The Tartan Detective?


When I promised a post about my reading on Tuesday, I had originally been thinking of a generic book review post.

The books in question were Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and The Dress Detective by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim. The former is an alternative history of the Napoleonic wars with magicians added in. Since this is basically my favourite time period and the book has a wonderful, self-mocking, tongue-in-cheek tone while weaving a magnificent story, I found it hard to resist.

The Dress Detective is not only co-authored by Ingrid Mida, with whom I had the great honour to work at Worn Through, but was my first book in a self-prescribed “refresher” course in material culture and dress studies. A nasty health scare meant that I had not done much, if any, proper research or reading in my field for the last two years. The Dress Detective‘s focus on object-based research seemed like the perfect way to dip my toes back into the waters, as it were.


Both books are now finished (even the 1006-page behemoth that is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell), but as I was mulling the post over this morning, I realised that, 1) I didn’t want to review Susannah Clarke’s novel (at least not yet); and 2) what better way to simultaneously show my admiration for The Dress Detective AND re-enter the world of object-based research than by using its methodology on an object?

Choosing the object was easy: a wooden wool holder at the National Museum of Scotland (NMS). I’m familiar with the object from my many trips to the NMS during my year in Edinburgh. I even used it in my truly horrible virtual exhibition, and it is likely to be a centrepiece in the article I announced on Tuesday. I absolutely adore it. It has tiny little feet. It is tartan. I want to love it, and hold it, and pet it, and squeeze it, and call it George.

The Dress Detective outlines basic object-based research methodology, then provides examples in seven case studies, and checklists in the appendices. I will be adapting these appendices to look at the wool holder.


Observation Checklist

1. What is the object?

This is, essentially, a Victorian travel souvenir.

2. What is it made of?

Mauchline ware. This is a sort of papier mâché made in the town of Mauchline in Ayrshire (Robert Burns eventually settled in its outskirts), where box making and transport were a major industry. This particular object, according to the Scran database, is made of wood, possibly wood pulp left over from the box trade?

3. What are the dominant colours/patterns?

Red and green tartan. Of the difficult to miss variety.

4. What decade or general period does the object belong to?

Second half of the 19th century, the Victorian era. It screams Victorian.


The reflection checklist only partially applies here, so I’ll just move into the analysis.

What is it, really? This is basically the Victorian equivalent of the modern knitter’s project bag. The top on the holder opens, you drop your ball of wool (yarn) inside, run the working end of the wool through the eye in the top of the lid, close it up, loop the strap over your wrist and can work without your yarn getting tangled in a purse, or dirty as you carry it from place to place.

I’m fascinated by this object because I am myself a knitter, and I have several ‘project bags’ (none of them are tartan, this may need to be rectified). This gives me the experience of having travelled with my knitting, and I can imagine using this object. It would be heavier than what I’m used to, being made of wood Maucheline ware, while my bags are usually cotton canvas. I can imagine the wool rattling slightly inside the ball-shaped holder. Feel the imagined weight of it as it jostles about, and admire the ingenius eye in the lid, making working on the project somewhat easier by preventing tangling or catching. Though I am left wondering where you put the project when you aren’t working on it (the convenience of a canvas tote bag is I can store the yarn and the project inside it at the same time).

So why does it exist?

With the advances in technology travel became much easier in the Victorian era. The steam engine meant it was faster and more comfortable, too. The popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, and the patronage of them by the Royal Family, made Scotland a very popular travel destination – more so once Balmoral was built. You can see this in the number of travel posters from the time, increase in travel wear, etc.

And then, as now, everyone who travelled wanted to bring a bit of their travels home with them. And then, as now, tartan-printed tchotchkees screamed “I’ve been to Scotland!”.

So Mauchline came up with Mauchline ware objects that people could take home. They were usually tartan. In this way are industries born.

This is an fascinating object, not only because of how personally I can relate to it, but because it represents a shift in society. People have always brought things back from their travels – that’s how cotton was first introduced to Britain, as something East India Company sailors brought home from their long trips to show off to their families. But this is an object specifically manufactured as a souvenir.

That makes it eminently relatable for 21st-century viewers.

It’s also tartan, which means that it had only taken a few short decades for what had once been a rare fabric worn in the remote Highlands to come to represent an entire culture and people (Waverley was first published in 1814).

This simple, rather small object – it’s only 3.85 inches in diameter – manages to open a door into the Victorian world, and Victorian perceptions of Scotland in a way that almost everyone can relate to; in a way they may not relate to an average history book. But most of us have bought souvenirs to remind ourselves of a trip, or a special event in our lives.

It also tells a story of a person long forgotten, who most likely won’t be found in any history book average or otherwise: the person who purchased or might have purchased this piece. Most likely a woman, or a gift for a woman from a male friend or relative. Would she have thought about her trip, or dreamed of her friend or relative’s trip every time she used it? Did tartan already represent Scotland in her mind? Was she a fan of the Waverley novels? Or did she prefer Scott’s poetry?

We will never know these details.

But through the training a book like The Dress Detective provides, and through our own experiences combined with other research, we can guess.

Unlike the textual accounts of history, ordinary objects such as clothing can be seen as ‘less self-conscious and potentially more truthful’ about a culture (Prown 1982: 4).

Ingrid Mida & Alexandra Kim, The Dress Detective

Image: Coloured wooden wool holder, Maucheline, second half of the 19th century. Object number 000-100-102-211-C, © National Museums Scotland


One Comment Add yours

  1. Marjorie Barks says:

    I thought yarn holders were a clever NEW thing, which they clearly are not. THIS is a delightful item — with wonderful little footies!

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