Weaving Women’s Stories for the Being Human Festival
Written by Emma Bridges
As part of 2018’s Being Human Festival, in November 2018 academics from the ICS arranged a series of events around the theme of ‘Weaving Women’s Stories’. Led by the School of Advanced Study, Being Human is the UK’s only national festival of the humanities, featuring hundreds of free public events in towns and cities across the country, all inspired by recent humanities research in UK universities.
Hosted by St. Margaret’s House in Bethnal Green (east London), Weaving Women’s Stories was based on current research into the texts and material culture of the ancient world which is being carried out by Dr. Ellie Mackin Roberts (Royal Holloway) and Dr. Emma Bridges (ICS). This series of events explored some of the connections – metaphorical and actual – between textile making and storytelling in women’s lives from the ancient world to modern London. You can read more about the ancient poetic and archaeological material which provided the inspiration for the event in this post on the University of London’s Leading Women blog. The theme of this year’s festival was ‘Origins and Endings’, and the events we put together sought to think about the story of woven fabric, from its origin as raw fleece to finished cloth, as well as considering the ancient origins of contemporary ‘craftivism’ by exploring afresh the stories of some of the subversive stitchers – among them Penelope, Helen, Arachne and Philomela – whom we find in ancient myth.
Weaving Women’s Stories opened on Friday 16th November – to a packed Gallery Café at St. Margaret’s House – with a performance of brand new material written by poets from By Jove Theatre Company, inspired by ancient mythical women and interwoven with the performers’ own personal stories.
Writer-performers Wendy Haines, Emily Chow-Kambitsch, and SJ Brady were introduced by Dr. Christine Plastow (Open University), one of By Jove’s Associate Directors, who shared with the audience insights into the ancient sources which had inspired the work. Wendy Haines’ piece ‘Helen’ has now been made publicly available to read on the By Jove blog. The centrepiece for the performance was a full-scale replica ancient loom, constructed by Dr. Mary Harlow (Leicester), whose own practice-based research into ancient textile production was one of the inspirations for the theme of the events; the audience were invited to try weaving on the loom after the performance.
The hands-on activities continued on Saturday 17th November, with a day of workshops; in the morning the local public were invited to drop in to talk to researchers while having a go at spinning yarn from fleece, making loom weights out of clay, and of course more weaving; Mary Harlow had brought along with her yet another loom from her collection! The same afternoon, award-winning textile designer Majeda Clarke, who – inspired by her own cultural background – works closely with weaving communities in Bangladesh and with textile mills in the UK, led a workshop in which she shared her own ‘weaving story’ and introduced participants to some basic weaving techniques. Each participant was able to design and create their own woven piece on a small tabletop loom.
In conjunction with the festival, Dr. Jessica Hughes of the Open University also produced a special themed episode of the Classics Confidential podcast, featuring interviews with several of the researchers involved in the events. You can listen to the podcast here. For further links relating to the events, search for #WeavingWomensStories on Twitter; there is also a gallery of more photographs from the events in this Being Human Festival Flickr album.
Many thanks to the Being Human Festival team for their generous support – both financial and practical – for these events!
All photographs in this piece were taken by Emma Bridges