Embroideries made by Suffragettes in Prison, 1905-1914

Guest post by Denise Jones

Recently Lockdales the auctioneers in Suffolk, very kindly sent me an image of objects belonging to the suffragette Mary Aldham, which were sold at auction in September 2015.

Included in the cache were a small sampler and bag, both embroidered in Holloway c. 1912. It is likely that the embroideries had been treasured as family possessions for over a hundred years. The find has given me fresh hope that other similar ‘cloths’ may have been saved in other family homes. Sadly, I have been unable to locate the Aldham embroideries and only have virtual images of them. It is sad because with textiles the back of work can reveal and expose as much as the front, and the material handling and scrutiny of their making is very valuable.

I am particularly interested in the idea that suffragettes embroidered in prison after experiencing real or imagined threats to the body. I am fascinated to know why they would bother to embroider and what the process of putting needle and thread through cloth might reveal about the body being constrained and in danger.

It is still the case that the very word embroidery conjures up ideological notions of the domestic, feminine and decorative. The fact that suffragettes embroidered in prison does help to debunk those stereotypical views and also offers some evidence of suffragette prison experiences. The cloths are also very touching and affective. They move me.

‘It threaded into every town; it walked down every street; it entered into every home and crossed every table’ by Denise Jones (2016)

My project is a practice-based doctorate at the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, researching embroidered cloths made by suffragettes in prison. I am using the cloths themselves as the ‘sites’ to make a responsive body of textile work, which will support my thesis.

So far I have located a small number of embroidered cloths but would be very excited to engage with other references, whether actual embroideries or mention of embroidering in letters, diaries or journals. It would be equally wonderful if there were examples from the regional prisons as all the examples so far have related to Holloway.

Antony Smith, curator at The Priest House Museum, West Hoathly, Sussex and journalist, Barbara Miller have researched the embroidered suffragette names on a handkerchief found in a pile to be burnt after a jumble sale in the 1970’s. All the signatures were from suffragette prisoners in Holloway in 1912, some were hunger strikers and some forcibly fed. The handkerchief had been overlooked for decades and then by chance its very real significance had been uncovered and realised. How amazing it would be for our understanding if another suffragette handkerchief or fragment of embroidered cloth were to come to light.

Thank you for any information.

The image above is my first textile response to some of the cloths. The title of the work was inspired by a sentence from Jill Liddington’s book, Rebel Girls (2006:xi).

Please contact Denise Jones mdjo@hotmail.com

Denise Jones May, 2016.


One thought on “Embroideries made by Suffragettes in Prison, 1905-1914

  1. This is a fascinating post for me as someone who is interested in textiles in the way of ‘old cloth’, fabric, yarn and threads, as I feel they could have a story that will never to be told again and I discovered a long time ago that I am a bit of collector of Sewalia.
    The 21st Century connection to the Suffragettes through a creative activity such as embroidery is truly amazing and like you I would of liked “to know why they would bother to embroider” although for me a needle and thread can be very powerful and empowering. Personally also for me there is something in creative crafts skills, that even when you are under pressure or in a stressful situation, it can give or bring a focus to your mind and clarity for what you are doing and if it goes wrong you can stop and breathe again. Thanks for sharing & for posting a great read and Good Luck! – Debra E. Cadet-Wallace.


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