No touching

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The usual Friday night early Saturday morning mayhem. A girl is kneeling on the pavement of the North Promenade, a pool of purple-coloured vomit in front of her. Outside The Angel a man with long straight hair is screeching with laughter. That is so fucking random, he is saying to a man in a wheelchair. Three policemen and one police woman chat by the newsagent. There are kids everywhere. Girls in sleeveless tight tube dresses teeter about in clunky platform shoes. A girl in a sequinned dress shimmers under a streetlight. A boy curses as his taxi drives off with four giggling girls. At the bottom of the hill a man in a Barbour coat pisses against the wall, a lit cigarette in his hand. Seagulls glide overhead. On the beach the oystercatchers bounce towards the sea line piping out their alarm. Down by the harbour the sea rolls and breaks.

Now I want to write about what I saw last week in London. I went down to visit the V&A. Namely the Clothworkers Centre in Blythe House on Blythe Road. It’s where they keep their collections. The security is tight. Lots of locked gates, talking into intercoms and leaving baggage in lockers. Blythe House reminded me of a old boarding school building, or a prison or a workhouse even. High ceilings, tiled walls, echoing chambers. It was warm, but impersonal. Shoes squeaked on the floors. There were cheerful posters and a marvellous collection of Star Wars merchandise in the foyer. And a very friendly, if a little officious, gatekeeper. He called us by our Christian names, asking for our wrists so that he could affix a paper bracelet with the date and the V&A logo. Then everything in the locker, save a pencil, notebook and glasses and waiting for Elizabeth to collect us. Lift to the third floor and there they were, all laid out on a table.

No touching. No touching, not even with gloves. Give me a shout, she said, if you want me to turn them over. And here’s magnifying glass if you want one. Rest it over the film like this. Any problems, give me a shout, she said, returning to her desk behind the counter. There were five samplers, four by children and one by a woman. The children’s ones were ornate, accomplished. One had tiny beads sewn into the design. The stitches were miniscule. One of the samplers, by an Eliza Richardson in 1837, had been made when she was but ten years old. It was made, the words claimed, ‘on the death of an affectionate mother’. I thought of Aase. How old had she been when her mother had died, six, seven or was it eight? A work of grief. A work to sublimate the grief? A work to channel, to direct the grief? Had she wanted to do it? Had any of these girls? There was such a sense of enforced stillness about these works, young skittish limbs made still. Or am I imposing this image upon them? What were they proving by making these pieces? That they could sew, would be useful around the home either as servant or wife, that they could write, form letters, read and recite scripture and literature? The cloth is fine. I think about sewing in candlelight and without glasses. Tiny fingers making tiny stitches. Were they made to sit in a corner? Why do I read these objects as items of punishment? There must have been pride, satisfaction in the making. It’s just the stillness, the concentrated effort from such young bodies. I cannot imagine it. You’d have done it, he says. Yes, perhaps. Though I remember my frustration in needlework classes at the age of eleven. Nothing looked right. I couldn’t do it without error. I felt clumsy, cack-handed.

There were two other researchers in the room. One, on a table adjacent to mine, was looking through a magnifying glass at some patterned silks and making exhaustive notes. She wore a white chemistry lab coat. The other one was at a far table leaning over various ornate gold brocade crinolines. A group of students from Goldsmiths came in, standing for a moment to stare round the room while the tour guide, exquisitely chic in a black pleated crepe skirt, delivered her spiel.

I held the wheeled ladder as he mounted its steps to take some aerial shots. Will this do? he asked afterwards, showing me his phone.

In a far corner there was a clothing rail, several outfits hung from it, bundled up like swathed babes in calico.

We looked at the final sampler together. He was as moved as I was. It was smaller than I’d imagined. And unfinished. The thread was red, the cloth an off-white. What are the stains? he asked. Who knows? Again the text was smaller than I’d imagined. It must be 50 or even 55 point. How did she do it?

Little is known about her. Elizabeth Parker of Ashburnham. That’s in Wales, isn’t it? he says. She was a maidservant. Made in her private time, her spare time. This wasn’t a work about showing prowess, or accomplishment, like the others. This was made to please or impress no one. This was a work of compunction, or necessity. She needed to write. She needed to confess. Something had happened, she’d even considered taking her own life. A priest is mentioned, as are her employers. Something happened. She is telling her story. She is sewing her story. Rather like the woman of Greek myth, was it Ariadne, who wove the tale of her rape, her tongue having been cut from her body by her deflowerer. Sewing her story. Telling it through cloth, through thread. Again, it is the stillness required, the concentration, the concentrated concentration. It is virtually perfect. And turning it over it is impossible to see the stray ends. And yet, for me it isn’t the words but the endeavour that moves me. The continuum of it. The commitment of it. Embroidery is such a contained, demure, controlled form of communication. A slow, painstaking making-up of text. Caught, formed within the cloth.

As I cannot write, she writes. What does she mean? She is writing. It is indelible, caught, contained for ever. Did she hide it? Did she work it in secret, like Jane Austen with her ‘two square inches of ivory’? Who was she writing it for? Did she feel expunged? Who kept it? It is unfinished. Why did she stop? And why red? It is dramatic.

Tapestry is benign. A gentle art. At least when practised by women. A soft art. And yet, the needle is sharp, it pushes in and out remorselessly. Puncturing and piercing the cloth, sometimes a finger. Ow. A dot of blood.

A marvellous thing. I stare and stare at it. Up close, through the magnifying glass each stitch is revealed. Perfection no more but a stitch-by-stitch account. The threads still shining, their silky natures in tact.

Later, sitting over tea in Café Valerie in Knightsbridge I am still overwhelmed by it. I carry it in my head on the bus, walking in the rain, on the train back to Guildford. Potent. It is potent with feeling. A held thing. One woman to another. She didn’t feel good enough. Cloth was her medium not paper. This she could do. This was her way. Benign, safe, unthreatening. What could she be saying that would hurt? Safe space. Un-incriminating. Not like paper. Not like paper.

A grey day. Nothing moves. A grey cover of cloud. Two crows on the roof, one preens the other, a beak spiking up neck feathers. Gulls glide in the sky. Nothing moves. A mizzly rain. Stay in. Stay home. A melancholy. An Ancient Mariner kind of melancholy.

I cannot write, she wrote. I cannot write.