a kiss from France

akissfromfrance

I so enjoyed your translations and comments on this post, that I thought I’d continue the First World War theme with some of my favourite items in my postcard collection. Known to collectors generically as “silks”, these machine-embroidered cards first appeared around 1900, and were produced in vast quantities during the twentieth century’s first two decades. As an attractive and eminently portable form of sentimental greeting, these cards proved particular popular among British troops serving in France. Some estimates suggest that, in their wartime heyday, more than ten million were produced.

akissfromfrance2

Sources used to suggest that these cards were hand-embroidered, but this isn’t the case. Though particularly elaborate panel designs might involve finishing by hand, I have never seen one that didn’t feature machine embroidery. Using innovative Heilmann or Schiffli embroidery machines, a design could be repeated up to 400 times across large panels of organdy before being cut out, and individually assembled into framed and embossed cards. There were several factories in France and Switzerland where cards might be manufactured from start to finish, but some machine-embroiders also produced piece work from home, sending completed panels to be finished and assembled elsewhere.

The cards were usually sent in military mail pouches rather than being stamped and posted in the ‘open’ mail. Because they were protected in transit, the embroidered panels could be quite delicate in design. Many of the cards use the structure of the embroidery to create a tiny envelope:

envelope

Into which another card, with a personal greeting might be inserted.

souvenir

This is one of my personal favourites: the card would have been placed inside an envelope; the card is, itself, an envelope; and the embroidered panel also depicts an envelope-carrying bluebird.

Cards might be designed for specific occasions . . .

heartybirthdaygreetings

. . . or with specific addressees in mind . . .

dearmother

While many of the designs are conventional (though nonetheless appealing) others feel perhaps more modern and innovative.

goodwishes

and while theres a tremendous variety of embroidered designs, the same might be said of the paper-embossing, which on some cards is more elaborate than the stitching.

embossing

These cards carry human stories.

reg

And there’s a particular kind of confluence between these stories and the stitches through which they are conveyed.

bouquet

Here is one of my favourites: it is a scene unmistakably French with trees and tiny church; ploughed field and red earth . . .

scene

. . . flowers bloom at the field margin . . .

blooms

. . . framing a message of poignant reassurance.

weareallright

The roses hide. . .

rose

. . .an envelope . .

lightshow

. . . containing a message.

message

It is a simple, mass-produced, material object.

weareallright2

It is also a massive conveyer of meaning.

Modern Embroidery

A few weeks ago, I discovered a craft / design book that really blew me away. This hasn’t happened for a while, and I love this book so much that I’ve been itching to mention it. Here’s how I came across it: back in April, I decided I would design a tea cosy for Woolfest. I knew that, if I was going to design a tea cosy it had to be an all-out kitschy novelty item, and I also knew that I wanted the design to have a Woolfest-appropriate sheepy theme. After a few days of thinking about sheep; of the generic shape and design of tea cosies; and just letting things mill about and brew in my head (my general way of working), I had a mild eureka moment: a Sheep Carousel! Yes! This idea seemed a good one, and I felt excited about designing and knitting it. But had anyone thought of it before? Tea cosies (which are often striped) seemed to lend themselves so well to representing a circus tent or merry go round: perhaps another designer had previously had the same idea? This does occasionally happen, and I find it is generally worthwhile checking such things out before one embarks upon a design, so I spent a morning poking around the interwebs, searching for sheep carousels, and carousel tea cosies. During my search I discovered that Jade Starmore had designed a marvelous carousel-themed baby blanket called Widdicome Fair; that Kathleen Sperling had designed an intarsia merry-go-round child’s hat; and that a JC Penney carousel sweater had recently generated some interest when it featured on Glee last year:


(“Glee” carousel sweater, JC Penney)

So there were a few knitted carousel designs, but none featured sheep, and none were tea cosies. But then, on one of my searches I came across a discussion of a “Merry go Round” tea cosy in a book by Ike Rosen called Modern Embroidery. Like most carousels, this one apparently featured horses rather than sheep, and it was a stitched rather than a knitted design, but I was nonetheless intrigued and wanted to check it out. So I tracked the book down on ABE. Here is the tea cosy in question:

It was indeed a carousel, but happily quite different in inception to the stripey marquee and bouncing sheep that had popped into my brain. . .

