Women’s Work: Pioneering Women in Craft, 1918-1939

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Sally Lawrence, BA (Hons) History of Art and Design student and volunteer at Ditching Museum of Art + Craft, reflects on an innovative new exhibition.

The first world war was both devastating and life changing for the people of Britain. From May until October 2019, Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft have chosen to explore how a number of women reacted to these changes. The women in this exhibition were finding their feet in a new and uncertain world. They chose to do this by taking their traditional crafts and turning them into creative businesses. Some of the women are well known and remembered but many have been previously hidden from view, and many more were lost altogether in the historical record. While this exhibition does a beautiful job of shouting about some women who have only ever previously been whispered about, there is much more work to be done and things to be said regarding the lives and legacies of craftswomen in Britain. This exhibition is interesting and insightful in its own right but what is even more exciting, is the incredible pathways it has reopened for research into an under-investigated but incredibly important area.

Figure.1: View of Women’s Work: Pioneering Women in Craft, 1918-1939. Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. 03/05/2019. Author’s own Photograph.

Women’s Work features a range of craft disciplines including pottery, silversmithing, weaving and block printing. The exhibition includes work by Phyllis Barron (1890-1964) and Dorothy Larcher (1882-1952). More commonly known as Barron & Larcher, they were innovative and successful designer-makers, who produced popular and fashionable block printed fabrics. Women’s Work features a number of examples of their work including items of clothing that show the incredible range of patterns that these women able to create by hand and often with very limited supplies [see Fig. 2]. As the exhibition shows, Barron and Larcher used whatever materials they had to hand, from prison sheets to organza, coupled with household items like combs, to create bespoke printed fabrics that caught the attention of some important and wealthy people including Coco Chanel. Although the world they lived in was becoming increasingly industrialised, the quality of their work showed that handmade goods, much like these female makers, were worthy of attention and admiration.

Figure 2: Dresses top and Jacket by Barron & Larcher, n.d. Dress and Waistcoat by Rita Beales and Doreen (Dods) Straughan Protheri, c1940. On display at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. 03/05/2019. On loan from Crafts Study Centre. Author’s own Photograph.

As a volunteer at Ditchling Museum I have experienced and enjoyed a number of their exhibitions. But this one is very different from any that I have experienced anywhere before. Women’s Work is not an exhibition that claims to know everything but instead it one that is proudly urging visitors to take what they have learned and to run with it, to find out more and to share it with the Museum and the wider world. This it what makes this exhibition so exciting. As the exhibition notes, its purpose is to raise awareness about these women and the thousands like them who help keep craft alive in our ever changing world. It shines a light on craftswomen who have been hidden in the shadows for far too long but it also provides wonderful new directions for research and engagement. When you visit, you will see some beautiful artefacts and will read some interesting stories but most importantly you will have been given a starting point that could take you on some incredible journeys. This is not just an exhibition; it is an opportunity. Don’t miss it.

Women’s Work: Pioneering Women in Craft, 1918- 1939, is open at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft from 4 May- 13 October 2019.

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