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Threads of Feeling Exhibition

Date: 05/08/2013

A highly poignant exhibition entitled Threads of Feeling is experiencing transatlantic success thanks to funding from the AHRC.

The exhibition, which was originally curated and displayed at London's Foundling museum in 2011, showcases fabrics never shown before which illustrate the moment of parting as mothers left their babies at the original Foundling Hospital.

In the cases of more than 4,000 babies left between 1741 and 1760, a small object or token, usually a piece of fabric, was kept as an identifying record. The fabric was either provided by the mother or cut from the child's clothing by the hospital's nurses. Attached to registration forms and bound up into ledgers, these pieces of fabric form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the 18th Century. A selection of the textiles forms the focus of the Threads of Feeling exhibition, along with examples of the kinds of garments made from them, and the stories they tell us about individual babies, their mothers and their lives.

Visitors to the Colonial Williamsburg Museum in Virginia, USA, now have a chance to view this moving collection as the exhibition remains in situ until March 2014. This will be the last time these objects can be exhibited for the foreseeable future, because natural dyes fade if exposed to light for too long. Two years on display is considered the maximum exposure that is safe.

Professor John Styles, Research Professor of History at the University of Hertfordshire, received funding from the AHRC to curate the exhibition. John comments: 'The process of giving over a baby to the hospital was anonymous. It was a form of adoption, whereby the hospital became the infant's parent and its previous identity was effaced. The mother's name was not recorded, but many left personal notes or letters exhorting the hospital to care for their child. The pieces of fabric in the ledgers were kept, with the expectation that they could be used to identify the child if it was returned to its mother. In reality, very few of the children were ever reclaimed.'

A heart cut from red woollen cloth. Foundling number 10563, a girl admitted 22 November 1758. © Coram/London Metropolitan Archives.

The textiles are both beautiful and poignant, embedded in a rich social history. Each swatch reflects the life of a single infant child. But the textiles also tell us about the clothes their mothers wore, because baby clothes were usually made up from worn-out adult clothing. The fabrics reveal and commemorate the difficult separation of a mother from her child.

Or to view a selection of the fabrics via an online exhibition, visit the Threads of Feeling website.

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