Workshop – Textiles and Dress from Below: Ordinary and Everyday Textiles and Dress in Museums and Historic Houses

CI41.58.25 Apron 3

American cotton apron, 1855-9, Gift of The Misses Faith and Delia Leavens, 1941, Image courtesy of

University of Wolverhampton, UK
7 June 2018

Room MC228, Millennium City Building

To register, please complete the registration form available here (The link will take you to the University of Wolverhampton’s E-store)

Please scroll down for Programme, Abstracts and Further information


10.00 – 10.30 Registration and refreshments

Chair: Laura Ugolini, University of Wolverhampton

10.30 – 11.00 Katina Bill, Kirklees Museums and Galleries

A Shoddy Business? The Recycled Woollen Industry in the Nineteenth Century

11.00 – 11.30 Helen Wyld, National Museums Scotland

Everyday lives: Samplers from Scotland, 1720-1870

11.30 – 12.00 Valerie Wilson, National Museums Northern Ireland

Breeches, Boots and Bedcovers: interpreting the everyday and ordinary in an open air museum

12.00 – 12.30 Hannah Rumball, University of Brighton

“It makes us cringe these days”: Killerton House National Trust and the alteration of Elizabeth Pettipher Cash’s Everyday Quaker bonnets

12.30 – 13.30 LUNCH

Chair: Alison Toplis, University of Wolverhampton

13.30 – 14.00 Ruth Singer, Artist in Residence Staffordshire Record Office

Criminal Quilts

14.00 – 14.30 Carol Circuit, Bucks New University

Developing Social History from Material Evidence

14.30 – 15.00 Bethan Bide, Middlesex University

One dress, multiple stories: everyday fashion objects as sites for narrating overlapping and speculative biographies in museums

15.00- 15.30 COFFEE

Chair: Ian Mitchell, University of Wolverhampton

15.30 – 15.50 Ten-minute work-in-progress presentation:

Rebecca Gill, University of Huddersfield and Helen Dampier, Leeds Beckett University

The Invention of a Boer Home Industries: Emily Hobhouse and the Creation and Preservation of a South African ‘Textiles from Below’

15.50 – 16.20 Rebecca Shawcross, Northampton Museum and Art Gallery

Concealed Shoes: The ordinary or the extraordinary on display?

16.20 – 16.50 Vivienne Richmond, Goldsmiths, University of London

Text-iles for the Poor

1989.144 Apron
British silk apron, early 1840s, Purchase, Martin and Caryl Horwitz Gift, 1989, Image courtesy of


Bethan Bide, Middlesex University, One dress, multiple stories: everyday fashion objects as sites for narrating overlapping and speculative biographies in museums

Growing interest in the use of historical garments to tell biographical stories has provided a welcome turn towards questions of fashionable experience. However, the everyday experiences of ordinary participants in the fashion system – such as garment workers and non-elite wearers of inexpensive clothing – are still often overlooked. Much of this omission stems from the difficulty of uncovering these stories through existing material objects since information about such people is often lost over time and rarely exists in collection records. Acquisition records naturally privilege the biographies of well-known designers and public figures, since donors or sellers are unlikely to know much about ordinary makers or wearers that shaped an object’s history before the point of last purchase. This ignores many of the transformational processes undergone by the material object up to the point of sale.

This paper poses a provocation for fashion scholars and museum curators to look beyond written biographical information when researching everyday fashion objects in museum collections. Instead, it asks whether it is possible to uncover and retrieve the hidden stories of makers and wearers by approaching fashion objects not as static, finished products, but as processes, shaped by the hands they have passed through.

Looking closely at several inexpensive, everyday London-made garments from the Museum of London’s fashion collections, this paper demonstrates how stitching, staining and mending might offer biographical clues as to the experiences of those who encountered the garments. In doing so, it raises questions about how contextual information might be used to create speculative biographies where firm factual information is not known, and discusses the limits of such researcher speculation. Building on work by curators such as Deirdre Murphy,[1] it asks whether bringing together the stories of the different individuals involved in shaping a single garment might help us use fashion objects to create a more complete understanding of historical experience within social history museums.

