Exhibition celebrates Female handiwork

The art, skill and hidden history of domestic crafts are the subject of a new exhibition at the Women’s Library in Aldgate, which aims to celebrate the social significance of female pursuits in the home.

Hand Made Tales, curated by Carol Tulloch, opened last week, and is described by the library as ‘a timely exhibition focusing on the role domestic crafts play in many women’s experiences.’

The exhibits, drawn largely from the past 100 years, include examples of home-made objects such as clothing and furniture, alongside books and pamphlets, cooking receptacles and gardening instruments.

Displayed together, they pay tribute to the efforts of generations past, as well as hinting at more modern encounters with the domestic arts, and exploring the different meanings that domestic labour can have for those who engage in it.

A number of different cultural traditions are featured, with explanations of the items producing a tapestry of material that functions as an intriguing exploration of social change.

From a grandmother’s handwoven Punjabi dhurrie rug to a tapestry of Psalm 137 sewn by a Jewish immigrant, expressing the desire to remember her faith whilst integrating into the English middle class, the show demonstrates how everyday domestic objects can reflect wider currents of history.

There is much featured in the exhibition that will feel familiar to its viewer as the accoutrements of a home life that persisted for much of the previous century – such as button boxes, sewing machines and much-annotated cookery notebooks.

However, the solemnity and detachment inherent in viewing such objects in a museum context disrupts perceptions of banality, bringing them into a new light of examination and highlighting their cultural importance.

This political renegotiation of the domestic sphere is a specific aim of the exhibition.

According to Tulloch: “Crafts were [traditionally] viewed as the specific trade of the housewife, a beleaguered individual whose domestic creativity was not recognised as being a valuable contribution to society, a position that the feminist movement fought against.”

Rejecting the idea that a renewed contemporary interest in domestic crafts is retrogressive, she added: “This renaissance of domesticity has been criticised by some feminists as being a glamorisation of the historically subordinate housewife – but not all women who practised these crafts saw themselves and their skills as devalued.”

Hand Made Tales is on display until 20 April 2011 at The Women’s Library, 25 Old Castle Street, Aldgate, E1 7NT. Entry is free.

For more information, click here to visit the Women’s Library website.

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