After getting myself lost in all the research I began to see what I should do to begin interpreting all the information I had. I had become interested in the silent partner in James’s life, Helena. I had begun to wonder what her life entailed and how here story had gone from having a seemingly affluent life with James to moving into the workhouse after he died and her life in service after then. I looked to focus on what may tell her story. I pondered something that was personal and private to her. I came across the idea of working her story onto a corset. This clothing was closest to her and most personal. I could see how this would turn into a nice piece of work. I looked at what corsets were around for her and found a book online about the history of corsets. The Corset A cultural history by Valerie Steele, published by Yale University Press. The book held a wealth of information in written and illustrated form. I also remembered I had in the loft a pattern for a corset that I had in the hope of one day making one. The time had come I felt. I also used this opportunity to attempt a vision board. I didn’t find it as helpful as my usual pages in the workbook.
I now needed to look at fabrics to use? I was taken with the idea that Helena would have perhaps had to keep her feelings private as to her demise into the workhouse, as to be an inmate held great stigma. I liked the idea of using images I had found of her and her life with James but thought if they were partially hidden, say as a fabric with a finer gauze like fabric over, so the images could be glimpsed beneath this would allude to secrets. I wondered about colours too. I knew that any personal clothes she may have had would have been removed and the workhouse uniform worn in its stead. When being released form the workhouse her old clothes would have been returned if they were at all wearable. Her clothes would no doubt be stained and worn. How could I, or should I use this information? I tried staining calico using tea and coffee. I chose calico as a base fabric simply as it is a good utility fabric and would also be firm enough for the corset to be made of. I also found I had a fine cotton fabric which enabled any images beneath it to show enough to see there was something beneath.
tea and coffee stained calico
I took the calico and drew the components of James and Helena’s marriage certificate upon it and then laying the fine cotton over this I embroidered certain words over. I wasn’t overly impressed with how it looked and needed to explore other ways of producing a fabric to use. I decided to make a collage of the census forms and marriage certificate to form a pattern in order to possibly print onto the fabric.
collage on paper
I then printed onto some silk fabric that was ready attached to baking parchment I had bought from the Crafty computer company. I liked the result but wanted to try on other fabrics. I printed on the cotton fabric I had used earlier by ironing it onto baking parchment and using my home printer. I liked the feel and effect on the cotton.
Using this design of fabric I made a mock-up of the front and side of the corset, including darning features.
front and side panel of corset along with calico lining.
I also worked on adding images to the existing collage to create an other option for the fabric.
front and side panel cut from alternative fabric
I also wanted to try other images to see which I preferred. I used cotton fabric ironed onto baking parchment and printed newspaper reports as well as pictures.
images and newspaper article
I have a habit of pasting images onto a word page and printing from there. I found whilst doing this a section on the editing bar that would allow me to change colours and add styles. I had never noticed this before and wondered if it could produce something I hadn’t thought of? it did, so I did a range of samples to see which would work best.
newspaper article adapted using editing in word
I preferred the effect called sepia.
I wondered what Helena’s clothes would be like I had decided worn and stained and experimented with these but then I thought about them being darned. I had never darned before I am ashamed to say and decided first to see if I could do it before I confessed to wanting to include it in the piece. I had a couple of years ago bought a curiosity from ebay which was a darning helper. I liked it as a collected item but wondered how it worked. I gave it a go and at first it was tricky to hold but then I got into the swing of it.
with cotton attached and ready to go.
One thing I have found is that the act of sewing usually allows my thoughts to form order and also explore using my imagination. I whilst darning was thinking about Helena and how she may have felt about her changing circumstances. I thought that at times she must have wished she could delete the difficult aspects of her life, and how I could show this by darning over images which portray difficult times. I printed off images that related to her time in the work house and in service. I darned over the face of a woman there in. This new thought took me completely away from the corset idea and led me down a road of exploration. I in the process of darning images relating to Helena, thought about my own life and times I wish I could delete. I then looked for royalty free images on the internet to use in this way. I was on a roll. One thing I did realise whilst working like this was, that on the front of the fabric the face was obliterated by the darning yet on the reverse the face had become encircled by the stitches, highlighting it even more almost creating a halo around the head. I saw this as a wonderful metaphor, you can try and erase periods of distress out of your life, but underneath the impact of that time has shown how resilient you are and how you actually triumphed. It celebrates who you are.
representing Helena’s time in servitude
I worked on images representing periods in my life. I celebrated my achievements.
representing my first marriage. only noted later as a mistake i survived it
Whilst darning one image I thought how wonderful it would be if we could simply patch into it what we really wished for? I was working on a family image and was darning out my Father and wanted to patch my step fathers face in his place. This took me to another place of thought all together.
I began to look at how I would present this work? I decided a book maybe, the pages showing periods in Helena’s life. We use the term ‘beginning another chapter’ when describing times of change. I noticed that whilst working on the darning, if a breeze blew past the fabric pieces would flutter and often turn over on the table. I liked this effect. It showed a delicacy within the fabric, it made me think of how life’s ups and downs move over and through our lives. How in the end they become faded memories. I wanted to also look at how I could suspend the images, allowing for drafts in the room to move them. How could I suspend them? I printed off miniature images to make mock ups in my workbook.
I as part of my research been reading about Victorian mourning clothes. There is an etiquette involved in wearing mourning clothes. First the widow would wear full mourning clothing during the first two years of mourning. Then half mourning during which the lady may start to wear decorative jewellery. I came across THIS website amongst others which details the stages of mourning.
I was able to buy a Victorian mourning cape from eBay. As you would expect it is worn in places, a few holes and lots of beading is missing. It is made from a moire fabric. Some of the photographs I have taken of it appear washed out, and I think this is only because of the early evening light was reflecting off it. In life the jacket is as dark a black as it could have originally been.
reverse with lace
beading detail 1
beading detail 2
beading detail 3
While it shows its age with its tears and missing beads, I adore it. I am amazed a piece of clothing could last over 100 years and still be as in tact as it is. I could let my imagination run wild as to the story it has but for now I am looking at using it as inspiration for a piece which can tell Helena’s story. I have initial thoughts of re lining it using images and text from Helena’s past. I am conscious that I do not want to add to its decay so I need to think creatively about how I take it into this possible next stage of life. Alternatively I am thinking about how I can produce something completely new that could be used as a present day mourning item.