The Fabric of Women’s Community

By Kathleen Quaintance

Kathleen is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence and will graduate in 2020.

Engaging with women’s history sometimes means one has to brush away years of dust before the treasure of knowledge can be examined. The dust is not only literal (today, in the archives, I found myself sneezing periodically), but metaphorical, in that it represents the erasure of women’s contributions and continual efforts to undermine or entirely ignore their work. I am prepared to wipe away some dust in several different ways, as I have become connected to a history that has been very faintly recorded. If one were to think of the histories of the men contributing to this artistic movement that I am studying as having been written in pen, then these women were recorded in very faint pencil. The layers of dust do not settle equally over every archive.

There are several barely mentioned women who I aim to retrieve from the dark and inaccessible archives, all of whom worked as designers and craftswomen in the Interwar period in Britain. These women came together to work, carving and inking woodblock prints with strikingly modern designs and placing them on large bolts of fabric, spread out over the floor of a dockside warehouse or spare barn. Sometimes, for lack of a better method, they stepped on the blocks to imprint the patterns. One of several of these workshops was called “Footprints” as a nod to these beginnings. Footprints was run by a woman, Joyce Clissold, who hired only women to work in her studio. There’s a small photograph of the employees of Footprints, and it is difficult to spot a man in the crowd of women wearing eccentric dresses made from their modern patterns.

Some of these British artist-craftswomen working during the Interwar period were educated at the Royal School of Art, like Enid Marx, who was initially a painting student but transferred to the design program which was less overpopulated by traditionalist men. Marx’s designs were abstract, modern, and revolutionary – they seem ahead of their time aesthetically, but they are executed using age-old woodcarving and printing techniques. Marx’s work was deemed too “abstract” and she was denied a degree. Rejected by the word of “fine art,” Marx embraced design. She became an apprentice to another woman-run fabric printing workshop, headed by the remarkable Phyllis Barron and her long-term significant other Dorothy Larcher. Marx would go on to become a prolific designer and illustrator. She became the first woman engraver to be designated a Royal Designer for Industry, and in 1937, she designed the pattern for the fabric that would upholster the seats on the London Underground for years to come. She went on to find a life partner of her own, the historian Margaret Lambert, with whom she researched and collected British popular art.

Many of these women were involved in art which could facilitate social change, or at least the well-being of society. This contrasted their male classmates at the the Royal College of Art, who were mainly involved with commissions and exhibitions. Instead, these craftswomen, including the radical leftist tile designer Peggy Angus (nicknamed “Red” for her communist tendencies), used their artistic ability to contribute to public projects and spent their lifetimes teaching the next generation. Almost all of these women participated in projects for the betterment of society: Enid Marx was one of the artists involved in Kenneth Clark’s “Recording Britain” programme, a wartime effort to illustrate British landmarks in case of bombing, while Peggy Angus created tile designs for schools and airports. All of these women, however, could be found in the realm of printmaking, which could be considered the most “democratic” art, in that it can be reproduced and distributed. Their practice of printing on fabric combined two crafts. “Craft” as a domain is often demoted below “fine art,” because craft has long been gendered as “feminine,” an embodied task in contrast to the more “intellectual” art. It thus is necessary to think about craft when thinking about feminist art history, and ask the question of how craft is considered lesser and omitted from histories of visual culture, particularly when it is created by women?

I have been told by someone very wise that history is “speaking for the dead,” so it is imperative that I am a very respectful and conscientious necromancer. I have recently visited an archive where I pored over the pictures and letters of Winifred Gill, a woman who worked for the Omega workshop, a crafts studio founded by the artists of the Bloomsbury group. Gill’s name is very difficult to find in any histories of this workshop, although she was a key craftsperson. She went on to work in the Bristol University Settlement, engaging with community through crafts. She participated in archaeological digs, made puppets, and waxed poetic about the beauty of crafting techniques that had yet to change. I found one letter, addressed to Walter de la Mare and scrawled in her characteristic chicken-scratch, which reads:

“Best of all to me are the effigies in dust of oval rush mats on the floors of stone age houses in old Jericho, made exactly as they are made in England to-day. Once the right way to make something is found, it stays that way. I once showed a photograph of the base of an oval hamper, probably a cradle, found in the same Lake Village, to one of the Dryad men. I asked if it has been ‘set-up’ the right way. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with that.’ He simply refused to believe me when I said it was at least nineteen hundred years old.”

The 1935 letter has grown old, and the paper has become so yellowed and thin that it is nearly transparent. Yet Gill’s sentiment stands, and it stood for her contemporaries who felt that their printing methods, in the paradox between ancient and modern, were the “right way to make something.” The next item that catches my eye is a tiny sepia-toned photograph of Gill in a garden, using her crafts: she wears a long Omega necklace and holds one of her handcrafted marionettes, which she is playfully dangling over a fluffy white dog. In other tattered photographs, she stands in a doorway with her arms crossed, glancing wryly at the camera. In another, she faces a mirror, where her reflection stares confidently back.

These photographs are so impactful because they represent the opportunity to bring Winifred Gill’s contributions to light, as part of a larger project to rescue women’s histories from obscurity. Gill concludes one of her letters with what seems to me to be a reminder of how to work with archival material and engage with forgotten histories: “how can you convey all that you do, over and above what you actually state? When a catalogue giving the exactly the same information just plods along. You dip your words in magic.”

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