unicrest largeThe Centre for Material Texts at Cambridge fosters research into the physical forms in which texts are embodied and circulated, and the ways in which those forms have interacted with literary cultures and historical contexts. Based in the Faculty of English, it provides a focus for editorial and bibliographical work, and for critical, theoretical and historical projects of many kinds. The CMT fosters the study of a wide variety of media–from spoken words to celluloid, from manuscript to XML–and brings together academics and postgraduates from a range of faculties and departments across the University. This is a forum for starting new conversations which will push back the boundaries of knowledge in one of the most exciting areas of humanities research.

What is a material text?
A common assumption about texts – whether we are talking about plays, or works of philosophy, or letters – is that they are primarily mental events, which are merely reflected (often very inadequately) in their material forms. A writer may, in haste, put down the wrong word, a printer may misread their manuscript, or a censor may cut out sections of a book, and these acts work to corrupt the purity and integrity of the ‘real’ text. Such a view of the text accords primacy to writers and to their intentions, which readers should be able to access in their pristine state, in a meeting of minds. If you pick up a copy of a ‘classic’ in a bookstore, the chances are that it will have been edited with an eye to delivering ‘the text as the author intended it’, with nothing added and nothing taken away.

In reality, texts are always a good deal messier than this idea-centred account allows. The notion that any writer has a single, final intention is false, often demonstrably so; writers change their minds, revising their texts and responding to the unfolding form of their works in unforeseen, unpredictable ways. In addition, writing is a collaborative process, involving the writer in dealings with materials and institutions that help to give the text a presence in the world. The writer’s tools (pen-and-ink, typewriter, word-processor) may have a significant impact on the way that the text develops, as may the institutions and the media (manuscript, print, film, performance) by which it circulates. As the bibliographer D. F. McKenzie put it, ‘forms effect meanings’; every text is a negotiation between its creator(s) and a welter of worldly circumstances.

In recent years, academics across the humanities have been making a ‘material turn’ which has nowhere been so prominent as in our attitude to the words we read. The medium may not quite (as Marshall McLuhan had it) be the message, but its significance cannot be underestimated. The purpose of the Cambridge Centre for Material Texts is to foster the next generation of research into this fascinating field of inquiry.

The Centre

Established in July 2009, the Centre is run by a Director and an Executive Committee. Its website publicizes news and events, provides online research and teaching materials, and allows members of the Centre to communicate via an intranet Forum (RAVEN protected; see tab to right). In time it will also offer dedicated workspaces for the development of research projects. The Centre has its own seminar series, and holds a variety of colloquia and conferences, as well as assisting with the development of research and teaching initiatives. It has strong links with the Cambridge library community, and its website will also be used for online exhibitions which will bring many kinds of material text to a wider audience.

Membership of the Centre is open to postgraduates and academics at the University of Cambridge, and to any scholars with an interest who are visiting Cambridge, for however long or short a time. If you are interested in joining the CMT, please send a brief description of your research interests and a photograph to Alison Knight <aek35@cam.ac.uk>. You can sign up for our news mailings by following the instructions at https://lists.cam.ac.uk/mailman/listinfo (the list name is ‘english-cmt’).


Any Cambridge graduate students with training needs in the field of the material text (whether bibliographical, codicological, palaeographical, philological…) should contact the Director (jes1003@cam.ac.uk).


The CMT has run a number of major conferences: for reports, click on the links below

Inaugural Conference (2010)





Eating Words (2011)




Texts and Textiles (2012)





Delegates_generalsessionWriting Britain 500-1500 (2014)





Newes from No Place: A Conference Upon the Workes of John Taylor, the Water Poet (2017)







annual report 2016 annual report 2015 annual report 2014 annual report 2013 annual report 2012 annual report 2011 annual report 2010 annual report 0910

‘Collective considerations collating into Commonplaces’


CMT exhibition casesA backwater lay-by off the M5, Junction 24, three days before Christmas. A covert exchange of an unknown document, protected only by an iPad case, occurs between man, whippet and young woman. Shady as it may seem, this is not the stuff of reconnaissance but curation. This nineteenth-century commonplace book replete with beautiful illustrations, kindly donated by John and Caroline Robinson, now lies in situ on the first floor of the English Faculty, at the heart of the inaugural exhibition of the Centre for Material Texts. The exhibition, curated by myself and my MPhil colleagues on Dr Ruth Abbott’s Writers’ Notebooks course, focuses on commonplace books and the ways in which they acted as repositories for the recording of daily life in the nineteenth century. From passages of the Bible to Byron, musings on God to sketches of the family dogs, the commonplace book offered a powerful collective storehouse for the miscellanies and medleys of material that amassed at the center of communal family life.

