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Mildred Blount – a forgotten talent

During her research for E.A.S.T’s next exhibition (for more on that, see below), group member Julie Topsfield discovered the story of Mildred Blount (1907-1974). This is Mildred’s story, as told by Julie:

Mildred Blount at work

Mildred was born in North Carolina in 1907. She was orphaned as an infant, and did not complete her schooling due to ill  healthy. Yet by the 1930s and 40s she was recognised as a leading milliner for celebrities and high society.

She started work at Madame Clair’s Dress & Hat shop in New York as an errand girl. She became interested in millinery while working there which led to her opening a hat and dress shop with her sister who was a dress maker. Wealthy New Yorkers formed their clientele for dresses and hats.

In the 1930s she applied for a job as a learner with John-Frederiks the leading New York based milliner. They were taken aback as she was the first black person to have ever applied, she assured them she had talent, all she asked for was a chance. She got the job.

While working at John-Frederics, Mildred designed 87 miniature hats, representing styles from the 1680 to 1937 which where exhibited to great acclaim at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

The August 1942 issue of ‘Ladies Home Journal’ – a first for a black designer

After this exhibit, her career took off, and she came to the attention of Mrs David Selznick. This led to her designing hats for Gone with the Wind and Easter Parade making her the first black person to design hats for movie actors. Mildred did most of the work, although credit went to her employers.

Her talents and reputation continued to soar, designing Gloria Vanderbilt’s wedding veil for her first marriage in 1941, and in 1942 one of her hats was featured on the cover of Ladies Home Journal another first for a black designer.

She left John-Frederics and founded her own label in Los Angeles. By the mid-1940s, she was designing for Hollywood actresses as well as private clients, including Mary Pickford, Ginger Rodgers, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, among others.

Still living in California, she continued to work until her death in 1974.  Her hats can be found in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the California African American Museum.

E.A.S.T members are currently working towards their latest exhibition Transformation, which we hope will open at Braintree District Museum, Braintree in Essex in April 2021. More details will be available nearer the time.

decorated embroidery on kimono

Kimono continued – techniques and design influence

Kimono deconstructed

Following on from Susan’s blog I thought I would write a little more about some of the different techniques and influences we learned about at the V&A ‘Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk’ exhibition. As seen above, the kimono is fairly simple in structure – strips of cloth joined and unlike western style dress of the time, the focus was on the way the fabric was decorated rather than the body silhouette it enhanced or created.

Kimono for a woman (kosode) 1730-70

This kimono is decorated with a technique known as Yuzen dyeing. A cloth tube with a metal tip is filled with rice paste and applied in ribbons to outline the drawing on the fabric. Then dyes are brushed within the paste boundaries – similar to techniques used in silk painting with gutta. This is a kosode kimono – because of its short sleeves.

Kimono for a woman (furisode) 1800-50

The design for this kimono is made using a kanoko shibori technique. Look closely and you will see rows of tiny circles. These are made by tightly binding the fabric as a means to resist dye when the cloth is immersed in the dye vat. The red colour here comes from the safflower. This furisode kimono has ‘swinging sleeves’.

Hand painted kimono
Kosode Kimono, c.1785

This kimono is hand-painted in ink and colours, and thought to date to around 1785. It was created by the Japanese artist Masumura Goshon (1752-1811). Just as an artist signs a painting, Goshon included his signature and seal on the front of this kimono, indicating that he considered it a work of art.

Kosode kimono
Kosode kimono, 1780-1820

This kosode kimono was made from figured satin silk (rinzu), then hand-painted with ink (kaki-e). A stencil decoration to imitate tie-dyeing was then added (sorihitta) and finally it was embroidered in silk and gold wrapped silk threads. The text embroidered on this piece is a poem from a tenth century anthology.

Kimono for a samarui class woman
Kimono for a young samarui woman, c.1730-60

Again this kimono is created with a range of techniques but it also shows a development in design – quite boldly asymmetric and something that became fashionable in the mid-eighteenth century. Worn by a young woman of the samuri class this gown also shows how the ruling classes were becoming influenced by their social inferiors. According to the hierarchy of the day, the merchant classes were set below not only the elite classes but also the farmers and the craftsmen. As people whose fortune was made through the work of others they were put in the lowest rank. As they became wealthy they gained greater power, also the ability to lead fashion.

