A crafty guide to the V&A

Display in the V&A’s Fashion galleries

This time six years ago I did a six-month stint as an assistant curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. I sat with two other young curators in a tiny office overlooking the central courtyard, where we were occasionally joined by a tiny mouse with extraordinary escapology skills. He came, no doubt, for our ever-copious supplies of cake and gossip. These, and the experience of handling diamond-encrusted snuff boxes on a daily basis (it’s very motivating, regular exposure to diamonds; tends to bring one’s ambitions into sharper focus…), left me with an enduring fondness for the big old place.

But my fondness aside, the V&A is in fact a quite extraordinary resource for those of us interested in design, fashion, fabric and craft. We’re all probably vaguely aware that it holds the UK’s national collection of Fashion and Textiles, some of which are on permanent display, but I thought I’d write a little blog post to flag up some of the resources that you might not be aware of, especially if you’re not UK-based. For example, did you know that the V&A website contains a selection of vintage knitting patterns, free to download? Or lists of recommended books on everything from care of textiles and dress to the history of mourning clothing?

Detail of a dress from the new European galleries

If you’re a sewist making an online visit, my recommended first stop is the Fashion homepage, from where you can navigate to myriad sub-sections, some focused on the history of clothing, others on contemporary design, or on materials. This is where you’ll also find the sub-section on reading lists. The sub-sections then each contain articles and sometimes even further sub-sections – e.g. the 20th century fashion section has a dedicated Vivienne Westwood area.

For those knitters amongst us, the free 1940s knitting patterns are definitely worth a look. There’s around 30, and they’re each available to download as a Word doc or pdf. Some of them would work beautifully as vintage styles knitted up today, whilst others are clearly of their time. The ‘Essentials for the Forces’ range has some real corkers; my favourite would have to be the magnificent Balaclava Helmet…

This makes me very happy.

Embroiderers need not feel left out – there’s a whole embroidery section! One of the highlights here is the extraordinary piece of embroidery done by a unhappy young woman in the 19th century, a heartrending tale of her troubles which begins ‘As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely as I might speak to a person to whose intimacy and tenderness I can fully intrust myself and who I know will bear with all my weaknesses…’

Part of an enormous hand-embroidered tapestry in the South Asian gallery – many of these pieces are huge, and simply breathtaking
Embroidered braces – the next hipster trend??

In each area on the website, it’s always worth checking out the right-hand column, which lists related areas and can throw up some fascinating articles, including interviews with designers, as well as related objects in the V&A’s collection.

DSC_0227Of course, if you are able to visit the V&A in person, you can lose yourself in the collections and emerge, hours later, dazzled and almost over-inspired – if there’s such a thing. The fashion galleries are an obvious destination, but don’t overlook the Asian galleries which contain some fabulous examples of historical costume and embroidery.

Be warned: embroiderers might suffer a serious inferiority crisis. I did.

Until May this year, be sure to make a diversion into metalware to a special display called ‘A Stitch in Time: Home Sewing Before 1900’, which showcases ornate sewing tools. Also, the Theatre and Performance galleries are a must – you seriously won’t believe the cut of Mick Jagger’s jumpsuit.

An Elsa Schiaparelli evening coat – I love the roses so much but also wouldn’t the two faces make a fun design on a black velvet clutch?

And if simply looking isn’t enough for you, check out the museum’s programme of workshops and events. Upcoming events include workshops on sewing with electronics, millinery, e-textiles and jewellery-making, and author Joanna Trollope discussing the relationship between fashion and fiction in the works of Jane Austen.

And finally, a word on the shop. Both online and on-site the V&A sells a wide range of carefully selected fashion and textile publications, some relating to the museum’s own exhibitions. Alexander McQueen, The Golden Age of Couture and Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones are some of my favourites. The shop also stocks some perfect little gifts for the makers in your life. These ceramic buttons and lace zips are adorable (is it too soon to be thinking of stocking fillers?!)…

… and if I had a sewing space of my own I would be sure to decorate it with this print of illustrated children’s character Clara Button exploring a haberdashery shop!

I hope this provides you with some January inspiration – there’s nothing like colourful fabrics, inspiring designs and a bit of sewing-related shopping to blast away the winter blues! x



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