Challenging Traditional Perceptions of Knitting
Five years ago at an exhibition of contemporary textile design called ‘In the Raw’, which featured at Glasgow’s Collins Gallery, textile artist Deirdre Nelson chose to showcase a new and unusual embroidered piece called ‘Whiskey Work’. It was one of the exhibition’s most intriguing pieces, for on closer inspection it became apparent that belying the work’s delicate surface beauty was literally a tale of bitter tears.
The work, which comprised a whiskey bottle and glass embroidered into the fine white silk organza, was not, as viewers might have first imagined, a representation of a cheeky wee nip. Instead it symbolised the whiskey eye wash that Ayrshire needle workers of the 18th and 19th century bathed their eyes in to relieve the strain brought on by the painstakingly detailed nature of the embroidering of the period. In other words this work symbolised a gain with considerable pain scenario, a notion not normally associated with the genteel charms of needlework.
‘Whiskey Work’ was Deirdre’s first exploration of ‘what lies beneath’ the surface of traditional needlework crafts. The artist’s journey has now culminated in the exhibition ‘The Dangers of Sewing and Knitting’, a fascinating and often playful knitted and embroidered adventure through a myriad memories, facts and anecdotes. For example a graceful 20’s cha-cha heeled knitted shoe tells the story of a Lerwick knitter who attempted to barter her winter’s work for a wedding outfit but tearfully discovered that she was unable to find a pair of shoes. Deirdre’s fitting footnote to the tale was to imagine a knitted pair of shoes. This piece was based on a first hand account from Meg Sinclair, a 90-year-old Shetland woman, and this personalised approach lends the exhibit, and indeed many other pieces in the exhibition, a warmth and intimacy, which is further enhanced by the delicacy and intricacy of Deirdre’s needlework.
The important role of knitting in traditional bartering systems informs many of the pieces, and this fascination arose as a result of research carried out by the artist on the Shetland Islands. Key pieces that feature in this section are the Knitted Tea Bags; Knitted and Gin Socks – a literal representation of the amount of knitting (three socks in total) that would have been bartered for a pint of gin.
The Shetland inspired pieces are more robust and full bodied in their humour, in contrast to the delicate fragility of the pieces that embody the darker ‘dangers’ of sewing and knitting. ‘Thimbleknocking’, for example, is on first appearance, simply a pair of Victorian bloomers, however the thimble belt embellishment, meticulously stitched on by the artist, serves as a reminder that many of the young women employed in needlework industry had to supplement their meagre incomes by succumbing to prostitution.
Following on from this display is one of the most striking and thought provoking exhibits. ‘Baby’s Robe’ is essentially a child’s outfit, exquisitely decorated in poppy flower motifs. Embodied in this work, however, is the crushing reality that many working mothers in the 19th century needlework industry administered opiates to their babies in order to make them more manageable whilst they worked. The fabric depiction of poppy fields from modern day Afghanistan was achieved via work carried out by Deirdre at Glasgow School of Art’s Centre for Advanced Technology, and the overlaid embroidery was based on botanical drawings of poppies from the 19th century.
This clever convergence of contemporary technology and traditional craft, chosen to illustrate the surface pleasure concealing the underlying pain principle, is perfectly pitched in ‘The Dangers of Sewing and Knitting’. So much so that the exhibition has firmly yet gracefully thrown down the gauntlet in terms of challenging perceptions of traditional handcrafts (and their accompanying exhibitions) as safe, passive, pretty, even precious affairs.
The Dangers of Sewing and Knitting can be seen at the Crawford Arts Centre, 93 North Street, St Andrews KY16 9AD tel: 01334 474610 until 6 March. Open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday 2pm to 5pm. Admission free.
The exhibition then moves to the Collins Gallery, University of Strathclyde, 22 Richmond Street, Glasgow tel: 0141 548 2558 from 9 April until 21 May 2005. Open Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm and Saturday 12 noon to 4pm. Closed 2 May 2005. Admission free.