Speaker Report: Dark Textiles – Penny Hemmingway & Dave Hunt

As a preview to her upcoming book Penny gave us an insight into some of the darker elements of the textile hobbies that we all enjoy so much today.

Firstly, Penny talked about many folklore links to textiles, starting with well-known children’s fairy tales in which Rapunzel’s hair is strongly felt to represent the spinning of flax and the spindle on which Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger was thought to be infected by the spinning of raw fleece, causing her to slip into a coma, hence sleeping for 100 years. 

It was also thought that spinning wheels could in fact be ‘bewitched’ and many superstitions arose from that, including the sale of ‘charms’ to ward off evil spirits and the removal of the drive band at night to prevent fairies from using your wheel. The link to witches also came about from distaffs as it is believed that witches actually rode distaffs before broomsticks. The distaff was historically a strong female icon and small cartoons drawn by monks show men being beaten by women with distaffs. 

Penny then told us of the ghost of Sibell Penn who reportedly haunted a historic building following her death. Strange creaking and whirring noises could be heard at night and were traced to a bricked off area, which, when knocked through unveiled a previously unknown room containing an old spinning wheel. 

Disturbingly enough, many women who were murdered in the 19th century had their lives cut short whilst knitting stockings!!!! Although not directly related to their deaths, this fact soon became a common denominator. 

In relation to this we were told that following execution, peoples clothes were often stolen and sold and that even partially completed knitted items could be pawned for money. 

In 1832 Richard Oastler formed a protest about the use of the elderly and children as cheap or even free labour for textile related practices. Oastler felt that a 10 hour day should be the maximum that any child should be required to work and even resorted to teaching the children how to sabotage the factories in order to enforce the new rule. Strangely enough, Oastler showed no such concern over the number of industrial accidents involving children in the mills. 

Finally, Penny talked about the embroideries of Lorina Bulwer who spent much of her life in a workhouse whilst suffering from mental health problems. During her time in the workhouse she produced several large embroideries, using whatever materials she could find, which consisted of long ‘rants’ and contained details of alleged sexual abuse by Dr Richard Pinching. It was reported that Pinching was ordered to seduce a 15 year old girl in 1859, however, no charges were ever brought against him. It wouldn’t be difficult to wonder if the allegations were linked to her ending up with mental health problems. The embroideries are now on display in several museums around the country.

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