19thcpbk1The unconventional method through which our exhibition materials were acquired proves apropos, given the unusual conditions under which the birth of our interest in commonplace books occurred. In another intrepid motorway adventure: a six hour, 250-mile minibus journey (nobly helmed by Ruth Abbott) with eight complete strangers, our group’s first weekend in Cambridge, was in fact spent in Grasmere, Cumbria working at the Wordsworth Trust. Guided by Ruth and curator Jeff Cowton we spent a full two days nestled in the archive, immersed in manuscripts and the materials which made them. It was a weekend stuffed with stuff. We created Thomas Bewick prints on a nineteenth-century printing press. We learned how to bind books on a sewing frame. Quills were carved and inks were made. Paste was pressed from pulp into paper (with the aid of a craftsman’s deckle and an improvised flattening dance on top of it). In a flurry of high spirits, fumbling with spirit-levels, our exhibition on the Wordsworth family commonplace books was installed.

19thCPBK3Like the chain lines and watermarks we spent the days studying in manuscripts, through curatorial collaboration we had impressed a profound mark on each other. The silence, sky and space of the Lakes and our collective academic endeavour had bound us together as tightly as the spines of the nineteenth-century treasures that lay on the archive’s shelves. What was particularly pertinent in creating this exhibition, born into being from deeply felt fellow-feeling from all parties, was that it chronicles and encourages the communal sharing of thought. The addition of our modern commonplace book to the display invites exhibition-goers to participate in shared forms of notetaking, to add their scraps and fragments of experience, their inmost thoughts, their favourite quotations and aid the creation of a beautiful, diverse collective text.

19thCPBK4Speaking to other students who have visited Grasmere, at a recent meeting with the Wordsworth Trust at London’s Brigham Young Institute, I further realised the true powerful potential of the material. Through awe-filled eyes, each sentence suffused with a quasi-religious fervour, they recounted the moment they were allowed to see a first edition of Lyrical Ballads and handle Dorothy Wordsworth’s real notebooks. In fact, the Wordsworth Trust’s website proudly proclaims ‘Visit the Wordsworth Museum to see Dorothy’s actual notebooks’. This is something our group reflected upon as we sat around Wordsworth’s ‘actual’ fire in Dove Cottage, reading his poems, souls stirred by the transcendent beauty of breathing life back into words where they were first brought into being. In curating this exhibition, in Grasmere and in Cambridge, and through Ruth Abbott’s phenomenal notebooks course we have relearnt the overwhelming magic of the material, the ability to encounter and interact with the ‘actual’. It is in this kind of engagement with ‘actual’ manuscripts, notebooks and papers that ‘with an eye made quiet by the power/Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things’.

19thCPBK5Through our immersion in the material practices from which texts develop, we learnt to cultivate a fresh appreciation for the ways in which literature is embodied and presented. The afterlives of the work we have done with these exhibitions, and the study of notebooks and manuscripts in general, like Wordsworth’s River Duddon, flow on endlessly. From future PhD projects to the reinstallation of the commonplace book exhibition in Cambridge ‘Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide;/The Form remains, the Function never dies’. We hope that in this latest reimagining of our display, we encourage others to see the beautiful potential in collective interaction with note-taking practices. In doing so, our work continues ‘to live, and act, and serve the future hour’.

19thCPBK6Megan Beech, MPhil Modern and Contemporary Literature

Megan is a performance poet and created these two short poetry films in response to her experiences at the Wordsworth Trust and studying notebooks on Dr Ruth Abbott’s course:

Trust Wordsworth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2BAv_9Mg5s

‘O! This is Our Tale Too!’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3UP_obyUTI



Lorina Bulwer 1

A few weeks ago I made a pilgrimage to Great Yarmouth – not, as fellow early modernists might suspect, in the footsteps of Thomas Nashe, but on the trail of a temporary exhibition at the town’s Time and Tide Museum. Frayed: Textiles on the Edge brought together a poignant collection of historic and contemporary textiles associated with personal experiences of suffering. These pieces were framed as the work of outsiders – people ‘on the edge’ in some way. But – created by individuals whose circumstances kept them in a workhouse, prison, or hospital, or who were isolated by grief or mental illness – they were also the products of the experience of confinement, of being physically or mentally locked inside.

