Embroider the Truth

Blog by artist/printmaker Dawn Cole

The Send Off

I have been invited, by the curator, Franny Swann, to exhibit in and make a new piece of work for an exhibition entitled ‘The Send Off’ at Knole House, Sevenoaks in July.

The exhibition will showcase contemporary artist’s responses to two texts. One is a contemporaneous poem by Wilfrid Owen called ‘The Send Off’, the other a response to it by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy called ‘Unseen’. Franny Swann

Wicket poster3.pub

I don’t usually make specific work for an exhibition but was delighted to agree to this one as the work I wanted to make already ‘fitted’ with some ideas I had already begun to explore around handkerchiefs.

The piece I have made is a response to Clarice’s own send off as written in her diary

Sept 28th 1915

First day of duty under War Office.

Left home 8am having been seen off by Dad and Lionel. Very glad the train was not long in starting, for I was as near tears as I’ve ever been; can honestly say I felt then that I could not go to France, would have given anything to say – I’ll stop at home – but, I was under instructions from the War Office! The War Office is not going to be played with, so there was nothing for one to do, but go – so I tucked myself comfortably away in the corner of my first class carriage, and yes! I have to admit it, I shed a few tears, behind my magazine. The feeling was too terrible for words, but anybody who had to leave home, go to a foreign land in war time knows that feeling.

Clarice’s entry from her diary suggests that she probably had a hankie and would have used it also to wipe her tears and there are many images if you search online of women waving hankies in gestures of goodbye, standing on platforms, waving their menfolk off to war, as the train pulls out of the station.

I had first begun experimenting with and thinking about hankies for the project ‘On wishing her goodbye’ which formed part of the first Resting Place event in Ellington Park. For this I took castings of vintage, hand embroidered hankies and used them to make bunting.

I had also been thinking a lot about this man, my great Uncle, who I wrote about in the post ‘A new connection with Wimereux Cemetery‘ and the photograph of his mother, looking so sad and wearing a locket containing a picture of her son.

William George Smith Died of wounds February 20th 1916

William George Smith
Died of wounds
February 20th 1916

I have been thinking about how she must have waved him off, possibly with her hankie, and then how many hankies she used to wipe away her tears during the time he was away and then following the news that he had been killed. I began etching his image, using the devore technique, into vintage handkerchiefs (Ebay and charity shops must love me when I begin new research as it always results in me having to buy lots of things to assist the thought processes). Whilst I found the results interesting it just didn’t seem the right way to go.


What came as the biggest surprise was that the 2nd Resting Place event on May 10th was to prove to have the biggest influence on this latest work. This event responded to Clarice’s journey from Ramsgate to Charing Cross and the first part of this event took place on a train. The RP team were met at the station by the passengers who were going to join the journey, but also by 3 people who had come along specifically to see us off. They had even thought about how they were going to do this, and not having cotton hankies had opted to wave paper tissues and the man to doff his cap in a show of respect and farewell. As the train doors closed, leaving them on the platform and the train slowly moved away I was overcome by an enormous sense of loss and of leaving, it was so strong I had to sit down and gather myself before speaking to anyone on the train. This was such a powerful response that brought to mind so strongly Clarice’s entry. It was as if I had fleetingly lived a moment in her shoes.

Research revealed that paper hankies, or facial tissues, originated in Japan but were first manufactured and sold as we now know them in 1924 by Kimberley-Clark as Kleenex. However, the material they are made from ‘Cellucotton’ a cotton substitute made from wood pulp was first developed in 1914 and used as a substitute when cotton became scarce to make dressings for wounds during the First World War.

The story of the ‘kleenex’ tissue can be read here

I was also interested in the importance placed on such a simple item – the cotton hankie

During the depression, a handkerchief was often the only new item a woman could afford enhance her wardrobe. A woman would “change” her outfit by changing her hankie.

Continuing on through WWII, the hankie played a role in fashion. In addition to eschewing silk stockings so our troops could have parachutes, women would forego the pleasure of a new hat or blouse, and instead opt for a “wardrobe” of handkerchiefs, most costing .05 – .50. Everywhere you looked, hankies could be seen peeking from breast pockets or draped over a belt as a fashion accessory. Manufacturers like Burmel and Kimball advertised a handkerchief of the month in Vogue magazine. With the perfection of color-fast dyes, a vast array of cheerful colors allowed artists the freedom to depict everything from flowers to animals to cocktail recipes. There were handkerchiefs to celebrate holidays, birthdays, get well greetings, Mother’s Day, and more, often sold in special gift cards. Several years after the war, once fashion began to revive, Balmain, Dior, Rochas and other designers utilized handkerchiefs as a final touch to their haute couture. Hankies were tied to the wrist, threaded through the top buttonhole of a suit or popped from the side pocket of a handbag.

From http://www.handkerchiefheroes.com

Many of the vintage cotton hankies I had bought were hand embroidered, making a simple white square a more desirable and fashionable item (and this embellishment resonated with the pillowcases of Resting Place).

I began experimenting with a way of making a series of multiples, hand printed paper tissues. This proved fairly difficult. The tissue paper would not stand up to screen printing (it stuck to the screen and tore), heat pressing took away the manufactured embossed pattern; something I wanted to retain and any form of printing that involved dampening of the paper resulted in the tissue cockling and becoming ‘hard’ when dry. I finally found that a small, simple block printing technique using oil based inks worked well.

The idea of the mass-produced, yet disposable quality of the paper tissues alludes to how I feel about the way men were conscripted; the call to arms; Kitchener’s recruiting campaigns; that when one army of soldiers had been killed they were simple replaced with another, and another.

This ‘retail’ installation of hand printed, paper tissues is the result. Each hankie is bound with a paper band of ‘lace’ made from Clarice’s words ‘Left home 8am, having been seen off by Dad and Lionel’ and are displayed in a specially made display box, inviting the viewer to take one. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for them all to go, especially the last one. Will the audience think twice about taking them?

As with all my work, when I start to write down the research and thoughts the realisation is that there are so many layers to the idea; too many to include them all but I do find that recording these thoughts and how each piece of research informs the development of my work helps to focus and contain the ideas. Having written them down it allows space to move on and think about the work externally.

Still undecided on the title though!!! It hasn’t helped that process as yet.

2014-06-18 17.27.25

One comment on “The Send Off

  1. Pingback: The last hankie | Embroider the Truth

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Resting Place is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.
Supported by Kent County Council
In collaboration with Platform-7
All images and content © Dawn Cole 2013
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