Tangled Yarns: Alke Schmidt at the William Morris Gallery (Part 2)

Earlier I explained that, through Tangled Yarns, Alke Schmidt reminds us of the obscure and murky chain of supply in the textile industry. But it was ever thus; Tangled Yarns explores the (dirty) politics and morality of the textiles industry from the 1700s to the present day. And seemingly, little has changed. Though the chain of supply today may often be a mystery, in her work Stained Alke traces the mid-1800s supply chain from cotton plant to dress. She illustrates how a garment's origins, even then, could leave an invisible smear unbeknownst to the wearer. 


A wealthy woman in an elegant, delicate ball-gown peers through a barrier of columns of an 1840s cotton print which separate her from the women who clothed her. As with many of the works in the exhibition, cloth, stitch and paint weave in and out of each other, and composition says just as much as content.



The women the elegant lady peers at are a plantation slave, a Lancashire mill worker and a cottage industry dressmaker. Each category of exploited worker became the focus of a moral outrage in the 1800s, just as the treatment of Bengali textile workers is now, and rightly so. Even the self-employed dressmaker working from home lived a meagre and often starving existence; there are accounts of cottage industry stitchers losing their eyesight by candlelight in the seminal text The Subversive Stitch.

Alke's dressmaker has dark circles under her eyes and stitches by a guttering candle; perhaps her eyesight, too, will soon falter.


As Alke’s exhibition demonstrates, structural violence towards women permeates and has always permeated the textile industry. In around 1719, this violence become more overt, when, as Alke rather brilliantly puts it, some women became literal "fashion victims". British weavers were feeling increasingly threatened by the popularity of patterned Indian and Indian-imitation cottons. Rather than directing their resentment at the producers of such cottons, wool and worsted weavers took to the streets and began attacking women wearing garments made from the printed cottons. The attacks included ripping and cutting the cloth, setting it on fire, and throwing acid at the women to burn their skin. It quickly became a witch-hunt in which the recipient of the violence was not the clothes but the women wearing them. They were branded Calico Madams, the title of the piece in which Alke brings all these rich and subtle threads of research (or tangled yarns, if you like) together.


As her base Alke has chosen a calico in the style of early 18th century Indian designs. The next layer is a reproduction of an illustration from the period celebrating the passing of the ban on Indian cottons. Finally she has painted the "calico madams" themselves, fighting off their attackers and lying defeated on the floor, where the rump of a woman becomes the site of the cottons being "burnt at the stake", with flames flickering around and leaping up to assault the fleeing women. Of course, the phrase "calico madams" was a way of attacking women for their sexuality, and conflating this sexuality with the way they were dressed. Therefore the flaming pyre appears on one of the most sexualised parts of a woman's anatomy.


Calico Madams is one of the most technically accomplished and conceptually rich works in the exhibition. It is multi-layered both literally, with pattern, print and paint interlacing seamlessly in and out of each other, and figuratively, with countless threads of research woven together without over-burdening the whole.



It gives me courage as an artist who sometimes worries that there's "too much going on" in her own work. 

Tangled Yarns is an eminently apt title for this exhibition; it would be impossible to separate out the strands of race and gender, exploitation and violence with which the textiles industry is intertwined, and Alke doesn't attempt to. Instead, she explores how these strands relate to one another, in a triumph of intersectionality.

I have written about a handful of the works in the exhibition, and have spent almost two thousand words doing so. I hope this is some indication of how thought-provoking, conscience-pricking, and technically astute Tangled Yarns is. As a result of visiting the exhibition, I have chosen to make a real commitment to being an ethical fashion consumer. How many exhibitions cause us to transform our lives (and the lives of others) for the better? I would hazard a guess that it's not that many.

Tangled Yarns is exhibited at the William Morris Gallery until the 25th January 2015.

Fairy Ring

Remember the fairy ring I stitched all the way back in November? Well, I thought I'd reinterpret the design in lino print. Sadly though, the prints have been languishing in a folder rather than being shared here, due to my being at School five days a week and general laziness. Today, however, I have a new lease of inspiration, and so am finally sharing the fairy ring here. I'm raring to go on Milk Thistle (the third artist's book in the series I'm creating), and once my studio paperwork is out of the way over Easter, I have plans for crewel work fuzzy thistles, 60s floral prints and beaded violets and pansies. Speaking of which, I'll go and get on with my Victorian beadwork violets in front of some Mad Men.