Several of the exhibits were sorrowful works of memoriam, a reminder that in previous centuries, the death of a child was much more common, and no less painful. Anna Brereton, the maker of a patchwork counterpane and bed hangings in the eighteenth century, must have been in an almost permanent state of recent bereavement, losing four children in their infancy, and her eldest son at the age of fourteen. As some of the other pieces revealed, the reality of death was known from a young age and like adults, children also marked out their grief in stitches. There was a sampler which had been started in 1833 by a little girl called Martha Grant, and finished the following year, probably by her sister, after Martha died at the age of eleven years. Between 1823 and 1829 another young girl, Louise Buchhotz, made three small samplers, each stitched in black thread, to mark the deaths of her parents and uncle. ‘For since she’s dead, for ever gone/ O GOD my soul prepare/ To enter into heavens high gates/ In hope to meet her there’, she stitched in memory of her mother, on a tiny piece of pale linen no bigger than a page of a pocket-sized book.

In an understated way, Frayed challenged typically gendered narratives of stitching in which embroidery is thought of as a solely female occupation. I did not know that after the second world war, manufacturers of embroidery silks set up ‘Needlework for H.M. Forces’ schemes, supplying recuperating soldiers with kits to ‘help relieve the inevitable boredom of idle hours’, and give ‘the satisfaction that arises from the practice of personal skill’. Relief from boredom and satisfaction at creating something beautiful out of the horrors of the past must have in part motivated John Craske, the maker of a large woolwork tapestry depicting the evacuation of Dunkirk. Craske spent long periods recovering from physical and mental illness following military service in the first world war, but poignantly, the piece is unfinished, for he died in hospital in 1943. The contemporary tapestry cushions made by men in prison through the social enterprise Fine Cell Work demonstrated that the therapeutic value of stitching for everyone, but especially those in confined conditions, is still taken seriously today.

The therapeutic value of stitching was painfully evident in another piece, loaned for the exhibition from the V & A. Elizabeth Parker’s sampler was made around the year 1830, by a woman who worked as a nursery maid and endured cruel treatment from her employers. In letters worked in tiny red cross-stitches on linen cloth, she set down a confessional account of ‘that willful design of selfdestruction’ which tormented her. Scripture providentially helped her out of the darkness: ‘the Bible lay upon my shelf I took it down and opened it the first place that I found was the fourth chapter of S. Luke where it tells how our blessed Lord was tempted out of Satan I read it and it seemed to give me some relief for now’. Her own writing stops mid-sentence, however – ‘What will become of my soul’ – leaving nothing else but the remaining blank space of her linen page.

Lorina Bulwer 2

At the centre of the exhibition were two truly extraordinary stitched texts (pictured above and below) by a woman called Lorina Bulwer, who was an inmate in the ‘lunatic wing’ of the Great Yarmouth workhouse for several years at the beginning of the twentieth century. During her time there, Bulwer covered each of these three-metre lengths with densely embroidered text in which she expressed feelings of anger and frustration. Both pieces are made up of brightly coloured cotton fabrics stitched together, with a wadded lining and a backing fabric, like a quilt. Each individual letter is stitched through all of these layers. Writing in the first person, Bulwer offers a torturous working-out of her own identity. She is obsessed by names and places, frequently referring to herself by name, as well as to other people, including her own relations, members of the Royal family (she claims to be ‘Princess Victoria’s daughter’), and various towns and places in the East of England. A disturbing tangle of visceral, furious commentaries on people and situations apparently significant to her, Bulwer’s texts are impossible to summarise, but you can read transcriptions of them here.

The overall effect is one of unsettling, febrile tension between the text and its textile medium. Bulwer’s words are undoubtedly a rant, composed entirely in capital letters and without any punctuation – but their manifestation on the ‘page’ is the result of a slow process, in which each stitch has been individually formed. Writing with a needle is much slower than writing with a pen – another exhibit, Sara Impey’s machine-stitched contemporary quilt, made this point explicitly: ‘THE MOST DEMANDING ASPECT OF STITCHING IS TIME. THE STITCH DICTATES THE PACE’. Time, of course, is the one resource that imprisoned people, like Bulwer, often have most readily to hand. In her work, however, the inherently time-consuming, careful method of material composition contrasts with the angry, breathless quality of her words. It is clear that Bulwer intended her work to be read: she changes the colour of her thread according to the colour of the background so that the text is always clearly defined, and often highlights individual letters in contrasting thread where they cross over two different background colours. She underlines almost every word, and sometimes continues the text at right angles, along the borders. The cheery colours of the threads and background sit uneasily with the apparent bleakness of her experiences, and her implications of abuse. Bulwer’s desire to communicate is very evident, but this exhibition was the first time that both pieces have been displayed together (they are held in two different museum collections) – a sign, perhaps, of a general uncertainty about exactly how to read them.

