Textiles in the Archives

I was recently invited to attend a lovely evening hosted by Poppy Szaybo, a textile artist and archivist at the London Metropolitan Archives near Mount Pleasant.

In all the many years I have lived in London, I am ashamed to admit having never visited the Archives before, and was delighted to find such a fantastic resource for historians, researchers and genaeologists, not to mention artists, who often neglect their intellectual stimulus in favour of practicalities of producing new artwork!

The theme of the evening was ‘Fancy costume – the art of dressing up” and the talk was given by Charlotte Hopkins who works for the archive. We were a small group of creative people all with a common interest in textiles and history.

The lecture took a long and sometimes sideways look at the fascinating subject of ‘dressing up’ and it’s traditions in European and English society, from the Pleasure Gardens of Vauxhall to photographs taken by students at the London College of Fashion in the 1970’s.

One of our primeval instincts, completely acceptable in childhood, but modified and subverted in adult life is the need to ‘dress-up’ or take on another transient identity for the pleasure of ‘pretend play’. The escapism and anonymity of dressing up burgeoned in the 17th and 18th centuries, becoming part of upper class social life, and often viewed at the time as a pathway to depraved behaviour. Aristocracy and high society families spent large sums on having beautiful costumes created, and there was a large industry of costume and mask makers in London. The lower and working classes were more inventive in their creations for dressing up opportunities,

The Lord Mayor of London hosted masquerade balls for the children of the professional classes, and no expense was spared in the creation of their children’s costumes.

The London Metropolitan picture archive’s online resource ‘Collage’ allows free access to thousands of the documents and images in the collection, and is a fascinating resource for historians and artists alike. Tiny snippets from historic documents are available to view on request, old newspapers, photographs and illustrations are a rich resource of inspiration and a little window into lives led in another era. 


I loved the tiny catalogues of prices and business cards that had been taken out for us to handle, listing prices for ‘ladies undergarments’ and necessities !

We were lucky enough to be shown into the strong rooms of the archive, deep in the building. 

Long corridors filled with shelves and files, all housed in custom made archival boxes, with one member of staff purely responsible for creating these custom made boxes! The wonderful aroma of ancient documents and slightly musty books pervades the space. What look like really old bound books are stacked on some shelves, but on closer inspection date back only to the 1950’s, maybe the mere fact of them being in this environment has given us a preconception of their antiquity!

London coroner’s court records are stored here, with files containing both the mundane and the macabre details of lives prematurely reaching their end. A sobering view as we peer into the corridors of files. Illustrations of dress design and fashions were displayed for us to see, and I was delighted to find plates of Leon Baskt illustrations amongst the pages of the London Illustrated News from 1913. Radical costumes for the time, unstructured and body hugging in comparison with contemporary fashions.

I could happily return (and probably will!) To explore more of this fantastic free resource, but leave you to explore either through the virtual portal of  ‘Collage‘ or in person, do let me know if you find a treasure!

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‘English Work’ at the V&A.

The current ‘Opus Anglicanum’ exhibition of Medieval ecclesiastical embroidery at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum took me way back to my student days when I was lucky enough to be of the generation when it was still possible to study Embroidery A’level. My lovely embroidery teacher allowed us to take off on flights of fancy with creative embroidery whilst instilling a respect for the timeless techniques of the past. It is hard nowadays to imagine a state school sixth form running an A’level course with only three students, but at the time we never even questioned it! Alongside our study of artistic and contemporary stitch techniques the history of embroidery was an integral part of the course and I was thoroughly absorbed for a while in the world of ecclesiastical embroidery and it’s techniques. The no photography protocol of the V&A meant me taking out my note book and sketching some of my favourite  fragments, and even this was time consuming, leaving me to speculate on the unnumerable hours that were spent actually stitching these pieces!

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The language of this exhibition was not unfamiliar to me as a past student of ecclesiastical embroidery, although I did hear several people wondering “What is a ‘chasuble for?” or “Which is the ‘split stitch’ and which is ‘couching’? ” ( A chasuble is the highly decorated tabard that a priest wears over his normal robes whilst celebrating Mass) Split stitch and Couching are shown  here:embroidery-stitches

In the 13th Century, English embroiderers were at the pinnacle of embroidery workmanship. Church and high society aspired to commission their garments from the English embroiderers in London.   bologna-cope

Large embroideries like the  Butler Bowden and Syon Copes were made by highly trained professionals, both men and women. They were employed in workshops which were funded by merchants and noble patrons. The merchants took the profits, not the embroiderers who received only modest payments for their work. Most workshops were in London where the necessary capital was available and which was the principal port through which the imported materials arrived. The phrase ‘opus anglicanum’ was first coined to  describe the highly-prized and luxurious embroideries made in England of silk and gold and silver thread, full of elaborate biblical imagery.’English Work’ or Opus Anglicanum remained the most sought after work until well into the 15th century.

I was looking forward to the rare opportunity to see ‘up close and personal’ the incredible detail in the embroidered vestements worn in the Medieval Church. I found it sad to think that the hours of work that were put into the embroideries were lost on the congregation, as they would not have had time or opportunity to ‘read’ the pictorial stories depicted on the garments, nor would they have been able to see the minutiae of the stitches that created these incredible works of art. There are exquisite examples of intricate stitching and beautiful fragments of embroidery in this exhibition, but I did feel that it was a missed opportunity on the part of the V&A. In comparison with the recent exhibitions of the past year , this one fits the norm of a dry, old fashioned, ‘museum’ exhibition. I had the impression of wandering amongst embroidery and theological aficionados, who, albeit enthusiastic, certainly did nothing to enliven the atmosphere.

The staging of this exhibition is in a dry, traditional style, some of the beautiful work is presented so far back in the glass cabinets, that it is impossible to make out the details. There are fantastic stories depicted in many of the Church garments, none of which were adequately told in the labelling. The minute stitches really needed to be magnified, but there was no way of doing so. A short film demonstrated the technique of one style of stitching, but was small and nestled between two glass cases, so difficult to see if there were more than two or three people looking. All in all I left, even after my second visit, feeling frustrated at the lack of interactive or engaging display.

However, if you have any interest at all in the world of textiles or history, then this may be the only opportunity  for a long while to see such a comprehensive collection of some of the worlds greatest embroidered treasures, so essential viewing !

Hidden Treasures

As you wander through the glass galleries of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum it’s easy to be dazzled by the shelves of finely wrought goblets and wine glasses, so many of which I long to have in my meagre collection of antique wine glasses. But, take a moment to pull open the draws of the unprepossessing cabinets and you will find, as I did, a little haven of hidden treasure. No cataloguing, no labels, no dates; thundreds of tiny fragments of glass seem to be there purely for our visual delight. Astounding feats of minute craftsmanship have been captured and presented to those who take the time to look (and you really do have to get down on your knees for some of them). Most of these pieces of sixteenth to eighteenth century glass measure less than a couple of centimetres in size. Some are tiny fragments of millefiore, creating delicate stippled patterns, others beautiful sections of ancient vessels or intricate gold leafed patterns.

It is the sheer infinitesimal detail in these shards that fascinate me, and I wonder what incredibly steady 16th century hands could have created these treasures?