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Like many others, it was my favourite Grandmother who truly introduced me to you, although I remember my Mum and other Grandmother sewing and knitting too. I spent a week every summer with ‘Granny Bye’ for the whole of my childhood, a precious week without my siblings where I was spoilt rotten. She taught me to cross stitch on pieces of cloth she called binca, with easy holes to follow, which became sampler-style mats for family cups of tea on bedside tables. I still have a sampler she’d stitched on the same cloth. From then onwards I always had a textile project on the go; a knitted hot water bottle cover for my Dad, a wrap top for my Mum (on reflection I’m impressed she wore it out as it wasn’t well made!) This continued into adulthood when I went to University and trained a graphic designer, following my love of all things visual through a steady career, with textiles sitting firmly in the ‘craft’ box, outside of my professional aspirations.
Fast forward to my late 30’s, I grew tired of the graphic design client’s demands and found my place teaching, also enrolling onto a Master’s degree. This changed my relationship with textiles forever. As part of my studies I explored the domestic origins of fairy tales and discovered their role as narratives told by and to empower women, often as they worked with cloth. I sought out an object that could sum up the invisibility of domestic tasks and yet was also beautiful. I choose a duster, a ubiquitous bright yellow cloth used commonly in the UK to polish dust away from household surfaces. It’s the sort of cloth that my Granny would have used to do it properly! I began to hand embroider onto it, tentatively at first, then encouraged to embroider a set of seven dusters I called ‘Promises and Expectations’ that reimagined fairy tales promises told to women and girls. This expanded into a project asking other women to stitch their domestic experiences onto dusters. To my pleasure and surprise, they responded and the ‘Women and Domesticity’ duster project began. It’s now over 100 contributions strong and still growing. It has become the focus of my academic research and is regularly exhibited. I got to know my dusters back in 2012 and I’m still working with them, now as the focus of my PhD. And so, this should really be a letter to my dusters:
I look at you now, littering my workspace and wonder what my Granny would have said (except to tidy up!) and I hope she’d be proud. The route to this point in my life has been one of domestic challenges: a family started young, divorce, the challenge of higher education with children in tow; experiences that reduced me to a perception of you. Invisible, domestic, but waiting for the opportunity to shine.
You are now an enticer, keeper and presenter of stories, both mine and those of other women. I am forever imagining new ways to transform you, to stitch my story with and onto you. When I stand with others, surrounded by you on each side when hung for display, you are transformed into a spectacular performance. When I sit quietly with you with needle and thread, you become a catalyst for my voice. You unite us, just as the fairy tales did hundreds of years ago.
Without you dear duster I would not have discovered that textiles could change my life, that a cleaning cloth could emancipate me, or that you could free other women too.
So, thank you.
To find out more about Vanessa and Domestic Dusters on Instagram, see @vanemarr and @domesticdusters respectively, or at domesticdusters.wordpress.com.