A coincidence of Agnes(es)

In 2012 my sister Antonia Riviere and I were visiting fellows at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. We were there researching Australian clothes rationing during World War 2. We were interested in how film had been used to support the government’s austerity drive, whether Australians been encouraged to ‘make do and mend’ like their British counterparts, and how could we use our own making to explore these and other questions.

The day before we arrived Marina took in a stray cat she’d found roaming around outside – grey, long haired, very under weight and with no known name. For some reason during the night that followed I was thinking about Agnes Smedley (born in the 1890s) whose book Daughter of Earth I read when I was a teenager. Agnes Smedley had a very tough life chronicled in the semi-autobiographical Daughter of Earth and then during World War 1 worked for Indian independence and later in China as a journalist, writing amongst other things about the Chinese revolution.

In the morning I heard Ant and Marina talking about another Agnes, Agnes Richter, a german seamtress held in an asylum during the 1890s. I knew about Richter because Aice Kettle and Jane McKeating at MMU feature her embroidered straitjacket in their new book Handstitch Perspectives.

A third Agnes came to light half an hour later. Marina remembered seeing an exhibition at the Cunnigham Dax Collection called Stitched-Up. In it was a jacket not dissimilar to the one made by Agnes Richter. When Marina found the catalogue it turned out the woman who embroidered the jacket was called Edith Agnes Harrington. Belinda Robson the curator of the show writes that the patient liked to be called Dr Harrington and refused to wear government-issued clothes provided for patients.

“Her ex-husband would send her money and she used this money to select her own material and have the clothes made up by the tailoress at Mayday Hills. ..[her] work on the clothes created part of herself that she could control and treat with care, in refusal of the hospital regimes. The clothes on display allowed her to reconnect with the world through the details of their material, stitching and preservation.”

Richard had thought about calling the cat Rosa after Rosa Luxemburg, but he and Marina both liked the sound of Agnes. Now the cat is learning her new name, hopefully without being burdened by all the associations that come with it.

Past and future threads

In 2012 my sister Antonia Riviere and I were visiting fellows at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. We were there researching Australian clothes rationing during World War 2. We were interested in how film had been used to support the government’s austerity drive, whether Australians been encouraged to ‘make do and mend’ like their British counterparts, and how could we use our own making to explore these and other questions.  

I am in Melbourne with my sister Ant. We are on our way to Canberra where we’ll be spending two months at the National Film and Sound Archive. Right now we’re spending the weekend with our brother Richard and sister-in-law Marina.

Last night we swopped cloth and textiles stories with Marina. Like Ant, she is an artist who re-purposes textiles. This morning she got out a box of beautiful embroidery threads that an elderly friend gave her, wanting it to go to a good home. The friend aquired it in the 1960s but the paper spools on which the silks are wound look like they date from around the 1940s.

I was asking Marina this morning about her clothes when she was a child in Croatia. She told me that her great aunt was a seamtress and pattern cutter during the socialist period and made clothes using patterns she adapted from western magazines sent by relatives. She would ask the kids what shape garment they wanted – puff sleeves, or belted waists for instance – and the kids would be involved in the design of their dresses.

Both Ant and Marina incorporate family associations into their work. Listening to them talk about the memories attached to their materials made me think about the connections between improvisation and loss. While improvisation is about moving into the future it also incorporates the past – past traditions, materials, people and skills. The experience and trauma of loss can induce repetitive circling round painful experience, but I think a diagram of improvisation would have a spiralling rather than a circling movement – able to gather up past experience – and by implication loss – but wary of getting trapped in repeating loops of loss and open to change and forward-facing movement.