[1] In 2004, Murphy used the memories of multiple individuals to speak to a single dress in an exhibition at Kensington Palace, entitled French Connections: Memories of Her Majesty the Queen in Paris.

Katina Bill, Kirklees Museums and Galleries, A Shoddy Business? The Recycled Woollen Industry in the Nineteenth Century

Shoddy is little known but once very important part of the West Yorkshire textile industry.  It is the name given to the process of ripping up and recycling used woollen cloth. The process was invented in Birstal, a small West Yorkshire town near Dewsbury, in the early 1800s. It became the basis of a major industry that was largely responsible for the growth of Dewsbury and Batley into industrial towns. It is also said to have made it possible to clothe the rapidly growing population of Great Britain following the industrial revolution.

But the industry always had an image problem, with the very name shoddy, coming to mean something cheap and poorly made. Finished goods made with shoddy were rarely if ever identified as such.

In this paper Katina will outline the development of the process and the growth of the industry and explore the importance of shoddy to the local region and to textiles in the 19th century.  She will examine attitudes towards the textile and demonstrate the problems of collecting a material that is held in such low regard.

Carol Circuit, Bucks New University, Developing Social History from Material Evidence

The removal of the top cover from a Victorian chaise longue in preparation for restoration work revealed that it had been stuffed with an assortment of Victorian clothes and tightly bound bundles of textiles, rather than the traditional filling of horsehair, and the manner in which this had been done suggested that it was a deliberate concealment.  As well as items of clothing and soft furnishings, amongst this stuffing was a label with a name and address which appeared to point to an association with the town of Leamington Spa and to the name of the person who may well have been the original owner of the chaise – one Miss Smith.

When handling the artefacts there was a very strong awareness that the last person to touch them had probably been Miss Smith, over one hundred years earlier, and this provoked curiosity about what led her to create this cache and the significance to her of the items selected. What is surprising is the variety – out of around 800 pieces of cloth there are 400 different textiles, most of them mundane and showing signs of considerable wear and many of them with darns and patches, although there were a few pieces which, remarkably, looked brand new. The styles of the clothing suggested that the artefacts covered a period of around six decades (from around 1840 – 1900) and my research explored methods of interpreting objects in order to make connections with human history and investigated a middle class provincial life by using Miss Smith as a case study.

In order to begin to understand and interpret the significance of the discovery it was important to gain a thorough knowledge of the contents of the cache and this prompted the formation of an inventory – the Miss Smith Archive – which provides detailed written and photographic details of each item in the cache.

This paper will introduce the chaise longue and then ‘uncover’ it to reveal its contents, focussing on a few of the examples to put them into a social context and explore the relationship between the textiles and the practice of concealment with material culture and social history.

Rebecca Gill, University of Huddersfield and Helen Dampier, Leeds Beckett University, The Invention of a Boer Home Industries: Emily Hobhouse and the Creation and Preservation of a South African ‘Textiles from Below’

In the aftermath of the 1899-1902 South African War the British humanitarian reformer Emily Hobhouse (1860-1926) founded the Boer Home Industries, a series of spinning, weaving and lace schools intended to replenish domestic textiles destroyed in the war. This was also to provide industry for unemployed Boer women, to symbolise co-operation and reconciliation between Boer and Briton in South Africa, and, (in the spirit of her friend Gandhi), the self-sufficiency of the new South African nation.

In this presentation we wish to explore Hobhouse’s attempt at inventing a tradition of Boer ‘textiles from below’ in the Arts and Crafts aesthetic, focusing on some of her early designs for ‘Boer tweed’, her use of natural dyes from the veld, as well as her training of Boer women in the obsolete technology of spinning wheels and weaving looms. We will be drawing on her extensive correspondence, archive records from the schools and from subsequent exhibitions, and photographs of the textiles.

