Frayed: Textiles on the Edge at the Time and Tide Museum




An excerpt from Lorina Bulwer's stitched letters

Every now and then, you go to an exhibition that speaks to you on such a personal level it seems tailor made for you. It was that way for me with an exhibition of feminist art at the Ben Uri Gallery in 2012, and it was that way with the Frayed exhibition I went to see at the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth last Saturday.

The exhibition centred around how stitched artworks could act as personal testament, salvation, or therapy. Large swathes of the text accompanying the exhibition could have been lifted directly from my dissertation.

Stitching began as therapy for me; a way of busying my hands so my mind could work things out, and heal. Consequently, many of the art works in the exhibition were very relatable, a couple almost painfully so.

Elizabeth Parker's sampler

I got to see one of my favourite pieces of stitch ever (which I'd studied during my degree) up close, and read every word of it. This huge sampler of blood red text sewn on to minuscule canvas was stitched by Elizabeth Parker, a young woman who lived in the 19th Century. Elizabeth begins her stitched text with the paradoxical phrase "As I cannot write"; she hoped that she would learn to write with a pen, but for the time being she could only stitch her story. And what a story; born into an impoverished family who gave her everything allowed by their limited means, abused (and even thrown down the stairs) by her former employers, Elizabeth wrangled with suicidal urges and their impact on her immortal soul. As the part-confession, part-testament continues, it moves from autobiography to prayer to desperate, uncertain plea to God, to anybody who can save her from herself and her "sins". Hauntingly, Elizabeth's sampler ends with the words "What will become of my soul?"

 Elizabeth's story ends happily, however; the blurb that accompanied the sampler told us that she lived to the grand old age of 76, and presumably accomplished her dream of learning to write, as she became a teacher in a village school. I found it heartening that Elizabeth's story reaffirms that people who struggle with mental health issues can live full, long, productive lives; that there is redemption, and that the meditative, contemplative, suturing act of embroidery can help lead to this; we can stitch ourselves back together again.


Quilts created by prisoners, in the 1800s and now
A section from one of Lorina Bulwer's stitched letters

The exhibition included examples of textiles created by individuals who had suffered many different forms of psychic blows; from kits worked by soldiers convalescing in the wake of the Second World War, to a quilt created by female prisoners under the guidance of Elizabeth Fry, to pieces created as part of a mourning process, to perhaps the most startling items in the exhibition, a series of embroidered letters painstakingly pieced together out of scraps and rags by a resident of a lunatic ward (as it was then known) of Great Yarmouth Workhouse at the turn of the 20th century. It is not clear whether this woman, Lorina Bulwer, came to the workhouse because of her mental health problems, or developed mental health problems through coming to the workhouse. Either way, I doubt her environment could have helped, and she was certainly not a well woman; in one of her extraordinary, cathartic, stream of consciousness, unsettling letters, she announces that she is the illegitimate daughter of Queen Victoria; in another she is obsessively preoccupied with hermaphrodites and Socialists, and the "ills" they have supposedly brought her.


Further excerpts from Lorina Bulwer's densely stitched letters
Her letters and her story make me glad to be alive now, when mental health issues are so much better understood and sympathised with. However, despite the hardships Lorina endured, whether at the hands of the state or her own mind turning against her, her letters have survived, and once seen, cannot be forgotten. However fragile and irrational Lorina was, I wager she was quite a tough woman, and disturbing as her stitched letters may be, they are a testament to her irrepressible spirit.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fascinating blog which can be read here.

"As I cannot write"

I received a very interesting email yesterday from Liz Whitehouse, a graduate and fellow ex-student of Dartington College of Arts. My tutor put me in touch with her as she had explored embroidery as a medium and context for the final project of her final year.

Her research initially focused on the etymological roots of the words "text" and "textile"; both derive from the Latin "texere", "to weave". Clearly there is an ancient relationship between writing and textile art even before one begins to embroider words!

(When researching the etymology of the two terms myself I stumbled across the blog Text, Textile, Exile, which I must return to at some point.)

For her final piece, Liz took as a starting point an extraordinarily moving sampler completed by a young woman named Elizabeth Parker in the 19th Century, which is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.


The sampler is worked in miniscule red cross stitch, forming tiny letters which make up the story of Elizabeth's (rather traumatic) life up to the present; there are details of employers treating her "with cruelty too horrible to mention", and of her thoughts of suicide. The piece ends abruptly and hauntingly with the phrase "what will become of my soul"; it is unfinished, and this only serves to make the sampler all the more poignant and heartbreaking. Whereas a sampler would generally be comprised of an alphabet and decorative floral design, Elizabeth's is midway between cathartic diary entry and soulful prayer. Its opening phrase, "As I cannot write" is immediately contradicted by the uniformly perfect stream of words which issue from her needle.

The text that Liz wrote and then embroidered as a "sampler" of her own echoes this opening line of Elizabeth Parker's sampler in its first line ("though I cannot stitch or write/With your patience"):

 Blood Lines

These are my blood lines; though I cannot stitch or write
With your patience
Spoilt by the freedoms of my generation, I try to summon your strength
Recall your nimble hands. I find myself beside you
In those quiet moments of my childhood. I listen to your words.
****random stitches here****
So that I can write my veins in thread and not be orphaned by my pen.
I am undone. To be a woman is to sit with you.
T know my place, my point;
To stitch myself ... a patch ... on to our maternal quilt;
So that I can carry your words and share them with our daughters
You wield a power that I cannot muster from my pen.
I am gender-illiterate, but I write.
Thus I dedicate my every effort as a woman
to yours.

Fittingly, Liz embroidered this text with red thread, symbolising these "blood lines".


The text was embroidered on to images of groups of women sewing, which Liz transferred on to fabric and then quilted together, referencing, through making, the following quotation from Géraldine Chouard's essay Sew to Speak: Text and Textile in Eudora Welty:

"Writing, as piecing, is the art of arranging disparate scraps of material into a unique and distinctive design. A text is always a second-hand piece, made of words which have had a life of their own in previous arrangements, as are the fragments of fabrics of a patchwork quilt which have served other purposes and which, stitched together in a particular fashion, form new patterns."

Liz's sampler is also a touching tribute to her grandmother.

As Liz pointed out to me in her email, it's very fitting that she should have shared her work and research with me via the internet; after all, one of my main contexts of this project is the dissemination of embroidery via the web, which is itself an interwoven network of threads. Similarly, it's appropriate that the interviews I conducted with Iviva Olenick, Joetta Maue, and Debbie of the East London Craft Guerrilla were online.