 Lorina Bulwer 3

Frayed: Textiles on the Edge has now ended, but the Time and Tide Museum (shortlisted for the Council of Europe’s Museum of the Year in 2006) is definitely worth a visit.

Texts and Textiles


How do the fabrics of language intersect with the languages of fabric? This was the question at the heart of the CMT’s ‘Texts and Textiles’ conference, which took place over two days (11-12 September 2012) at Jesus College. Co-organized by Lucy Razzall and Jason Scott-Warren, and generously supported by a grant from the Faculty of English, the conference responded to the Centre’s current research theme on ‘The Material Text in Material Culture’. Speakers and delegates from across the world converged on Cambridge for the conference, literary critics, historians and anthropologists mingling with textile designers, artists, and librarians. Our fifteen panels and forty-four speakers approached the conference’s theme from many and varied angles.

Literary Perspectives

The text/textile interface has often surfaced as an explicit preoccupation in literature. Giovanni Fanfani and Ellen Harlizius-Klück (Centre for Textile Research in Copenhagen) explored the structural similarities between ancient Greek textual analysis and techniques of weaving, with particular attention to the relationship between the ‘starting border’ of a cloth and the prooimion of a text such as Hesiod’s Theogony. Andrew Zurcher (Cambridge) followed the migration of the shirt of Nessus from Sophocles and Ovid, via Seneca, to Shakespeare. As it travels, this poison-soaked garment raises important questions about agency and criminal culpability and perhaps hints at a tragic association between threads and fate. Megan Cavell (Toronto) took us to Anglo-Saxon England, where poets ostentatiously bound, locked and interlaced their words, giving them the solidity of textiles or metalwork—via forms of ‘cræft’ that could also carry troubling connotations of deception and treachery.

Several papers addressed the role of textiles in seventeenth-century English texts. Alison Knight (Cambridge) examined the poems of George Herbert as a response to the Protestant notion that the Scriptures present a tight verbal weave that cannot be broken or torn without loss. As they wield their chapter and verse, Herbert’s lyric speakers are themselves cut adrift, and can only find peace through a recovery of Biblical ‘contexture’. Christopher Burlinson (Cambridge) pursued the web of textile metaphors, and in particular of references to gossamer, in Robert Herrick’s Hesperides. In the seventeenth century there was no certainty about what gossamer was, and its elusive insubstantiality hints at the mysterious connections of Herrick’s poetics. Deborah Rosario (Oxford) studied Eve’s floral bower in Milton’s Paradise Lost, inviting us to think about the relationship between natural and manmade artifice in this highly ‘wrought’ environment.

Moving further forward in time, and crossing the Atlantic, Katie McGettigan (Keele) looked at the playful exchanges between rags and paper in Melville’s Pierre, contextualizing them in relation to a broader cultural fascination with the unseen transformations that take place in paper-making, while Rebecca Varley-Winter (Cambridge) pondered the relationship between collage-poems by Mina Loy and Marianne Moore and the surrealist assemblages of Max Ernst. Bringing the literary tour bang-up-to-date, Maria Damon (Minnesota) exposed some of the paradoxes that bedevil the ‘slow-poetry’ movement and the recent renaissance of craft-based making. Ought we to applaud these attempts to make critical space amid the frenzy of modernity, or should we be put off by their ‘suspicious nostalgia’?

The Stuff of Books

Many contributions to the conference pursued the textile into the material fabric of books and documents. Allison Jai O’Dell (Corcoran College) spoke (via Skype) about the importance of establishing a precise classification and terminology for sewing structures within the bibliographical study of bookbinding. Georgios Boudalis (Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki) reviewed a number of sewing structures found in the history of bookbinding, suggesting parallels between ancient methods used in the making of books and socks. (This prompted some debate here about the relative cultural significance of books and socks!) Clemence Schultze (Durham) explored the evidence for the writing of ritual texts on linen in ancient Rome, while Katya Oichermann (Goldsmiths) unfurled the stories and histories that circulated in the cloths that swaddled German Jewish boys during their circumcision ceremonies, which were later transformed into highly decorative ‘Torah binders’, for wrapping the sacred scrolls when not in use. Ralph Isaacs OBE (Director of the British Council in Burma from 1989 to 1994) displayed and discussed some exquisite Burmese manuscript binding tapes, decoding their rich symbolism and the record they offer of their own making. Joy Boutrup (Kolding School of Design) and Janice Sibthorpe (Royal College of Art) both discussed the art of the seventeenth-century English loop braid, which could be used as love token, purse-string, or bookmark, as long as it came festooned with symbols and texts. Georgianna Ziegler (Folger Shakespeare Library) discussed some wonderful images of early modern books (including a particularly beautiful binding in cut-work vellum), demonstrating the close connections between calligraphy and lace-making in both aesthetic and authorial terms (‘printer’s lace’ will never look the same again). And, staying in the early modern period, Claire Canavan (York) taught us how to judge a book by its cover, exploring a seventeenth-century stumpwork binding bearing an image of Sarah and Hagar. Such a binding didn’t just hold a book together; it also bound it outward to its environment and helped to make it ‘articulate in use’.

