I love this time of year – I’ve been fortunate enough during my career to travel widely to exotic climes. Over the past two years I have spoken at conferences in Sydney and Honolulu and have missed the onset of autumn. Last week I travelled to York to attend the opening of Japanese Sashiko Textiles at York Art Gallery. I looked forward to spending two hours on the train revisiting Mavis Fitzrandolph’s book ‘Traditional Quilting’. Within 20 minutes of leaving London, however, I was engrossed in staring out of the window watching the pasting scenery – the glorious sight of the turning leaves and the gently changing patterns of the landscape almost made my heart ache. This feeling of melancholy was perhaps a combination of the approaching season, maybe a reflection on the lives of the women described by Fitzrandolph, even an acknowledgement that within a few days I would be reaching my half century.
The opening reception was in full swing by the time I arrived at the Gallery and I took the opportunity to wander into the exhibition before the rest of the guests. The extraordinary display of traditional sashiko workwear, and images of the last surviving generation of women who both wore and made it was beautifully conceived but also sensitively curated. I have known Michele Walker for a number of years and she has often spoken of her trips to Japan and the importance of recording and narrating the story of women who have so little recognition within their own culture.
T6:2-2009 Study for Memoriam, plastic, wire wool and lace, Michele Walker, 2002
It was my discovery of Michele’s own artistic practice which planted the seeds of the V&A exhibition – much of her work unites personal testimony with social and political commentary. Yet it is Michele’s interest in traditional quilt making and the mostly undocumented lives of the working class women who made them which intrigued me the most. I come from generations of women who cleaned other people’s homes for a living, who raised and loved their children yet have no place in the history books. My grandmother’s legacy lives through me, her love of making and teaching me the fundamental basics of ‘make do and mend’, cutting out zips for reuse, turning collars and sheets and darning socks. ‘Pippy’ will never be referenced in the history books – perhaps this is why I have made it my mission to celebrate all the unknown makers of some of the most beautiful and evocative quilts in the Museum’s collection.
You can read more about Michele Walker’s ‘Memoriam’ in the V&A’s on-line journal http://www.vam.ac.uk/res_cons/research/online_journal/journal_1_index/keepsakes/index.html
Japanese Sashiko Textiles, York Art Gallery, 10 October 2009-24 January 2010 see http://www.yorkartgallery.org.uk