John Styles


projects: threads of feeling









Foundling heart.jpg



Threads of Feeling.


‘Threads of Feeling’ is an exhibition of the mid-eighteenth century textiles preserved in the records of London’s Foundling Hospital. Almost 5,000 of these fabrics survive, pinned to the Hospital’s admission document for each child. They form the largest collection in Britain of everyday textiles from the eighteenth century. Both beautiful and poignant, each reflects the life of a single infant child. They have never been exhibited.


For two decades, from the opening of the Foundling Hospital in 1741 until 1760, the process of giving up a baby to the Hospital was anonymous. It was a form of adoption by which the Hospital became the baby’s parent and the child’s previous identity was effaced. The mother’s name was not recorded. Nevertheless, cases arose where children were reclaimed. The pieces of fabric were kept as tokens that could be used to identify the child if it was to be returned to its mother.


These textiles, and the stories they tell us about individual babies, their mothers and their lives, are the subject of ‘Threads of Feeling‘. The textiles are tangible evidence of babies abandoned, many destined to die within a few days or weeks. To see them is a poignant, emotional experience. But the textiles are also beautiful objects in their own right. Most are colourful, patterned fabrics that served as tokens precisely because they were visually arresting. At the same time, they witness a rich social history. They show how ordinary people conducted their romances, clothed their babies, and engaged with fashion, providing a market for the cotton fabrics that were fundamental to the Industrial Revolution of the later eighteenth century.