The place of sewing in Bristol Lunatic Asylum

Anwyl Cooper-Willis

So far, I have undertaken some preliminary research into the place of sewing within the nineteenth century Bristol Lunatic Asylum. It was opened in 1861, to provide Moral Treatment; an ordered life would aid the recovery of a disordered brain. As well as a plentiful and good diet the hospital provided rest, safety and occupation, in the form of useful occupation which was an important part of the treatment. The curative properties of work had been praised by Samuel Tuke, founder of the York Retreat (1796) and one of the earliest mental health reformers.

The Bristol Asylum was largely self supporting in vegetables, potatoes, pork, clothing and shoes, all from patient’s work. In 1861 50% of women were working, a majority at sewing including dressmaking, hospital uniforms for patients, and mending as well as some ‘fancy sewing’. Reading patient’s medical reports it is clear that ‘Working well at her sewing’ is an indication of improvement. There are also accounts of disruptions by a patient in a room with others who are just getting on.

The hospital’s annual reports contain a lot of information on numbers of women employed at sewing, the value put on their labour, cloth purchases by the hospital for sheets covers and clothing and so on.

My plan is to continue this research into individual patients and the context of the hospital once the Bristol Archives reopens.

I am very excited about this project and the original research it involves. I spent a year as an artist-in-residence at the museum and made some work re-presenting statistics on patient admissions and outcomes. I am keen to further my investigations of how quantitative data can be re-expressed via an art practice.



STITCHING – Obsession – Wellness

Brigstow Seedcorn Project 2019 STITCHING:Obsession - Wellness
Brigstow Seedcorn Project 2019

STITCHING – Obsession – Wellness was selected by Brigstow Institute to be one of its Seedcorn-funded projects this year.

Our research aims to scientifically test the therapeutic benefits of stitch by measuring whether the rhythmic, repetitive action of stitching can calm and focus the anxious brain into a meditative state. Through this work we seek to contribute to a re-evaluation of the 19th century asylum as a therapeutic space. The research will also explore practices of “non-productive” or subversive needlework within 19th century asylums, which displayed emotional and creative expression. We will assess the emotional role of both therapeutic and subversive stich and deepen understanding of the relationship between women, creative work and wellness.

The team:

  • Merle Patchett(Geographical Sciences) is a human geographer interested in theorising and examining historical geographies of craftwork, skill and apprenticeship including the historic gendering of skill.
  • Jan Connett(independent textile artist and Bristol Health Partners) is interested in behaviours that tip between self-support and obsession. She will work collaboratively to understand and interpret the intent of 19th century stitchers and the contribution of their creativity to wellbeing.
  • Amber Roguski(Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience) will co-design and carry out EEG experiments to investigate potential effects of stitching on emotions.
  • Anwyl Cooper-Willis brings extensive knowledge of the history of Glenside Hospital Museum and its relationship with sewing.
  • Stella Man (Independent artist and Glenside Hospital Museum)
  • has experience of involving people in projects and leading co-produced workshops.

Our advisors:

  • Claire Braboszcz’s (Experimental Psychology) interests lie in attention and mental states such as meditation and hypnosis and is an expert in EEG data recording and analysis.
  • Thomas Roeske (Prinzhorn Collection, Heidelberg University) specialises in the interpretation of artworks in psychiatric and psycho-historical contexts.