Archive for April 15th, 2012

Textile research point

Wedding shawl of Elizabeth Travis

The course asks for an in depth look at a textile I have at home.

Elizabeth Travis (1843 – 1897) was the daughter of Thomas Travis and Ann Travis (née Lofthouse) and the sister of Mary Ann Brant (née Travis). Mary Ann was the mother of Alice, who was the mother of Eleanor Louise, the mother of Margaret Eleanor, the mother of Judith Margaret (me). Which I think makes Elizabeth my great great great aunt. As a child my grandmother, Eleanor, lived in a house in Sheffield UK with four generations and although she didn’t remember much of that time she had been told that she learnt to walk in her Great Grandmother’s room (that would have been Ann). I don’t know any more of Elizabeth’s story, when or who she married, but the shawl and story were given by my grandmother to my mother. Early this year I asked mum about the shawl for this research exercise and she has now given it to me.

The shawl is woven, rectangular and large – around 275 cm in length plus a fringe of 9 cm at each end, and 146 cm in width. The ends of the shawl have a narrow hem and the fringe has been added separately. It is very light – just 235 grams.

I did a burn test on some fibre taken from a torn area and assessed it based on a chart and information from (accessed 13 April 2012). It burnt briefly then self-extinguished. There was an odour of burning hair (I cross-checked by burning a snippet of my own hair!), and left a black, soft bead of ash. Based on this plus the appearance of the shawl, I think the shawl is a mix of silk and wool.

The central part of the shawl is warped in a very fine off-white thread with a sheen. The warp is spaced, with pairs of threads every millimetre or so. This gauzy weave seems quite stable, suggesting to me a leno structure or similar, but even with a fairly strong magnifying glass I can’t see clearly. At each side there is a striped border – a broad (5.7 cm) stripe of heavier tan-coloured silk woven in a twill (I think) at the side, then four narrower stripes. Each stripe is edged by a few ends of off-white silk, heavier than that in the main cloth.

Weftwise, there is a matching border of tan silk striping at each end. The body of the shawl has a very regular repeat of stripes. I think the main weft may be wool. Certainly it is more matt in appearance that the other threads. There is a stripe of wool a couple of picks of the off-white silk, a stripe of wool, then a stripe consisting of a dark silk, the off-white silk, then a variegated dark and tan thread.

In the photo the shawl is partly over a black sheet of paper, and you can see just how fine it is. Given the weight of the silk used and the regularity of the weaving I believe it was machine made.

Although there are no signs of fading, the shawl is in poor condition. There has been moth damage and I found a couple of what appeared to be old moth bodies in the cloth. There are also tears in the cloth which seem to be along fold lines. For many years the shawl has been stored in a plastic bag in a dark drawer, and even when taken out to show me it hadn’t been unfolded. I found one area of mending.

If the family story is correct, Elizabeth may have been married in the 1860s or 1870s (although it’s really just an assumption even that it was her wedding). A brief search on the internet found mention of large shawls – up to 11 feet – to cover the wide skirts in fashion around that time, although those seem often to be triangular. Wearing white at weddings is thought to have become popular after Queen Victoria wore white lace at her wedding in 1840, although confined to the elite due to laundering considerations (, accessed 15 April 2012). The shawls I found in my search were lace, or beaded and/or embroidered. There is no embellishment on Elizabeth’s shawl. Thomas, her father, was described as a labourer on her birth certificate and in later documentation was described as a Maltster Journeyman. A light coloured fairly plain silk and wool shawl may have been appropriate for the wedding outfit of the daughter of a man of that station in life.

It’s impossible to judge the accuracy of the family story, given it is mostly oral history. There is a note in my mother’s handwriting stored with the shawl, and a brief mention of the house in Sheffield in a letter from my grandmother in 1990. Mum has also spent a lot of time researching the family history, so we have copies of some birth, death and marriage certificates. It’s such a lovely story and there seems no particular reason not to believe it, although memories are frail and many a family researcher has found surprises where there was no apparent reason to mislead.

It is wonderful to feel a connection with women through five generations of a family. It has been treated by all of us as something special and precious, including the careful darning. I’m lucky to have that sense of continuity and belonging.

As a weaver I would love to create a piece inspired by the colours and structures of the shawl. At first glance it is deceptively simple although attractive. Looking more closely for this research piece has made me appreciate the complexity of the design.

I don’t know if, how or when I’ll use this shawl. It’s certainly too delicate to wear as it is. Perhaps one day I may have the inspiration and the courage to cut into it and use part in a textile piece. In 2005 or so I made this piece Life Weaving – Generations which incorporates a fragment from Alice’s 1897 wedding dress, but that was all I had. (I was much more blasé about taking scissors to my wedding dress and my mother’s!). It would be harder to cut into something that is perhaps 150 years old and still basically one piece.


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April 2012

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