Her Textile Stories

At the Festival of Quilts in August, the Crea Team were thrilled to meet artist Ruth Singer, who was exhibiting her hugely original art and heritage project, ‘Criminal Quilts’ – textiles inspired by the stories of women held in the UK’s Staffordshire Prison from 1877 to 1917.

‘Criminal Quilts’ began with a commission from Shire Hall Gallery (now closed) in late 2012. Ruth chose to work with photographs of female criminals on display in the courtroom building that housed the gallery. Her first series of six miniature quilts on this theme was purchased for the Staffordshire Museums collection. Her pieces since then include Criminal Quilts: Hanging (2015), which won theFineArt Quilts category at the Festival of Quilts in 2016, and a number of small and large pieces shown in her solo exhibition, ‘Narrative Threads’.

Artist in Residence

Ruth went on to research the project yet more deeply as Artist in Residence at the Staffordshire Records Office from 2017, poring over archives documenting more than 500 female prisoners. The women were all photographed shortly before release, typically with their hands on their chest (to reveal any missing fingers), and both these portraits and the motif of hands are a major component of Ruth’s art pieces. The photographs also contribute a mesmerising insight into the lives of working class women at this time, some of whom were imprisoned for offences such as drunkenness or theft.

Ruth was also fascinated by the women’s clothing and prison issue clothing in the period. Many women are shown wearing woven wool shawls, particularly in the 19th century images, though it is unclear whether these are their own or prison issue. The later photographs seem to show standard prison issue garments comprising a gingham apron, high neck collarless bodice and checked neckerchief. In others, the women are wearing a dark jacket or coat that may be prison uniform – certainly one or two images show the typical convict arrows on the garment.

In creating her art pieces, Ruth uses colours, textures and patterns that the women would have worn and might have known. She screen prints or digitally prints their portraits on to transparent cloth and naturally dyed silk organza, combining them with patches of old fabric, hand-embroidered details and names, English hexagonal piecing and reverse appliqué. In this way, she brings to life the stories of these forgotten women, little regarded for sure in their own lifetime, and compels our sympathy and curiosity about what their lives might have been like.

‘Criminal Quilts’ is touring until early 2020.

Criminal Quilts Exhibitions

View Ruth’s working practice on this series here:  https://vimeo.com/281609160

Ruth’s story

Having grown up with a passion for both history and material culture, Ruth worked in museums for several years following a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies. She has been working as an artist-maker in textiles for 13 years, and now combines her creative practice with project development. She specialises in creating arts projects with partners, including heritage and community organisations, universities and galleries. She is currently working with students and academics at Wolverhamtpon University’s Fashion and Textile Department, to create new collaborative work, as well as large scale digital print and photographic pieces.

Ruth has exhibited widely in the UK and in summer 2019 has a new solo show upcoming at Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre in South Wales. http://www.lgac.org.uk