Wednesday, 30 January 2008

signature cloth

Before I start this entry.. the piece isn't ironed - sorry for the crumpled look. If I ever frame it, it'll be as flat as the most beautiful pancake you ever did see. Until then I'm too afraid to iron it, so it remains tucked away in one of my cupboards of love, snuggly wrapped in tissue, very near fresh lavender to keep those moths away, dagnammit.
And - please click on the images to check out the detail - it really is worth it.
Well. Since the age of 11 I've collected fabrics. During my life some amazing pieces have slipped in and out of my twitchy little fingers. One bin-bag full of original Westwood & MacLaren, Biba and Ozzy Clarke was thrown away on dustbin day by my landlord. It was 15 years ago and I still haven't found closure.
Among a few other humble treasures, I'm lucky enough to own and dearly love this truly beautiful signature cloth. It seems to be a table cloth, so I really don't know if any of the general info I know about quilt history might apply.

It is embroidered with the signatures of apparently British prisoners of the second world war, possibly whilst they were recuperating in military hospital. Perhaps it staved off boredom. I find it hard to imagine a group of men spending their time together sewing like this, but if that's the case, what a beautiful exercise in comradeship. And what an utterly precious thing this is - a fragile document of an important and emotional time in those mens lives. I can only begin to imagine their conversations whilst they worked on it. Every different style of handwriting is a different life, different personality, different story...
Of course soldiers are no strangers to sewing. Before the introduction of khaki (mid 1800's here in the UK, I believe) soldiers would make quilts from their uniforms. Many tiny squares of black, red and gold were patchworked together in grid formations. Thick and itchy in their texture but warm, practical and a way to pass time. Other men came home from war and made quilts from their old uniform shirts. During WW1 soldiers would famously send embroidered silk greeting cards from France, upon which a whole industry thrived.

For sailors in particular, sewing was a necessary skill. Some would use sailcloth to depict the ships they sailed on and send them home to loved ones, frequently using straw for embroidery. Of course they needed basic sewing skills to maintain their uniforms, which is probably why wool-work was popular (think of much sock darning). Not forgetting that operations may have to have been performed on board, requiring stitches and, erm, the occasional corpse, too.
I've contacted the Red Cross and am eagerly hoping to get some further information. Many of you may be aware that there was a time when the Red Cross encouraged people to make quilts to raise money by including the signatures of dignitaries and patrons. So I wonder if it may have been made to raise money for their military hospitals....? Or was it just a memento of the soldier's time together? Or in fact made later, to commemorate the end of the war..?

I often wonder where the people on it are now. As with so many pieces of textile work, it's such a great record of history and a beautiful piece of community. When I find time, I intend to make a list of the names and dates on it and publish them here or somewhere else on the web.
The back of it is immaculate too. The cottons used are single-thread, so the signatures, whilst appearing fluid and accurate, seem delicate and almost whispy on the back. It is boyish yet delicate and feminine. There is masculinity in the biro-like colours, the subject-matter, the random, careless nature of the layout in places - yet the beauty of some of the handwriting and the delicacy of the stitching and of course the fact that it's a tablecloth, bring an underlying femininity. And of course, there is a huge amount of love and community there.

Ironically a tablecloth is that which traditionally represents family, ownership and a coming together to share food and to mark special occasions. Was the somewhat humble size of a tablecloth chosen because of rationing and lack of availability of larger pieces of fabric?
I'll post more on the subject when I know more about it. But boy-oh-boy - how much history there is on it and how many hours I've sat and wondered about the people involved in it's making. Surely, if this piece of fabric could, it would tell of war, violence, friendship, love, hardship, survival and peace. Just this one little cloth - how incredible. Probably, it's one of my most utterly treasured pieces.


Anonymous said...

fascinating. have you got more like this?

Anonymous said...

How Lovely a fantastic find.
My Grandfather taught me my sewing skills he was a navy officer on the battleships in the war I have 2pieces of work he did.
I have about 4 pieces fom charity shops over the years its wondeful when you find that bit of treasure.

Your red betty quilt is wonderful what lovely ideas you have.

Anonymous said...

this is incredible....I am so happy to know that it is you who is caring for it!

lovely textiles said...

Thanks all of you. It is a really special piece, isn't it. I've got more information to post soon, but just have another museum to speak to first. Thanks so much for your visit to my blog & your comments, it's great to hear from you. x

Anonymous said...

I love this. I was thinking of making one myself from the signatures of the guests of our wedding celebrations in Austalia and America so our two families can at least mingle at the table together in spirit if not in person. Am I crazy to consider doing this myself, how I would go about it (what kind of fabric to buy?) and who would I hire to do such a thing? Woulndn't there be automated digital embroidery available now on cotton? Thanks for your thoughts and for touching story.

lovely textiles said...

Hi Karen
Congratulations on your (forthcoming?) wedding.
Thanks for stopping by, I'm really glad you enjoy my blog. I'd love to talk to you about your comments. If you send me an email I'll be able to respond fully. I'm on:
kind regards

shelia said...

I have a signature cloth which has dates of the mid 1800's on it and what appears to be greek emblems. The thread colors are mostly yellow/gold and reddish/burgandy. Are these of any value?