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The HAT Project 2006/07 is supporting 20 exchange fellowships between England, South Asia and Australia

Jane Webb

Residency at MIRIAD

Beginning to think about Ethel...

Posted by Jane Webb on 26th July 2006

Ethel Mairet is most established in craft history as a dyer (using natural dyes) and a weaver, she is less well-known for her photographs and embroidery. This is because her activities in both photography and embroidery seem to be most associated with a period in her life when she was married to Ananda Coomaraswamy and lived for some time in Kandy, Sri Lanka, a period about which there is very little information contained in archives in Britain at least. From 1907 to 1910, Ananda and Ethel lived in Broad Campden in the Norman chapel restored by the Guild of Handicraft to a design by C. R. Ashbee. At this point they separated, and it seems that, around this date Ethel also made a decisive shift from embroidery to weaving and dyeing, although she did continue to contribute to exhibitions with the Modern Embroidery Society based in Edinburgh, into the 1920s and '30s.

I was initially interested in this early period of Ethel's life because it represented for me an example of a craftsperson who had undertaken ethnographic study. However, as I began to research this period of her life, using the archives in the Ditchling museum and Farnham's Craft Study Centre, other issues began to become apparent, issues that I could not ignore.

My gran was called Ethel. This small fact in itself should really make no difference, Ethel Mairet and Ethel Hellier (my gran) were from very different classes and backgrounds, and my gran was only a young girl when Ethel Mairet was married for a second time. But I knew that my gran suffered terribly from grief and guilt for much of her life and this may be why, when I came across letters that Ethel Mairet had sent to Ananda in the 1940s, I felt what she had written perhaps slightly more deeply, in fact I was extremely saddened and moved. Ethel and Ananda separated in 1910, yet some 30 or so years later, Ethel was still writing to Ananda of their life together, the terribly, heart-wrenching regrets she had, and the loss that she felt. Ananda was at that time living in Boston in the United States of America and, when reading the letters, one gets a sense of the yearning Ethel had to reach him somehow despite their distance in space and time. Think how you have felt when you have lost someone either through bereavement or through an unwilling end to a relationship, how raw those emotions are, how much you miss them and how the time ahead of you seems endless and unbearable. Imagine that moment in one day and then imagine feeling that for twelve thousand, seven hundred and sixty-six days. As Ethel wrote " the years go on, it is not easy to keep any alive connection" (1943, Farnham Archive EM Env. 40, no. 2). 

I am not suggesting that Ethel was never happy, she did marry again but her second husband, Philippe Mairet, also left her for another woman in the 1930s, after which time she suffered a nervous breakdown. I don't want to be too melodramatic but this side to Ethel's life is in such contrast with the amazing dynamism of her written and weaving work, that the differences are almost too painful. The same woman that wrote the hugely inspiring, almost mantra-like books on weaving, was later described by one of her students as "an exceedingly shy and lonely person..." (Margery Kendon, "Memoir of Gospels" 1978, unpublished 91: 1173: 1 AR 29 Mairet, Ditchling Museum). Having read her letters, I feel that if she did not constantly feel the pain of her separation from Ananda, her apparent inability to retain the love of another man, and also the regrets caused by her infertility, then these feelings overcame her regularly throughout her life and, in her later years, they haunted her more frequently.

This emotional knowledge made me revisit the work that Ethel did in the early years in Kandy and to think about the stitches she noted down in a different way. Could I, by recreating and exploring the stitches she encountered, not only envisage a practice that was almost totally lost to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) by the time that Ananda and Ethel did fieldwork there (1904-6), but also discover something of Ethel's own life, from a period when there is such little traditional historical documentation? I am reminded of a title to a book by the novelist Alice Walker called In Search of our Mother's Gardens from 1984. In the essay, she used this memory of her mother's gardening, as a metaphor to highlight the often fruitless search for the work of many women undocumented or undertaking ephemeral acts of creativity particularly, for Walker, the work of Afro-American women. Although Ethel's activities have attracted more than usual interest, resulting in the preservation of much of her output, and privileging her in contrast to the history of many women's lives, there are surprising gaps. Therefore perhaps Walker's approach and concerns are also of use in Ethel's case too. How can one make a live connection, to use Ethel's words, when the conventional forms of historical documentation are no longer there? Furthermore, what is one making a connection with? Is there an importance in finding the elements beyond the physical traces and materials that one leaves behind? Shouldn't one's emotional life, the very core of one's being, be the real stuff of history, though it is impossible to collect? These are my starting points for exploring Ethel's work and the ethnographic documentation that she made, I am doing this by writing and stitching.



Jane Webb's talks to during cHAT week at Sanskriti, Delhi, India. March 2007

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