My Away With The Fairies lino print is available to purchase on Etsy right now.

Radical Ma'am

My addiction to lino printing rages on, with many trips to Hobbycraft to satisfy my cravings. This latest print is based on an embroidery I did a couple of years ago.



 Now for sale in the Poesie Grenadine Etsy shop for £5. I shall be adding some more vintage threads to the shop tomorrow.






Thunder Thighs Are Go

Despite currently suffering from a throbbing thumb where I've gouged a chunk out of it with a blade, I've become addicted to lino printing! It's so immediate and fun. I think I'll be taking a trip to Hobbycraft to pick up some more linoleum in the next few days!

I couldn't resist printing a lino patch of one of my favourite slogans I've ever embroidered, "Thunder Thighs Are Go":





Learning to love my thunder thighs is an ongoing process for me, so I feel this patch is particularly poignant. I hope it speaks to some of you, too; it's now up for sale in the Poesie Grenadine Etsy shop, alongside my "You Didn't Cry" trophy lino patch.

Art in Awesomestow: The Summer Show at Penny Fielding


I promised my Tumblr followers a post on my latest exhibition, at Penny Fielding's, quite a few days ago, and so here, finally, is a photograph of Pip and I being smug in our sunglasses in the gallery garden.

And I did have at least one thing to be (slightly) smug about; one of my embroideries was displayed slap bang in the centre of the window! My Melancholyflowers were placed directly beneath a rather charming little crown, which I take as a sign of good fortune.




My other embroidery was ever so slightly more out of the way, but still very visible; over a doorway leading to an interesting little nook of the gallery/shop. I'm afraid these are the best photographs I could take of it; it seemed very far up from the point of view of my (brand spanking new, it's very exciting) smartphone!



Here's a better, close up photograph of the piece, entitled Plathitude:


Mine weren't the only textile pieces in the exhibition, or the only familiar ones; this exquisite machine embroidered quilt by Gilli Haqqani previously featured (alongside some of my work) at the Soft group show at The Mill last year.



This colourful illustration put me in mind of Grayson Perry's playful illustrative style. The gaudy yet down at heel carnival scene is quintessentially British.


This photograph doesn't do it justice, but this thought provoking painting by socially conscious artist Alke Schmidt. At first glance it seems obvious that the machinists are working in an Asian clothes sweatshops. But with closer inspection, more layers to the painting are discovered. The painting is overlaid with a textiles pattern, which I read in two ways; it is a traditional Asian design, or a cheap and cheerful design for the mass market. It seems to have seeped into the women's skin; they are unable to escape their cultural heritage, which now includes manufacturing cheap high street clothing for Westerners. Their face masks could be to protect them from their unhygienic working environment; it also reminds me of the hysteria, which seemed particularly concentrated in the East, following the outbreak of SARs and then bird flu, and the wearing of such masks, which I remember was common amongst Asian tourists at the time. Finally, the black mass of cloth waiting to be sewn to the right of the machinists is redolent of the drudgery of working in such a sweatshop, and the murky business practises of the multinational companies overseeing such work.


This whimsical piece put me in mind of sideshows at the carnival or circus; surely that cat shouldn't have wings?! The rough but realistic charcoal strokes give the drawing a naturalistic, endearing quality.


Similarly endearing was this piece; I couldn't decide if it was in pastels or some kind of print, but I do know that I love a good cup of tea, especially when it's served so beautifully!


I feel cruel for writing this, but this dreamlike piece by Two For Joy is very reminiscent of Rob Ryan's work. He certainly seems to have cornered the market in whimsical papercuts! This piece definitely has a charm all of its own, however; the detail on the wings/feathers is particularly gorgeous.



I assume this dramatic print is a linocut, a medium I am hoping to experiment with soon. If it is, it's certainly s masterful one; just look at the detail in that spider's abdomen.


This print of identical twins reminded me of a painting my best friend won a national art prize for when we were twelve, and it's just as sweet!


I love dioramas, but unfortunately couldn't get a better picture of this dinky little one inside an old lamp; it, too, was very sweet.


Much as I love Awesomestow, there are days when it seems a bit grey and gritty even for me! So this bright and cheerful treatment of the borough definitely put a smile on my face.


The exhibition is on until August the 25th. I urge you to get down there if you can. As well as all the wonderful art, there's plenty of beautiful homeware and jewellery on sale, and you're bound to bump into some interesting local characters!




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!