Seeing and Touching

Other speakers turned our attention to the visual arts, with which textile work has always had an intimate relationship, despite the fact that it has often had to play second fiddle. Beth Williamson (Tate) offered a history of textile education at Goldsmith’s College, dwelling on the increasing integration of Textiles into Fine Art, and the slow erasure of any clear demarcation between the two fields. Georgina Gajewski (North Carolina at Chapel Hill) focused on a single embroidered landscape executed by a student at the Raleigh Academy in North Carolina in 1826. Her paper offered a nuanced account of the intertwining of ideals of femininity with political aspirations and aesthetic codes in the period.

Linda Newington (Winchester) shared some of the riches of the knitting reference library at the Winchester School of Art (an absolute treasure-trove for social historians as well as knitters, containing patterns and knitted objects) and also described the library’s evolving collection of ‘artists’ books’. Her images included many beautiful and thought-provoking examplars which raised questions about the hand-made, the relationship between object, image and text, and the ever-expanding category of ‘the book’. (One among these was a printed cloth guide to making a stuffed toy rabbit, its final instruction surely more widely applicable: ‘hang from ears and hope for spring’). Sophie Aymes-Stokes (Bourgogne) presented a detailed account of changing practices in book illustration in relation to evolving attitudes towards the ‘photographic’ and the ‘mechanically reproduced’.

The creative practice of the Bauhaus emigrée artist Anni Albers, whose encounter with pre-Columbian Andean textiles inspired her to create a new visual language, was the subject of a paper by Marianna Franzosi (an independent scholar). Angela Carr (Montréal) tracked the archival remains of the Chicana writer and critic Gloria Anzaldúa, whose papers went to Austin, Texas, while her material things (including altar cloths and tapestries) were left to the University of Santa Cruz; Carr reconsidered the latter with reference to the Aztec concept of nepentla or in-between space.

Drawing on film theory which presents the cinema screen not as a window to look through but as a surface to linger on, Athena Bellas (Melbourne) explored the Twilight Saga movies, drawing our attention to the rich sensuality of the fabrics which invite viewers to feel as much as see Bella’s bedroom as a luxurious and erotic space – a reading which challenges the frustration many commentators feel at Bella’s narrative positioning as passive and reactive. The revelation that Target, the second largest discount retailer in the United States, had brought out its own line of ‘Bella bedding’ in response to the success of the first film took us forward into questions of reception, and the ways in which a teenage audience might appropriate for themselves the fantasy space of the film.

Talking Textiles

Some textiles conjure forth extraordinary language, or extraordinary amounts of commentary, while others seem to be unspeakable, utterly resistant to verbalization. Jennifer Burek Pierce (Iowa) considered the proliferation of knitting blogs, which in her analysis work to foster an international community committed to a single craft. Kandy Diamond (Manchester) analysed the language of knitting patterns, asking how new technologies are likely to change long-established codes for the transmission of complex instructions. The value of textile thinking to large corporations was the subject broached by Anne Rippin (Bristol), who also talked about how academic prose, with its holes and seams and bodges, is like cloth.

In her paper on eighteenth-century patchwork, Bridget Long (Hertfordshire) teazed out a contradictory relationship between practice and discourse. The making of patchwork quilts and covers was integral to the well-ordered, well-run household, but in common parlance ‘patchwork’ served as a term of abuse for anything that was perceived to be second-hand or incoherent. Elsewhere, in one of the conference’s many striking juxtapositions, Kelvin Knight (East Anglia) pondered whether silk might be the unifying thread in W. G. Sebald’s travelogue The Rings of Saturn, while Victoria Mitchell (Norwich) lifted the covers on the dazzling eighteenth-century fabric pattern-books which Sebald described as ‘leaves from the only true book which none of our textual and pictorial works can even begin to rival’. That sense of competition between text and textile was not perhaps reinforced by the pattern-books, in which each swatch of calamanco comes with its own beguiling name that renders it both identifiable and desirable.

