I often receive requests for copies of features and articles I’ve published. Hard copies of individual magazines can be hard to find, and many publishers don’t make back issues readily available in digital formats. So, in the spirit of open access, I’ve decided to “reprint” some of these pieces here, where everyone can find them. This piece, originally published in Selvedge in March 2008, is one I’m asked about quite frequently. The work of Tabitha Kyoko Moses is always thoughtful, and thought provoking and she probably remains my favourite artist working with textiles in any medium. I think it is her very particular combination of precision, beauty, and discomfort that I like so much. I was very happy that Tabitha also enjoyed my piece when it was published, and I urge you to explore more of her work on her website.
(Annies Room, the shrine under the streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town)
“We have naught for death but toys” W.B. Yeats
Several hundred feet beneath the streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town, a doll sits in a cold, dark room. The tattered plaid she wears is showing signs of age. Her limbs are dirty and her hair is white with dust. Gathered around her are hundreds of companions. There are Barbies and Beanie-Babies and several Raggedy-Anns. Stuffed animals jostle alongside plastic infants; painted wooden soldiers smile up at porcelain princesses. What are they, this dusty jumble of toys piled five feet high? What brought them here together? In 1992, Japanese psychic, Aiko Gibo, visited Edinburgh’s re-discovered city-beneath-the-city and reportedly felt the tugging hands of a girl abandoned there to die in a plague year. Gibo comforted the restless ghost with the tartan doll, leaving her a curiously nationalist playmate. Since then, numerous visitors to what is now known as Annie’s room in Mary King’s Close have done the same. What are we to make of this shrine, this spontaneous doll-memorial to the ghost of a girl no-one remembers? Are we moved or repelled by Annie’s room?
All cultures mark the boundary between life and death with imitative rituals. Dolls are familiar figures in funerals across time. The tombs of the ancient dead are filled with effigies whose assumed purpose ranges from the talismanic to the admonitory. Children use dolls to play at death, mimicking grief and burial. Dolls, indeed, look like death. It is not just that in them we find an appropriate figure for our mourning, but, in their cold imperturbability, they seem like corpses themselves. This doll-corpse association is explored in Andrew Kötting’s playful and serious project, The Wake of a DeaDad (2006). Intrigued by his reaction to his father’s corpse and memory, Kötting reinvented several imitative rituals, which included inviting responses to photographs of his dad in stages of life and death; laying himself out as mock-corpse and paternal offrendas in the Mexican Day-of-the-Dead; and creating an enormous inflatable DeaDad doll with which he lived and travelled for several months.
(Andrew Kötting The Wake of a DeaDad (2006)
With a different sort of wit and tenderness, Tabitha Kyoko Moses also explores the humanity and deathliness of dolls. Over the past few years, Moses has amassed an eclectic assortment of doll-objects from charity shops and jumble sales “I wasn’t interested in a particular genre of doll,” she says, “or in creating a collection or a history. But suddenly I discovered I had a lot of them. It was almost as if they found me.” The dolls that “found” Moses are those that are most “lost”: blemished or dismembered, loved or tortured to the point of collapse. Inspired by a mummified girl she encountered during a residence at Bolton Museum, Moses initially began to re-fashion the dolls as consolatory gifts for this long-dead and lonely child. But, perhaps like the toys in Annie’s room—gathering dust and becoming, together, something more than themselves—her dolls began to take on a material life of their own. In a process of wrapping and nurturing she compares to “laying out a dead body” Moses swaddles her dolls in lagging, plastic, printed cotton lawn, stiff leather, string, and human hair. A doll whose jolly bonnet and rosy cheeks form a startling contrast to her eye’s bald sockets is fondly adorned with a manx-cat brooch, suggesting both completion and absence. Some of the dolls have the cosy air of children sleeping. Others appear to be slightly disgruntled, uselessly struggling against the fabric bundles in which they find themselves enclosed.
The fabric wrappings are crucial to the new life that Moses lends her dolls. These textiles are both ornament and container: the dolls’ soft coffin and their decorative memorial. Moses binds a startled bride wearing full wedding regalia in dark linen.
(Tabitha Kyoko Moses, “The Dolls” (2004) dolls, fabric, plastic, thread, human hair, bits and bobs. Photography by Ben Blackall)
In her black shroud she becomes a figure of arrested potential, conveying the ritual proximity of marriage and death. Moses further excavates the deathliness of her dolls with the use of x-ray photography.
. . . A light-box image of the bride reveals her to be pierced with several pins. She now resonates with murderous curiosity, internal anguish, guilt, and fascination. For who, in moments of dark childhood fantasy, has not killed their dolls?
