Crafting in the Classroom: Hands-On Approaches to Victorian Material Culture

This is the third post in the ‘Crafting Communities’ series on JVC Online. See Part One and Part Two.

At a virtual roundtable on Victorian material culture held in February 2021, Andrea Korda presented on The Plough, a large-scale print published by London’s Art for Schools Association in 1899 for classroom walls. By large-scale, we mean enormous—five by six feet, to be exact, a height that would tower over most schoolchildren, and even over the teachers, once mounted on a wall. Few copies of the print were sold, and it’s not hard to understand why. Its high cost put it out of reach for most schools, and its overwhelming size meant that it couldn’t be easily swapped in and out of classrooms according to the subjects taught on a given day. But it was unwieldy in other ways, too. Though it is called The Plough, and was listed by that name in the Art for Schools Association’s catalogue, the plough is barely visible in the print. At the same time, the decorative frame that surrounds the central image and the picture’s intricate pattern of lines distract from any straightforward instructional purpose. Victorian educators faced with this poster may have been left wondering what the print was supposed to help them teach. This is certainly a question raised by contemporary viewers of the print.

Figure 1. William Strang, The Plough, 1899. Woodcut, 152.4 x 182.88 cm. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The story of The Plough—its ambitions, unwieldiness, and failures—prompted us to reflect on ambitious and unwieldy practices that we bring into our own classrooms, and specifically on the hands-on crafting practices that we have experimented with in our humanities classrooms. While all three of us had brought crafting into the classroom in different ways prior to 2020-21, we took up the practice with renewed enthusiasm during this past year of remote teaching as part of the Crafting Communities project, a year-long series of virtual workshops and roundtables (including the roundtable that featured The Plough). The workshops, in particular, which covered embroidery, hair art, scrapbooking, and block printing, offered inspiring models for hands-on learning at a time when most of our students’ learning experiences were dependent on a screen. There was no doubt in our minds that such experiences would be enriching and inspiring for our students—much as the presence of a work of art like The Plough might have been enriching and inspiring for an earlier generation of schoolchildren.

But like The Plough, crafting in the classroom also requires an investment of time and materials—and its outcomes are uncertain. Add to this mix a group of students who expect to write essays and do not all identify as crafters, and you might have an unwieldy classroom exercise on your hands. We wondered how we could tie these crafting practices—some of which would undoubtedly end in failed aesthetic results, as our own crafting attempts sometimes do—to concrete learning objectives. In other words, how could we ensure that hands-on crafting activities were not just decorative add-ons to our courses, but meaningful opportunities to enrich and deepen our students’ learning?

We continue to grapple with these questions as part of our work on the Crafting Communities project. In a previous JVC blog post, we wrote about the origins of the project and about the crafting workshops and roundtable discussions on Victorian material culture that we hosted this year. These events will live on through our legacy projects: the podcast Victorian Samplings (discussed in a previous blog post), the virtual exhibition Victorian Things, and the Crafting Communities website. While the podcast and exhibition were part of our initial plans for the project, the idea for the website developed later, after we recognized that we would need a central hub for these resources that could also help us make sense of how we and others could productively use them in the classroom. In this blog post, we highlight some of these resources, all of which are housed at the Crafting Communities website, making connections between them and making the case for historically contextualized and reflective hands-on making in humanities classrooms.

A single class session spent with our online tutorial on broderie anglaise, created by Ruth Ormiston based on a workshop developed by Sabrina Mark, will not be enough to have humanities students with little sewing experience master this white-on-white embroidery technique (also known as eyelet embroidery), but mastery is not our goal. Through hands-on exploration of this practice, we aim to enrich and deepen students’ understanding of Victorian making and labour. Once students sit down with needle and thread, they will begin to understand the remarkable amount of work that went into embroidered garments, which were typically created by hand by Victorian women. Students engage in this laborious practice while learning that it resulted in everyday washable wear for Victorians, not cherished finery. As our tutorial materials explain, broderie anglaise was sturdy and therefore used on items that would have endured lots of wear, such as lingerie, sleeves, collars, and children’s clothing.

Figure 2. Chemise, 1861-65, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, C.I.42.95.9.

Hands-on experience with embroidery provides valuable context for course materials in Victorian literature, history, and art history courses. Experiencing needlework firsthand can enrich our students’ appreciation of texts such as Gaskell’s North and South (1854-55) or Thomas Hood’s “Song of the Shirt” (1843); deepen their engagement with paintings of seamstresses by Richard Redgrave, Anna Blunden, and Frank Holl; or further develop their understanding of Victorian gender roles, industrialization, the cotton industry, or changing values and practices related to laundering. For some instructors, embroidery might be the central object of study, with literature, paintings, and historical context taking a supporting role.

Figure 3. Frank Holl, The Song of the Shirt, 1874. Oil on canvas, 48.2 x 66.2 cm. Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter.

