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Asylum Needlework

Collarette 01

Collarette 01

Handkerchief 01

Handkerchief 01

Collarette 02

Collarette 02

Handkerchief 02

Handkerchief 02

Collarette 03

Collarette 03

Handkerchief 03

Handkerchief 03

Collarette 04

Collarette 04

Handkerchief 04

Handkerchief 04

Collarette 05

Collarette 05

Project Summary

Cyanotypes of found Victorian needlework, referencing those made or mended by female patients in Victorian asylums. Dimensions 44 x 44 cm each.

Description

Asylum Needlework is inspired by my research into the clothing of pauper patients in Victoria asylums.

Upon admission to the asylum, patients were issued clothing that was of a standard style and material. It was often not substantially different to ordinary working-class clothing, although perhaps rather outdated.

For many, the new attire was warmer, cleaner and of better quality than their own. For some, however, this type of ‘uniform’ was seen as an imposition, and a source of discontent and humiliation.

However, the patients were allowed to adorn their clothes with collars of different shapes and sizes. These small departures from the norm allowed them to express their individuality and identity, and to regain a sense of agency.

Much of the clothing in the asylums was made in-house by the patients. It was partly to provide an occupation that was considered by doctors and managers a significant element of ‘moral’ therapy. It also helped the asylums to reduce the operational cost, as it was cheaper than buying goods from external sources. The clothing was standardised because it was easier to manage a limited range of patterns.

The asylums kept careful accounts of production. For instance, a register in the archive of Surrey History Centre, titled ‘Weekly Return of Needlework’, meticulously listed all the items that were made or mended. This includes items such as aprons, bedgowns, dresses, handkerchiefs and collarettes.

The archive also contains many photographs of female patients in standard asylum dresses but wearing lace collars of varying styles and shapes, which may well have been their own handiwork.

Inspired by these findings, I imagined what the patients might have made or mended by producing a series of cyanotypes of found Victorian lace collars and handkerchiefs.