Ode to Granny Jenkins

Louise Bourgeois, Torso (1996) in Germano Celant, Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works: 80.

In 1995 Louise Bourgeois wrote: 'The repair of a tapestry or a costume is precisely a plea in favour of a second chance; it is a plea in favour of X and against Y ... against the Favourite. I am looking for Ys to get rid of them, to destroy, to pulverise. My father's favourite or my mother's favourite - it is not anymore darling, it is number one, not exclusively, there are rivals, the elimination of rivals: for example, I want to be the first or nothing.' (81)

The way that Bourgeois attached stories and emotions to material articles appeals to me, as well as the way that she explored the metaphorical associations of used, soiled and torn garments. There is something raw and brutal about her process of reanimating disembodied garments in textile scupltures like Torso (above), and in her assemblages, such as the two pasted below:
 Louise Bourgeois Cell (Clothes) 1996 (Celant: 73).

 Louise Bourgeois, Pink Days and Blue Days, 1997 (Celant: 87).

For Bourgeois, the experience of mending textiles was so embedded in her consciousness from an early age that it accrued other meanings throughout her long life - things to to do with restoration, repair, reconciliation and forgiveness. The textile works she made using old family articles of clothing and manchester are full of memories and associations. They are meditations.

One of her late works, Untitled (Ode du Pardon), 2006 (below) is made from a soiled piece of fabric with a squashed fabric flower affixed near the top. The artist has not even attempted to conceal the stain alongside it. In fact, the act of placing the flower next to it draws attention to the unsightly brown splodge.
Louise Bourgeois Untitled (Ode du Pardon), 2006 (Celant: 259).

I like the ambiguity of the title. The embroidered text tells us that it is an Ode to Forgiveness, but is the artist asking for forgiveness on behalf of this shabby textile, or extending forgiveness to it for its condition. Thinking about this, I'm reminded of a few lines from one of my sister's poems, 'We're All Here Buried":

'Letters are bunging up the letterbox.
No one has taken down their Christmas lights.
The aborted pine browns to rust
in the backyard, embarrassed to be so dead.'

I've been thinking about repair and second chances over the past week as I helped sort through an old house filled to capacity with two generations of accumulated family 'stuff'. As I sorted through the contents of Granny Jenkins' linen cupboard, certain items I came across led me to reflect on both the apologetic and defiant aspects of stained and mended textiles.
To mend this small round tablecloth, Granny Jenkins used a strip of yellow fabric that was nearly identical to the original. Nearly, but not quite.

Pre-emptive mending, discretion, and a well-stocked workbox of yarns and fabric scraps are the essential elements of successful patching and textile repair, according to the 'Making and Mending' chapter in Volume One of Newnes Home Management, published in the 1950s. 'Save work by patching thin places before they become holes' is the sage advice given to readers, and remember that when you are making a patch that will be visible,  use hidden parts of the garment like hems and shirt-tails to supply the fabric needed for the repair.

Granny Jenkins heeded that advice, to some extent at least, with regard to the tablecloth, but what the heck was she thinking when she patched a printed cotton apron with two coarse swatches of orange upholstery fabric!

I suppose the patches were intended to prolong the life of a pretty apron, perhaps her favourite, but the patches are anything but discreet. A slight improvement might have been the addition of a mismatched patch that at least functioned as a pocket.
As it turned out, the weight of the patch tugged at the finer fabric causing further irreparable damage to the apron. And yet Granny Jenkins still didn't regard the apron as damaged enough to discard. She simply stored it in the linen cupboard in her wide hallway, and there I found it, all these years later.

At first glance, Granny Jenkins' darning skills are a little more competent and elegant than her patching. She selected lengths of wool in shades of blue and grey to match the colours in the wool blanket in need of repair. Then she sewed little thatched clusters of stitches to mend a series of holes, although none of them quite match up with the lines of the rug.

But then you turn the rug over and you see this:

An entire sleeve from a man's jersey roughly tacked to the surface of the same rug. I was shocked by its ugliness. There was something defiant, angry even, in this brutal kind of mending. Or perhaps Granny Jenkins was just old and tired by then and elegant darning no longer mattered. It still matches wool to wool after all.

Another strange kind of darning can be seen on a woollen spencer where a layered patch has been sutured onto the hip along with some other unusual puckered repairs that Jack thinks look like tumours.

But the greatest mystery for me is the knowledge that the hand that made this

is the same hand that made this

and these

There's probably a simple explanation for the discrepancy between Granny Jenkins' lace-making, patching and darning (something to do with the creative versus the utilitarian), but I love a good mystery and the deep shelves of her linen cupboard certainly supplied me with one.

Have a great week everybody.


Dr Jack Ross said…
This is a fantastic post.

Granny Jenkins must have gone way past the point where things were supposed to be pretty - or even functional.

Some brutalist aesthetic of outrage must have descended on her in her final years: a barbaric yawp (to quote Whitman) ...

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