We wish to think through how these were exhibited and subsequently conserved in terms of the politics of memory of segregationist and apartheid South Africa. We are seeking to understand where the public display of these textiles – including the wearing of ‘Boer tweed’ by Boer leaders – fits into the nationalist politics of this era, the better to place Hobhouse’s own political commitments. Currently, many of these textiles are in storage – the bulk in South Africa, with some in Britain – and we are working towards making these accessible and exhibiting them afresh, in light of current challenges and controversy regarding how the past is represented, preserved and commemorated in post-apartheid South Africa.

Vivienne Richmond, Goldsmiths, University of London, Text-iles for the Poor

Item 973.72.A in the collection of The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Toronto, is Instructions on Needle-work and Knitting & Marking as derived from the practice of The Inhabitants of Puslinch House Near Yealmpton Devonshire. Combining text and textiles, it was created in 1831 and contains samples of small-scale simple garments deemed suitable clothing for the poor, together with instructions for their construction. The volume is a hand-written copy of a manual published by the Anglican National Society in 1829 (and in further editions over the next two decades) and used in the Society’s elementary schools to teach needlework to poor girls.

Copies of the published book are held in library and museum collections in Britain, Canada and the USA, and the ROM’s manuscript version was produced by a wealthy woman, Althea Yonge, in Devon and sent to her relatives in Toronto. These included the wife of the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada and Althea seemingly intended her transatlantic relatives to continue, in Canada, the philanthropic work she performed in Devon of teaching poor girls to sew.

This remarkable and unique volume would have taken a great deal of time and effort to produce. Both it and its published counterparts offer insights into the colonial circulation, and perceived importance of imposing, elite British ideas about the education, gender roles and appropriate dress of the lower orders.

Hannah Rumball, University of Brighton, “It makes us cringe these days”: Killerton House National Trust and the alteration of Elizabeth Pettipher Cash’s Everyday Quaker bonnets

Killerton House National Trust houses over 20,000 garments in its rich dress collection, many of them matching the category of ordinary clothes. In November 2015, for my PhD into British women’s Quaker dress, I consulted this vast source for surviving everyday clothing with a Quaker derivation. Two of their late-nineteenth century Plain poke bonnets, intended for daily use, were aesthetically outstanding for the striking and incongruous nature of their feathered adornments. Their embellished appearance was far removed from the lifelong commitment to the religiously prescribed moderation in dress, known as Plain dress, adhered to by their original owner and wearer, Elizabeth Pettipher Cash. This paper details my initial shock and bewilderment at their appearance. It unpicks my discovery that two dyed Ostrich feathers, donated to the museum in the 1930s, had been crudely sewed to the exterior of each bonnet – under Killerton House costume collection direction – sometime between 1970 and 1990. It is the story of how these two everyday nineteenth-century bonnets underwent radical alterations for the purposes of mid-twentieth century display.

Further research, and consultation with the current curator Shelley Tobin, revealed that the establishment, cataloguing and display of the dress collection was overseen by self-styled costume consultant, Atherton Harrison, for nearly twenty years, until her retirement in 1994. Despite the passage of time, Harrison’s legacy can still be seen in several of the garments which underwent radical alterations by a group of “Thursday Ladies” employed by Harrison to work on objects intended for display. My discussions of this practice, will reveal glimpses into the past ambivalence towards displaying the mundane in historic houses. This paper is a new and unique contribution to the understanding of how historical curatorial treatments may impact upon contemporary researchers’ fundamental reading of surviving everyday garments and how researchers reading of ordinary dress may be misled by questionable past practices.

Rebecca Shawcross, Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, Concealed Shoes: The ordinary or the extraordinary on display?

Concealed shoes are those leather or textile boots and shoes that have been deliberately hidden in buildings. Northampton Museum and Art Gallery have been keeping a concealed shoe find register from the 1950s onwards. This currently stands at 2,000 specific finds with nearly 3,000 individual shoes listed. We also have a small collection of approximately 200 concealed shoes dating from the 1530s to 1900. A high proportion represent working class men, women and children’s styles though not exclusively.

