked in chickens and plates of fish!)

A contemporary of Picasso's who had rather more success as a textiles designer in my eyes (though is still a little hit and miss) is Dali. His famous melted clocks work rather well as a necktie, his similarly melting telephones create a strikingly modern, hallucinatory silk headscarf, and a simple dress covered in a "flower ballet" is one I would love to slip on.




Marcel Vertes, a Hungarian costume designer and therefore perhaps well suited to designing fashion fabrics, produced some gorgeous, similarly flora-related prints in the 1940s, though I can't help but feel their beauty was somewhat wasted as they were made up into silk headscarfs, which would be worn folded, obscuring the design. That's not to say I wouldn't like to add them to my burgeoning headscarf collection! The smiley sleepy radishes in particular are adorable. 





An artist who had rather more success as a textile designer than Picasso and Dali in my view was Andy Warhol. This is perhaps not surprising, as his better-known paintings and screen prints were practically textile designs, produced on a large scale in multiple colourways using popular subject matter. Textile design is perhaps the perfect medium for Warhol's art for mass public consumption. And his designs are simply fun; gloriously 60s colour schemed ice cream sundaes, tumbling watermelons and apples, bugs and butterflies flying all over skirts, trapeze artists leaping over horses; his designs have me wishing textile prints were this whimsical today! They certainly illustrate that the simplest idea is often the best, when executed well. Food for thought for me, if you'll pardon the dreadful pun.









Zandra Rhodes founded the Fashion and Textile Museum in 2003, and so it's fitting that some of her textiles designs are featured in the exhibition, though not merely because of this fact; it would be an oversight to leave Zandra Rhodes out of an exhibition of printed textiles. Rhodes's dress which features in Artists' Textiles was the exhibit that put the biggest smile on my face; a classic late '60s/early '70s Peter Pan collar shift, with a difference; the torso is printed with a luscious pair of lips being touched with a line of lipsticks fanning out into a hand. I considered slipping this little number into my bag for maybe a moment or two.





 In the 1950s, the label Horrocks was synonymous with the English summer frock; the dress for an English Rose. Horrocks's success was partially due to their commissioning the painters Alastair Morton and Graham Sutherland to supply textile designs for the company, which were then turned in gowns by the couturier John Tullis. Clients even included the Queen, but the dresses were affordable for the woman in the street, too. Unfortunately the same isn't true of these beauties today, much to my dismay.






I felt the piece that made the best use of the repeat quality of print was a textile featuring hundreds of gossips spreading salacious secrets by Virginia Lee Burton. A simple but witty pattern that really explores the possibilities of print. And that's what I intend to do come summertime.







Ah-tisshoo!

Today I visited the Fashion and Textile Museum on Bermondsey Street to take in their exhibition of handkerchiefs, The Printed Square



The handkerchiefs on display differed from my embroidered vintage handkerchiefs in that they were examples of early - mid twentieth century design rather than handicraft/art.






I didn't visit the exhibition so much for the handkerchiefs on display, however, as for their history.

In The Printed Square, the book published to coincide with the exhibition, the textile and costume designer Nicky Albrechtsen explains how handkerchiefs have played a role in courtship and romance rituals over the centuries.

As far as in known, this began in the Middle Ages when jousting knights would pin a lady's handkerchief - her "favour" - to their sleeve to show for which lady they were riding. 

The word "handkerchief" derives from the French "couvrechef", meaning "head cover". In the Tudor period English women would bestow elaborate "handkerchers" upon their preferred suitors, who wore them on their hats.

In the Victorian era there was even a "language" of handkerchiefs in a similar manner to the language of fans, as Albrechtsen explains; "letting" one's handkerchief "drop to the ground ... was an invitation for friendship; twirling it in both hands indicated indifference; the gentle mopping of one's forehead was a sign of being watched; and drawing a handkerchief across one's cheek signified love".


This may sound fanciful, but would have been an invaluable secret code for strictly chaperoned young women who could not freely express their feelings.