In their lovely, yet deeply disturbing ordinariness, Moses’ dolls and textiles recall the partially-covered corpse in Wallace Stevens’ poem The Emperor of Ice-Cream:
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
(Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”. Harmonium (1922) )
Stevens’ corpse is an object of the everyday. In her cold immobility she reminds us of death’s easy finality. Yet, like Moses’ cared-for dolls, she also suggests the mute compassion of the world of things. We feel the careless weight of her hands on the well-worn dresser; her fingers’ quick movement through the stitches of the modest cloth that now decorates her countenance. The dead woman cannot speak, and yet the meanings of her selfhood are silently carried to us in that fantail-embroidered sheet.
(Tabitha Kyoko Moses, Untitled (2006). cotton fabric, sawdust, human humerus bone, various threads, hand embroidery. Photography Ben Blackall.)
In Untitled (2006) Moses uses stitch as a communicative medium between life and death. These dismembered limbs, with their immaculate embroidery, are textiles of breathtaking beauty. Yet out of the gorgeous doll-things protrude human bones. Doll and corpse become one in objects that are both compelling and repellent. Moses’ embroidered calico, fashioned with such skill and care, lends respect and tenderness to the bone, and the bone in turn enhances the meanings of the fabric with its own brand of the grotesque. In complete contrast to Cindy Sherman’s doll-art which, in the public glare of her camera, strives unsuccessfully to be poignant as well as disgusting, Moses’s dolls achieve this by expressing themselves intimately, stitching their audience up with whispers.
So, to return to where we began, perhaps Tabitha Moses’ dolls tell us something abut how to feel in Annie’s room. What’s interesting when one begins to look closely at the piled-up array of gifts in that dark tenement is their different associations. Some have been left with evident care (a pricey bébé) others with apparent thoughtlessness (a screen wipe). So many of Annie’s toys seem just misplaced or random: plastic binoculars, a Westlife CD, an enormous grinning bear. Together, though, these things have transformed a space that is supposed to be terribly spooky and lent it a spectacular ordinariness. Annie’s room has a stark materiality in which there is a pathos that exceeds, or defies, the uncanny. Like Tabitha Moses’ dolls, Annie’s too are part of the kindly world of things.
Grateful thanks to Tabitha Kyoko Moses, and to Lisa Helsby of Mary Kings Close.
Originally published in Selvedge March 2008. Revised February 2014.
Over the past couple of days, quite a few of you have contacted me to ask about the black and white mitts that appeared in the header image at the top of this page. Well, this is my new design — the Ecclefechan Mitts! I was so happy with the photograph that I just couldn’t stop myself from popping it up there. I have to say that I’m extremely happy with the pattern, too.
This design has been several months in the making. I decided back in September that I wanted to work on a black and white mitt design, and since then there has been quite a bit of charting and swatching and knitting. The inspiration behind these mitts is, of course, the graphic, striking, and to my mind rather elegant two-colour gloves that were traditionally knitted in Dentdale and the Scottish Borders.
Like traditional Sanquhar gloves, my mitts are knitted at a relatively tight gauge to create a close, hard-wearing fabric. Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage – smooth, fine, worsted spun, and with a traditional feel – is the ideal yarn for this project, and knits up beautifully at a dense gauge. Like their forbears too, the Ecclefechan Mitts also feature a diced pattern that is knit up in high-contrast black and white.
There’s also some neat shaping to allow the mitts to fit closely around the hand and thumb.
Working a mitt rather than a five-fingered-glove not only makes this design a bit more contemporary and wearable, but means that the pattern is really simple to knit. In fact, the Ecclefechan Mitts could be knit by any colourwork beginner: frequent shade changes and no long stretches between stitches mean that it is easy to maintain a consistent tension.
I must point out that the fitted elegance of these mitts is thanks to Mel, who with her usual thorough test-knitting and feedback, prompted me to make several changes to my charts . . .
And why Ecclefechan? Well, Ecclefechan is the name of a small town in the Scottish Borders, well-known as the birthplace of one of my favourite nineteenth-century authors, Thomas Carlyle. It is also the birthplace of the Ecclefechan Tart, a delicious confection, which is one of my favourite things to bake (and eat).
When I was putting together the pattern for the Ecclefechan Mitts, I decided to pop in my Ecclefechan tart recipe, so that you can enjoy them too. There really are few treats nicer than an Ecclefechan tart and a cup of tea.
The Ecclefechan Mitts are now available both as a PDF download and a knitting kit. If you purchase the kit, you receive yarn, printed pattern, project bag, recipe, and, (because Eimear insisted), a sachet of tea to enjoy with your tarts.
Here is a tutorial to make the covered buttons, used in designs such as my Richard the Roundhead Tam, and Scatness Tunic. (These instructions can also be found in my book Colours of Shetland.)
You will need: a plain button with a 1 in / 2.5cm diameter; thin cardboard (eg cereal box), sharp scissors, sharp needle, tapestry needle and a small amount of your choice of yarn.
