Not quiet & orderly

So, here is my presentation from this week’s Heritage Show + Tell. The rule for Show + Tell is strict: three slides, three minutes, so you have to be very disciplined!

The other presentations were all really interesting and engaging. Mills and Boom: falling back in love with our textile mills by Deborah Wall from Historic England was an obvious link with Shoddy. And I really like the look of Leeds GATE‘s project and exhibition, Feet on the Ground, with East Street Arts.


No longer quiet and orderly.
From the workhouse to contemporary art: disabled women and textiles

Needlework has been a staple activity in institutions for disabled women. It has long been in the background of disabled women’s history.

Today, disabled women artists are both subverting and embracing the possibilities of textiles as material suited to communicating a range of messages, especially the strength and resilience of disabled people.

Examples of this were seen in Shoddy, a disability arts project that focused on an exhibition by disabled artists in Leeds last year. As well as calling out the government’s shoddy treatment of disabled people, Shoddy addressed themes of history and heritage, including personal & family history, as well as local textile heritage, harking back to the original meaning of shoddy.

The extra layer of resonance and meaning of textile art and craft for disabled women was not lost in the Shoddy project.

From the workhouse and asylum through to occupational therapy in hospitals and day centres, needlework has been an activity to keep disabled women – and sometimes men, actually – busy and quiet.

Shoddy acknowledged this with a workshop about the embroidered scrolls produced by Lorina Bulwer whilst she was incarcerated at Great Yarmouth asylum at the end of the 19th century.  I was thrilled when I discovered that Leeds’ Thackray Medical Museum holds one of the scrolls.

These long, densely embroidered tapestries are generally read as great outpourings of anger and frustration by Bulwer. That she might be angry at her situation, at family members and people in the institution where she was held is understandable.

Bulwer’s voice comes through loud and clear in her scrolls. While she might have been allowed to make them as a form of therapy or to keep her quiet, she managed to take this permitted, genteel activity and create something powerful and transgressive.

Sewing, knitting and needlework were also permitted activities in day centres for disabled people. As a form of rehabilitation or in the absence of real jobs, disabled women (the men doing stuff with wood and leather) have been following patterns for cross stitched cushion covers, knitted soft toys and other small items – for decades.

And this legacy influenced people’s expectations of the Shoddy exhibition and what it would consist of. So it was satisfying to blow those expectations apart with high quality contemporary art which was original, challenging and indeed powerful and transgressive.

I’ve been thinking about these issues recently because I wrote an essay for a project called Cut Cloth: Contemporary Textiles and Feminism, which brought another perspective to Shoddy.

I always welcome new perspectives! So if you have anything to share relating to Shoddy’s themes of textiles, disability rights, and history and heritage, get in touch!

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