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Why Nostalgia makes me weep

There is an insidious, pernicious wave present in the textile world, promoted by the whole ‘make do and mend’, ‘vintage’(whatever that may mean) and ‘crafty’ miasma, brought on by a wave of cupcakes and tea from the craft cafes popping up on the trendy high streets of Britain. This all sets my teeth on edge, I make no value judgement about the worth of this sort of work; if the maker is content and fulfilled by such work then I consider it a good thing, as long as it is not confused with art, or creativity.

However, there is a problem with the language that this trend is bringing towards the craft processes. This includes a catalogue of horrors, of which, on my short list, are the words: quirky, nice, fun, vintage, and nostalgia. There is a real problem with nostalgia, both as a word and a concept. Do not misunderstand, memories are glorious, in all their techni-colour horror; who does not enjoy a real cringe remembering the mis-timed snog, the ill-judged pass, the fashion choice one thought once was so cool…….. BUT none of this exists in nostalgia land. There, Granny was always rosy cheeked, she had linen sheets (and never seem to resent the labour and workload they represented) wore a pinny, usually made clothes and bread, and so often seemed to be entirely sepia, or in over the top saturated colour.
Here they are in textile art, armies of sepia linen, old photographs and if we are lucky a button, sometimes pearl, cunningly attached. I lost both my grandmothers a long time ago, but I do remember them fondly, the snide comments about each other (she borrowed HER coat for the wedding), the rudeness (you might be good looking, except you look like your father) the bread making, jams and all that – no linen sheets however. All these memories make us what we are, and give us and our work a context. Personally I relive them whilst making the gestures that produce my work, they are part of me and us all. Nostalgia does not contribute to creativity. It makes us pretend that the past was great, better, and sweeter. It may make looking back simpler, but that is no reason to celebrate it eternally in linen. Nostalgia is never sad or heart rending, it is always wistful and rose tinted.
I use linen in my work, am proud of the past of the fabric but I am aware of the unrelenting nature of it – and I will only use new linen, without history, without a ‘story’. WE can give fabric memories, WE can give it a history. This is a plea to stop looking backwards to an unreal past. By all means look backwards and bring all the scary, embarrassing, rude, sexy, happy and agonising memories into our work, lets celebrate the fact that we are glad to be here and now and what has made us. Enough sugar coated nostalgia.

Posted by author: James Hunting
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21 thoughts on “Why Nostalgia makes me weep

  • Great post James. There is something similar going on in popular photography which I find similarly exasperating – where digital has made it possible to take an image and retro-fy it. As Stephen Bull recently pointed out in an article in Photoworks: These images do not simulate the look of photographs as they were in the past, they simulate the look of aged photographs as they appear to us in the present.
    By all means let’s take inspiration from the past, but don’t let’s glorify it. I for one am grateful I will never again experience 1960s dentistry.

  • great point, about the images seen now, another thing is the reverence of the old and the shock when gilding, or renovation restores stuff to its often vulgar and visually loud original…
    I feel we should be making the images for today and the future, building on the past. I imagine that the early photographers would be gagging to get their hands on the potential of today !!

  • It is not just the ‘past’ that has been tainted with nostalgia, words like traditional, hand-crafted are now used to promote the notion of excellence. Or at least the bias that old fashioned methods are better, therefore the resulting products are somehow superior and of higher value.
    Time for a reality check!!!!

  • All of this seems to be permeating society, not just in the textile world. Is it because people cannot relate to modern times, art, etc. and think the past was better? Is it because there is a sort of nihilism about art, that does not easily communicate itself to outsiders?

  • Phew! I thought it was only me that wanted to take it all down and give it a good wash – how I felt about an exhibition at Salts Mill in the summer which seemed to consist mainly of trampled sheets and fabric with rips and pins in it!

