Presenting my first guest, Last-Year Girl:
This week, I, a London-dwelling 29 year old, joined the Women’s Institute. While the memories of jam and Jerusalem (and now Calendar Girls) live on, they’re apparently springing up all over the place. King’s College has got one, as does Shoreditch presided over by one Jazz Domino Holly, daughter of Joe Strummer, surely the official sign that it’s now cool again. And now the V&A has one too.
So we met, a group of bright, youngish things, keen to discuss cake-making, bee-keeping and urban gardening. The president of the V&A’s branch, Sue Prichard, is currently in the midst of curating the upcoming Quilts 1700-2010 exhibition and is a vocal supporter of all things crafty. The story of some of the objects featuring in the exhibition and the W.I. are closely linked.
The W.I. was formed in 1915 with the aim of reviving local communities and encouraging food production in the First World War. Part of this local revival was based around textile crafts so, in the 1920s, the W.I. put on London displays of some of the best examples of the distinctive Northumberland, Durham and Wales traditions of quilting to encourage sales of these objects. Rather than the bright patchwork numbers you might immediately associate with the term, these are beautiful, usually cream, pieced quilts.
Women’s craft and ‘home hobbies’ were promoted by much larger bodies in the inter-war years too: The Ministry of Agriculture’s Rural Industries Bureau (RIB) included a Women’s advisory committee to promote women’s craft rooted in ‘distressed areas’. Exhibitions were again held in London and various stately homes around the country to showcase their skills and raise sales, and thousands of pounds were made for women in Durham and Wales in the process.
Records show this was the only income coming into some houses in the Depression era. The objects were considered so exquisite that even Claridges commissioned a range of quilts for their new wing in 1931. You can see these objects in the Quilts exhibition or, for more on this fascinating period, you can read Dorothy Olser’s piece in the accompanying book.
Similar initiatives continued after World War II too. The Women’s Home Industries was set up in 1947 to promote needlecrafts and other activities for export. The work was of the highest possible standard and their clients for knitting work alone included the French couture houses of Chanel and Dior.
On opening an exhibition of RIB quilts in the summer of 1930, Britain’s first woman Cabinet minister, Margaret Bondfield’s speech included the lines:
“It is not merely a question of economic necessity that makes these women do the work … I want to stress the importance of maintaining this original craft for its own sake. In these times when nearly everything we wear and use must be turned out in millions by machines, it is a refreshing glimpse of beauty to see the work that these women are able to do with their fingers and their native genius. I am convinced that in the future if our people are to remain balanced, they must develop in crafts and creative work.”
Her words remain inspiring and seem as relevant today.As I approach my 30th birthday I seem to spend more and more time thinking about how I want to keep my life balanced and fulfilling.
Also this week, I read about Ysolda Teague who at age of 24 with the help of the internet is selling thousands of pounds worth of self-devised knitting patterns all over the world. A nice circularity is that she taught herself to knit using old 1940s and 50s books bought from jumble sales. She’s a former Edinburgh University student so there’s more than a little bit of envy mixed in with my admiration.
Writing from my nice cosy flat in twenty-first century Britain, I’m extremely lucky. If I decide to pick up a needle it’s through choice and not necessity. It’s because I feel something is more valuable if I’ve invested time into making it myself, rather than buying it off the shelf.
But the need to “remain balanced” mentioned by Margaret Bondfield feels key. I like to think learning a new skill helps to keep me a little bit more balanced. In terms of International Women’s Day and equality, it takes on a whole new meaning: for example, the contribution of the women quilters to the 1920s households in keeping them economically stable, a contribution that’s only beginning to be noted in history books. That’s also not to mention the millions of women who stitched, scavenged and saved to keep their family clothed and looked after with no financial remuneration at all.
Equality doesn’t just mean equality in the boardroom, it also means equality in the home and recognition of skills that take place closer to home too. I hope my new membership of the W.I. will help me remember and value this. I also hope learning to make some tasty jam will be an added bonus.