As common as this practise appears to be, across the UK and further afield to countries such as America, Canada and Australia, the reason why people concealed shoes remains a mystery. To date there has been no contemporaneous written evidence found to pin point a specific reason. In response to this many reasons have been put forward, the most common being that as the shoes are highly worn, often patched and repaired they act as apotropaic devices. The good human spirit enters the shoe and was kept there because container shaped. It is thought that the shoes were not concealed when the house was built but rather subsequently when builders placed the shoes at perceived weak points such as in the roof space and in chimneys. The good spirit in the shoes would then ward off bad spirits who may want to harm the house and its occupants.

How concealed shoes are displayed is particularly pertinent at the moment as NMAG are undergoing a major expansion project which includes a new shoe gallery. As concealed shoes will go on display, there have been discussions on how concealed shoes should be displayed. This paper will explore how concealed shoes occupy a challenging duality in terms of display. On the one hand they are examples of ordinary, frequently working class shoes that often inspire little interest at first glance as they are well-worn often to the point of falling apart. Yet they are a major resource exploring what ordinary people wore at periods when those shoes that do survive are largely upper class examples. On the other hand they are apotropaic items with a context far removed from being a practical protective shoe. Can concealed shoes be put on display as simply shoes showing a particular period or style, which also raises issues of to clean or not to clean or should they always be treated as a concealed shoe?

Ruth Singer, Artist in Residence Staffordshire Record Office, Criminal Quilts

Criminal Quilts is an art and archives project run by artist & textile historian Ruth Singer based around photographs and documentary records of women in Stafford Prison 1877-1916, now housed in Staffordshire Record Office. The photographs provide an unique resource for the study of working class women’s clothing and prison issue clothing in the period. Although there are numerous collections of similar photographs very little has been published focussing on women and their clothing. The Staffordshire collections are unusually abundant with nearly 500 images, including some women who appear several times over a couple of decades. Alongside extensive research and the creation of art works inspired by these images and records, I am researching further into the details of clothing and hats which can be seen in the images. Research shows that most of the photographs were taken a few days before release from prison so it is unclear if they would be wearing their own garments or prison-issue.
A considerable number of women are shown wearing woven wool shawls, particularly in the 19th century images, which is fairly common for working women but it is still unclear how many of these are their own clothes or if the shawls were prison issue. Later photographs seem to show standard prison issue garments comprising a gingham apron, high neck collarless bodice and checked neckerchief. In many of the remaining images the women are wearing some kind of dark jacket or coat which may be prison uniform – certainly one or two images show the typical convict arrows on the garment.
Headwear is also intriguing – most of the women are wearing hats and the period range of the photos shows the fashionable development from the 1870s to the First World War.
As part of this research I am looking at comparable images from other collections, including those taken by police, which having been taken at arrest, must show women’s own clothes. There is also a possible connection between certain types of particularly showy clothing which may indicate prostitution. This paper presents the work in progress in analysing the images and comparable collections and draws connections to surviving clothing in museum collections and other resources as well as introducing my own textile work inspired by the photographs.

Valerie Wilson, National Museums Northern Ireland, Breeches, Boots and Bedcovers: interpreting the everyday and ordinary in an open air museum

This paper will examine the challenges faced in furnishing an open air museum in a largely rural setting, and clothing visitor guides, to interpret daily life in Ulster of the early 1900s.

The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra, a few miles south of Belfast, County Down, opened to the public for the first time in June 1964.  The museum, set in 170 acres of mature parkland bordering Belfast Lough, was intended to reflect the ways and traditions of the people of the nine counties of the province of Ulster, past and present.

