Threads of Feeling

14 October 2010 - 06 March 2011

“...silvers of everyday Georgian life make a triumphant return to their original home."  The Guardian

In the cases of more than 4,000 babies left at the Foundling Hospital between 1741 and 1760, a small object or token, usually a piece of fabric, was kept as an identifying record. The fabric was either provided by the mother or cut from the child’s clothing by the hospital's nurses.  Attached to registration forms and bound up into ledgers, these pieces of fabric form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the eighteenth century.


A selection of the textiles and the stories they tell us about individual babies, their mothers and their lives formed the focus of the Threads of Feeling exhibition. The exhibition also examined artist William Hogarth’s depictions of the clothes, ribbons, embroidery and fabrics worn in the eighteenth century as represented by the textile tokens.

John Styles, Research Professor in History at the University of Hertfordshire received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to curate the exhibition. John comments, “The process of giving over a baby to the hospital was anonymous. It was a form of adoption, whereby the hospital became the infant’s parent and its previous identity was effaced. The mother’s name was not recorded, but many left personal notes or letters exhorting the hospital to care for their child. Occasionally children were reclaimed. The pieces of fabric in the ledgers were kept, with the expectation that they could be used to identify the child if it was returned to its mother. 

The textiles are both beautiful and poignant, embedded in a rich social history. Each swatch reflects the life of a single infant child. But the textiles also tell us about the clothes their mothers wore, because baby clothes were usually made up from worn-out adult clothing. The fabrics reveal how working women struggled to be fashionable in the eighteenth century.”

Threads of Feeling also celebrated the Foundling Museum’s first venture into an online exhibition alongside media partner Mumsnet, making the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the eighteenth century available online. Justine Roberts, co-founder of The Foundling Museum’s online partner Mumsnet says, “This is a beautiful online exhibition which packs a powerful emotional punch, and is sure to resonate with parents.” Threads of Feeling online has been rated one of the top fifteen online cultural archives by Florence Waters of The Telegraph.

To view the collection of poignant textile tokens visit Threads of Feeling online

Curator John Styles

During the exhibition Sarah Easom and London Printworks Trust recreated an eighteenth century bed gown based on the design of a token textile which was on display, Florella. Annabel Lewis of VV Rouleaux produced an installation of falling ribbons and sold limited edition ribbons based on the Foundling textile tokens. Swatches of Florella and the exhibition book are available to purchase from the Museum Shop.

“The Foundling Museum has done an exemplary job in maintaining a restrained scholarly atmosphere that only adds to the emotional power of this excellent exhibition.”  Timeout

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Images: © Coram



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