Select a button with a 2.5cm/1in diameter.
On cardboard, draw a circle 5cm/2in in diameter (I drew round the lid of a spice jar).
Cut out your cardboard disc; measure and mark the centre point with a ruler, and, with a sharp needle, poke a hole through this point.
Mark numbers 1-12, around the edges of your disc, as if drawing a clock face.
With a pair of sharp scissors, cut shallow notches at each of the points 1-12 (notches should be no deeper than 5mm/0.2in)
Take your yarn, cut off a 3ft length, thread your needle, and draw up through the centre of the disc, leaving a short tail no longer than 1cm/0.3in
Draw the yarn across the front of the disc up to notch 1.
Draw the yarn across the back circumference of the disc to notch 12, secure it in the notch, then draw the yarn across the front diameter of the circle to notch 6.
Continue securing the yarn into the notches by drawing it alternately across the back circumference, and the front diameter, in the following sequence:
6 ➝ 7
7 ➝ 1
1 ➝ 2
2 ➝ 8
8 ➝ 9
9 ➝ 3
3 ➝ 4
4 ➝ 10
10 ➝ 11
11 ➝ 5
5 ➝ 6
6 ➝ 12
12 ➝ 11
11 ➝ 5
5 ➝ 4
4 ➝ 10
10 ➝ 9
9 ➝ 3
3 ➝ 2
2 ➝ 8
8 ➝ 7
You have now created 12 front spokes, and 12 back loops.
Draw the yarn from notch 7 to the centre, securing it around the centre of the spokes.
Bring your needle up between spokes 12 and 1 as close to the centre as possible.
Then take your needle backwards over spoke 1, turn forwards and travel under spokes 1 and 12.
Now take your needle backwards over spoke 12, turn forwards and travel under spokes 12 and 11.
Continue weaving in this manner, working anti-clockwise, and drawing the yarn backward over 1 and forward under 2 spokes around the disc. This process wraps and defines the spokes, creating the ridged surface of the button covering. (If you run out of yarn, simply secure the old thread under the spokes, cut a new length, draw it up through the hole at the centre of the circle, and begin weaving where you left off)
When you reach the edge of the disc, turn it to the back, pass the needle under the loop between each notch, and lift it off the disc. Continue around the disc, lifting each loop off in turn, taking care not to let your yarn draw up too tightly.
Remove the button cover from the cardboard disc.
Place the button face down on the back of the button cover.
Carefully pull the yarn, drawing in the button-covering to conceal the back of the button. Make a few stitches across the back, securing, tightening, and neatening the button covering so that the button is completely concealed.
Ensure you retain a length of yarn long enough to secure your button.
Buttons can be made in any size, using your choice of yarn or thread. Just make sure to cut your cardboard disc about 2.5cm/ 1in larger than your buttons. And watch out: once you start turning them out you may find yourself unable to stop . . .
We designers had been commissioned to produce designs inspired by items in the collection . . . we worked on them over the Winter . . . and today, our patterns were released!
The piece I chose as the basis of my design was an incredible coverlet embroidered by the collection’s founder, Rachel Kay Shuttleworth. Miss Rachel designed the coverlet in honour of the memory of her seventeenth-century ancestor, Richard “the Roundhead” Shuttleworth, and embroidered it during the the last years of her life at Gawthorpe.
(If you are interested to read more about the history of the coverlet, and my inspiration, I have written about it here)
So this is what I came up with: meet the Richard the Roundhead Tam!
Rachel’s coverlet combined her own Arts and Crafts aesthetic with her ancestor’s Tudor heritage, and I have tried to speak to this in my design with structured motifs that echo those of her embroidery. The colour scheme is the same teal-on-white that Rachel chose, with a pop of Lancastrian rose-red for the brim lining and button. The brim combines a turned hem with picots and corrugated ribbing, and those of you who have made my Scatness Tunic will recognise the technique used to create the button:
They are very easy to make, and I will post a tutorial here over the next few days so that everyone can have a go.
From start to finish, this has been such a lovely design to produce. It was wonderful to visit Gawthorpe, to have access to its world-class collection of historic textiles, and to meet and work with the fabulously dedicated women who curate and care for it. The research involved in a project like this is meat and drink to me: it was fantastic to spend some time researching the history and context of Rachel Shuttleworth’s coverlet, and I particularly enjoyed finding out about Richard Shuttleworth’s role in the Civil War. Finally, as a Lancastrian myself, the design really does mean something to me, and I confess to feeling a modicum of local pride when I finally finished the knitting, and popped the red rose of Lancashire on the top of that tam.
The pattern for the Richard The Roundhead Tam is now available to download here!
I am sure you will hear more from the other designers about their patterns in the coming days, but I thought I would give them a quick mention too.