The prize for the most startling exploration of the language of textiles went to Olivia Will (West Suffolk Hospital NHS Trust), who brought a mini operating theatre, bristling with sharp implements, along to the Jesus College Upper Hall. While a surgeon with an extraordinarily steady hand showed how bodily tissue—here, the intestine of a pig—responds to the needle, Will explained the discrepancies between the textile argot used by medics in the operating theatre and what patients themselves get to hear. As the body is reduced to an object for the purposes of invasive surgery, so it is reduced to a series of fabrics, which can be stitched, tied, patched and buttonholed.

Writing with a needle

One of the conference’s most engrossing sessions was entitled ‘Writing with a Needle’. This panel brought together four textile artists to explore the intersection of writing and fabric from what one might call the sharp end. Alison Stewart, currently an art student in her final year at Chichester, described how her dyslexia had prompted her to invent ‘newsfabrics’, newspapers in which the words are covered up by patches of gingham that mimic the appearance of text at the same time as they occlude it. Sara Impey brought in some of her quilts (illustrated here), stitched with texts that are often deliberately inconsequential and full of phatic elements, in order to subvert the sampler tradition in which stitched text has to earn its keep by being morally improving. Rosalind Wyatt’s work involves sewing immaculate facsimiles of handwritten texts onto garments that memorialize the lives of their wearers; she brought with her a running shirt that had belonged to Stephen Lawrence, together with one of his last school essays, which she was about to stitch-copy onto it. Lindsey Holmes continued this meditation on presence and absence by describing her work recreating pieces of costume at the Keats House. An exhibition about the poet’s relationship with Fanny Brawne allowed visitors to try on bodices, mitts and shoes closely resembling those worn in the period, thereby materially involving themselves in the past; and visitors responded enthusiastically to the invitation. The four papers generated rich discussion, with much reflection on the how the needle cuts against the rhythms of reading and unmoors words from their everyday business of signification.

Wearing Text

As Wyatt and Holmes reminded us, clothing is one of the most eloquent forms in which we encounter textiles. Several papers tackled it explicitly. Ben Cartwright (Cambridge) discussed the way that clothing ‘regestures’ the body, and emphasized the need to wear rather than merely to look at clothing from the past in order to understand its histories. In the Shetland and Norse communities that he studies, clothing at once makes inhabitation possible (it is proverbial that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing!) and intimately conditions it. Patricia Pires Boulhosa (Cambridge) introduced us to a medieval Icelandic manuscript which had been cut up in the seventeenth century to be used as pattern pieces for making clothes. The leaves have now been reassembled again into a bound volume, but the resulting fragmentary object embodies the slippage between the stuff of the household and the stuff of the book.

Sally Holloway (Royal Holloway) reminded us of how clothing could be freighted with emotion, as she connected a variety of eighteenth-century birth and courtship tokens, including garments hand-made by courting sweethearts and pincushions made for the mothers of new-born babies. One example of which reads ‘Health to the little Stranger’. Give a pin-cushion before the birth and the labour will be painful (Holloway’s proverb was ‘more pins, more pain’). Here the emotional shades into the magical, gift into charm. And Mimi Yiu (Georgetown) unfolded the intriguing history of a particular stitch: blackwork, also known as the Spanish stitch or true-stitch. Probably originating in Mamluk Egypt, blackwork retained its association with the foreign, and was described by John Taylor, the fabric- conscious water-poet, as coming from ‘Beyond the bounds of faithlesse Mahomet’. Despite contemporary suspicion and fear of both the Ottoman Empire and of Spain, Yiu argued, the stitch’s foreign origins added a fashionable frisson to elaborately worked collars and cuffs. Moving on to the terminology of ‘true-stitch’ (so called because the patterns appear the same on both sides of the fabric), Yiu argued that it was in the language of love that the stitch became more contested, as poets and playwrights deployed the term to argue not for women’s domestic constancy but for their fashionable fickleness.

Another paper that focused on clothing was given by Hester Lees-Jeffries (Cambridge). Here we were dazzled with a series of exquisite images, highlighting both the artistic skill and the intense domestic labour which went into producing the elaborate folds and pleats of Elizabethan and Jacobean costume. Meditating on the language of folding and unfolding in Shakespeare’s poems and plays, Lees-Jeffries encouraged us to consider connections between sensation and narrative movement and to restage the visual and verbal encounters invited or imagined by fabric and folds. Reminding us that the story of the play unfolds on stage or in reading but is folded (as paper) to form a readable book, she also raised intriguing questions of what happens within the fold, where material is not lost but concealed. Stories and patterns disappear and re-form in movements that mimic the structures of early modern literary composition.