Kimono with small all over design
Kimono, 1750-60

By the second half of the eighteenth century, small scale designs became more common. This one was produced using the Yuzen technique (the freehand paste resist dyeing as described above).

Early 19th century kimono

Then as sashes became more elaborate and wider, kimono designs moved to the hem and then the front of the garment – rather than traditionally on the back. This kimono dates from the early nineteenth century.

Japanese street scene showing Parade of Courtesans in 19th century.
Print of Nakano Street in Yoshiwara by Utagawa Hiroshige II (1826-69)

Another big fashion influence were the courtesans – the fabulous gown of one you can seen in Susan’s blog. Here is one section of a print on display in the exhibition which shows a Nakano Street in Yoshiwara. It depicts the towns greatest spectacle, the parade of courtesans who wore the most extravagant attire. The glamorous lifestyle depicted was in sharp contrast to the realities of life in the sex trade.

Sanogawa Ichimatsu – actor and fashion influencer

Actors too were often seen as fashion icons. In 1741 Sanogawa Ichimatsu wore a chequerboard waist sash (obi), which became an instant fashion craze. The design became known as Ichimatsu check. This print shows Ichimatsu coming out of his shop – many actors had their own shops and ranges of goods.

Sarasa Handbook of textile designs.
The Sarasa Handbook (1778) – Indian designs for Japanese textiles

Indian fabrics were another influence – from the 1630s Japanese textile artists made versions of Indian fabrics. The Sarasa Handbook published in 1778, was the first technical guide to such cloth.

Tobacco cases and pipe case; Dutchmen portrayed on an inro and netsuke

Indian fabrics were imported by the Dutch – the first western traders with Japan. Known as the ‘red-haired people’ (komojin), the Japanese thought their fabrics highly prized and even the smallest pieces could be turned into saleable items. The Dutch people themselves were also exoticised and turned into inro and netsuke.

Kimono for western popstars

There was much more to see in this exhibition which ended with more modern developments of kimono – from both the west and the east. However, I was particularly struck by the the global influences and connections which have been a feature of kimono for centuries. As examples of more modern day global connections I have included these three items which are all associated with twentieth and twenty-first century music artists, who have other global connections. On the left is a kimono gown once owned by British artist Freddie Mercury (whose parents were of Indian descent). The red outfit was worn by American artist Madonna (whose parents were of Italian and French Canadian descent). The gown on the far right of the trio (and in the image) was designed by British designer Alexander McQueen in collaboration with Bjork, the Icelandic singer for her ‘Homogenic’ album.

If you are unable to visit the exhibition (which may already be sold out) it is still worth looking at the V&A online curator’s tour – the first part of which can be found HERE.

“The True Anzac”

I was born in Australia and during my school years there was shockingly little attention paid to the history, culture and appreciation of Indigenous people – the Aboriginal people of Australia.

In my textile work over the years I have researched and explored related themes on many occasions as a response to this woeful lacking in my education experiences.

When EAST chose to commemorate the 100-year end of the WWI, I once again returned to examine the Indigenous Aboriginal role as part of the ANZAC forces. It was illuminating.

On the first of January 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed. In August 1914, when Great Britain declared war on Germany, Australia, out of loyalty to Imperial Britain, immediately pledged a force of 20,000 men.  The prime minister, Andrew Fisher, said Australia would support Great Britain “to the last man alive and the last shilling”.

On the 25th April 1915, Australian troops landed on the beaches of Gallipoli, Turkey. This date later became Anzac Day.  The Anzac soldier stood for reckless valor in a good cause, enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never know defeat.

In World War 1, indigenous Australians, known as the “Black Diggers”, fought alongside their European counterparts in every significant engagement of the War: Gallipoli, Palestine and the Western Front.  For many it was a chance to see the world, earn a decent salary and be treated equally as brothers.  However, it was the hope for fair treatment on return, with a chance of citizenship, that encouraged the indigenous Australian soldier to enlist.

