Literary Fabrics: The Textile Languages of Novels and Costume Dramas

Lead Research Organisation: University of Chester
Department Name: English

Abstract

This project will show how novelists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries developed a language based on textiles to represent the social world. Cloth pervades all aspects of culture, existing in an intimate relationship to the body and personal space, as well as publicly as industrial products, national flags, or official robes. Textiles also inform language: words such as 'fabric', 'weave', 'sew', 'knit', 'clothe', 'drape', 'spin', and 'thread' are commonly used as metaphors. This study will ask how fabrics offered writers a recognisable medium for exploring contemporary social conditions, whether the problems of industrialisation, the controversies surrounding women's labour (both working-class factory employment and middle-class domestic textile work), or the significance of the fashion industry. Before the 1870s, rags were often recycled into paper: what was once a dress or coat could be transformed into the pages of a novel representing a dress or coat. An awareness of the varied life of textiles, circulating in surprising forms in Victorian and early twentieth-century cultures, informed the narratives many novelists. This study will show how representations of cloth and clothing became important, conveying distinct messages about class, gender, age, labour and leisure, and the circulation of wealth and ideas in society.

Although textile representations proliferate in multiple ways in Victorian and early twentieth-century novels, recent literary studies have tended to take a limited focus in their examinations of clothing, fashion, and women's engagements with needlework and crafts. The new research will show that textiles were even more pervasive in the literary culture than such studies suggest. It will uncover the range of languages, imagery and themes associated with the textile discourses of novels in the period 1837 to 1914, a time when the textile industries dominated the British economy. Textile languages were developed by most major novelists, such as Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and H.G. Wells, and a range of texts by these and other writers will be analysed in detail. The research will also examine how textile discourses have been adapted for contemporary audiences through the popular medium of the 'costume drama'.

Screenings of novels for film and television audiences depend upon the visual impact of costume to convey narratives, characters, and historical contexts. The research will reassess the important work of costume designers for contemporary screen adaptations to demonstrate the power of textiles to 'tell stories' in visual forms. The study also challenges negative assessments of the 'costume drama', showing these as tending to over-simplify a complex engagement with literary heritages. It will analyse a range of adaptations including the recent BBC television serialisations of some of Gaskell's novels, as well as analysing film adaptations by directors such as Jane Campion and Mike Newell. The research will show how adaptations can work effectively through the strategic use of costume and other textile items. The project will also explore the under-researched work of Arnold Bennett, a novelist whose career developed from the 1890s into the age of cinema, when he wrote screenplays for the film industry. This study will examine his screenplay for the unreleased film, 'The Wedding Dress', to explore an Edwardian novelist's reconfiguring of literary textile languages for new visual media and new audiences.

Through examining a broad spectrum of textile languages in literature and screen adaptations, this study will open up new ways of thinking about cloth, its histories and its ability to convey stories in literary and screen forms.

Planned Impact

The research emphasises how textile work (such as needlework, dressmaking, weaving, and cotton manufacture) can become an effective way of representing wider social issues in literary contexts and in screen adaptations of novels. It also shows the ways in which personal and collective narratives can be signalled via cloth. This linkage of textiles, textile work and narrative suggests that the research will have an impact beyond my own academic discipline. There are, for example, a number of potential beneficiaries working in other academic and professional communities:

1. Costume designers would find the research useful as an aid to reflection on their own practices, as these practices are analysed within the context of a wide range of literary adaptations.

2. Costume historians and professionals in the heritage industries would find the research beneficial in its emphasis on the significance of textiles in a number of literary and screen contexts.

3. Textile artists and practitioners would benefit from the focus on the history of textiles and their cultural value in representations in literature and adaptations.

4. Cultural and social historians will also find the discussion of the historical and literary contexts of textiles relevant to their discipline.

These professionals will be able to access to the research in published formats, both as a book and as articles in the interdisciplinary journal, Textile History, and the journal of the Textile Society, Text. I will publicise the book by sending it for review to a range of relevant, related journals outside of my own academic discipline, such as Textile History, Costume, The Journal of British Studies, Text, and Design History.