As well as looking at what people wore, the conference also attended to the places they lived in, and in particular to the domestic sphere and the forms of production that emerged from it. Helen Smith (York) reassessed the association of domestic biblical embroideries with female oppression. Scrutinizing the terms in such embroideries were described in the period, she uncovered a strong association between the female needleworker and the God who ‘wrought’ his creation, alongside plentiful evidence for the affective force of stitched Scriptures. Leah Knight (Brock) described the reading practices of Anne Clifford in relation to the spaces, decoration, and management of her household, with particularly fascinating discussion of the choice of motifs and colours for the decor of the rooms in which reading might be located and the pinning up of texts upon their walls.

Telling by Hand

As this description will suggest, the proceedings of the conference were richly various; the discussion was lively and occasionally combative. It was appropriate, then, that our plenary speaker was someone whose own work is characterized by its omnicuriosity, as well as by the pungency of its multidisciplinary synthesis. Tim Ingold (Aberdeen) gave a talk entitled ‘Telling by Hand: Weaving, Drawing, Writing’, that offered an extraordinary series of reflections on the workings of the human hand. (Fittingly, he was framed throughout by the many hands of Richard Long’s mural ‘River Avon Mud, 1996’). Drawing on the work of Heidegger and Sennett, Ingold offered a sense of what we stand to lose in a push-button world, where the education of attention involved in ‘telling’ is sidelined in favour of prepackaged and articulated knowledge, or ‘joined-up thinking’. Somewhere near the heart of the paper was a breathtaking account of how you set about making a piece of string by hand. In its taut simplicity, its precision and clarity, Ingold’s plenary really did pull everything together.

Report by Jason Scott-Warren. Thanks to Patricia Pires Boulhosa for photographs, and to Christopher Burlinson, Mary Laven, Hester Lees-Jeffries, Lucy Razzall and Helen Smith for their contributions to the text. The Impey quilt, from the Quilters’ Guild Collection, is reproduced by permission of Sara Impey. Photo: David Guthrie.


More images from the conference are available on the Centre’s Facebook page:


You can download the abstracts from the conference here

& see also http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/features/the-needle-and-the-pen/


CFP: Cultures of the Digital Economy 2012


1st Annual Conference
Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK
27-28 March 2012

Call For Abstracts

The 1st Annual Conference of CoDE: Cultures of the Digital Economy will be held at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK on 27-28 March 2012. Participants from a range of scholarly disciplines are invited to present research related to digital culture and the digital economy. Confirmed keynote speakers are Dr Jussi Parikka and Dr
Astrid Ensslin, whose biographies are included below. Paper abstracts of up to 300 words can be submitted to
code@anglia.ac.uk until 31st January 2012. In particular, abstracts related to the following conference themes are
sought, though abstracts addressing other aspects of digital culture are also welcome:

Theme 1. Materiality and Materialism
It is straightforward enough to understand computation as a relationship between material objects (hard drives,
screens, keyboards and other input devices, scanners, printers, modems and routers) and nominally immaterial ones (software, programming languages, code). This approach to the „stuff‟ of the digital risks ignoring a set of crucial questions around the relationships digital technologies construct with a range of material objects: from the „analogue‟ world modelled in weather systems and battlefield simulations to the body of the information worker interacting with spreadsheets and databases; from the range of artefacts that form the subject of the digital humanities to the materials, bodies, spaces and places of art practice and performance.

Theme 2. Performance, Production and Play
Innovative aspects of our interaction with performances and the production of artefacts for continuous engagement
have evolved exponentially through the digital age, particularly with the development of ideas related to play and
serious gaming, which brings novel opportunities for creative expression, not to mention innovative approaches
related to parallel disciplines in science, education, healthcare and business. The collaboration between performance, production and play and adjacent academic fields is of particular interest given the cross-disciplinary requirements of the Digital Economy Act.

Theme 3. Digital Humanities – Archives, Interfaces and Tools
Digital Humanities works at the intersections of traditional research and technological innovation. Its techniques have helped to prove that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, for instance, and have even been used by the FBI to
determine the authorship of sensitive documents. Today scholars in the digital humanities are primarily concerned to offer a gateway to previously hidden records of culture and heritage. A high-resolution digital photograph of a Chaucer manuscript, for instance, reveals its delicate pen strokes, and when placed on the internet, can pave the way for school children, university students, and those interested in culture generally, to learn about medieval literature from primary resources.