From an initial modest cottage, removed from its original location at Magilligan, Co. Londonderry and rebuilt at Cultra, the open air museum has grown, over the last fifty years, to include over 40 buildings reflecting every aspect of daily life in Ulster.  These buildings include schools, churches, dwelling houses of varying sizes and levels of comfort, a dispensary, hardware store, a drapers shop and, of course, a public house.

Most of these exhibit buildings require the display of appropriate, original, textiles from the extensive collections at UFTM, all year round.  In addition, the museum’s visitor guides, working in these locations are required to dress in period costume.  Due to the nature of most of the locations, and the everyday activities carried out by Front of House staff, the costume and textiles used are of the artisan or ‘ordinary’ nature.  The museum’s archival collections, including oral recordings are a further source of reference material for costume and textiles from ‘below’.

This paper will also include a brief case study of one of the open air museum exhibit buildings at Cultra, and its associated collection. The drapery shop of R.J.Sloane, recreated faithfully at the museum in 2007, illustrates the contents of a small town draper and outfitter supplying ‘ordinary’ and ‘everyday’ costume and textiles to a local community of the early 1900s.  The acquisition of the contents of this business, by the museum in 1982, included costume, domestic linens, daybooks, invoices and haberdashery, dating from the 1880s to 1940s.

Breeches, Boots and Bedcovers will be richly illustrated and will present an overview of how costume and textiles from everyday life is used to enhance public engagement in a major open air museum today.

Helen Wyld, National Museums Scotland,  Everyday lives: Samplers from Scotland, 1720-1870

This paper will explore the ways in which samplers made in 18th– and 19th-century Scotland offer a unique historiographic approach to the social history of the nation.

Made between the ages of around 7 and 14, samplers were not just a demonstration of manual skill; they were a way for children (usually girls) to show their adherence to social values. This is expressed through religious and moral verses and imagery, and emphasis on the association of needlework with feminine virtue. Samplers also often illustrate the social structures surrounding the child: home, family, school. In Scottish samplers (as opposed to English and continental European examples) references to the local area are particularly common: many Scottish samplers include specific information on local buildings, institutions, professional groups and civic identities.

In the period under consideration the social background of girls producing samplers expands downwards, reflecting the spread of education, but also changes in the commodity market and the availability of materials. The production of samplers in orphanages and workhouses points to a sense of the social usefulness of needlework and sewing. As a result, samplers are virtually the only objects that record the names of members of the working and lower middle classes during the 18th and 19th centuries, especially the names of women, allowing us to reconstruct lives that would otherwise be lost to us.

Focussing on a collection of samplers that will be the subject of an exhibition at National Museums Scotland in Autumn 2018, this paper will argue that samplers are truly unique historical documents. Through a combination of genealogical research and social and local history, samplers allow the intersection of personal, everyday histories with larger themes of social change, female education, class perception, and local and national identity in Scotland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The paper will also consider the challenges in exhibiting and interpreting these objects in an exhibition context, drawing on some of the methods being explored by the museum for the upcoming exhibition.


1985.222.1 Apron

Silk apron, 1800-1850, American or European. Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Bequest, 1985. Image courtesy of

The workshop will be held in Room MC228 (not MH108-9, as previously advertised), on the second floor of the Millennium City (MC) Building, City Campus, University of Wolverhampton.

The Millennium City (MC) Building is located on City Campus Wulfruna, in Wolverhampton, a short (10 minutes) walk from Wolverhampton’s bus and train stations.

For maps and directions, please see:

The fee is £ 20

To register, please complete the registration form available here (The link will take you to the University of Wolverhampton’s E-store)

For further information, please e-mail Laura Ugolini at:

CI58.39.1 Apron

Cotton apron, 1820-29, American. Gift of Mrs. Philip G. Schermerhorn, 1958. Image courtesy of

1 Comment

Filed under 2018 Events, 2018 Workshops

One response to “Workshop – Textiles and Dress from Below: Ordinary and Everyday Textiles and Dress in Museums and Historic Houses

  1. Pingback: Textiles and Dress from Below – Criminal Clothing Research | Ruth Singer

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