New research explores how women used textile clubs as networks for social and economic change

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Through new research and a series of public events, a Goldsmiths, University of London textiles lecturer aims to shed light on the 19th century women’s philanthropic, socially progressive, Bible-inspired textile-making clubs still flourishing today.

Photo by Rose Sinclair (2011) from her 'front room' installation at the 2011 Knitting and Stitching Show, Alexandra Palace, London

Rose Sinclair’s research into Dorcas Societies, named after the Biblical character who made garments for the poor, forms the basis of her 'front room' installation and make and talk session on the subject at Radical New Cross on Saturday 14th November 2015, part of the annual Being Human Festival.

Rose will also be speaking at the free event 'Welcome to the Culture Club: Dorcas Societies, crafting textiles in the front room' at the V&A on 14 January 2016 as part of the museum’s Art and Existence talks.

A brief history of Dorcas Societies

Dorcas meetings began in the early 19th century against the backdrop of a ‘philanthropic’ movement of middle and upper-class women moving into the political arena, using education and equality as themes under which new social movements for women would evolve.

In a recent paper for the journal Craft Research, Rose argued that as Victorian feminists struggled to escape the construction of women belonging within a private sphere – the home – they reacted by engaging in work which had a social function and started utilising the skills they had acquired managing a home, for a wider good.

Early Dorcas Societies revolved around the front rooms of middle-class women, meeting to make textiles, with money raised for materials by each woman in the group. The finished products would then be distributed to deserving poor in the parish. Wealthier women were moving out of the home into civic activities, and as Dorcas Societies became more popular, other modes of charitable and social engagement became acceptable activities to be engaged in.

In the early 20th century Dorcus groups arrived in the Caribbean with Christian missionary women, who charged themselves with the teaching and passing on of textile skills at the expense of the already indigenous skills and knowledge of local women, which were viewed with little regard.

Becoming embedded into the community, by the 1950s the clubs brought together Caribbean women through textiles to act as networks for social and economic change. As women from the Caribbean moved to the UK in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the clubs moved with them, contributing hugely to diversity in the British textiles aesthetic. Rose explains:

Culture is not timeless, nor is it a motionless body of value systems. It doesn't remain unaltered by social change.

"Dorcas Societies, I argue, incorporate new forms and meanings while also changing and reshaping traditional conventions.”

“Dorcas culture has two sides – the material items produced on the one side tell fascinating stories, and then there’s the development of rituals and behaviour on the other. Textile and craft practices provided the vehicle for upper and middle-class women to break free of traditional roles and eventually these Societies became viewed as part of the social accomplishment of young ladies and became embedded in the curriculum of ladies’ colleges.”

You’ll find that in our world connected by social media, there’s still no It’s rare for groups to join Facebook or Twitter and there’s no subscriptions, form-filling or regulation. It was the early Dorcas Societies, says Rose, which both encouraged the transferring of skills and provided a space “where tensions related to identity, femininity, gender, social and cultural standing are played out”.

As wider discussions emerge around 'spiritual capital', does textiles fit in to this genre of thinking? With such an important and still relevant role in both social and textile history and the broader concept of making, it is unlikely that groups such as Dorcas Clubs will disappear any time soon.

Rose Sinclair is Lecturer in Design (Design & Technology - Textiles), and is based within the Department of Design.

Join us for a free textile networks workshop from 1.15-4pm at the St James Hatcham Building, New Cross on Saturday 14 November to hear Rose Sinclair discuss 1950s and ‘60s Dorcas Clubs. The untold oral stories of Dorcas members will be told through an accompanying installation. Find out more.