threads of feeling

It’s a rare situation where my love of textiles and my day job working in adoption and fostering collide.  Actually, I think it’s happened just this once.

A few weeks ago I went to the emotionally-charged Threads of Feeling exhibition at the Foundling Museum.

The exhibition focuses on the tokens, or mementos, that were left with the babies who were relinquished at the Foundling Hospital between 1740 and 1761.  When mothers left their babies at the hospital, a registration record was kept, with a piece of fabric or some other token as identification.  These tokens were often pieces of fabric cut from the clothing of the mother or of the baby, or some other small item that the mother was able to leave behind.

The display of the tokens in the registration ledgers shows not only the range of fabrics that were in common use in the mid eighteenth century, but also tells of the emotion behind the separations. Whilst it was theoretically possible for mothers to return for their children, in practice this rarely happened, with many trapped by inescapable poverty and hardship.  Leaving a baby at the Foundling Hospital was essentially a form of adoption before adoption legislation existed: the baby was given a new name and a new life.  The child’s original name was not recorded, and the fabric token was the only means of identification.  The tokens that I found the most poignant were those where the mother had attempted to assert the baby’s identity by embroidering the child’s name on a ribbon or piece of fabric.  Hearts had similar connotations as today, and were often used in symbolism of the mother’s love:

Annabel Lewis of VV Rouleaux also produced an installation of falling ribbon, cascading down the building’s stairwell, and ribbons are also available for purchase at the museum:

The exhibition runs until March 6th at the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, London.