This did not transpire.  There are very few examples of indigenous ex-servicemen being offered land or citizenship rights.  For many the prejudices encountered before the War were even worse when they returned home.  Tragically, those that died had given their lives for a country that they had inhabited before the white settler, yet where they were not considered equals.

Fortunately, in more recent years the contribution and recognition of the brave “Black Diggers” has begun to be acknowledged and included alongside the honour and respect awarded the Anzac soldier.  In April 2012, Trooper Horace Dalton, 11th Light Horse Regiment, was reburied with full military honours and a traditional ceremony.

In my work “The True Anzac”, I  have portrayed two features of Australian culture: that of the indigenous heritage seen in the patterns and paint markings which are included, and on the periphery surrounding the central feature, that of the white Australian.

Melinda Berkovitz

The V&A opens its doors

The last time I ventured out to the metropolis was 28th February to the V&A exhibition Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk. Then, on 27th August, Janette and I both hit the city with another trip to this exhibition

In February the final photo I took is the one shown above of an ensemble, Wa-Lolita, created in 2019 by students at Bunken Gakeun University, Tokyo.  This outfit was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and six months ago I was trying to design a panel on this theme and thought the image would be appropriate for my sketch book.

On this recent visit the first image which caught my eye was a brush and ink drawing used as the design on a Kimono displayed alongside.

An unrolled scroll reveals the brush and ink design.

The worked Kimono

I thought this Kimono (below) particularly splendid.  It was worn by a courtesan (dated 1860-80), made on satin silk, with appliqué and embroidery in silk and gold wrapped silk threads.

In this period high ranking courtesans, called oiran, were major celebrities.  They would parade through the pleasure quarter on 15cm high wooden geta (shoes) allowing all to see their elaborate Kimono.  The designs would usually relate to a Kabuki play revealing a connection between the theatre and the brothel.

The embroidery here tells an elaborate tale. 

A man is shown stretched out on the top of a bridge over the river, 

whilst beneath a conflict between another male and a fire breathing dragon is taking place. 

Both men are brandishing flowers, possibly chrysanthemums. 

Only if you know the narrative of the play can you really decipher what is being depicted.  However it is a splendid work of art.

statue with face mask

Covering up and going back out

Sir Joshua Reynolds outside the Royal Academy London – at least some London residents know how to put on their masks.

Lockdown has been a strange, sometimes worrying experience – and everyone has experienced it differently, EAST members included. But if there were benefits to being stuck indoors (and I realise it did not benefit everyone), being able to be creative was one. Whether it was having the skills to make masks and scrubs, being able to lose ourselves in work for our next exhibition (more of that later), or stitching for mindfulness – it certainly highlighted how important it is to be able to make and create. I was particularly pleased to see a number of posts on social media from individuals discovering or rediscovering the pleasure of stitch.

Now some restrictions are easing and having a day out is a possibility for many. Virtual exhibitions have meant ‘visiting’ places and attending talks and workshops from the comfort of our own homes but even when these are free, nothing beats experiencing things for real. Our museums, galleries and other arts venues need us more than ever if they are to survive so it was nice to get out and about again. For me, meeting a friend, chatting over a coffee and visiting my first ‘actual’ exhibition since March this year was a big deal. Something easily taken for granted. That said, I hope the virtual tours and online talks will continue because physical, financial and other factors prevent many from ever leaving their homes.

London Liverpool Street Station, Central Line – 11am on a Thursday morning (August 2020) and the station is almost deserted.

I was a bit nervous of my first trip to London – until I saw how empty it was. Initially I wasn’t sure how I’d feel wearing a face covering most of the day – both being compulsory on the train and in the gallery – but it is beginning to feel quite normal now. I really don’t like the idea of disposable masks and as someone who can stitch I had no excuse but to make my own. I have been trying out a few different styles to see which one worked best for me – it is amazing how many styles there now are. YouTube is full of new patterns – each one the ‘quickest’, the ‘easiest’, the ‘safest’. Then there are posts showing different types of ear loops, how to avoid ear loops, which type of fabric is best and this week I saw someone showing how they could be decorated. No doubt we will have Christmas fabric and party masks to make in due course.