Additional legacy projects that resulted from the Crafting Communities project—the Victorian Samplings podcast and the Victorian Things exhibition—can support instructors and students in making connections between the practice of embroidery and historical knowledge of Victorian life and culture. The first episode of the podcast, entitled “Making and Makers,” brings together two artists and an art historian to talk about the making and makers behind Victorian decorative work. Art historian Morna O’Neill discusses the “Ladies Carpet,” a large-scale Victorian needlework project, and talks about how the status of women’s labour changed against the backdrop of nineteenth-century industrialization. Artist Sandra Klowak talks about making pieces of art and jewelry out of hair, a practice that is both labour intensive and coded as feminine, much like broderie anglaise. The episode closes with an interview with artist Hannah Claus, who calls attention to the imperial reach of Victorian design with her piece interlacings, a site-specific installation created in 2015 for the Kamloops Art Gallery, located in Secwepemc territory. Claus’s discussion of interlacings, which brings together a Morris & Co. design with depictions of edible plants and flowers native to Secwepemc territory, reminds us that the pervasiveness of Victorian design practices and the continuing familiarity of patterns such as broderie anglaise today are the direct result of British colonialism. The Victorian Things exhibition, which was created by a team of undergraduate and graduate research assistants, also features the “Ladies Carpet” and Claus’s interlacings, allowing students to view and read about objects they hear about in the podcast. Together, these resources provide productive companions to the practice of embroidery, calling our attention to the contexts of Victorian making at the same time that students try out the practice for themselves.

Figure 4. Examples of broderie anglaise created by Crafting Communities workshop participants.

Our hair art tutorial, created by Ruth Ormiston based on the workshop by Sandra Klowak and Vanessa Warne, and discussed in a previous blog post, provides another example of how hands-on crafting can enrich student learning. While our tutorial recommends that beginners use synthetic hair, Victorian makers would have used the hair of loved ones to make pieces of jewelry or keepsakes that were both decorative objects and powerful mementoes. Reflecting on this practice while handling hair can help bring intimate and sometimes overlooked aspects of Victorian life to the surface, and, as with broderie anglaise, our exhibition and our podcast can help contribute context for such reflections. In episode two of Victorian Samplings, “Intimate Histories,” scholar Heather Hind discusses how objects made from hair animate the lives of their owners by including a physical trace of one person’s body—maybe the object’s maker or owner, or maybe someone who had a special relationship with the maker or owner. A broken hair bracelet that belonged to the Brontë family featured in the Victorian Things exhibition conveys these ideas forcefully through one particular example.

As students work to create their own example of hair art, they might consider how their own hair fits with this practice. These days, many of us wear our hair too short for use in hair art. Those working with the straight and even strands of synthetic hair should also recognize how various types of hair, such as curly hair or kinky hair, are not accommodated by Victorian-era hair art practices. It quickly becomes clear that this particular language of exchange and remembrance was accessible only to people with particular hair types and therefore to specific ethnicities. This recognition should prompt students to consider how the racial hierarchies created and maintained under the British empire were present even in the most domestic and intimate of objects. The interview with Kyle McPhail, Intern Curator at Dalnavert Museum, that concludes the “Intimate Histories” episode of Victorian Samplings also calls attention to the ways that identity is bound up in domestic objects and how shifting our perspective can help us recapture histories and contexts that may have been neglected over time, such as, perhaps, the racial implications of hair art. McPhail emphasizes the importance of including histories of gender and sexuality in historic spaces, and in relation to historical objects, and demonstrates ways that these histories are often lying “in plain sight,” just like the everyday objects in which they inhere.

Figure 5. Examples of broderie anglaise created by Crafting Communities workshop participants.

Our own first efforts at broderie anglaise and hair art were promising in terms of intellectual engagement but less successful in terms of actual output. Some participants in our workshops ended up with a single embroidered eyelet hole or a clump of loopy synthetic hair. In our unaccustomed hands, the materials needed to embroider and loop hair were certainly unwieldy, and not all of our results would necessarily be described as “successes.” But what we gained was an experiential engagement with Victorian culture, one that offered a change from our usual scholarly modes of reading, looking, and writing. At the same time, crafting together helped us build community, even across distances, when we met virtually and shared our crafting successes and failures through webcams. Crafting in the classroom can have similar results, with the additional advantage of making course materials more accessible to different types of learners by offering multiple modalities for learning. Still, like The Plough, crafting in the classroom is an ambitious project that takes time and resources. For some crafts, like block printing or hair art, specific materials are required and must be organized in advance. But a craft like broderie anglaise is relatively simple: all you need is a piece of fabric (even a piece of repurposed clothing or bedlinen), thread, and a needle. Some of the results might look like failures, but the discussions that emerge from these so-called failures will be worthwhile, prompting meaningful engagement with Victorian life and material culture.

We invite you to visit our website Crafting Communities to try out our crafting tutorials and engage with other classroom resources housed at the site, including Victorian Samplings and Victorian Things. Moving forward, we plan to expand our resources by providing sample assignments that will include practical instructions alongside learning objectives, readings, samples of student work, and assignment rubrics. We would love to hear from you about your own failures and successes with these resources while we continue hands-on crafting in the classroom as a way to craft more engaging classrooms.

The Crafting Communities Project is a collaboration among Andrea Korda (University of Alberta), Mary Elizabeth Leighton (University of Victoria), and Vanessa Warne (University of Manitoba). It is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada, and the Universities of Alberta, Victoria, and Manitoba.

Header image: Dr. Sabrina Mark demonstrates broderie anglaise for the Crafting Communities online tutorial.

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