. . . and, as it turned out, Rosen’s merry-go-round was, for me perhaps one of the least interesting designs in a book which was packed full of TOTALLY AMAZING THINGS.

Rosen’s book was first published in Germany in 1970, and translated into English in 1972. Rosen addresses herself to women with “two left hands” who assumed that embroidery had to be fiddly, complicated, and difficult to execute. She clearly wanted Modern Embroidery to be an enabling beginner’s book, and so the stitches featured in her designs are very simple – most use a combination of stem stitch and chain stitch. But the variety of results Rosen achieves with this limited range of stitches is pretty incredible, as well as really beautiful.


(“Summer Souvenir”)

This is a book very much of its moment – pitching its use of colour and simple ornament as definitively “modern”: “Sensitive people of taste,” writes Rosen:

” . . . at the beginning of this century, were no longer able to put up with the overpowering ornamentation of the last century, and consequently the reaction against it was a rigorous cut-back of all artificial adornments. A new objectivity asserted itself, and strove under the leadership of prominent architects and artists for a pure clean-cut form. We have been profiting from it up to the present time and we are still gaining from it, for it is a style which was carefully thought out from many angles and deliberately fought for.”

But, among the clean modernist lines that then dominated design, Rosen detects “a longing for pattern,” and a yearning for bright colours that might “harmoniously unify various articles in a room.”

The styling of Rosen’s embroidery in “modern” 1970s interiors speaks to this idea of harmony — decor, objects, and designs speak to each other in a most extraordinary matchy-matchy way . . .

. . . these purple and orange plates with their nifty built-in egg-cups and even the eggs themselves are carefully styled to tone in with Rosen’s table runner . . .

. . . and the forms of cakes and biscuits echo Rosen’s abstract designs.

Despite the overwhelming 1970s vibe of this book (and it is overwhelming – shades of brown, orange and purple dominate; cigarettes nestle daintily among the pretzels) as one flicks through it, it is difficult not to find something contemporary and familiar about Rosen’s designs; hard not to think that Orla Kiely has somehow been inspired by these chained-stitched stems and pears. . .

And there are many knitting design-echoes too: these oven mitts immediately reminded me of Heidi Mork’s lovely Vinterblomster mittens.

But perhaps it is less a question of direct influence: rather, Rosen, (much like Orla Kiely and the inimitable Spillyjane) has a feel for a combining the folksy and the abstract in bold, simple and colourful design.

Rosen’s design referents are vast and eclectic, ranging from the Bauhaus through to Tiny Tim. The text of the book is extraordinarily eclectic too: there are occasions where Rosen seems to be setting out an entire design manifesto, while at other times she becomes philosophic and reflective with observations about the gendered division of labour or the tastes and habits of modern teenagers. In fact, I would say that the book is worth getting hold of not just for the designs (which I absolutely love) but for Rosen’s text, which is often weirdly engaging, even in translation. For example, this is how Rosen introduces my favourite design in the book:

“The more people there are, the scarcer mushrooms and edible fungi become. The case is similar to that in the adage: where we set foot, no more mushrooms grow. Moroever, at the present time, with more free time and a lot of cars to take us out into the open, we would have a lot of fun looking for mushrooms. Let us hope that some professor or other will find an opportunity of making these mushrooms grow in increased numbers everywhere. Since we are accustomed to the fact that scientists make everything possible, and in double-quick time as well, we will console you with this prospect, and in the meantime we have embroidered a dish of mushrooms which at least you can feast your eyes upon.”

Personally, I think there is only one appropriate reaction to “The Dish of Mushrooms” which is to hail it as a work of pure stitched genius.