Debbie has designed a beautiful needle case inspired by one of Gawthorpe’s ticking samplers (a genre of sampler I find particularly appealing. Those stripes!).
Jane has designed a lovely hat and mitt set, inspired by historic swatches in the stitch and sample books held in Gawthorpe’s textile archives.
Gawthorpe’s collections are particularly rich in lace, and Claire Montgomerie drew on this for her exceptionally pretty capelet, whose crocheted motifs echo those of several lace fragments.
And Emma produced this wonderful cushion cover, inspired by what is surely one of the most moving items in Gawthorpe’s collection: a military quilt, stitched from uniform scraps by a convalescing solider.
All proceeds from the sales of these designs will go to Gawthorpe, to help care for this important historic collection for future generations to enjoy and be inspired by. You’ll find the whole collection available to peruse over here on Ravelry.
I have a terrible cold. When one is sniffling and snuffling and generally feeling lousy, there’s nothing more comforting than a nice handkerchief, of which, it occurred to me this morning, I possess quite a few. So I took some photographs of the ones that aren’t in use or in the wash.
Some of them are gifts . . .
. . .and my sister bought this one for me, probably when the Horrocks exhibition was on at the V&A.
I have acquired the majority of my hankies very cheaply in charity shops and on eBay. I find their workaday machine embroidery very pleasing. . .
. . . and some were once bought in other countries . . .
(I have actually visited Lugano, which made this one a rather nice find)
For some reason this one is my favourite for actual nose blowing: I like its 1960s brown; its tesselated design, and it also has a really high thread count, which makes it very soft.
I have a few nice examples where the corners are edged with lace
and of course, I have also acquired a few that are just too nice to use. This one is an interesting combination of drawn-thread work with machine embroidery.
This one is very fine indeed . . .
. . . it has been torn, and rather inexpertly mended.
This lovely example of whitework and drawn thread work is the oldest handkerchief I own.
. . . but the simple motifs and lines of this example make it my confirmed favourite.
It occurred to me that the simple square of fabric that goes under the name of handkerchief has a long history as an everyday object, with many different meanings, and many different uses. Handkerchiefs are multiply functional and decorative: not merely for mopping watery eyes and noses, carelessly dropped or ardently retrieved they might act as symbols of romantic attachment and desire. Handkerchiefs are intimate and personal objects, and as such, might be means of connecting a wearing-body to a sense of place: as a souvenir, a handkerchief might be a tiny repository of memory and personal connection, or, unfolded from the pocket of an eighteenth-century lady or a twentieth-century airman, might disclose a sneakily concealed map of unfamiliar territory. As furoshiki they are a means of wrapping and transporting food or gifts, and they can be worn about the person in a multitude of ways. I imagine the head-scarf / kerchief springs immediately to mind. . .
. . . but, when considering a kerchief as a garment, my first thought was of this portrait of Frances Burney.
Kerchiefs — a length or folded triangle of fabric that covered neck and bosom providing warmth, coverage, and decoration — were a familiar staple of eighteenth-century women’s dress. Oddly, this meaning of kerchief does not appear in Cumming and Cunnington’s Dictionary of Fashion History, and receives only passing mention in the OED. If you’ve read as many eighteenth-century letters and novels as I have you would find this omission curious . . . but the issue is probably merely one of shifting nomenclature as well as fashion. Kerchiefs in the 1780s grew ever more voluminous and diaphanous . . .
. . . and by the early 19th century these garments were referred to not as a homely English kerchief but as a carelessly elaborate French fichu
Late eighteenth-century American kerchief / fichu in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Well, I have come some way from where I began with my own kerchiefs, which is to say that putting this post together has, for an hour or so, successfully distracted me from the realities of my cold.
PS: thanks for your good wishes: my first driving lesson was OK: despite much swearing and occasional kerb-mounting, according to my instructor I was “no too bad”. I hope to be back behind the wheel as soon as I’ve stopped sneezing.
Everything is relative: I am sure that those of you in North America, who have been shovelling the white stuff for months, will not be in the least excited to hear that it actually snowed, but here, where winter has been horribly dank and soggy thus far, it is an exceedingly welcome change. It is the cold, crisp, crunchy days that get me through the Winter: there have been far too few of them and I confess that the sight of this in the morning made me foolishly happy.
Bruce is also in a good mood.
I love to walk in the snow, and we spent a good couple of hours out there this morning in the silence, with no other folk in sight. Birds seemed everywhere, immediately spotted against the landscape’s white blanket. As well as the usual neighbourhood woodpecker and buzzards I saw an osprey by the loch and a hen harrier hovering above the snow-covered fields. The birds are pairing up: this cold snap has come late, and there are already signs of Spring.
I wonder how the bulbs I planted will fare.
Well, its back to my desk. I have my first post-stroke driving lesson tomorrow – wish me luck!