Text on Textiles
Our clothes and domestic textiles say so much about us – reflecting our economic status, fashion choices, frugality or excesses. But textiles have also become billboards – opportunities to express ourselves much more directly by spelling out our messages explicitly, on T-shirts, jackets, duvet covers, teatowels. Many of these messages are simply commercial: ‘labels’ worn on the outside, reproductions of famous adverts or slogans; or representations of well-known sayings and attitudes. Most of this text is mass-produced, quickly printed onto fabric and sometimes embellished with a few crude stitches.
Sometimes, though, the messages are much more personal and it is these that really intrigue me. Meticulously handstitched pieces such as quilts and samplers may include records of family histories – births, significant birthdays, marriages, anniversaries and deaths. Stitching (particularly by hand) is can be very beautiful and the process itself is slow and laborious, so these textiles are often treasured, having a life of their own long after their creator’s death. Maybe this was their purpose? To bestow immortality on the maker – or at very least, to ensure that she lived on, in some way, beyond her normal three score years and ten.
But for some people, the need to communicate is much more immediate. There are quilts from the Second World War Changi prisoner camp that record the names of internees. The quilts were stitched in secret and smuggled out of the camp. For the prisoners there was a desperate need to let someone know where they were. To mark their existence. There are many other similar instances of stitched prison records.
Another group of people who find it hard to communicate and can feel that they are ‘never heard’ is mental health service users. In 1922 Dr Hans Prinzhorn published the results of his research into artworks produced by patients in German asylums. He had been amassing a collection of such art at Heidelberg University, including paintings, drawings, textile works for five years. He analysed these, likening the freedom of the drawings to the works of Expressionist and Surrealist painters.
Agnes Richter’s Jacket
(from the Prinzhorn Collection, Heidelberg)
Agnes Richter was a patient in a mental institution in late 19th century/ early 20th century Germany. While there, she took apart her institution uniform and re-made it as a jacket, stitching every surface (inside and out) with text. The writing has been difficult to interpret because it uses an obsolete Gothic script and can be hard to work out which surface (inside or outside) the stitching belongs to. However, it is believed that the phrases are autobiological.
(Agnes’s Jacket, a psychologist’s search for the meaning of madness) 2009 Gail Hornstein, Rodale, New York).