“Dave? Are you feeling alright?” I can hear you all thinking. Yes! Embroidery!
One of the good things about the Pestilence is that vast numbers of lectures went online. London has always had a thriving lecture scene, but actually getting to most of them was always a pain as they weren’t well advertised and were in out-of-the-way places. The Pestilence pushed them online, and because you can’t rely on on-site advertising at cultural venues any more promotion of them has also gone online. The Royal School of Needlework is one of the many institutions that has moved some of its output intended for non-specialists online. Embroidery is well outside my normal range of interests, which tend towards the industrial and scientific, but nevertheless this lecture caught my eye when it was advertised (alongside talks on subjects such as “Regional Museums of Space Exploration in Russia” and “The Strange History of London’s Loos”) in the Ian Visits newsletter, to which all Londoners should subscribe.
The talk “Hand Embroidery in the 20th Century: Modernism in the RSN’s Collection” covered both art embroidery, original work by extremely talented creatives, but also, and more interesting to me, craft embroidery, largely in the form of kits and mass-market printed patterns for people to make up at home. I was mostly interested because home decoration and ordinary peoples’ clothing, how they’re made, marketed and purchased, is a window into real history, into how normal people live and how that changes over time. The sort of history that is far more important than minor details of which aristo scum killed which royal tyrant when. The lecture clearly brought out the rise of the suburban middle class, changing patterns of home ownership, and even teenage music fandom.
Much of the work we were shown, especially from the first half of the 20th century, was not what I would call modernist. The manufacture and marketing of it was modern, but the craft itself was not, being a quite conservative, nostalgic re-re-re-rendering of old themes. Much was “arts & crafts“, a movement that is explicitly anti-modern, although I did note that practically all the work depended heavily on modern industrial chemistry for the mass production of brightly coloured threads! Modernism really first appeared on the fabric in large quantities in the 50s and 60s, with perhaps some fore-shadowing in 1940s austerity. But really, whether the design was modernist isn’t as important as the infrastructure behind it of how designs are promulgated. So you see, this wasn’t so far removed from my normal interests after all.