Unpicking the Past: Debra Roberts’ Textile Archaeology

Artist Feature / Ego / KarenTobiasGreen

When I asked Debra Roberts how she would describe her practice, she stated that she might have to coin the term ‘textile archaeologist’. Debra lectures in Printed Textiles and Surface Design at Leeds College of Art. She completed a degree there in the same subject as a mature student and later completed an MA in Textiles at Manchester School of Art. Debra is a collector of historic textiles and has recreated an eighteenth-century dress which embodies not only her artistic practice and her passion for process-led making, but also her intellectual drive to express, through fabric, the untold histories of individuals and their social circumstances.

Debra’s relationship with ‘The Dress’, as she refers to it, began at the Antique Textile Fair in Manchester in March 2005, where the fabric was discovered in a box. A subsequent trip to Paris to look at a similar dress enabled her to establish that the fabric originally came from Lyons. This spoke volumes about the rich life and history behind ‘The Dress’, both as a completed garment and as a set of remnants, waiting to be re-read and re-assembled.

Reading the folds

Reading the folds – copyright Debra Roberts, 2014.

Debra discussed these remnants with textile historian Philip Sykas and a number of other specialist curators, designers and artists. It wasn’t until Philip showed Debra how to analyse the initial folds of material that a hint of an eighteenth-century dress was revealed. Philip determined the authenticity and originality of both material and thread. It was then a question of tracing similar dresses and styles, visiting archives across the country and talking to curators. Debra described this as a long process which taught her how to ask the right questions. “I kept being shown the ‘posh’ frocks and it wasn’t until I visited the Christian Lacroix exhibition in Paris that I saw a glimpse of a day dress in similar fabric.”

Refolding the pleats

Re-folding the pleats – copyright Debra Roberts, 2014.

At this point her suspicions were confirmed: not only did this dress have a rich history, it was also a remnant of an untold working class story. Debra explored the resources of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Manchester’s Platt Hall and Chertsey Museum, along with the costume archives at Temple Newsam and Lotherton Hall. These resources helped her to understand what would be necessary when going about the extensive process of re-establishing the existence of the dress.

Through careful reconstruction, Debra eventually formed a dress that at once told a story of the past and provided a valuable resource for repositioning that past, making it very much part of a ‘living present’. She did this by collecting, tracking, stitching and reconstructing each piece of fabric. She carefully counted and acknowledged every past stitch in each piece of fabric, re-forming them into a three-dimensional construct.

“Stitch and embroidery are ways of enquiring and interrogating. Each stitch formed in the new dress refrains a stitch unpicked in the old. The notion of perfect and imperfect is replaced by the opportunity to experiment, develop new skills and resurrect old methods – to enjoy the experience of touch, texture and physicality which in itself is vital in the process of embedding learning.”

Every tiny detail of the fabric is observed and through this, a story begins to unfold. The original dress was worked and reworked by its various owners at a time when recycling was a way of life. The dress would have been carefully made to fit one body. “Handcrafted dresses were constructed for the body of the original wearer. Every fibre had a value until it perished and was no more…” Debra explains.  Through careful reading, research and intense physical interrogation of each piece of material, she was able to trace the history of the dress.

This preservation of material, she says, is not just conservation but something more alive – it is conversation. On the reverse of the fabric were notes and dates testifying its origin and context. The fabric is French and dated from the time of the French Revolution: “by really looking and seeing what’s there, this dress stirs the imagination and prompts the memory. There are blood stains, tears and inserts in the fabric. Whose blood is on it? Like ‘a narrative detective story’ the dress unfolds a story through its parts.”

Tracing a template

Tracing a template – copyright Debra Roberts, 2014.

This dress is not just about fabric; more importantly it is about the body – the corporeal form – and the existence of its previous wearers.  In an age where many of us feel disconnected from those who make the clothes we wear, Debra is keen to explore the values and history represented through both technique and process. She mentioned Benjamin’s 1936 essay ‘The Work Of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. ‘Even the most perfect reproduction,’ Benjamin writes, ‘is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’ (Benjamin, 1936.)

What Debra has made has taken on a new and unique life of its own. Using, collecting and archiving as a source of information, she is able to utilise the dress to recreate the techniques and skills of the past, which she translates into a dialogue between herself and her students. “Handling and touch open up a dialogue between contemporary textile and traditional skills that you don’t get in a textbook”.  This haptic experience complements text-based theory and is mirrored in another of Debra’s interests – natural dyes which she makes from garden plants, creating “fabrics singing with colour.” 

Though a keen slow-crafter, Debra is no Luddite. She used a variety of hand-crafting and digital processes to restore the dress.  These are skills and processes she wishes to pass on to her textile students. Interestingly it was a digital reproduction that achieved the closest representation of the original fabric. Debra was able to buy a similarly weighted taffeta silk, and through testing, replicate the design as it would have been woven, as a digital print.“Through digital print” she explains, “we are able to use technology to fill in the gaps that time has erased”. There are still more fragments to analyse, extending the life and story of ‘The Dress’ still further. Excitingly, Debra is currently planning the resurrection and rebirth of another dress.

Simulating an imagined past

Simulating an imagined past – copyright Debra Roberts, 2014.

The dress accompanied Debra to her presentation at a symposium on Material Narratives at Lotherton Hall in 2008. It was part of the Textile Society Conference on Sustainability and Recycling at De Montford University and was an aspect of a number of talks given on archive research, material values and experiential learning. Debra has exhibited ‘The Dress’ at the 2013 Exhibition of Contemporary Craft and has taken it to schools in Cumbria and the North East, where it was handled by school children, eager to encounter history in a tactile manner. Archival work is presently underway involving Sunnybank Mills and Armley Mills in Leeds – both sites of making and curating.

Karen Tobias-Green