Of course, in the twentieth century, an entirely different handkerchief code came into being; the colour-coded system used by members of BDSM and gay subcultures. A coloured handkerchief or bandana is typically worn in the back pocket to indicate a particular fetish or sexual preference. A handkerchief worn on the left side of the body indicates a "dominant" type, and a handkerchief worn on the right side a "submissive".


Obviously this casual sex handkerchief code is strikingly different from the romantic and rather innocent Victorian one!


On a more romantic note, during the Second World War, soldiers serving overseas sent handkerchiefs hand-embroidered with messages of love back to their sweethearts at home. When I met Carolyn Abbott, founder of E17 Designers,she commented that my Cure for Love embroideries were reminiscent of these war-time embroidered tokens.




Bearing all that history in mind, it's time for me to get back to embroidering my own 'kerchief!

On Being Soft

In anticipation of the Soft exhibition at The Mill in June, I am stitching a soft sculpture artist's book. 



  
The cover is constructed from a 1920s or '30s gold brocade curtain stuffed with wadding, to make the book, well, soft (my friend Alys mentioned that it could double up as a cushion).


The cover reads "On Being Soft - A work in progress by Kate Elisabeth Rolison". The pages inside will deal with notions of softness; of personality, of the female form, with the sense of touch, and more.


On the first page is a pocket made from blue and gold batik fabric, which bears a cross stitched quote by the artist Lily van der Stokker.








The quotation reads "Women can be sweet, sentimental, sensual, communicative, decorative, weak, emotional, and what else? They are very good at crying".


When I came across this quotation in van der Stokker's book It Doesn't Mean Anything But It Looks Good, it struck me that the qualities she was listing could be thought of as different kinds of softness. A particularly feminine softness, which was what I wished to explore in my book. 


I realise that some may see this quotation as anti-feminist, but I feel it (along with van der Stokker's work) celebrates the feminine aspect of womanhood. Indeed, van der Stokker describes herself as a "feminist conceptual pop artist"!


Below are some examples of van der Stokker's work, taken from It Doesn't Mean Anything But It Looks Good, published by Tate St Ives. The works are exuberantly, even nauseatingly, feminine and positive. In her book, van der Stokker is quoted speaking about "the strength of pink curlicues"; there is strength in this apparently "weak" feminine softness. The strength of softness is something we are aiming to explore in the Soft exhibition.










In It Doesn’t Mean Anything But It Looks Good, van der Stokker writes about how when “women refuse to hold back in their expression, we see artworks that are so different they can repulse and confuse us”. In the making of On Being Soft, I am embracing my own femininity, even those aspects of it which I have previously fought and which have nauseated me.


The pages of the book will be made to be touched, and explored; they will contain pockets which will themselves contain embroidered handkerchiefs.


I wanted the first handkerchief of the book to have a dialogue with the Lily van der Stokker quotation cross stitched on to the pocket which contains it. I focused on the last word of the quotation - crying.






The handkerchief reads ""Are you well?" (I'm welling up.)", illustrated by, yes, a wishing well, because I have a terrible weakness for appalling puns.


There are two voices in this text; the first, a polite enquirer, and the second my interior monologue, my silenced voice, bit tongue. The words (and tears) are trapped within the folded handkerchief, and the viewer has to delve into the pocket and unfold the fabric before they are released.

I've begun to think of the different things handkerchiefs can signify; nowadays they are almost invariably only the property of older people. They catch coughs and sneezes, they are witness to outpourings of emotions, they are used to dab away a furtive tear. In old films and cartoons, they wave away maiden voyages, they are waved out of rapidly departing trains at sweethearts. Moving even further (far further) back in time, they were given as “favours” to jousting knights.

On Saturday I will be visiting the Fashion and Textile Museum on Bermondsey Street, where the exhibition The Printed Square: Vintage Handkerchiefs is currently on display. I will report back later!