I began my life in the hands of a farmer’s wife; rectangles of linen cloth spun in front of a fire and woven in the damp hills of Wales. Smiling the wife smooths the cloth on her knee, pleased with my gentle weight and the evenness of my thread.
I am to be a gift for her son; her grown up golden boy, off to work for a master on an English estate, to be an apprentice shepherd, tending sheep for their wool, to only rest on the Sabbath and he will need a sunday best and that will be me.
The wife sits for a while and reminisces; remember’s her boy’s baby years and her husband; the farmer and how shy she had been when he had worn her first smock, she had been barely more than a child herself and her stitching had been loose and her smocking uneven. He had looked so proud to be wearing his wife’s work, ignoring the imperfections.
Slowly I am created with slender gentle stitches, with cream cotton thread, my edges turned in and my hem sewn securely.
I am stout and square, too big, too rigid; so the smocking begins, front and back my fabric is drawn tight with strong stitches and held with a strong knot; my pattern handed down from mother to daughter, all kept in my farmer’s wife’s mind.
With love, stitches are added to decorate my sleeves and my collar, the wife must pull hard on the needle with hands marked by years of washing and working. These hand’s so solid and rough moving deftly across my fabric to decorate my body with her favourite stitches to remind the boy of the hills and the trees of his homeland.
Reaching down she pull’s from her bag a small box of buttons and choses a metal hook and eye to keep my collar tight to keep the chill from the neck of her son.
She rolls the metal between her fingers and an idea comes into her mind. She thinks of the market and the travelling carters who come from the South, their smocks all dirty from the journey with the horses and the mud, the stitching was different and buttons so pretty. Made by hand on small metal rings, perfect small cartwheels
Again she reaches down and finds the small rings and using the thick thread she makes some buttons to add to the smock to make special, to make it perfect. Two small ones for the cuffs and three bigger ones for the front.
Through true labour and love I come into being and I’m given to a son as he’s wished on his way, to start an adventure across the border into England. On my arrival I’m given a mark, a bright red fourteen, to make sure I am cared for; I’m washed to be kept clean, to be returned to safe hands for wearing on Sundays for sermons and hymns.
But, god fearing this lad of mine is not, the stories I could tell of his exploits, stolen apples and kisses would make his mother blush. One day I am waiting folded away when he goes to far and is caught redhanded, to be taken before the law and offered a choice. He’s going to prison or to make his amends by defending his country along side his comrades up against Napolean on the battlefields of France and beyond.
Now the mother sits with her head in her hands, weeping for the boy she once held on her knee, whist the father keeps working, hiding his grieve in the fields and the barns. I’m gathered together with all the boy had and left in a box, in a basement forgotten for now.
The Sunday’s came and went never was I worn, only remembered by a maid, now a cook who thought of the boy fondly, too fondly to see his things cast out or given away.
Then one day, the lord of the manor he had a special guest, an artist of great repute who wished to capture the beauty of the countryside; the labourer of the peasants and the romance he saw in their lives.
He need a smock and there could only be one. So I came out of the darkness, found and displayed, forever immortalised by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. With this painting he struggled, no matter how hard he tried it was never completed and then simply he died.
The lady rescued me, Fanny kept me and would wear me whilst she lived with Rossetti, I left his home with her when his family cast us out. I was there, beside her as the sad story of her life played out only to be packed away and forgotten whilst she ended her life in a lunatic asylum; alone and abandoned.
Even in her dark day’s my lady took great care of me and like the farmer’s wife before her she stitched using cotton and with great love darned the damage on my seams and repaired my hook and eye, until no longer could the hook be not held tight and so we became parted.
So years later when I came to be found in a museum in Sussex, very far from home there were only two signs of darning to be recorded, though more than that about me I kept woven in my weave. No one else knew all about me and the exciting life I’d lead. So I was shipped back to the Midlands and a home in Shropshire buried deep in an archive in an ancient town.
Now I find myself in a room; warm and bright, being looked at by a lady. She pokes and prods and pulls at me. Her thoughts want to know my story and she searches for the clues and makes up this story with no base in fact.
She lays me out on a table and takes so many pictures of my farmer’s wife’s stitches, my artist’s mistress’s simple darning and the ink and rust and rips that I have picked up along the way.
Her fascination lies in my movement and my drape, in the abstraction of the stitches and the folds when seen from behind, and below.
To compliment her photographs and because her search requires it she takes a pencil in her hand and with fear and trepidation begins to draw. Using random meanderings she copies Fanny’s darning, as complex as her mind.
She then records the lines and circles made behind the stitches put there by the farmer’s wife, I wonder, smiling wryly what this stoic lady would have though of all this fuss and fancy over the inside of a garment not usually on display.
Then nothing like the delicate brush in Dante’s hand she draws the shapes and motifs created by the stitches and the creases of my tightly folded fabric.
It’s now many minutes later and I’m gently returned, folded lovingly again, to wait until I’m needed on another study day.