The research will be of particular interest to fans of the costume drama, for it stresses the importance of costume in conveying literary narratives. Because the monograph is not primarily designed to be accessible to a general audience of readers, I am ensuring a wider audience for my research by co-organising a series of public engagement events, 'Textile Stories: The Fabric of Everyday Life', the first of which is due to take place on 15th June 2013 at the University of Chester. This venture involves collaborating with a colleague from the University of Sheffield, Dr Amber Regis. Advertising for the event was distributed in the Autumn of 2012, and has already attracted requests for tickets from people working in diverse areas of the community, as well as from retired people. 'Textile Stories' will involve interactive workshops, displays of textiles from the Grosvenor Museum collection which have not been on public view for many years, and talks designed to celebrate the cultural and aesthetic value of the costume drama and raise awareness of literature's engagement with textiles. The event is also intended to explore how textiles 'tell stories' in personal and collective contexts and is directly related to the rationale underpinning the 'Literary Fabrics' research.

Both the book and the public engagement event will highlight the value of textiles, costume, fashion, crafts, and period dramas, too often culturally denigrated as 'trivial', to a range of audiences, including members of the public.
 
Description The research has resulted in greater knowledge about the ways in which cloth references pervaded cultural discourse during the long nineteenth century, and the importance of novels and other writing in explaining and celebrating a wide range of textile cultures. The research thus highlights the uses of textiles, textile imagery, and cloth manufacture in literature and culture. The project has led to the publication of research papers on a broad range of subjects relating to cloth, including analyses of rags and recycling in Victorian Britain; the representation of the draper and drapers' shops in Victorian and Edwardian literature; the life-writing of men employed in clothing retailing; and the role of costume in contemporary costume dramas for television and cinema; and Yorkshire textile manufacturing in the work of Charlotte Brontë. Among the authors discussed are: Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and Elizabeth Gaskell. The project has also resulted in a co-edited book on Manufactured Objects, which includes a substantial book-length study focusing on textile manufacture in Victorian Britain and a monograph is in progress on Victorian women writers and the politics of cloth.
Exploitation Route The findings will help scholars of nineteenth-century literature and culture, along with fashion historians, retail historians, and those working in the field of cultural history, to understand why so many writers employed textile languages and imagery to discuss their society. The research, by highlighting how textiles themselves can convey narratives, paves the way for others to 'read' cloth as conveying multiple meanings.
Sectors Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

 
Description Since the award began, I have been actively engaged in disseminating the research to members of the public through the organisation of a series of study days, reading group meetings, and the delivery of public lectures. The Textile Stories Project is related to the academic research project and involves events based on topics such as textiles in everyday contexts; the costuming in costume dramas (screen adaptations of literary texts); and quilts and their narratives. The 2016 study day was based on 'the story of wool' and included a session developed from my research on the Brontës and the Yorkshire woollen industry. Over 90 people attended this event. I was invited by the Director of Macclesfield Museums to hold 'The Story of Silk' at the Silk Museum, Macclesfield in 2017. In January 2018 I delivered a lecture to the charity, The Drapers Guild, as part of a fundraising effort. In April 2018 the Textile Story Study Day, in collaboration with the Flax Museum, Shrewsbury, focused on textile workers. I've also delivered talks on literature and textile cultures to general audiences in libraries, literary societies, and at literary festivals. The Textile Stories Project's blog includes contributions from participants at the study days, reading groups, and events. 'The Textile Stories Project' blog can be accessed at: http://dwtextilestories.blogspot.co.uk/.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description A talk at the Bronte Society Annual Conference, Manchester 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact I presented a talk on Charlotte Bronte's writing about wool and its manufacture, from her earliest writings to her later novels, to members of the Bronte Society at their annual conference. The feedback was very positive from attendees from Europe, the US, Australia, Ireland and the UK. I have been invited to publish the paper in a special issue of Bronte Studies, a refereed academic journal.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description A talk to the Drapers Guild, Shrewsbury 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Supporters
Results and Impact I delivered a talk, 'The Fabric of Society: The role of cloth in literature and history' to 85 members of the Drapers Guild, Shrewsbury as part of a fund-raising event to support the construction of new homes for the elderly in Shropshire. The talk was well received and led to a number of attendees booking places at the Silk event I organised with Macclesfield Silk Museum.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Keynote Lecture delivered to the Edwardian Network Conference, Keele University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was invited to deliver a keynote lecture on Arnold Bennett's engagement with textiles, clothing, and material culture to the members of the Edwardian Network and the Arnold Bennett Society. Most of the audience members were not academics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Lecture on Jane Austen and adaptations to the Jane Austen Society (Midlands Branch) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The talk generated questions and a discussion.

