Book Review – Threads of Feeling

I’ve been intrigued by the Foundling Hospital’s collection of textiles since I first heard about it a few years ago. This book has been on my wish list for a while, and with Valentine’s day coming up, I decided to track down a copy.

Threads of Feeling

by John Styles

The book gives a glimpse of this amazing collection and the history behind it. Scraps of fabric or ribbons were left with foundlings as tokens – a means of identifying the child later, should the mother return. Because the process was anonymous, this was the only remaining link between the two.

It’s heartbreaking to think of so many abandoned infants and the harsh realities of 18th c. life. Many of these tokens make it clear that these babies were loved. They include handwritten notes and hearts in every shape. Many mothers felt they were making the best possible choice for their children and held a hope, however faint, that maybe someday they could reclaim the child and be a family. In a few lucky cases, that wish came true.

While not all the records have an associated token, there are thousands that do. Some were left by the mothers, while others were snipped from the infant’s clothing. These small scraps provide a unique look into the types of everyday fabrics worn by women in 18th century London.

One notable fact is that the majority of the textile tokens are brightly printed cottons and linens. The prints range from simple, single color designs on coarse fabrics to multi-color prints on fine lawn, and everything in between. These were slightly more expensive than plain fabrics, but still affordable for common folk.

In addition, a colorful print served as a unique identifier. Surprisingly unique, in fact. Even though there are hundreds of swatches, the author mentions that it is rare for the same pattern to be repeated.

Evidently, the choice of cheap printed fabrics available to consumers in the mid-eighteenth century was immense.

Even when the fabrics are plain, they provide valuable insight. In most cases, the scrap is both attached and described in writing. This provides a valuable link between a sample of cloth and the period term for it. Over 40 different fabrics are named in the documents, with many others that are not identified. That is an impressive selection!

The book, while short, is a fascinating read. I highly recommend it if you are interested in 18th c. textiles and/or the lives of common folk in the 18th century. While it is out of print, you can still find used copies and it may also be available by interlibrary loan. You can see more of these tokens on the Foundling Museum Instagram page.

Have you read this book? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

One Response to “Book Review – Threads of Feeling

Share your thoughts...

%d bloggers like this: