Sometimes here at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, a researcher turns up with an enquiry that really captures your imagination. This happened to me last year when Cathy Fitzgerald arrived to research material for Moving Pictures, a BBC Radio 4 production inviting you to discover new details in old masterpieces:- http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3cswf9g This link will allow you to listen to the programme produced and review the image of this wonderful coverlet that the V & A hold in their textile collections.
The coverlet was acquired from Kerry Taylor Auctions with the support of the Contributing and Life Members of the Friends of the V & A and was made in Wiltshire in 1820 by a lady called Ann West. Kerry Taylor of Kerry Taylor Auctions, specialists in textiles, describes the moment of arrival when a gentleman delivered it covered and wrapped in a large flannelette sheet, which when unpacked revealed this large 2.5m square bed cover; a real ‘tour de force’, colourful, vibrant and packed with pictorial images that draw you in and begin to tell a story.
It is wool appliqué and patchwork, with embroidery worked into the surface and is a valuable primary source in a pictorial sense giving a snapshot of life in Wiltshire around 1820, focusing on the everyday and depicting various trades, professions and social events that were part of day to day life.
The images and especially the centre panel depict biblical references, such as the Garden of Eden, David and Goliath and Moses being hidden in the bulrushes. The outer images give a taste of rural Wiltshire life, so have a closer look to see what you can find.
The reason for Cathy’s visit to the history centre was to research Ann West herself. There is a possibility that she may have come from Chippenham as a Milliner’s and Drapers is listed in Pigot’s Directory of 1830 and 1842 in the name of Ann West, but this connection cannot be confirmed. There is also a possibility that she came from the Warminster area, but again, nothing has yet been confirmed. However, the cloth she chose to use is absolutely typical of West of England textiles and lends itself perfectly to this type of appliqué work. We hold some good examples of cloth pattern books from the Collier family and Crosby and White of Bitham Mill, Westbury, and these show exactly the types of fabric used in the coverlet; strong woollen cloths, typical of the West of England and produced in a wide selection of colours. These would have been dyed with natural materials as chemical dyestuffs were not in use until synthetic dyes were developed in the mid-19th century, specifically William Perkin’s mauveine in 1856. The coverlet is also hand sewn; sewing machines c1820 were still in the early stages of development and not generally in domestic use until mid-19th century. You can begin to imagine the time it would have taken to produce such a piece.
What can the quilt tell us about life at this time in Wiltshire?
Did you watch this year’s series of the Great British Sewing Bee? Sewing has become a popular hobby again, thanks to a renaissance in crafts and resurgence in interest in the handmade.
The famous proverb ‘a stitch in time...’ was first recorded in Thomas Fuller's Gnomologia, Adagies and Proverbs, Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British, 1732 but is likely to be much older. The virtues of hard work, prudence and associated with this adage have long been affiliated with sewing and been seen as desirable attributes, particularly for women.
A traditionally female pursuit, sewing has been a source of enjoyment, income and protest for women over the centuries. As one of the few respectable trades women, particularly poor women, could engage in, it could provide an albeit low level of income. Most of this work was piece work completed at home by women and children. The below show receipted bills for sewing services:
The pay was not only low, but a deposit had to the paid to the overseer for the materials, which was repayable on completion of the work. The ‘Song of the Shirt’, published in Punch in 1843, took this as its subject and helped draw attention to the working conditions of the poor.
'Stitch! Stitch! Stitch! In poverty, hunger, and dirt, And still with a voice of dolorous pitch She sang ‘The Song of the Shirt!’
Aside from the principal cloth and woollen industries, both gloving and lace making have been important industries for Wiltshire. A prohibition on imported lace created a strong lace industry in Salisbury in the 18th century which continued after the prohibition was withdrawn. Nearby Downton was a lace-making centre with many of its cottagers engaged in it with some manufacturing continuing into the early 20th century. It also established in Malmesbury and was one of the principal occupations there in the late 18th century.
Inevitably the industry was by the competition of machine-made lace and the census records show the decline in lace-making occupations with 391 in 1850, 35 in 1871 and only 6 in 1900.
Gloving employed a large proportion of female outworkers and based on the number of references to it, it seemingly expanded in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has continued into the 20th century with both continuing and new firms. The oldest firm with surviving records is J. & T. Beavan Ltd. at Holt. Many of the cutters worked in the Great House (formerly the Spa Hotel) but outworkers living at Holt, Atworth, Melksham, Somerset and the Cotswolds completed the sewing work.
How often do we discover old photographs or family albums tucked away or which have recently come into our possession but which frustratingly contain little or no information about their subjects? It is possible to discover more about these images than meets the eye, if you know what to look out for. I hope that the following suggestions will be helpful when looking at clothing but the most important element is to look carefully, analysing each small detail. Everything within the photo is a clue to help us in the process of indentifying our ancestors.
The photographic process developed through the nineteenth century and must have had a tremendous effect on a family, as they began making up their first family albums and displaying images of each other. The type of pose can be an indication of period; the 1850s and 1860s tend to include a full length figure, sometimes seated, but by the 1870s the camera was moving closer to the person, perhaps producing a three quarter length image and including a prop, such as a lectern or a chair. By the 1890s the head and shoulders shot became more common. A ‘vignette’ where the background is white and the head and shoulders are almost oval in shape is also typical of the 1890s.