After the talk, I received very positive feedback from members of the Jane Austen Society where they indicated how much they had learned and how their understanding of the novels and films had been enhanced.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Public Lecture at Gladstone's Library (Gladfest - Literary Festival) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The talk generated questions and discussion.

Many participants attended subsequent events/ talks I organised/ delivered as part of the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Public Lecture at a local library 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was invited to present a talk as part of the 'Learning at Lunchtime' events at a Shropshire library. I discussed the history and development of the drapery business and literary representations of the draper. The feedback was extremely positive.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Public Lecture on Jane Austen, Costume and Screen Adaptations for the Chester Literature Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The talk generated questions and discussion.

Many participants became involved in subsequent events I organised and followed my blog.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://dwtextilestories.blogspot.co.uk/
 
Description Public Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was invited to speak at the Unitarian Chapel, Shrewsbury, on the topic of women writers on 7th July 2018. This was part of the Chapel's celebration of 'Extraordinary Women' event. I spoke on Elizabeth Gaskell, ethics and slave-grown cotton, detailing her link with Unitarianism. There were 28 people in the audience and my talk stimulated a good discussion and requests to attend future events, particularly the Textile Stories Study Day.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Public event at the Silk Museum, Macclesfield 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This event, the fifth Textile Stories Study Day, 'The Story of Silk', was organised in conjunction with Macclesfield Silk Museum. Its purpose was to educate and inform members of the public about the cultural significance of silk, as well as to promote the Museum's work and increase its footfall. The event sold out (60 tickets were sold, the Museum's maximum capacity). Attendees were also involved in a practical workshop exploring silk as an inspiration for art and poetry. The event coincides with an exhibition of silk textile art.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Public lecture (Shropshire) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was invited to present a talk called 'Jane Austen: Novels and Costume Dramas' as part of the Oswestry Literature Festival in March 2015.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Public lecture at a study day in Shrewsbury 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I delivered a lecture on the role of the draper in literature, film and television as part of a study day, 'The Man in the Shop: male shopworkers in Victorian and Edwardian Britain'. Professor Laura Ugolini, a retail historian from the University of Wolverhampton, was my co-organiser. She gave a talk on the history of male shopwork, while my talk focused on cultural representations of drapers. 45 people attended and there was a lively discussion about changes in retailing and the buying of clothing. Some participants brought photographs of their elderly relatives who had been shopworkers and others discussed their own experiences of retail work. The feedback was very positive and prompted some members of the audience to attend future events.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Public talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a lecture to the Arnold Bennett Society in Newcastle-under-Lyme on the 'draper' novels of Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells and their own links to the drapery trade. I received many questions from the audience and a discussion was stimulated by the talk. I also received follow-up emails from participants who were exploring the ideas I discussed further.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description School visit in Chester to present talk: 'Reading, Writing and Sewing with the Brontë Sisters' and led discussion 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The talk generated questions and a discussion. The pupils expressed a new understanding of the work of the Bronte sisters and a desire to find out more about them.

