Threads of Feeling: Textiles from The Foundling Museum

Preserved among the records of The Foundling Museum, site of the former London Foundling Hospital, is what is now recognized as the largest collection in Britain of everyday textiles from the eighteenth century. In the 2010–2011 exhibition Threads of Feeling (affiliate link), the museum presented for the first time a selection of textiles that tell the touching stories of thousands of babies abandoned at the hospital between 1741 and 1760 by their often desperate mothers.

Foundling Museum

Silk fringe left with Foundling 2584 when the baby was placed in the London Foundling Hospital between 1741 and 1760. Photo courtesy of The Foundling Museum and © Coram.

When giving up a baby to the hospital, the mother was encouraged to leave an identifying object with the baby—often a swatch of fabric, perhaps cut from her own clothing, which was then pinned to the baby’s admission form with a detailed description. As the hospital recorded neither the mother’s nor the child’s name, the pieces of fabric would serve as identification in case the child was later reclaimed. The fabrics, which range from colorful patterned cottons and coarse striped linens to bits of silk fringe and ribbons (some of the latter knotted into ornamental cockades), belie the widely held notion that the clothing of the mid-eighteenth-century working class was uniformly dark and drab.

Foundling Museum

Ribbon with a pink and black geometrical pattern left with Foundling 6671 when the baby was placed in the London Foundling Hospital between 1741 and 1760. Photo courtesy of The Foundling Museum and © Coram.

A permanent online exhibition presents a slide show of some of the admission forms seen in the museum’s exhibition. Accompanying each image is a description of the fabric remnant and the foundling’s number. For more information, contact The Foundling Museum, www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of PieceWork. For more personal stories told through needlework, including more information on The Foundling Museum, read our blog post, “Postcard from Scotland: Threads of Life, Telling Stories Stitch by Stitch.”

Featured Image: Blackwork embroidery worked in blue thread left with Foundling 13155 when the baby was placed in the London Foundling Hospital between 1741 and 1760. Photo courtesy of The Foundling Museum and © Coram.


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