My Passmore reverse nose pleat masks

I was recommended this design (see above) by fellow EAST member Carol. The fold over above the nose means it fits snug to the face but there is also space to breath. I had no problem with my glasses steaming up and there is no need for wire. There is a gap for a filter. The instructions I used came from Sophie Passmore on YouTube. Or if you don’t sew yourself why not buy one from someone who can and support a charity at the same time. Carol’s daughter sells a range of masks – Beverley@4miles.co.uk. For every mask sold £2 will go to the National Deaf Children’s Society. Obviously there are plenty of other sellers too.

And before I end this post just one more thing – EAST are now preparing for their next exhibition Transformation. We are expecting to open at Braintree District Museum, Essex, UK in the Spring of 2021. Subscribe to this blog and you will be the first to hear when the details are finalised.

The Hütte

This morning I heard Antony Gormley speaking to the poet Simon Armitage on a past edition of one of my favourite podcasts The Poet Laureate has gone to his shed.  Gormley was remarking on some of the items in the Armitage shed.  When the poet asked Gormley if he had a shed the answer was, as you might expect, that he had a studio.

Antony Gormley then continued “…. [that it was] a place apart that is not connected to the business of dwelling or connected necessarily with the business of work. I think it is an essential thing – a space ship for thinking, dreaming and doing things that are not strictly speaking necessary.”

I was in my ‘space ship ’ (well Hütte/workroom) whilst listening, happily surrounded by fabric and thread, fortunately able to continue stitching away on the current piece for EAST.

Textiles dark secrets

Eighteenth-century toile de Juoy textile from Warner Textile Archive

Back in 2009, EAST produced an exhibition of contemporary work based on textiles, objects and other items from the Warner Textile Archive, based at Braintree in Essex. My interest in history led me to this furnishing fabric that probably dates from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. Produced in France this printed cotton would have been a fashionable addition to the home of a very middling-sort of couple. I even speculated that it was the sort of item deemed appropriate as a wedding gift.

A Dark Secret Behind a Thing of Beauty from EAST @ The Warner Textile Archive exhibition in 2009. Now part of the Collection of Braintree District Museum, Essex

Gifts, as we know, often come in boxes and I therefore decided to translate the design on the cloth into a 3D object. This meant that I could incorporate another aspect of the story behind the fabric – an often unacknowledged or hidden history. A Dark Secret Behind a Thing of Beauty was the title of my response. I wanted to make a comment that it is all too easy to look at a piece of fabric and think of it just in terms of its design or its beauty – less so about the tragedy behind its manufacture. It was particularly important to highlight how what seemed quite an innocuous item was very probably the product of slavery.

Detail of inside the box – a reference to Josiah Wedgewood’s image
in support of the abolition of slavery

Inside the box I created a copy of an image used by the abolitionists, along with the words ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ Designed by Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) and turned into cameo brooches in the 1790s, these items would have been worn by the many women supporters as a means to raise awareness of this abhorrent trade. It took several decades to end the transportation of slaves, but even that did not end slave labour – and sadly it still continues today, in many forms. Slavery is often, but not always associated with race, but even when it is not, it is always about inequality and power.

Remnants of the Slave Trade


Fifteen years ago I was able to travel to The Gambia and visit St James Island as it was then called. In the current political circumstances it seems the right time to show the quilts I made after the trip, As I would like to show support for the memory of all those who were enslaved and those who still are.

Visiting the Island, now called Kunta Kinte Island, was very moving, as it was the place where the Gambian people were kept before they were taken in Slave ships to the UK and then America. As I stood on the beach I found a very small bead, perhaps fallen from the necklace of one of the people, their necklaces were torn off them when they left.