The A Level pupils reported a greater understanding of the work of the Brontes and expressed this in emails from staff and pupils.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Study Day I organised for the public at the Silk Museum, Macclesfield 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact In collaboration with Macclesfield Silk Museum, I organised a study day 'The Story of Silk' which involved talks, practical workshops and a tour of the museum. This event raised over £200.00 for the Silk Museum and extended its reach of users. The feedback for the event was very positive, with many participants continuing to work on projects begun at the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Study Day for members of the public 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact In collaboration with the Flax Museum, Shrewsbury, I organized a Textile Stories Study Day on 14th April 2018 based on the topic of textile work and workers. There were 64 people in attendance, including people involved in sheep farming, teachers of needlework and professional textile artists, as well as members of the public. There were talks and displays, ranging from the history of the smock as a workers' garment to the history and significance of Shrewsbury Flax Mill. I presented a talk on Victorian cotton workers, from slave labour in the US to Manchester's mill workers. The talks and displays generated discussions and the feedback was excellent, many reporting that they had gained insights into how textiles pervade all aspects of society and culture.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk at a Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was invited to present a talk at the 'Women in Textiles' study day at the Elizabeth Gaskell House Museum, Manchester on 5th May 2018. This was organized by the Elizabeth Gaskell Society. My talk was based on Elizabeth Gaskell's representation of the Lancashire cotton industry. It was well received, sparking many questions. A number of people in the audience had attended this event having previously heard me talk at my Textile Stories Study Days. Some reported that they had read the work of Gaskell and joined the Society having heard me talk previously on her work.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk presented at the North West Long 19c Seminar, MMU 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I presented a talk on Charlotte Bronte's representation of woollen manufacturing in Yorkshire to an audience of postgraduates, academics and members of the public. In attendance were representatives of the Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Textile Stories Reading Group (Chester) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The fourth Textile Stories Reading Group meeting took place on 21/02/2015 and focused on a discussion of Vera Brittain's work and the uniforms of World War I. The participants engaged in a lively discussion about nurse's uniforms and how these were depicted by Brittain and represented in screen adaptations of her work. A retired nurse and a doctor contributed their 'insider' knowledge of medical uniforms. The participants recorded a high level of satisfaction with this event and a wish to read more of Brittain's work.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Textile Stories Reading Group (Shrewsbury) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The fifth Textile Stories Reading Group took place on 19th December 2015 in Shrewsbury and focused on a discussion of Dickens's A Christmas Carol and it's 1984 film adaptation, which was filmed on location in the town. The event attracted 50 people from the ages of 15 to retired. Many members of the audience remembered the filming of the adaptation, but had not read Dickens's book. We organised 'reading circles' and encouraged participants to read aloud (as the original readers of the novel would have done). Many expressed satisfaction with this experience. We discussed the costumes in the film adaptation. People expressed an interest in reading more of Dickens's novels.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Textile Stories Reading Group Meeting on Jane Eyre 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A lively discussion was generated.

The event offered members of the public an opportunity to share their interest in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and its screen adaptations. The focus was on 'the drama of costume', in the novel and on screen. The participants were involved in a lively discussion and gave feedback indicating how their understanding of the novel and its adaptations had been enhanced by the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://dwtextilestories.blogspot.co.uk/
 
Description Textile Stories Study Day (Chester) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The second Textile Stories Study Day focused on the 'Drama of Costume', looking at the role of costuming in screen and stage adaptations of literary texts. I presented a talk based on adaptations of the Brontës' work. The feedback for the event was overwhelmingly positive (copies of which can be seen on request). Participants to the event contributed to the Textile Stories Blog.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://dwtextilestories.blogspot.co.uk/
 
Description Textile Stories Study Day (Chester) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The event took place in Chester on 23rd April 2015, the third of the 'Textile Stories' study days I have organised. This event, involving talks, workshops and displays, explored the links between quilting and storytelling. 55 people attended and many brought their own home-made quilts, each with its own 'story' attached, to be included in a public display. The feedback was very positive, participants recording that they had learned a lot from the study day. They requested a future event on similar lines.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Textile Stories Study Day (Shrewsbury) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I organised the fourth Textile Stories Study Day, The Story of Wool', attracted 95 participants, including sheep farmers, members of the Shropshire Spinners and Weavers Guild, fashion designers and members of the public. I presented a talk on the Bronte family's engagement with the Yorkshire woollen industry, focusing on Charlotte Bronte's writings about mills and millowners. The study day generated a good discussion and members of the public brought in woollen items they created themselves, from socks to rugs. There were spinning demonstrations, talks on wool in the fashion industry, local sheep farming, and a talk on Shakespeare's references to wool and shepherds. In the feedback, participants stated they had learned a lot, particularly enjoying the talks on literature, an area few knew anything about.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://dwtextilestories.blogspot.co.uk/
 
Description Textile Story Study Day 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Textile Stories study day based on the role of clothing and textiles in conveying narratives in the context of everyday life attracted 45 participants. I organised the activities and invited speakers from the heritage industries, costume historians and performance artists, as well as presenting a talk with Dr Amber Regis (with whom I collaborated on a journal article on a related theme).

Participants expressed their enjoyment of the study days and outlined what new ideas they had encountered and were stimulated to read some of the texts discussed, visit costume collections at museums and watch costume dramas with new knowledge of the role of costume.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://dwtextilestories.blogspot.co.uk/