These are the little memories I want to take home of my recent afternoons in the textile study room at the V&A museum, London.
The big memories? Well, the big memories are of Persian and Egyptian beauties, unfathomably old, resting in silent dark drawers that any visitor can open to view.
What was this portrait for, and made by whom? Who wove rough Coptic imagery into a band for a tunic - and which child wore it? What 5th century hands worked the intricate embroidery of white thread onto the woven rough black ground?
- And whose sleeve was decorated with this embroidered panel of birds and flowers?
Do we know much about the young stitcher in Italy, who worked her sampler carefully with letters and patterns, trees, people and birds - but not her name?
The V&A makes the material in the study collection open to anyone who wants to explore.
It's a bit like being invited into a warehouse of colourful sweets. Should I pull out the drawers labelled "Embroidery - Europe: Italy" - or "Woven textiles - Persian 12-15 centuries". What about Medieval tapestries? Venetian lace? Samplers, Northern Europe. Persian knitted items. Printed textiles, 20th century?
My head was spinning.
Knitted Persian purses.
So I settled (reluctantly) for one hour exploring embroidered fabrics of any origin and date. -And then I managed to sneak off again today on my own to look at lots more. (- And I intend to do it again....)
I feel as if I have been dipping my toe into a very big, very deep ocean. I'm not sure what's in there, and I suspect it will carry me away into new ideas and a growing impulse to study this material for real. After all, I'm just an amateur and one time art historian who has taken the opportunity that is free to anyone - come to the V&A, claim a desk in the quiet of the textile study room, and carefully lift out a glass drawer from the rows and rows of heavy Victorian wooden cabinets. And think. And look, draw, and wonder.
I think my favourite was the Persian sleeve-ornament; a panel of symmetrical, densely-worked chain stitch decoration, with birds, stems and flowers, lotus and, I think, tulips, all on an indigo-grey blue dark silk ground.
Look at those fat little birds, and the regular paisleys - all the same and yet all slightly different, each one stitched by hand.
Here's an overview of the design:
Stay tuned, because I think you're going to be hearing more about this place....
- The Embroidery pages from the V&A - this is a wonderful online resource, and I'll use it when I'm back in Melbourne and can't get to see the real goods! There's lots to explore, including links to downloadable patterns, blogs and other sites of interest.
- The V&A Textile Collections home page
- One of the Italian Samplers has better photos on the V&A website
- Embroidery Pattern Books 1523-1700