I’ve not been able to find out about much about Ike Rosen herself – – perhaps because my German is so poor. I wonder whether any German readers might know more about Rosen and her influence? In the meantime, if any English speakers would like to track down a second-hand copy of the 1972 edition of Modern Embroidery, here are the details:

Ike Rosen, Modern Embroidery (London: B.T. Batsford, 1972) ISBN 0 7134 2655 1

In case you were in any doubt at all: I love this book!

stitched up

Though I love the Gainsborough films, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones and Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story, I am not generally a fan of contemporary cinematic takes on eighteenth- and nineteenth century literature. This is probably because of what I do: a generation of students who have grown up with the unshakeable idea that potato-faced Colin Firth is actually Mr D’arcy have destroyed much of my enjoyment of Austen and rendered Pride and Prejudice an unteachable text. That said, I was really looking forward to Jane Campion’s Bright Star: she’s a talented, intelligent director who’s interested in gender; the costumes looked just terrific; and I was intrigued by what I’d heard about Fanny Brawne’s relationship to stitch in the film. Much was being made of the fact that Campion had linked Brawne’s “feisty,” and “independent” character to her fondness for textiles and that her heroine designs and makes her own clothes.* I then saw a trailer at the cinema which further piqued my interest. A clip was shown of a “spirited” exchange with Keats, in which Brawne appeared to compare the art of stitch to that of poetry. Unlike poetry, she says, stitch is useful and potentially remunerative. While the path that Keats has chosen means that he will struggle for literary recognition and a living, stitch is something she can actually “make money from.” I was (mildly) blown away. You’ll know by now that much of my research focuses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century textiles and that I’m particularly interested in the way that textiles mark and mediate women’s relationship to the division of labour. To have a woman of Brawne’s rank saying, in 1818, that her love of fashion had a practical purpose and that she saw dressmaking and design as a potential source of independent income was really quite extraordinary. Was Brawne going to sew her way out of dependence and potential penury? Support herself and Keats by the labours of the needle? What was Campion going to do with stitch?

The unfortunate answer is that stitch and textiles are, for Campion, mere directorial devices — props on which to hang her film’s undoubtedly sumptuous aesthetic. Despite the promise of that early exchange, the idea that stitch might be a practical and a profitable activity for a woman like Brawne was never alluded to or mentioned again. A short way into the film, it became apparent that Brawne’s “independent spirit” only extended as far as some curiously elliptical conversational sparring and the ability to wallow in her own desires. Brawne was only ever going to be someone who, like most women of her rank, was dependent on a good marriage for future financial security and whose narrative, because of this, would be played out in the familiar context of her “impossible” affection for the poet who could not provide it.

Many contemporary female directors seem to use tactility as a shorthand for the rich interior lives of women: a heroine’s physical relationship to the material world can allow a visually astute director to hint at a sensuous and idiosyncratic something that cannot be articulated. This is certainly the case with Campion. Her Fanny Brawne follows in the footsteps of Lucretia Martel’s Niña Santa or Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar– characters who are always touching stuff in order to tell the viewer what’s going on inside. And this is the singular function of textiles in Bright Star. We see Brawne bent over her hoop and needle; working up a collar; carefully tying a ribbon; enjoying the sensation of a breeze-blown curtain, or refusing to examine the quality of her sister’s sampler, and we are meant to read all this in terms of the character’s hidden depths. This is all very well, but the problem here is that there doesn’t really seem to be that much depth to hide. The viewer is meant to trust that all this sewing is the sign of something profound, but there is no other evidence of Brawne’s purported complexity. The most we can learn about her from Campion is that she likes clothes; that she prefers wit over intellect (lying about reading Milton and only ever being able to muster up an interest in Keats’ poetry when she understands that it might refer to herself); and that she has an incredible capacity for self-absorption (luxuriating in the drama of thwarted affection in the most tedious and irritating way.) In this sense, Campion’s characterisation is not really very different from the way that Brawne is represented in the many chauvenistic biographies of Keats that were produced before the 1960s: she is much the same fashion-obsessed, over-emotional ignoramus: an annoying distraction in a nice frock. Far from bolstering her own credentials as a feminist director, then, Campion’s use of stitch and textiles in this film reinforces ideas of nineteenth-century femininity that are disturbingly conservative. Brawne’s discovery of romance simply heightens her own fashionable narcissism and female desire is set in the context of what seems to be a mere preoccupation with material trifles and baubles. In its failure to address the questions it explicitly raises about stitch as a creative outlet, a form of labour, and a potential source of income, the film does little to disturb the notion that a fondness for textiles could be anything more than pointless or enervating, a familiar sign of women’s domestic thrall.

