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May 17, 2013

Small Swatches of Fabric Tell Powerful, Poignant Tales in “Threads of Feeling”

Each piece of fabric or token tells a poignant, emotional story from more than 200 years ago. Many of those stories are coming May 25 to the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg in a traveling exhibition organized by the Foundling Museum of London. “Threads of Feeling” consists of 59 books of textile tokens on loan from Coram, a British children’s charity.

“These stories pack powerful, emotional punches, sure to resonate with parents,” said Ronald Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg’s chief curator and vice president for collections, conservation and museums. “We are pleased to have the only mounting of the exhibition in the United States since it closed in London more than two years ago.”

In the cases of more than 4,000 babies left at London’s Foundling Hospital 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 Foundling 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 and the stories they tell us about individual babies, their mothers and their lives form the focus of the Threads of Feeling exhibition. The exhibition also examines artist William Hogarth’s depictions of the clothes, ribbons, embroidery and fabrics worn in the 18th century as represented by the textile tokens.

“The process of giving over a baby to the Foundling Hospital was anonymous,” said exhibition curator John Styles, research professor in history at the University of Hertfordshire. “It was a form of adoption. The Foundling Hospital became the infant’s parent and its previous identity was erased.”

The mother’s name was not recorded, but many left personal notes or letters exhorting the hospital to care for their child. Occasionally children were reclaimed, and 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.

The textiles are beautiful and poignant, embedded in a rich social history. Each swatch reflects the life of a single infant child. The textiles also indicate the types of clothing their mothers wore. Many clothes for babies were usually made up from worn-out adult clothing and the fabrics reveal how working women struggled to be fashionable in the 18th century.

“Threads of Feeling” opens May 25 in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and will be on view through May 26, 2014. A Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket, Museums Pass or Good Neighbor Pass is required.

Two lectures are presented in connection with “Threads of Feeling.” Curator John Styles provides a glimpse into the poignant backstory behind the exhibition,"Threads of Feeling," as he discusses the establishment of London's Foundling Hospital in 1741 for orphaned children and the admission process in which mothers were encouraged to leave a small textile token with their children as means of identification should they ever return to reclaim them. Together these swatches now form Britain's largest collection of everyday textiles from the 18th century. Individually they tell the story of a single abandoned infant and its mother. “Foundlings, Philanthropy and Textiles in 18th-Century London” is presented at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 28 in the Hennage Auditorium. Tickets are $5 in addition to museum admission.

During “The Foundling Hospital: Charity, Art & Music,” British scholar Jane King describes the sudden rise of public and private charitable giving that benefited London's Foundling Hospital in the 18th century. This cultural phenomenon led to the financial involvement of respected Londoners, including the services of artist William Hogarth and numerous influential public figures as well as a fundraising concert performance by Handel. King’s presentation is at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 12 in the Hennage Auditorium. Tickets are $5 in addition to museum admission.

Museum guests also are invited to participate in several programs related to the exhibition:

  • Textiles and accessories can be much more than just material objects. Guests create their own memory token during “Tokens of Affection.” Like those in the "Threads of Feeling" exhibition, their creations tell their own unique story. Presented 1:30 – 3:30 p.m. Saturday, May 25 and 11 a.m. – noon Tuesdays and Fridays, June 18 — Aug. 30.
  • “Open Drawers: Treasured Textiles from Colonial Williamsburg.” Guests drop in to get a closer look at the new exhibition, "Threads of Feeling" and then peer into the textile study drawers and examine related clothing and needlework from Colonial Williamsburg's collections. Presented 2 -3 p.m. Mondays, June 3 – Aug. 26.
  • “Lives Lost and Found.” Guests go behind the scenes of "Threads of Feeling" on a guided tour, examine the textiles on view and discuss the historical and emotional stories behind these textile tokens from the Foundling Hospital in London and the Colonial Williamsburg collection. Space is limited and a $10 ticket is required in addition to museum admission. Presented 9 – 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, June 18 — Aug. 30.

    Organized by the Foundling Museum and curated by John Styles, the token-filled billet books are owned and lent by leading United Kingdom children’s charity, Coram (which began as the Foundling Hospital), with the assistance of the City of London, London Metropolitan Archives. The Colonial Williamsburg exhibition of Threads of Feelings was supported in part by a grant from Mary and Clint Gilliland of Menlo Park, Calif., through the Turner-Gilliland Family Fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

    Media Contact:
    Jim Bradley

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