One month ago, my friend (and awesome collections manager at the Met) Becky Fifield shared on facebook the link for this exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London. Immediately I traveled back in time..

In 2007, when I was still in textile conservation school, I studied abroad in Antwerp, Belgium. While there, I went to see an amazing exhibition in an old orphanage, featuring their collection of 18th century textile swatches. Why would a orphanage have such a collection? The reason is heartbreaking. During those times, when a mother was leaving a baby at the orphanage, it was very common to tear part or cut part of her garment and leave it with the baby. These little pieaces of fabric would be stored by the institution along with the baby’s identification. If any time in the future, the mother was able to come back and get her baby, the identification was made possible by matching the swatch of fabric that the she would have kept with the swatch in the orphanage database.

Threads of Feeling, at the Foundling Museum in London, features the same textiles with the same story. Between 1741 and 1760, more than 4000 babies were left by their mothers at the Foundling Hospital and for each one  a sample of the mothers garment or their baby garments was kept as for their identification records.

Worckt with flowers’ Linen or cotton embroidered with flowers © Coram

A bunch of 4 ribbons narrow Yellow Blue Green Pink Silk’ ribbons tied in a bunch with a knot © Coram

(images courtesy of

This collection of fabric swatches in the largest collection of 18th everyday textiles surviving in Britain. The curator, John Styles, comments about the exhibition:

“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 18th Century.”


(images courtesy of
The Foundling Museum took this exhibition even a step further by partnering with London Printworks Trust to reproduce one of the fabric swatches. The chosen swatch was baby Florella’s, born in June 19th 1758. London Printowsork’ staff  was able to reproduce  the original repeat pattern using the little fabric swatch and re-printed by hand 30 meters of cotton fabric with it. The fabric was used to recreate a 18th century bedgown, which is now displayed in the exhibition.

Letter and token left with Florella Burney’s at the Foundling Hospital 19th June 1768 © Coram
(image courtesy of
(images courtesy of London Printworks Trust)

Threads of Feeling can be seem at the Foundling Museum until March 6th 2011. If you found yourself in the UK, make sure you don’t miss it.