London is an absolute maze of museums, fashion, and textiles. That’s what happens when a city has more than eight million inhabitants, two thousand years of history, and at one time ruled over a quarter of the world’s land mass. I imagine a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to fully savour London’s textile history and current fashion scene – and I only had a small taste over one day. Here are the highlights.
Victoria & Albert Museum
The first stop was the Victoria & Albert Museum, which focuses on the history of art and design. After attempting to do the entire British Museum earlier in the week and shredding my feet and sanity in the process, I decided to focus on one element of the museum: European textiles.
And that’s when I discovered tapestry. Beautiful, detailed, immense tapestries.
The V&A has several large tapestries from Medieval and Early Modern times. I know very little about weaving and could not comprehend how the weavers create such pictures. Even once I learnt how they were made – teams of weavers working from a plan or cartoon – it was still mind blowing. Every space in the tapestries is occupied with a part of the story or a decoration. I could look at them for days, exploring all the little intricacies of their stories.
I hadn’t forgotten about knitting though! There are, of course, fewer examples of knitting in the museum, but some very interesting pieces were on display, including these socks from 300-500 AD.
These 1,500+ old socks are from Oxyrhynchus in Central Egypt. The split in the toe is probably so they could be worn with sandals. If you look closely (apologies for the low res camera photos), you can see the decreases along the sides of the toes, with left and right leaning decreases – pretty much the same as we would do today!
A surprising aspect of the V&A for me was how practical it was. I thought, being focused on art and design that it would be rather conceptual, but many of the exhibits had explanations as to how an object was made, as well as videos and examples of half-finished work. For example, the embroidery below had a small smaller of new embroidery underneath it with a magnifying glass to do how the stitches were constructed and how vibrant the colours were originally.
You could even try on hoops and a petticoat!
To take a break from museums, I popped up to Islington to visit Loop London. Spilt over two level in a very cute shop, Loop has a range of British and American yarns and patterns.
While upstairs, playing with the eight ply, I overheard a man explaining to the owner that he wanted to take up knitting again, to help him quit smoking. That was unusual enough – and then two policeman in full uniform came up the stairs! The smoking policeman was completely unselfconscious in his purchase and his partner regarded it with mild amusement.
My own purchase decision was less easy to make. After several months of persuading myself not to buy yarn and my current dislike of super soft yarn, I couldn’t find anything that cried ‘buy me’! That is until, I spotted the Habu Textiles bamboo. I was not leaving without it.
Fashion and Textile Museum
Tipped off by an eagle eyed friend in New Zealand, I’d learnt there was an exhibition of knitwear on the Fashion and Textile Museum. After the huge museums of London central, the F&T was pleasantly small and off the beaten track (not really, but I has to detour through a building site, so it felt like it). It was also very friendly and personable, again different from the big guys.
The approachable, friendly nature extended to the exhibit. Entitled ‘Knitwear: Chanel to Westwood’, the examples came primarily from the collection of Mark and Cleo Butterfield and thus ’emulates their personal approach rather than attempting to create a comprehensive historical overview; it reflects the emotions we invest in objects’.
Unfortunately, photography wasn’t allowed inside the exhibit, so I’ll have to do my best with words. Each display was set up inside a large packing crate, with a different theme in each. My favourite crates were:
- ‘Make Do And Mend’ which displayed the reuse of clothes, with additional panels added to the sides and sleeves, as well as flamboyant colourwork jumpers made from left overs;
- ‘Cocktail Hour’ with the iconic sweater of the 50s; and
- ‘The Fair Isle’ with 14 Fair Isle vests, a mixture of hand and machine-made present in front of a map of the isles.
I fear that just as a day is never enough to begin to cover all London has to offer a textile enthusiast, this blog post can only convey a glimpse of the wonders I got to experience!