The dress and textiles collection at Leeds Museums and Galleries (LMG) is made up of around 20,000 individual objects. The collection dates from the seventeenth century to contemporary design. Dress and textile collections often reflect the elite ruling classes, however our collection is a little different in that it echoes the tales of the more everyday fashions worn during these periods. But how many of the objects collected reflect black stories or black lives?

On the surface, only a very small number of objects reflect the stories or biographies of black individuals. Our community team works hard to ensure contemporary collecting reflects Leeds’s diverse demographics. However, the older garments in our collection tend not to be linked to black lives.

Decolonising our museum collections is something all museums and associated cultural institutions should be committed to. In terms of dress and textiles, there are numerous links that can be made and shared predominantly about the transatlantic slave trade. These stories will no doubt take some time to get into our museum displays, but it is something we eagerly want to share with our online audiences.

LMG has a host of objects that could be re-framed to shed light on the complex histories we are often not taught. In this series of blog posts I will draw from three key objects. These objects help tell the story of the transatlantic slave trade.

As crusades set off from what we now call European soil in 1492, new worlds were re-discovered. These lands were already inhabited by natives, but entire countries and continents were seen as ‘new discoveries’ from the eyes of western men who ‘found’ them. Envoys, merchants and missionaries who boarded the ships detailed new information about ‘new’ parts of the world they visited. This new way of looking at the world was intrinsic to each land mass discovered, with a different route across the oceans exercised. A new map denoting these discoveries and routes was pencilled.

By the early 17th century the British Empire began to take shape across the world. Maps were not just visually appealing resources signifying the success of explorations, they also demonstrate the vastness of the transatlantic trade routes (TTR). The TTR was a triangular route used for the trading cargo between the sixteenth and early nineteenth century. Along with raw cotton, sugar, tea and gold, the Europeans traded human bodies along these routes. Exploitation and slavery of individuals were common from the newly discovered lands. It is estimated that around 10 – 12 million enslaved individuals were traded along this route. The perfectly penned intellectual maps illustrating the white man’s new discoveries, which were already home to thousands, also demonstrate the exploitative nature of European trade negotiations.

Geography had always been a subject deemed acceptable of study by wealthy individuals. They would read classic texts in Latin about the world, and specifically the mappa mundia would inform them. However the discovery of ‘new’ territories from the late fifteenth century onwards meant geography was an increasingly significant subject for young boys and girls to study. As new territories were found, new maps of the globe were drafted, and usually they were surprisingly accurate. Schooling changed and adapted to suit the latest maps.

A framed textile map

Map of England and Wales, silk and linen, 1786.

One way geography was learned was through embroidery. Needlework was seen as a vital skill required by the majority of girls, but often practiced by boys too. Utilising a needle and thread to fix a hole in your shirt, mend a patch on your stockings or create an elaborate artwork were all signs of wealth, good education and sensibility. Practicing embroidery alongside geography resulted in beautiful craftworks and an understanding of the world’s makeup.

A tutor, or teacher, would sketch the areas of the world onto a canvas for a pupil to embroider, but by the end of the seventeenth century you could purchase ready-marked canvases. The maps in the LMG collection are from the late eighteenth century and are ‘ready-to-stitch’ canvases. Although geography was an important subject for middle and upper class children to study for propriety, the intricate messages behind the delicately embroidered map are sometimes overlooked.

an embroidered map of Europe

Map of Europe, silk and linen, c. 1798

We see that the second embroidered map only represents Europe but is perhaps more significant than the smaller map, picturing only England and Wales. Clearly written under the Mediterranean Sea the capital letters read ‘A F R I C A’. There may have been an understanding between pupil and teacher that Africa was incredibly important. But it is curious whether the child who embroidered this piece knew of its significance.

Along with maps denoting Europe, maps showing the four continents of the world were also used as learning aids. Unfortunately we do not have such a map in our collection, but they can be viewed in other online collections. To the European explorer in the sixteenth century, the world was split into four continents: Africa, America, Asia and Europe. Each ‘continent’ divided up the world into quadrants: south, east, west and north. Each continent had a vital role to play in trade negotiations, alliances and marked territories.

A close up of an embroidered map

Map of Europe, silk and linen, c. 1798

These embroidered maps are particularly charming on initial inspection – with boarders of trailing flora and incredibly well executed stitches. But these maps representing the ‘latest discoveries’, where individuals and communities were exploited, where the exchanging of human lives were common place, are far from charming things.

In the next blog post I’ll be looking at a specific textile the LMG collection. On first inspection it is quite an innocent textile, but I will unravel the complex history woven into it.

By Vanessa Jones, Assistant Curator of Dress and Textiles