A few days ago I was lucky enough to get a preview of the new exhibition at the American Museum in Britain, titled "Hatched Matched Dispatched-and Patched!". It aims to tell the stories of peoples lives through textiles, from christening gowns to mourning garb. I think this is something people can really identify with as even in the modern age, so many of us have textile items linked to memories or events-whether it's a treasured wedding dress, a quilt made by a family member, or just a favourite piece of clothing. In the past these sentimental, personal associations would have been even stronger, as so many textile items were handmade, often taking months or years to finish. They were often created for specific rites of passage, and then used frequently for the rest of the maker's life.
Christening gown made from wedding dress, 1963
When you first enter the exhibition, through an entrance lined with photographs of key moments in people's lives, you see a wall of exquisite christening gowns, representing the "Hatched" (birth and infancy) stage of life. It has a strong visual impact with the pale coloured gowns against the dark blue walls of the exhibition space, and really shows off the gowns well. As they are hung up on the wall and not in cases, you can get close enough to them to examine all the tiny details. The christening gowns are made from sumptuous fabrics like silk and lace-one was even made from a recycled wedding dress!-and have lots of beautiful details such as embroidery and smocking. As someone who loves sewing, these were a real treat to see.
Weardale Wedding Quilt, 1815-1830
The American Museum has many links with quilting thanks to its large collection of historic quilts and relationship with Kaffe Fassett, so of course there are plenty of quilts in this exhibition. Quilts have always been very tied up with personal events and rites of passage, often being made from old clothes, and traditionally forming part of a woman's trousseau. As they take so long to make they can end up being layered with memory and significance, and I think even now many quilters will be able to use their quilts almost like a photo album-remembering the time and place and situation where the quilt was made.
Daffodil dress, c 1892
One of the centrepieces of the exhibition, which has been used for the advertising images, is this daffodil dress. It's a stunning piece, with rich embroidery of daffodil flowers, which fitted nicely with the abundant blooms outside in the museum grounds! This cheerful looking dress actually has a very sad story behind it-it was never worn, as the woman who made it for her trousseau died before her wedding day. Stories like this really bring the emotional, personal elements of the exhibition to the fore.
Wedding dress of Agnes Lucy Huges, 1887
Another dress with an interesting history is this incredible wedding dress. It was made for the future mother-in-law of Wallis Simpson! It really is an amazing dress and I very much recommend seeing it in person to admire all the details-aside from its story its construction is fascinating and my photos don't do it justice! There are some other equally stunning wedding dresses on display, so this would be a great exhibition for anyone wanting to get vintage style wedding dress inspiration.
Embroidered tablecloth, 1944
I think the most heart breaking story from the exhibition was the one behind this tablecloth. A woman had been embroidering it with the names of her friends and her fiance's friends, when she heard of her fiance's death during WWII. Overcome with grief, she was unable to finish it, and the needle remains in the fabric as she left it.
Umbrella worn with widow's weeds, c 1880
The section of the exhibition dealing with death and mourning is at the rear of the exhibition space in a smaller room, and separated from the main exhibition space with a fringed black curtain. This really gives a feeling of division and passing over into a different atmosphere, which I think works brilliantly with the subject. Even though black doesn't carry such heavy associations these days, the ornate black mourning clothes still have an ominous feeling to them, especially when shown on the head-to-toe black swathed, veiled mannequin which greets you as you enter the room. It really drives home the message that these garments were not only a sign of respect for the dead, but a constant reminder of what had been lost for those left behind.
Album Quilt Top, 1862
There were also mourning quilts, either put together to remember the deceased person, like this one, or with motifs and colours deemed suitable for use during the strict mourning period. I imagine that making these quilts must have been a way of coping, providing a repetitive, time consuming task to focus on in the aftermath of bereavement.
I found this exhibition fascinating, and I think it will have something of interest for almost everyone. The personal stories provide historical interest and a very human element, while for anyone interested in textiles, this exhibition is packed with absolute gems of craftsmanship. Whatever your interest, this exhibition is certainly thought provoking.