Stitched in Place: Dissertation research from a Dorset museum to a Brighton prize

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Anne Roberts, winner of the History of Art and Design programme’s 2019-20 Dissertation Prize, reflects on her subject and its delivery under Covid conditions.

What did you do during lockdown? Perhaps you rediscovered a hobby, took up yoga or home-schooled your family? Amidst all the confusion in society I was still completing my University dissertation, for submission in May, as part of my BA in Fashion and Dress History. In the uncertain days of early lockdown, I had struggled to find motivation in what felt like Armageddon. It was a challenge to balance the demands of the ‘new normal’ with the ongoing rigour of academic drafting. For me and many of my friends, ‘getting it in’ suddenly meant something even more challenging than before, and under such circumstances I never dreamt that my dissertation might win a prize. My hurriedly changed surroundings in the countryside also seemed a world away from Brighton’s support network, and in the rush to lockdown I had left behind all of my primary source material and many of my research papers.

Figure 1. A selection of aprons made using Dorset Feather Stitch. C. 1950s. KOP Collection. Dorset County Museum, Dorchester. Personal photograph by the author. 8 July 2019.

However, after a few weeks of adjustment, my dissertation stopped being a torment and actually became a welcome form of lockdown solace, providing me with clear objectives and  a fixed submission date. Louise Purbrick’s blog post for the Centre for Design History described her realisation that world events had made her teaching appear more relevant, and I had the same sensation about my dissertation subject. Suddenly, in lockdown, so many women were starting to sew, discovering that embroidery could provide them with a pleasurable pastime at home. This neatly, if rather disconcertingly, reflected some of my own dissertation conclusions which asserted that upheaval and uncertainly could act as a catalyst for female creative endeavour.

My choice of subject had originally been inspired by my own curiosity about local references in my West Dorset village to something called Dorset Feather Stitch. Research in Dorset County Museum last summer led me to hundreds of examples of this beautiful embroidery, alongside many boxes of related leaflets, photographs and notebooks.  I remember being completely daunted by the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ that I had to try and make sense of in a very limited time frame. When I came back to Brighton in September 2019, I  consulted a wide range of primary source material, and relevant academic theories, to uncover and explain the origins of Dorset Feather Stitchery. To find out how the craft was developed, I studied the relevance of the Women’s Institute movement, embroidery as a gendered practice and the importance of Dorset as an imagined space to the women who lived there. As little had been written about the practice, I realised that I would not be able to reference anyone else’s research and that my conclusions would be my own.

Figure 2. Mary Welshman. Apron detail. C. 1950s. KOP Collection, Dorset County Museum, Dorchester. Acc.no. 2007.228. Box D. Personal Photograph by the author. 8 July 2019.

My dissertation, entitled Stitched in Place: The Origins and Development of Dorset Feather Stitch 1945-1970, argued that Dorset Feather Stitch was not just an enjoyable pastime, but also an expression of subtle feminism within a traditional rural society. The women who stitched it were inspired by its originator, Olive Pass, to engage in a practice that was defined by social purpose and female values, evidenced within the confines of a traditional rural society. My research discovered that Dorset Feather Stitch was indirectly influenced by both the Arts and Crafts movement and the Peasant Art movement, and that Pass had combined her interest in Balkan craftsmanship with English rural craft skills to create a new hybrid style of embroidery. Described in 1951 as a ‘revival’, Dorset Feather Stitch was actually a re-imagined tradition, developed solely by women for women, which combined a strong sense of social purpose with female intentionality and craft skill.

Figure 3. Detail of a photograph of Olive Pass and two of her daughters. Undated. KOP collection, Dorset County Museum, Dorchester. Archival photograph by the author. 24 June 2019.

I really enjoyed researching my dissertation and, now that the print shops have finally re-opened, I intend to give a copy of my findings to the Dorset County Museum. I hope that my research conclusions might encourage them to mount a permanent display of Dorset Feather Stitch, as it is a unique example of post-war creativity which can be identified with many of the individual Dorset women who created it.

I intend to return to Brighton to study for a History of Design and Material Culture MA and hope to further develop my academic research and writing skills.  Having found out that Dorset Feather Stitch was also practised in Africa, Canada, and New Zealand, I would like to research the reasons for the export of this uniquely English cultural practice. It might also be interesting to test my theories by interviewing some Dorset women, who remember being taught the work as teenagers.

Fig. 4. Some of the Women who made and sold Feather Stitchery in Dorchester in 1951. KOP Collection. Dorset County Museum, Dorchester. Archival photograph by the author. 24 June 2019.

In this Covid environment I shall have to adjust to Uni life happening online, but I am looking forward to a resumption of at least some kind of teaching normality. I can’t wait to get back into the library! As a result of my dissertation experience I am particularly interested in uncovering more stories of women’s lives through objects that may have been overlooked in museum collections.

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