The Utility of Whales

It feels a little strange writing this. In my work plan for Scoresby’s Arctic (long before the exhibition even had that title) high on my to do list for just before the exhibition was due to open in May 2020 was the task of writing a blog about the one large textile panel that I was making specially for the exhibition. Whilst its creation (which had been a challenge) was still fresh in my mind I would describe how I came to be making a reproduction of a mid-nineteenth century Victorian poster in textile, fabric paint and hand embroidery.

It is Spring 2022 as I write this. The Covid delayed Scoresby’s Arctic opened at Whitby Museum in October 2020, for a week, before it had to close due to new Covid restrictions. Thankfully the Museum decided to restage it in the second half of 2022. And so I am now writing this just before the exhibition is going to open at the end of May 2022. The making of this work now feels like a distant memory from another time. It was completing it during the first lockdown and I was very glad at the time that I had work to do that kept me busy at home.

In the exhibition this is the second framed piece of mine that you come across in the Scoresby’s Arctic exhibition. It’s above a display cabinet that contains a corset with whalebone stays some baleen and a harpoon. The original Victorian poster has the title Graphic Illustrations of Animals, Shewing their Utility to Man, In their services during life and uses after death. The Whale. My piece’s title is The Utility of Whales, but I think of it as Utility for short.

Utility of Whales. Fabric paint and embroidery

Utility of Whales. Fabric paint and embroidery

When I first visited Whitby Museum, particularly the Scoresby Gallery, I was delighted to find so many artefacts associated with the Whitby Whaler I had learned about through the pages of Herman Melville’s whaling classic Moby-Dick. One disappointment was the reproduction of a poster about why we hunted whales. It was an A3 laser printed copy that had been laminated so the colour was bleeding, but the subject matter was fascinating and told a lot of the story of whaling in a concise and visually attractive way.

Sampling and making the Utility For Food Panel

Sampling and making the Utility For Food Panel

A series of images illustrated the uses of the products from whales; baleen in umbrellas (the Victorian sensibilities didn’t allow for an illustration of corsets!), candles and lighthouses for the oil used in lighting, a somewhat uncomfortable image of representations of indigenous arctic dwellers cooking whale meat.

The two central images showed whale hunting and one of the smaller imaged was of a dead whale being processed next to a whale ship. So I decided I’d make a textile version of it (and secretly hope that the Museum might buy it to display in the gallery).

For Whalebone - Umbrellas (and Corsets)

For Whalebone – Umbrellas (and Corsets)

The work was made in a series of panels, one for each image and the title across the top (I changed the layout slightly to put all of the original text at the top). This would make assembly easier, as I was not confident of my sewing-things-together-neatly skills. After making a number of testers and samples I transferred line drawings of each of the panels writing the accompanying text in lightfast ink (too small to sew) directly on to the unbleached calico I was using and worked systematically through them, starting with fabric paint. The decision to do them separately paid off when the lid of a jar of paint I was shaking came off and flew across one of the drawn panels. Luckily I only had to redraw it (and clean up the mess, and buy a new pot of fabric paint).

Sewing Utility's title

Sewing Utility’s title

To add some interest and texture to the painted panels I added hand embroidery to each panel. The panel showing waste products being used as manure being shovelled off a cart was fun to do and I had to expand my collection of embroidery threads buy buying all sorts of brown colours that I had not needed previously.  For the large title I somewhat foolishly decided to use satin stitch (tight parallel stiches) which was a real test for my still quite basic hand embroidery skills. It took ages, but the effect when it was finished was worth the effort.

When all of the panels were finished I sewed them together in sections and assembled the whole thing. It took a few goes of unpicking repining and resewing to get it (mostly) right. My framer did a fantastic job and the final piece looked great, and it was a really useful addition to the exhibition as being a beautiful thing in its own right.

And my plan worked, Whitby Museum did buy it!

The completed Utility panels sewn together showing the embroidered details

The completed Utility panels sewn together showing the embroidered details