Imagine what the high street looked like several hundred years ago? Each of the shops would have had some kind of a sign but the levels of literacy were low so instead of writing, a statue at the front often indicated what kind of business could be found within. Some dozen such decorative statues greet the arrivals to the British Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain, displayed opposite the entrance on a mustard-coloured wall, like enormous Monopoly tokens. An ornate key indicating a locksmith; a roll of tobacco; a cobbler’s giant boot. But what kind of business would have been advertised by a bear (the statue is wombat-sized but nevertheless a beast with bared teeth)? The answer: a barber’s, because bear fat was sold as a pomade to shine hair.
I wouldn’t write about an art gallery exhibition on a sewing blog were it not for the fact that some glorious quilts share the space with the paintings and the corn dollies, pub signs and ship figureheads. The Crimean Quilt (right) is as colourful as a Turkish rug but rather than woven, it was patchworked by recuperating soldiers who used some ten thousand pieces of felted wool, mostly salvaged from uniforms (facings n’ all) and pieced using the “inlay method” so that the stitching is invisible. It’s believed that these hours of careful craft helped soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress and served as a diversion from gambling and drink. Kind of why I sew too 🙂
One of my favourites exhibits is the Bellamy Quilt on loan from Carrow House Museum, Norwich. On a background of shimmery velvet, it is appliqued and embroidered with dozens of motifs such as of a Norfolk seal and a spotted, blue-eyed cat that must have been of some significance to its two makers. In this case, we do know the makers’ names. They were Herbert Bellamy and Charlotte Springall. A year after the quilt was made (1891), they married. It’s a story I’d love to know more of.
There’s a lot here that is interesting, but beware: much of it won’t be the sort of thing you’d exactly covet. I mean, a picture made of hair?! I walked away from that one pretty quickly.
Though thinking back, it was probably baby hair, not… you know…
Another sewing-related discovery was the term “cabbage”. This describes the small leftover fabric pieces which a tailor was entitled to keep after his job’s done. George Smart used cabbage to make little cloth statues as well as collage pictures such as the one below and this earned him a certain level of fame.
If folk art seems like the inferior cousin of art proper, then its charm is that it’s often approachable and does delight. I could have done with two more rooms of British Folk Art. I wonder how many pieces may have been binned for not fitting in with fashions of the present day and market forces.
So it might be worth a look in your lofts or asking the gran: got any pictures made of hair?