Yesterday I went on an Expotition to the Southlands archive at the University of Roehampton. This was an enormous undertaking because Southlands is technically another college (I work at Digby Stuart and we have a cat called Digby).
Sometimes when I’m working in my office, Southlands seems enormously far away and getting there involves some hideous effort. You have to go past the duck-pond and everything.
Actually, it’s a walk of about a hundred yards. And it’s worth it because of the archive.
Part of the archive is kept in a swish glass display case beside the senior common room. I’ve walked past part of the display dozens of times on my way to get tea but I’d never actually got to play with it until yesterday.
Like the other Roehampton colleges, Southlands started out as a teacher training college and many of the items in the archive relate to the kinds of things student teachers were expected to learn. There are some pretty strange things, including a miniature shirt from 1900 (I’m assuming the place was overrun with semi-clad homunculi because I couldn’t find any miniature trousers)
There are a couple of really lovely stitched samplers and portfolios. Including a sampler dating back to the 1870s (one of the earliest items in the collection.
And a lovely little scrap-book collection of very fine crochet work.
At the Mary Lamb colloquium at the weekend there was a great discussion as to whether collections of stitchery and needlework portfolio like this one count as commonplace books. I like the idea that they form a record of your work and that the little pieces might act as material ‘quotes’ that could be used in a larger piece of work. I really like the idea that textiles can be texts – that both are narratives of a kind.
There are lots of narratives we can tell ourselves about things like this – the history of the production of each of the constituent materials, the dye, the thread, the silk, the cotton, the story about the person who made it, about the person who used it, and the stories about its making…
One of the things that caught my eye every time I passed the little cabinet was this pair of mittens:
They were made in the 1942 by N. Samuel. On closer inspection they appear to be made of an undyed 2-ply wool yarn (maybe fingering-weight but I figure 2-ply is more likely) with a pattern picked out in a slightly slubby brown wool (again I suspect in its natural undyed state).
N. Samuel was not an expert knitter. And there is a clear difference between the two mittens – not so much in the tension, that’s pretty consistent, but in the tone and the assurance of the work. The cuff of the first mitten is not joined very securely in the round and you can see where N. has joined the round after a couple of back-and-forth rows.
These were obviously a piece to learn on. The second mitten has a much neater cuff.
The same can be said of the intarsia work. This is the first mitten.
And here is the second:
On the second mitten N. has got the hang of colour dominance.
The thumbs improve too but it was really hard to get a photograph of them.
Basically, these mittens tell the story of N. learning how to knit. They were never worn and they were never made to be worn and, to be honest, I feel a bit sorry for them languishing in their glass case with all the other things that must have taken students such time and effort. It seems a bit sad that after all the work N. put into them, they were just left behind in the college.
It got me thinking about my own unloved early crafting efforts…the, frankly terrifying, Santa dolly I made in primary school that Mammy still put up with the Christmas decorations even though it look like it was trying to run away from its own face, the wonky pink headband that stretched out of shape in about two minutes, the hideous acrylic purple scarf with extra purple….my early crafting was rubbish. But it sort of didn’t matter. Because at the time they was the very best things I could have made. If I find a picture of the terrible Santa dolly, I’ll post it. Sometimes I suddenly remember it and burst out laughing. Sometimes this happens when I’m on the bus or in the library. This is not so good.