12ft-long lunatic ward letter sparks new Time and Tide exhibition Frayed

Detail of Lorina Bulwer's extraordinary embroidered letter from the 'Frayed: Textiles on the Edge' exhibition at Time &...

Detail of Lorina Bulwer's extraordinary embroidered letter from the 'Frayed: Textiles on the Edge' exhibition at Time & Tide museum in Great Yarmouth. Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Archant © 2013

Incarcerated in a workhouse lunatic ward and unable to freely vent her feelings, she noted down her many thoughts of the perceived injustice.

Ruth Battersby Tooke has curated the 'Frayed: Textiles on the Edge' exhibition at Time & Tide museum

Ruth Battersby Tooke has curated the 'Frayed: Textiles on the Edge' exhibition at Time & Tide museum in Great Yarmouth. Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Archant © 2013

But instead of opting for a diary, Great Yarmouth woman Lorina Bulwer embroidered angry observations about her family, Palmers Department Store and even a Maharaja on a 12ft by 1ft roll of material.

Bed hangings dating from 1800 by Anna Margaretta Brereton of Brinton Hall, Norfolk, at the 'Frayed:

Bed hangings dating from 1800 by Anna Margaretta Brereton of Brinton Hall, Norfolk, at the 'Frayed: Textiles on the Edge' exhibition at Time & Tide museum in Great Yarmouth. Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Archant © 2013

The hand-sewn letter, more than a century old, has intrigued museum staff and visitors alike since it joined the Norfolk collection in 2004.

And when it was discovered that a second letter – also 14ft long and sewn by Bulwer – existed, staff were elated.

Ruth Battersby Tooke, senior curator of costume and textiles, explained that the second letter was kept in Thackray's Medical Museum in Leeds, but nobody had ever made the connection.


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'We had a call last summer,' she said. 'It was so exciting I ran through the streets of Norwich to tell my colleague at the Bridewell Museum.

'I was doing air punches and everything.

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'It was in a public museum so there was a chance of a loan, and now we can display them together for the first time in 100 years.

'We thought, how can we build a collection around this?'

The resulting exhibition at the Time and Tide, in Great Yarmouth, is called Frayed: Textiles on the Edge, and it launches tomorrow to coincide with World Mental Health Day.

It boasts contemporary artwork from feted Brit artist Tracey Emin, and loaned work by textile artists Elizabeth Parker and Rosalind Wyatt from the V&A.

But Ms Battersby Tooke stressed Frayed is rooted in Norfolk.

'We're not necessarily trying to tell the story of mental health and textiles, as that would put people in boxes,' she added. 'We didn't want to medicalise it.

'I thought a constructive way to get that across was to show contemporary artwork alongside it.'

She hoped this would show continuity, and that textiles are still a form of therapy for 'stilling the mind by busying the hands'.

One such piece – created by Anna Margaretta Brereton – is famous within patchwork circles and is seldom put on display.

Mrs Brereton had 10 children from 1781-96 and four died in infancy, then a son died aged 14.

Overcome with grief and disengaged, friends found she responded to embroidery and so encouraged her to further the hobby.

She immersed herself in sewing bed hangings, and over four years created intricate coverings with 2,438 individual patterns on.

The work is very fragile and took six staff two days to put up.

A descendant from Briningham, near Holt, helped curators with family history.

Another study of textiles as a coping mechanism comes from Sheringham man John Craske, who created The Evacuation of Dunkirk in a style he called 'painting in wools'.

Born in 1861, Mr Craske was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour and was unable to enlist as a soldier despite numerous efforts.

He was also unable to stand for long periods, so took to sewing in bed.

Ms Battersby Tooke noted his Dunkirk artwork – realising his military ambitions – appears more north Norfolk than France in the landscape.

Other work on display takes in prisoners striving to engage with society, and samplers created by those in mourning.

'There are lots of sad stories but every one of these people had support around them,' added Ms Battersby Tooke. 'Someone was giving them materials to get over their particular moment of grief or illness and those people are taking their wellbeing literally into their own hands.

'For some people it's a chronic condition and it won't go away, but others get better enough to resume their work.'

The Emin piece, called Haunted, is described as a study of melancholy and loneliness.

Most work on display comes from the 27,000-strong Norwich Museums Costumes and Textiles collection.

Organisers have hailed the Arts Council, Costume and Textile Association and Mind for helping piece the collection together.

Frayed: Textiles on the Edge opens at the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth tomorrow, and runs until March 2014. Entry is included with general admission to the museum.

For details, see www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/Visit_Us/Time_and_Tide or www.frayedtextilesonthe edge.wordpress.com

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