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Gallery exhibition questions ethics of smocking

Is smocking – the process of sewing folds into a garment – inherently evil? This is one of many questions that artist Les Bicknell asks in a one day pop-up exhibition taking place in The Gallery at Norwich University of the Arts this month.

“There were very real politics surrounding smocking throughout the 250 years it was in practice in this country leading up to the industrial revolution,” says Bicknell. “Smocking could be seen as a form of subjugation through craft. One could ask why were poor farmers sitting at home embellishing their garments instead of rising up and challenging serfdom and crop pricing? Even the nature of smocking – compressing cloth and hiding parts of it – invites darkness into a garment and hides part of it.”


– Work from unpicking rebinding

Smocking was functional – it strengthened a garment and gave it form – but it was also decorative. “A smocked piece of material can resemble a ploughed field,” Bicknell comments. “Smocked garments began to die out with the industrial revolution. They were too baggy to wear near machinery, but also as the economy moved from rural to urban the smock became seen as a garment of stigma. At the Grand Exhibition in 1851 there is a story that a group of 500 rural people turned up in smocks and the organisers were worried they would break the exhibits. There are extraordinary illustrations of people in smocks in the London Times from this period.”

The exhibition, titled unpicking and rebinding, will present a variety of textile wall hangings demonstrating examples of folding, pleating and smocking techniques. The artworks on display form part of Bicknell’s response to an Arts Council funded project which explores the role of the fold within historical and contemporary textiles and printed material held in three heritage collections within the Eastern region: The Textile and Costume Collection at Norwich Museum; Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL); and Suffolk County Council Archive.

“The selection explores the point at which a fold changes the nature of the textile,” says Bicknell. “At what point does a piece of cloth stop being a piece of cloth and start being a smock? Take the spine out of a book – is it still a book? I’ve mapped out new ways of accessing and archiving these textiles based on the type of fold. For example I’ve looked at the turnups on 1950s demob suits, the button hole styles on blouses from the 1920s and forms of leather gaitering from France in the 1860s. It’s all tied together by the folds – from the materials used to bind a book to the stuffing used in a suit lapel.” So is a lapel evil? “Well,” says Les, “it hides, so it’s not necessarily truthful.”

Bicknell’s new archiving system is documented in a book on display in the exhibition, which will open to the public on Thursday 31 October. Entry is free and the show is open from 10am – 5pm in The Gallery at NUA on St Georges Street.


– Work from unpicking rebinding


– Work from unpicking rebinding

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