  • On a positive note, nostalgia may be a starting point ….. one a of the most enjoyable aspects of being a Textile Tutor is reading student comments relating to the research point for Assignment 2 (Textiles 1: A creative Approach) where students ‘look in depth at a piece’ they ‘have at home…’ It may have a family association, be a favourite item of clothing, a reminder of a holiday….. Nostalgia may indeed be the “starting point” but before long amazing things often begin to happen as students, through critical questioning of the piece learn that textiles can and do, as you describe, have multi-layered meaning, with emotional as well as practical/aesthetic connotations……

    • In these days of disposable mass production, looking closely at a beautifully cut and hand stitched garment from the 1920s taught me a lot – bias cut instead of Lycra where ‘give’ is needed and panels and godets creating an elegant and flowing skirt instead of skin-tight stretch leaving little to the imagination. As with so much of modern, high speed living, perhaps a swing of the pendulum back to a median is needed. There is much to be learned from the past and so many beautiful fabrics available nowadays just waiting for modern interpretations, it would be a great pity if this wealth of knowledge was to be discarded simply as ‘nostalgia’

  • If in literature deconstruction is about how a text is a result of the history of its construction, I would like to argue for old linen. I don’t see this as capitulating to a faux version of history which is (and I agree on this wholeheartedly) what nostalgia essentially is. Just as our bodies are inscribed with their labour I see old linen as inscribed with its history, with a meaning which is capable of transformation. I don’t see this as nostalgia. Creative transformation often depends on using this complex layering of previous history and I see old linen as having that transformative possibility. So playing to the ‘worn-ness’ of linen, the ‘fadedness’ of linen may be part of its creative transformation. This is not necessarily orienting to an unreal past (although I can see circumstances where this may come to pass). Problematising the history of a piece of linen is not something everyone would choose to do but I do not think using a textile’s history stands in opposition to being textile artist. It seems to me the problem is in the trivialisation of history through the concept of nostalgia rather than referencing the history of a piece of material through a work of art.

  • Sadly, you portray yourself as snobbish and ill-informed…I think you’ve confused the true meaning of ‘nostalgia’ with the common… and by discarding it alongside the likes of ‘retro’, overlook a truly interesting definition.
    “Nostalgia is never sad or heart rending”
    The word actually derives from a deep melancholy or anxious longing for home.

  • I was delighted to read this article, I thought it was just me feeling all this vintage/nostalgia is awful. Along with it seems to go a dumbing down of textile crafts, I have seen a lot of very badly made textile pieces in the name of nostalgia.

  • I guess in that case you were not impressed by Kirsty Allsop’s tv programme this week, where she spent considerable time sanding, painting and then scratching chairs for her ‘vintage’ home. You can see what I mean here. .
    As far as I can see, Downton Abbey is all part of this rose-tinted backwards gaze, where we seem to be pretending it was quite fun and somehow glamorous to be living in servitude.
    Our perceptions change over time, that’s for sure. Maybe later, when you look back on this vintage phase, you will feel a tinge of nostalgia. But I doubt it.

  • Wow! What an interesting post and following comments. My interpretation is that you are making two points here a) the massive influx of “twee” retro crafts is irritating and b) is it right to recycle “old” and make “new”. I think these are two very different points. I think that A) is a symptom of our current economic downturn “what pretty little thing can I make using just a scrap of felt and a pretty teeny weeny button?”, I am with James on the desire to scream, however with even the prime minister attempting only this week to exhort us to adopt the spirit of the blitz I don’t think we stand a chance of resisting it, and the commercialisation that comes with it – these prettly little crafty things are so pricey! Conversely regarding point B), I will wholeheartedly confess to sentimentality regarding old linen, embroideries and the like, they hold happy memories for me, and I treasure them however I would not go so far as to re-create them. I even pick them up for pence in my local charity shop, as I feel its so tragic for them to be so unloved and unappreciated, mainly because I can imagine the painstaking work involved in them, the anxiety these embroiderers must have been feeling for their loved ones during war, dangerous manual labour and goodness know what else in a bygone time.
    Finally very little of what I use is new, I use old bedding from the charity shop chopped up for repeated pulls at screenprinting, I use old tapestry wool that has been cast off by various family members and finally I use my grandmothers ancient wooden sewing box and enjoy using the myriad of threads she collected over time. Make do and mend? Absolutely.
    Thank you for such a thought provoking post James.

