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UCL Public Engagement Blog



Archive for July 17th, 2018

Muted – The Power Of Symbolism Through Textile

Lizzy Baddeley17 July 2018

This blog is written by Sharon Brooks, Event Manager at UCL Culture. Sharon led on the Textile 100 Event at the Olympic Park Stratford in 2018.

The handkerchief was a powerful symbol of camaraderie and identity in the past. Women sought social change through the language of textiles. Inmates’ signatures and the struggle were inscribed, embroidery was a form of disobedience and femininity that marked a pivotal time in history, where women were seen and not heard.

100 years ago crafts became a significant outlet for the incarcerated suffrage community. Political statements were made through the use of textiles by forming intricate embroidery on handkerchiefs, a popular outlet behind the walls of London’s Holloway prison during the hunger strikes

Textile 100 was established by the East Bank partners UCL, London College of Fashion and the V&A in March 2018 as a new collaborative initiative combining the use of art, culture, research and community. It was born out of celebrating the centenary of women and winning the right to vote.

handkerchief embroidered by suffragette prisoners

The original handkerchief, embroidered by suffragette prisoners, used as inspiration for the event

The workshop took place in Timber Lodge on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, just across the Lea River from Victoria Park which was a regular space for mass rallies in 1845 and an established hub of activism. The local community were encouraged to explore their creativity and produce designs on handkerchiefs that captured the essence of the 19th century. For many the textile tasks took them back to their childhood days of arts, crafts and sharing ideas in a fun and engaging environment with their peers. They were inspired by historical and contemporary issues that were presented and highlighted throughout the day through embroidery, talks and poetry.

The fight for justice could take another 100 years and there is still monumental strides to be made in attitudes towards women’s rights and equality. The current pay gap barrier and the #MeToo campaign have become a worldwide cultural phenomenon led by powerful women. Today’s protests are peaceful, loud without the violent chaos.

Women have now found their voice and cemented their rightful place in society to be fearless and free to express their opinions. They are recognised as some of the greatest beacons in society – winning in all areas of life.

In the 1880s this was just a vision embroidered on a handkerchief to emphasise the need to incorporate women in many aspects of public life. As lawyers, scientists and politicians – the achievements and evolution of the women must be celebrated. As Annie Lennox from the Eurythmics sang “Sisters are doing it for themselves / Now this is a song to celebrate / the conscious liberation of the female state!“

Rewind back 100 years ago to 1918 women were enslaved by society and lived a disenfranchised life, deprived of any physical political acknowledgement in a patriarchal society. Women were devalued; they had no choice and no voice. Many women were imprisoned for their militant actions. They just wanted to be heard in a male dominated society.

Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the original Suffragettes is the epitome of an extraordinary, phenomenal and strong women. She became the voice of the people by campaigning for adequate housing, equal pay and voting rights. In 1903 she founded the Women’s Social and Political Union which was known as a radical party and often used extreme methods in order to get their message heard. Sometimes violent, they were the first women to be labelled as Suffragettes. Pankhurst’s political activism paved the way for today’s modern women.


hands and embroidery


During the twentieth century textiles became an accepted form of expression through political struggles. A sacred form of communication filled the prisons and stories were told through textiles, protests were created by intricate painful embroidery, personal experience of resistance and resentment translated through muted voices, an unspoken political rule – textiles formed a barrier against the system.

Textile 100 has proven to be a solid platform to connect London with the local community while fusing a rich tradition of textile heritage and combing that with the centenary celebrations. The transaction of ideas along with the exchange of knowledge of research and creativity highlights the importance of collaborative projects whilst working towards achieving something even bigger through the power of togetherness and public engagement.

Textile 100 was a collaboration between UCL, V&A and London College of Fashion. Sharon has previously run Bright Club for UCL, and you can read about that event in her previous blog post.

The Textile 100 event is being repeated on Sunday 22nd July 2018 at Open Doors: Vote 100