The Stitch Lives of Others

Stitch Lives of Others Part One, Two and Three, brings together three things – Lettering, life and Art.  Historical artefacts – letters, garments, and personal effects provide inspiration for the artwork of the future.  History and Art meld seamlessly into a visual story. Stitch becomes the common theme, tracing the words, thoughts and feelings of the players/cast/ protagonists.  The handwritten letters become the humane evidence of character and play, the stitch resonating with the sentiment.

Part  1: ‘Tuke’
18th century red, silk, brocade bodice

Part I- Tuke 1

It was the letters of Daniel Hack Tuke (1827 – 1895) my husbands Great, great Grandfather and an eminent 19th century Doctor that proved the catalyst.  They charted his travels with his newly married bride, Esther Stickney, to European asylums in 1853; these simple handwritten documents convey a man who cared deeply about medicine and the treatment of his patients.  Daniel was a member of the distinguished Tuke family, whose progressive and humane approach to mental health radically reformed the treatment of the mentally ill.  The York Retreat set up in 1796, in York England was founded by William Tuke and is still open today.  So, he writes home to his Father, Samuel, telling of the latest treatments adding sketches in pen and ink of the asylums he has visited.   Esther meanwhile, relates the smaller details of life, the fashion abroad and shape of the bonnets, and who has, and has not dined with them.

Amongst, these letters, was an 18th century silk bodice.  This became the canvas on which to tell the story of Daniel and Esther.  The process was simple; working with the original letters, I began stitching the handwriting directly onto the bodice, building up the story in thread, some of which came from Esther’s own sewing box.  The rhythm and texture of the handwriting informed the stitch and vice versa.  I also took inspiration from the unique examples of work from the Prinzhorn Collection; assembled between 1918 and 1921 by the German Art historian and psychiatrist Dr Hans Prinzhorn it contains around 5000 works which were made by people in psychiatric institutions in Europe.


Part 2: ‘Sainsbury’
in two parts — jacket (kataginu) and trousers (hakama)

Hakama traditionally formed part of a complete outfit called a kamishimo (上下 or 裃). Worn by samurai and courtiers during the Edo era, the outfit included a formal kimono, hakama, and a sleeveless jacket with exaggerated shoulders called a kataginu (pictured).

Early 20th century child’s kamishimo, blue / white print cotton

A Kamishimo is a heavily-pleated, two piece kimono, worn for martial arts and festival days. This poignantly child-sized example became the canvas for stitched extracts from the reams of passionate, poetic, obsessional love letters written by Japanese playwright Torahiko Kori (1890-1926), to his English lover Hester Sainsbury (1890-1967); also Wyatt’s husband’s grandmother.

Hester, daughter of Maria Tuke, was an artist and poet and her intense and unconventional relationship with Kori lasted from 1917 until his death, to TB, in 1926. His letters to her, mainly posted from ships as he travelled to and from Japan, revealed a furious, yet doomed love and a fearful contemplation of his fate.  Kori immortalised Hester in his letters to her, and it was clear that Hester shared this love.  The collection was kept in a tapestry pouch, stitched and designed by her, including photos of him on his death-bed, his calling card, a photo collection of their travels to Switzerland, his paper passport, and the ultimate touching artefact — two locks of their hair, intertwined and tagged with a Buddhist prayer from a shrine.  With such precious material, it was hard not to be moved and to feel in awe and respect of the love they bore eachother — this was a story too good to be left in moth-balls and attic box.

The garment was treated separately becoming two pieces.  The kataginu (jacket) is lined with shibori-dyed handkerchief, once belonging to Hester and embroidered with a letters of condolence.  Textile and text interplay with random yarn in different colours to create the chaotic yet beautiful element coming through the letters. as a sinister reminder of Kori’s diseased lungs

“…Ah yes I will work, I will work, with always your help I will work.  The work that shall be our child. 

All the joys of life, Hester, we shall have together, fighting and conquering, we two. You will make me live long, won’t you? And I will work, work.” – Torahiko Kori written to Hester Sainsbury

Part 3: Shunan
1930’s Viyella, silk-lined child’s matinee jacket


Hester Sainsbury went on to marry leading Vorticist artist, Frederick Etchells, with whom she became a founder member of the Bloomsbury set. The couple had one child, Susan (mis-pronounced Shunan, when she was a child), who is my mother-in-law.

In this final piece of The Stitch Lives of Others series, the canvas becomes a viyella jacket, skillfully made for Susan by her mother.  The piece is more playful, worked with a childlike touch. It has been embroidered with Susan’s early drawings and childhood experiences and both her school name tags and those of my nieces and nephews form the ‘memento mori’; the piece is both an emblem of healing and closure for Hester – a resolution to the tragedy of Part 2 and 3 – and a uniting link to the artist’s own blood line.

“There’s a good time coming yet — may it soon be yours”. Harrington Sainsbury to his daughter, Hester, 1932.