  • Yes, James makes an interesting argument, as does Miriam. There is a difference in paying inflated prices to buy non-essential gift items made using bits and bobs from granny’s sewing basket and the real need to make the most of our pennies when well-paid jobs are scarce and everyone is feeling the squeeze. It may look a little chi-chi sometimes when the lovely Kirstie encourages families to give their hand-me-down furniture a lick of paint but I could never justify the wanton tossing of still useful items into landfill, whether it be a G-Plan sideboard, an old child’s bike or some worn out clothing. In this household we MUST re-use and upcycle. The sideboard might look old-fashioned but it will be pressed into service as much needed storage. The old bike is beyond reviving so it will go to the local scrapyard to be redeemed for a little cash. The worn out clothing, for me, is the easiest to deal with. Studying textiles means I will save everything that might be useful for producing samples and experimenting. I even save the threads and clippings from sewing projects to use later in collages, appliques and constructing new yarns and fabrics. If I have accumulated a little too much in the way of crocheted doilies that haven’t served already as stencils and printing blocks or been deconstructed for collages or weaving projects then they will be listed on eBay to pay for other necessary supplies, or even food and fuel. I do not have any spare disposable income to spend on my course work, my art, my craft and this means that I am forced to look around me and source materials from what I already have. This way of living colours my whole life. It forces my creativity onto a certain path. It is uncomfortable, unsatisfactory and unrelenting. I would love to be able to buy new – new car, new clothes, new furniture, new linen for course work samples – but I must make do. Any nostalgia remains in my own memories when the the grandparents pass away, their chattels are disbursed, the family home is sold and the odd photograph – sepia toned or in Kodachrome, because that is how they were produced at the time – sits quietly on the mantel.

  • I’ve just been on a website selling designs on objects and counted 15 instances of the word nostalgia used to describe the designs while the word quirky came up even more often! For instance:
    ‘He has endeavoured to apply his quirky view, …. (stet) …. adding a hint of nostalgia along the way.’

  • I really enjoyed this discussion. I’m just beginning my ‘Family History’ theme book for A Creative Approach and I’m beginning to look at the various ways artists incorporate their personal memories and roots into their work. If anyone can suggest artists I should look at I’d be grateful. Incidently, my Granny genuinely was a rosy-cheeked, smiling, pinny-wearing happy person who baked amazing cakes. But she also fell victim to Alzheimer’s Disease. The thought of incorporating some of the less pleasant memories of her: being swindled out of her pension on the walk back from the post office each week, or her incontinence for example, makes me uncomfortable. I can see why they make her story more interesting but don’t see why I should ignore the happy memories. They are surely just as real, valid and integral?

  • thank you for the responses to the post, Lets keep this discussion going and bring in other topics and ideas,
    I would just like to clarify a few things and then let debate commence.
    I have no issue with the past and using old fabrics, I am just very suspicious when the mere fact of their age is used to invest them with a ‘sacred’ and ‘untouchable’ aura. They are then used to ‘evoke’ the past, and in textiles there is a tendency to use sepia photographs and introduce a preciousness to work, this is further compounded by the often lazy critical approach to textiles and the use of language such as the aforementioned phrases.
    Kirsty fulfils a role that answers to the hobbyist and the enthusiast, I would question the artisitc merit and integrity.
    I did not wish to appear either snobbish or ill informed and indeed the roots of nostalgia are not the same as the common usage today- Oxford Dictionary 24/11/2012
    [mass noun]
    a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past:
    I was overcome with acute nostalgia for my days at university
    something done or presented in order to evoke feelings of nostalgia:
    an evening of TV nostalgia
    not the first word or last to see its meaning transformed….
    I am all for the transformation of materials and using any fabric, I think the reason I personally use new linen, apart from having a source at a very cheap price…… is that I love the fact I can put my ownership onto it, give me a container to live in over a 17th C cottage any day.
    I hope we can continue to debate, any ideas for a topic, shall we continue, or shall I lance another notion

    • Thank you for the opportunity to discuss relevant topics with students and tutor here. This is just what I was hoping to glean from this forum. Perhaps we could use the course research points as useful starting points as group interaction is the missing element of this type of distance learning.

      • interesting point, it would be good if this is student led and we can then comment and debate, I would hope also that we tutors take up the challenge to present arguments and topics, I agree that this forum could and should be vibrant and alive….

        • Remember, ther is the forum on the student site which is great for discussion and may reach a wider audience. It is well used by some of the course disciplines. There is also the ‘Coffee Shop’ for general discussions that do not relate to a particular discipline.

  • I am not a textile artist but have found this discussion fascinating. I think this trend for retro, nostalgia and preciousness has pervaded lots of areas of the creative arts. Photography, definitely, but also printmaking, painting (all these Gothic woods and fairy- tale houses)and literature. The fashion industry, too, is making use of it with hand stitched details on machine made clothes.
    I think it could be used to its advantage. It’s here and is not going to go away for a while so why not turn it on its head if you are so inclined? I can think of all sorts of ways of using nostagia in an enquiring, bitter-sweet, even cynical way. It’s just one more seam to tap.

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