Lace Tellings by Jackie Oates

Folk musician in residence, Jackie Oates, explains how the MERL collections inspired her work

An image of Jackie Oates with John Spiers

Jackie Oates and Pete Flood have spent the last two years as folk musicians-in-residence at The MERL, supported by EFDSS. Jackie has worked with community groups in Reading, singing lullabies with the museum’s Friday Fledglings under-5s group and ‘work songs’ with the Mewes Knitters. But the focus of her final piece, Lace Tellings, was inspired by a chance meeting with a lace expert at a MERL Late… Ahead of her performance at South Street Arts Centre on 25th January tells the moving story of how ‘Lace Tellings’ was born.

During 2018 I was delighted to be given the opportunity to spend some time as an artist in residence at MERL, through an exciting project launched by EFDSS. I was tasked with creating a new piece of music to be performed at the end of my residency, alongside lots of varied forms of education work.

It took me quite a while to decide where to focus my attention – and I spent many hours walking through the museum, and searching through the museum archives. Having moved to Wallingford a few years previously – I was keen to develop my knowledge of the area in terms of its connection to traditional songs. Initially I explored lots of aspects of traditional songs, traditions and pastimes from Berkshire.

My spark of inspiration came when I attended the wonderful ‘FOLK’ Late at the museum that October, when I came across the ‘cattern cake’ decorating area, and a guided tour by leading Lace expert, Professor David Hopkin. Ollie Douglas, the museum curator introduced me to David and we quickly chatted through various aspects of ‘lace telling’ – songs sung by lace makers as they whiled the hours making intricate lace patterns.

This meeting for me, was very profound as it united several great loves. I have always been very drawn to textile crafts, and slightly envious of the wonderfully rich collection of Scottish ‘waulking’ songs (songs sung in Gaelic by women whilst fulling cloth. I knew about the singing of female glove makers from the Somerset area whom Cecil Sharp spent many hours collecting songs with. However, I wasn’t aware that there existed a definite English tradition of women’s work songs. I soon realised that ‘lace tells’ represent a huge proportion of the women’s work songs – albeit often without tunes.

There was something deeply familiar about the building where the MERL collection now lives, the Cattern cake recipe, and the lace bobbins on display in the museum. It finally dawned on me; that all were very significant to my childhood. My mother lived in the very same building whilst she was a student at the University of Reading – it being formally known as ‘St Andrews Hall’. Likewise ‘Cattern Cakes and Lace’ was a book that had lived on a shelf in our house, and lacemakers bobbins had sat in a little wooden fabric box in our dining room, without me knowing what they were. That autumn, I had spent a panicked few weeks trying to empty the old house before my second child was born, in order to look after my Mum, who was by then in the grips of a very rapid, degenerative illness. In my panic, I had removed both of these precious things and sent them out into the world.

My piece, ‘Lace Tellings’, celebrates the lost art of lace telling, by bringing some of these lace songs back to life in the manner to which I like to imagine, they would have sounded. Where tunes no longer exist, I have matched words to folk tunes and songs from the local area. Alongside the songs, I have included a little narrative insight into the lives of the lace makers of the area. I am delighted to be joined by my musical friends John Spiers and Mike Cosgrave.

Watch Jackie’s trailer, recorded in her Studio, with John Spiers (and a chicken)

You can see Jackie perform ‘Lace Tellings’ at South Street Arts Centre on January 25th, where Pete Flood will also be performing his work ‘The Last Dipper’ (read about that here) Find out details and book tickets here

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