What I learned about identity from Jan Hassard


The speaker at Bristol Quilters last week was the lovely and very talented Jan Hassard.  She has been a member of Bristol Quilters for years, and so it was nice to see  her body of work as it developed; it was something of a retrospective, as they call it in the fine art world.

Jan’s work couldn’t be more different from mine.  Her work is totally precise, planned, ordered, structured and disciplined.  Mine is slapdash and improvised.  But even so, it is glorious because it has so much beautiful colour and vivacity.

I am not posting many photos, because a. I didn’t take a camera – even my phone, and b. she was talking about the increasing phenomena of work on the net being stolen and copied, or just used without permission.

The riot of colour which was a tonic for the soul aside, I enjoyed Jan’s talk for its insistence on craft, standards, high levels of finish and presentation, many concerns which I would like Craftivists to take into account.  I loved it even more because it seemed to me to be the perfect riposte to the anti-nostalgia rally that I seem to keep running into recently.  It is like there is something deficient in people who want to hold the past with affection.  They should be letting go and moving on.  They should be facing up to the realities of the present and not seeking solace in the imaginary golden past of tea and crumpets and church picnics.  Nostalgia is the new opium of the people, according to this analysis, and women are particularly susceptible.  At the same time we hear lots of stuff about identity (see, for example, Grayson Perry’s wonderful recent series on British television).  Most of the identity theory at the moment is about our fugitive, unstable, protean identities, constructed only in relation to others (I am different as a daughter, wife, friend, university academic, driver, customer, quilter and so on).  Jan’s talk, however, included her experience of being a very small child in the war and being bombed out of her home.  Her parents knew how to count between hearing the bomb and its exploding.  So they managed to get her to safety but the house was destroyed: everything gone in an instant.  Later on, as dispossessed person she got a Canadian Red Cross quilt.  These were utility quilts made by Canadian women to aid British allies who had lost everything.images-5 images-4

Jan talked about sleeping under hers until she was about eleven.  One day her mother just threw the quilts away.  To a collector like Jan in later years, this was devastating, but to her mother it made perfect sense.  She did not want to be reminded of the horrible period in her life when she lost everything.  Jan now acquires these Red Cross quilts.  I don’t think that this is fuzzy nostalgia of the sort that fuels our delight in Downtown Abbey.  I think this is a serious identity project.  Our identities might be shifting and relational and contextual and contingent, but they are built on experience that matters to us.  We cannot just throw off that quilt and become post-modern, or worse yet post-human.  And, once again, cloth plays a major part on our view of ourselves as people in the world.

4 thoughts on “What I learned about identity from Jan Hassard

  1. Thank you for sharing this Ann. In particular, I recognised something of my mum in what you wrote about Jan Hassard’s mother and the quilt. When Nanny (my mum’s step-mother) died (in the late 80’s), my mum threw out the (to my mind) wonderful old proddy rugs, even though they still had life in them, it surprised me as she was in no way wasteful. When I asked why (interested in crafts, I wanted to find out more about them) she was quite emotional and yet clear that they took her back to much harder times. Mum was a farmer’s daughter, when she was about 2 years old she lost her mother and (adored) older brother to TB. At that time the family was brought up by a very firm old granny. Mum recounted her memories of granny in a cold (physically and emotionally) farmhouse crafting “those (b…..) things” by candlelight. Similar to Jan’s mother, my Mum did not want to be reminded of such a hard time in her life and the rugs had to go. Such a conversation may never have occurred and I would not have had those insights into my mum’s life had she not thrown the rugs away… She and I clearly had very different standpoints on their value and significance and I can understand her ‘anti nostalgia’.
    PS This is my first ‘live’ reading of your blog, which I came across last week while “Googling” around handmade books as background for my C&G embroidery course. I loved finding your Laura Ashley Sample Book of Secrets – inspirational and lovely. Jan.

  2. Very interesting. Considering the collections sometimes drawn between collecting and trauma, the feeling of loss at her mother’s choice to discard such an important object seems entirely natural (and sympathetic). The historical research I’m familiar with (Peter Fritzsche et al) seems to conceptualize nostalgia as a specifically modern response to rapid change after about 1789 or so, but to me it’s a different thing when (as Chumbawumba puts it) “it all ends up on e-Bay,” i.e., our feelings about the past as represented in material objects are commodified and re-commodified. But on the whole, I don’t see the pleasure that some people take in nostalgia as all that problematic (unless it totally erases the balancing awareness that nostalgia is highly personal and only one potential view of the past).

  3. Wow, this is a very deep post Ann! I think that the past is an important anchor for who we are, of course, we cannot think of the “good old times” all the time, that will stop us to be in the present. Sometimes with art work is a bit complex, specially those taking lots of time: i.e something you start years ago and try to finish (or not) and keep on going on. As a traveler I feel a bit nostalgic of certain objects, indeed, I’ve lost so many things in the process of moving from one place to other… but it is true, I carry with me certain objects and now that I think about it they are cloths that have been with me forever… e.g. my yoga piece of cloth that I got with Ana Maria in Villa de Leyva in 1997 when she left to Buenos Aires, and we bought together the same type of cloth… odd, isn’t it?
    lovely and thought-provoking post! thanks!

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