A little history: The Island was captured by the English is 1664 and used then until the abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807. It is now called Kunta Kinte, after a character described in Alex Haley‘s book and TV series Roots, The book states that Kunta Kinte was among 98 slaves that the slave ship Lord Ligonier brought to Annapolis, Maryland in 1767.

I printed the fabric using ‘Break down screen printing’ with brick like shapes applied to the background to represent the ruins of the buildings where the people were kept. There are scraps of fabric sewn on to the Quilts to represent clothing left behind as the ships left.

A new way of meeting


Our group meets once a month and because we haven’t been able to gather in person yesterday. Saturday 13th June, we held our second Zoom meeting.

This is a fantastic way of catching up with what is happening in each other’s lives creatively and personally.

I think too, it has brought us closer together as a group.

In our usual meeting place the interaction, apart from the monthly business meeting,  is more often than not on a one to one basis. With Zoom everyone gets involved in the conversations. Members talk and members listen.

The response when you ask for advice about any aspect of your work is extremely helpful and is guaranteed to give you more ideas. I always feel motivated and inspired after each meeting.

Imagine how isolated we would all have felt if this pandemic had happened a few years ago before we all become more technology savvy?

Hopefully we will still make use of platforms such as Zoom once we return to ‘normal’.

The Darn Busters

Inspirational army of amateur stitchers have sewn nearly 25,000 scrubs for hero NHS workers

The newspaper article under the headline above is about the army of women making scrubs and scrub bags for the NHS. Beginning with a WhatsApp group there are now over 100 scrub hubs. The headline was highlighted on Woman’s Hour this morning and prompted a discussion about women stitching, mending and how skills are not being passed down the generations as in the past.

I became involved in my local group and at least one other member of E.A.S.T. is making scrubs for the NHS. It makes me feel like I am doing something positive and part of a practical response.  One friend has been like a factory, has produced 15 pairs and another person made over 30! I had the desire to individualise mine and stitched a ‘Thank you NHS’ message inside the back facing.

First pair of scrubs

The virus has forced our lives to change to something that will never be the same again. I’m hoping from all the truly tragic events many positive things will happen. It must be so. This is life changing. I had been working on how building new roads impacts the environment. Then, as the lockdown began, it seemed irrelevant compared to all the much more important things going on. As time has passed, roads have become so much quieter, pollution has decreased dramatically, and nature been able to re-establish itself. It is an opportunity to think about how and whether we should we travel as we used to. Positive changes.

Everyone’s situation is different and individual and depends on many factors as to how each person is reacting and feeling. Every day I see, hear and read how this lockdown period has given space and material to be incredibly creative. By contrast some people find it can lock their creativity by the emotional and physical demands on them. And the mood can change as the daily bulletins announce statistics and change.

My creativity fluctuates. I feel the need to balance my time. How is your creativity during the covid-19 lockdown?

There are many things out there that on the internet that you can access: Many of the major art galleries have been working more on their websites to have on-line exhibitions which can be inspirational. Tate is full of interesting exhibitions with loads of information and links to follow. I looked at the fascinating life of Louise Bourgeois, Tate Liverpool, and a particular quote resonated with me: “I need to make things. The physical interaction with the medium has a curative effect. I need the physical acting out. I need to have these objects exist in relation to my body”. Louise Bourgeois I Am Afraid is a fabric work by Louise Bourgeois featuring lines of text woven into canvas. Short statements and individual words in upper case are woven in grey thread into the grey-beige fabric and are grouped into four stanzas. It’s worth a read and to think about what frightens you.

If, like me, you intended to go to the exhibition: Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles at Two Temple Place, photographs can be seen on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pg/twotempleplace/photos I felt frustration at not being able to see the textiles up close and study the detail. I think it is difficult to capture the texture and 3-dimensional qualities of textiles photographically. The explanatory text is not included. It whetted my appetite and I’m hoping that the exhibition will be extended so there is a chance to see it once some of the current restrictions are lifted.

A hands-on project with some structure which also gives some creativity is the textileartist.org community stitch challenge 2020 https://www.facebook.com/groups/stitchchallenge . Each week textile artists give a video workshop with a hand stitch challenge and the results that people post are inspiring.

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