Collection Focus: Shadow Quilted Slippers

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We are looking forward to celebrating the 2021 Festival of Quilts by showcasing our forthcoming exhibition ‘Quilts and their makers’, taking 10 historic quilts and 10 pieces from our contemporary works. Newsletter readers can take a sneak peek in advance, as over the coming months we explore the variety and skill of our makers both past and present, and celebrate their creativity in a selection of the quilts which will be on display.

This beautiful pair of green shadow quilted slippers, complete with matching bag, are exquisitely made, and demonstrate a technique that was very popular in the 1930s. Shadow quilting uses decorative stitching with a semi-transparent top fabric layer. Brightly coloured wool is then used to stuff the shapes and lines created by the quilting, giving delicate and muted tones of coloured wadding which only partially show through the top layer of fabric. The slippers each have a flower motif on the top of the foot and diagonal stripes across the rest of the slipper. The soles are quilted with straight lines, and the wool wadding alternate pink, blue, yellow and green colours. The slippers are lined with pink satin weave fabric. The matching bag uses the same design and features a hand embroidered button, and both the slippers and bag were kept in a larger white cotton bag that has a fold over flap and fastens with a button.

We know that these slippers and bag were made by Mabel Lawson and given as a wedding gift to her friend, Dorothy Aubin in July 1939. The original card gift tag, which reads “From Mabel Lawson, with best wishes” is still intact on the bag, and both items are in such good condition that it seems likely they were never used. We know Dorothy Makepeace did marry Henry Willis Aubin in South Shields in July 1939. The 1939 Electoral register shows Dorothy still registered to her parents’ address. Henry also came from South Shields, and the couple later moved to Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire. Dorothy moved to Scarborough in later life after her husband died in 1962.  

We know from the information given at the time of donation that Mabel Lawson was a trained seamstress, and it was presumed that this training accounted for her high quality of workmanship. It was presumed the two friends both lived in South Shields together, but Mabel is more difficult to find. No exact records match a seamstress living in that area, though there are several Mabels who married later than 1939 to become a Lawson, including one living in the County Durham area but listed as a hairdresser, and another living in Leyburn, North Yorkshire, who is listed as a ‘sewing maid’. The quality of workmanship is clear, but is difficult to know if Mabel’s professional training was assumed or even acquired later in life, and if she could have practised a different occupation but also been an excellent sewer in her spare time. It’s a shame we can’t pinpoint the exact Mabel Lawson who clearly spent a lot of time and love on these slippers. Investigating the stories around objects are rarely straightforward – but always interesting!  

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