And then there’s the matter of Campion’s particular aesthetic decisions concerning textiles. Though Janet Patterson’s costume design was, at its best, both beautiful and inspiring, some of the garment choices were very weird indeed: Mr Brown’s tartan trews were as ridiculous and misplaced as his “Scottish” accent; Abbie Cornish wore crocheted shawls and boleros of a kind not seen till at least the 1850s, and her younger sister “Toots” sported a curiously cropped Fairisle cardigan over a hundred years before its time. I would forgive all of these historical anachronisms on the grounds of Campion and Patterson’s familiarly stylised creativity, but I’m afraid I became quite fixated on the washing that seemed to be perpetually hung out on Hampstead Heath. In one quite ludicrous scene, Fanny wanders woefully among lines of damp linen inexplicably left out in the rain. Anyone who who has read Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s great poem or who knows anything at all about nineteenth-century domestic life would be aware that, for women in households such as Brawne’s, washing day was a major and momentous event. No self-respecting washerwoman or maidservant, mother or daughter, would have left those things just hanging there in the middle of a shower. Indeed, to do so shows a disregard for household textiles quite bizarre in a woman purportedly obsessed by them. Instead of wallowing in doomed romance, Brawne should have been bringing in the bloody washing .


(The Montgolfier Balloon. If you’ve read the Barbauld poem, you’ll know why it is here)

Now I realise that I am a bit (ahem) hung up on the washing, but I think that Campion’s use of the linen-laden lines on Hampstead Heath is symptomatic of something larger and a little more troubling. Through its focus on aesthetic surfaces and pointlessly lovely tableaux, the film actually does an injustice to the basic texture of the lives of nineteenth-century women like Brawne. Why have her heroine interested in stitch and design at all if this is merely to be used as a cinematic conceit that adds little to her character? There are some other basic textures that are singularly lacking here as well. If I knew absolutely nothing about the poetry of John Keats, I would really be none the wiser after watching Bright Star. The most you can really glean about Keats’ creative impulses from this film is that Fanny’s boobs seem to represent to him the promise of an ecstatic (pneumatic) present.

Campion has apparently spoken of Bright Star as being inspired by Bresson’s Man Escaped. (which is, incidentally, my favourite film). To me, this is laughably pretentious : like comparing Hollyoaks to Mizoguchi.* Actually, Hollyoaks seems quite an appropriate point of reference for the film’s sorry lack of depth and its championing of adolescent self-regard. Take away the senselessly gorgeous textiles, the flower-filled meadows, the strangely stilted dialogue and the too-tasteful interiors and what’s left is the thin drama of teenage obsession. However, Bright Star is a very sneaky film too: because of its style, its “historic” setting, its purported literary context, and Campion’s undoubted talent for the symbolic and emblematic, the film gets away with it: Campion’s signature directorial style makes us feel as if we are being shown something important and momentous, when in actuality what we are being purveyed is mere cinematic candy floss. So this is a film that is both intellectually hollow and horribly otiose, but which stitches up the viewer simply by being visually persuasive. In the end, what Bright Star reminded me of most was an issue of Selvedge: it has that visual wow factor and the thing is just so well produced that we feel that we must be somehow improved simply by consuming it. But (and I say this as someone who has occasionally written for that magazine) in the end there’s very little there of substance beyond the pretty pictures.

* These two reviews are typical in their descriptions of Brawne as a ‘seamstress’ or their association of her ‘spirit’ and ‘self possession’ to her supposed relationship to stitch.
**Another British soap comparison: at her most histrionic, Abbie Cornish bears a disturbing resemblance to Mary from Coronation Street.

I dedicate this post to Kris Steyaert, a fine Keats scholar and a very good friend.

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