Making Use of the Archives

I’m making use of a number of different archives in my current research project. For the most part, I’m looking at texts – specifically children’s books. I’ve looked at books from the Bodleian Library in Oxford, The Pollard Collection in Trinity College Dublin, The Hammersmith & Fulham Early Children’s Books Collection at Roehampton and I’ve been trawling digital archives like Roehampton’s digital collectionProject Gutenberg, and the new NCCB in Ireland for unusual or rare texts. I read these texts and write about them and produce texts of my own. And sometimes it can seem then that the archive is a very text-based thing.

But every now and then I have the urge to make use of archives in a very different way.

I want to make things.

I want to take the objects from the archive and find out how to make them. To make new from old or to echo the old in a new thing. Mostly, this has involved making knitted or sewn items because that’s where I have some skill. There are others out there who reproduce metalwork or art for much the same reasons.

The things I make aren’t quite reproductions because I’ve never intended to pass them off as authentic. They aren’t forgeries. For me, it’s about trying to find a connection with the person who made the original.  As I hold a glove or a hat in my hand, as I work through the stitches I can find out how the thing was made, how long it took to make, what kind of materials were used. It’s a strange process. Like all archival work, it is by turns satisfying and frustrating.

I’ve reconstructed a hat pattern from a photo of Tom Crean (satisfying)and attempted to make a Victorian jacket from a pattern-book I found online (frustrating).

There have been dozens of little projects and there would be more if I only had the time.

My latest experiment has been in baking.

Last year I visited William Morris’s house at Kelmscott. In the attic, there are a number of glass cases displaying letters and scraps of texts. And I came across a handful or recipes which had been written out by William Morris or his wife, Jane, including this one for ginger cake.

GingerCake Recipe


And so I made it.



This one was a mixed success…It’s a very dense cake, and there’s not much rise on it.  Ginger must have been expensive when William or Jane wrote down the recipe (another expedition into the archives to find out?) and two teaspoons for a whole pound cake doesn’t seem like very much and the taste is very faint.

But we ate it anyway.



Over the next while I hope to play around with the recipe and see if I can make it more suitable for modern tastes. I think it would make a nice – and very appropriate – snack to bring with me on my research trips to archives…

There’s something wonderful about making, baking, and eating the collections. Have you ever tried it?

5 thoughts on “Making Use of the Archives

  1. What an interesting post! I love to rummage around in history, too, and am especially intrigued by these old recipes and old quilt patterns and weaving drafts. The quilt I’m working on right now is panels of redwork embroidery, recreating an 1880s quilt top I bought at a garage sale. I would never dream of attempting anything as complex as that Victorian jacket!


    1. I’d love to give quilting a go! I have done patchwork but nothing that I would ever call a quilt. And what a find! I can’t imagine coming across an 1880s quilt in a garage sale – that must have been an incredible moment!


      1. And the rest of the story? The quilt cost 25 cents! It’s in sad shape but I’m tracing every one of the 42 blocks and making it anew. A fun, meaningful project.


      2. 25 cents! What a find! And what a brilliant project – to make something new from something old, to preserve and restore by making a new thing not just by holding on to the old thing. I’d love to hear more about your progress!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s