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Threads of Feeling

Research led by Professor John Styles’ (University of Hertfordshire) has provided a new perspective on a little known collection of fabrics from the UK’s first children’s charity. The collection of 18th century textile tokens left with abandoned babies led to a major international exhibition.

In 1741 the London Foundling Hospital opened, after many years of campaigning by philanthropist Thomas Coram. It cared for babies of impoverished, and usually unmarried, mothers who could not support them. When accepting babies into its care, the Foundling Hospital took identifying tokens which would allow a mother to re-claim her child should she want to. These tokens took different forms, but most were textiles, such as clippings from the baby’s or mother’s clothing, ribbons and embroidery. The Hospital kept meticulous entry records, including the tokens, which are now held at London Metropolitan Archives. It is these fabric pieces that provided a crucial primary source for Professor John Styles’ research.

‘The Bit of Red Cloth Enclosed was pinned to the Child’s Cap’ © Coram

Professor Styles’ disproved the commonly held notion that the products of the early British Industrial Revolution were only available to the upper middle class and above. He used unfamiliar sources, including the Foundling archive, to show that working people were able to dress in inexpensive versions of fashionable clothes. In uncovering the Foundling textiles, Professor Styles also recognised their potential to have a much broader appeal, providing a direct material link to thousands of abandoned infants. He devised a public exhibition using the artefacts to share his insights into the textiles and the Foundling children. An AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship enabled him to bring this to fruition.

The exhibition Threads of Feeling ran from October 2010 to March 2011 at the London Foundling Museum, which opened in 2004 to tell the story of the Hospital and its children. The exhibition attracted 19,132 visitors and became the best attended show since the museum’s opening. Threads of Feeling received significant coverage in both traditional and new media, inspired by the story the exhibition told about how poor mothers felt about their children. In bringing colour to the narrative of 18th century working class fashion, Professor Styles’ research also brought to life the conflicting emotions experienced by women who felt that their baby would fare better in an orphanage than with them.

The exhibition inspired great public interest and provoked numerous responses online and in visitor books – many citing it as an inspiration to produce textile work of their own. It has also been credited as the inspiration for two poetry anthologies: Foundlings (2011) and Tokens for the Foundlings (2012). After the exhibition closed in London, it travelled to the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, USA, where it was seen by over 200,000 visitors between May 2013 and May 2014.

For more information on the project visit: Threads of Feeling Website

Gateway to Research Project Links: Foundling Textiles (Dec '08 - Mar '11)

Written by: Natalia Alderson