See www.anglia.ac.uk/code for details of CoDE projects and affiliated staff.
Email: code@anglia.ac.uk

Keynote Speakers

Jussi Parikka is Reader in Media & Design at Winchester School of Art (University of Southampton), Adjunct Professor in Digital Culture Theory (University of Turku, Finland) and Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University. His writings have addressed accidents and the dark sides of network culture (Digital Contagions, 2007 and the co-edited volume The Spam Book, 2009), biopolitics of media culture (Insect Media, 2010, the co-edited special issue of Fibreculture “Unnatural Ecologies”, 2011 and the edited online book Medianatures: The Materiality of Information Technology and Electronic Waste, 2011) and media archaeology (the co-edited volume Media Archaeology, 2011 and the forthcoming book What is Media Archaeology?, 2012). He is currently finishing editing a
collection of the German media theorist Wolfgang Ernst’s writings, to be published in 2012.
Website and blog: http://jussiparikka.net

Astrid Ensslin lectures in Digital Humanities at the University of Bangor. Her research interests are in the fields of digital discourse, semiotics, narrative and communication. Most of her current research revolves around digital fiction, videogames and virtual worlds, language ideologies in the (new) media and specialised language corpora. She has a BA/MA (Distinction) from Tuebingen University (2002), a Postgraduate Teaching Certificate from Leeds University and a PhD (s.c.l.) from Heidelberg University (2006). She convenes Bangor University’s Digital Economies Cluster, is the founding editor of the MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities and Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds and Co-Investigator of the DFG/AHRC learner corpus project, ‘What’s Hard in German?’ (2009-12), and of the Leverhulme Digital Fiction International Network (DFIN) (2009). She was Programme Leader of the AHRC collaborative postgraduate training scheme, CEDAR (2008-10). Astrid’s most recent monograph is The Language of Gaming (2011); she has published widely, and other work includes Canonizing Hypertext: Explorations and Constructions (2007) and, with Eben Muse, Creating Second Lives: Community, Identity and Spatiality as Constructions of the Virtual (2011). Her forthcoming work will be published by MIT Press, and will be on Literary Gaming.

CFP: Future Perfect of the Book

Calls for Papers, News;

*Book History Research Network: a one-day colloquium*

*Institute of English Studies (University of London), 25 November 2011*

At a moment when the rise of e-Readers foretells the end of the printed book, the founder of the Internet Archive Brewster Kahle launches an initiative for the preservation of the book. He is creating a storehouse for physical books in specially-adapted containers on the West Coast of the United States in order to preserve them as “backup copies” for posterity. His idea came about as a reaction against the notion that books can be put beyond use (or thrown away) as soon as they are digitized.

While the future of the book is certainly an important topic for consideration, an initiative such as Kahle’s also begs the question how did past the past envision the future of the book – or of the predominant medium of the time. Victor Hugo’s phrase, ‘ceci tuera cela’, spelt a new paradigm of mistrust when the printed book suddenly disrupted the foundation of manuscript culture and the transmission of the written. Although the digital revolution is possibly the most radical change in the history of writing, one can wonder how
other similar transitions fared: from the scroll to the codex, from manuscript to printed book, from printing on the handpress to machine and offset printing, from writing by hand to writing on the typewriter
and the wordprocessor? More fundamentally, do the concerns of fifteenth-century critics of print like those of Abbot Johannes Trithemius of Sponheim have anything in common with twenty-first-century anxieties about the triumph of digital technology? Is access to knowledge and preservation, which champions of the digital revolution invoke, really a new concern? How much of the (old) culture of the book is retained in the new digital media?

This colloquium, therefore, wants to consider not just what “will be”, but also “what would have been” – the future perfect of the book. We invite proposals (no more than 250 words) for 20-minutes papers on any topic in book history relating to the future of the book considered at any moment in history.

Deadline: 15 October 2011.

Topics may include:

-competing technologies: scroll v. codex/paper v. screen/writing v. typing

-manuscript culture in the age of print

-the Gutenberg revolution as devolution

-the library of the future in the past

-old books and new media

-mass digitization or digital archive

-book collecting in the digital era

-/mise-en-page /and digital design

-hypertext and other outmoded technologies

-readers and e-readers


Cynthia Johnston

Research Student

Institute of English Studies


Dr Wim Van Mierlo

Lecturer in Textual Scholarship and English Literature

Institute of English Literature