This project considers how judgements of literary, aesthetic, and professional value affect women’s creative identities. It explores forms of artistic production that historically were neglected or considered inferior because associated with the feminine, the popular and the everyday.

Until the later decades of the 20th century, art forms and techniques associated with the popular, the everyday, and the feminine had long been considered trivial or second rate. Decorative and ornamental craft work was often deemed nice but frivolous, a pastime followed by mainly female practitioners as a way of filling time, relaxing or escaping from the ‘real world’ of professional work, and studies of women’s handicraft work in the nineteenth century have often considered it as the amateur analogue of the more serious artistic and professional work of Arts and Crafts practitioners. In recent decades, however, feminist scholars and scholars of craft, art history and craft history have challenged this traditional tendency to dismiss forms of labour most often associated with women as minor or frivolous. This project explores the historical context of these judgements and the influence they continue to exert of women’s perception of their creative, amateur, and professional selves.

We are working with project partners at MAKE Southwest and Killerton House to co-create contemporary embodied research in heritage and creative environments. In this way, the project involves participatory research and knowledge exchange with professionals and the wider crafting community; we are interested in engaging heritage and creative professionals in relation to historical and contemporary decorative arts and crafting, as well as sharing aspects of embodied research and historical and textual analysis. Visit our “Events” page to learn more about the collaborative events we are running with our partners.


Critical discussions of what has become known as the “Art of Fiction” debate, which initiated a re-evaluation of the status of the novel, have mostly centred on higher cultural genres such as the Aesthetic novel and canonical writers such as Henry James, locating its origins in the late 1880s. The historical aspect of this project explores how women writers of domestic realism made much earlier claims for the art of the novel by looking to the decorative, rather than the fine, arts as a model. Decorative arts, which the Arts and Crafts illustrator and designer Walter Crane described as “the art of the people, the art of common things and common life,” created an aesthetics of the everyday that proved useful for those women writers who sought to make claims for this genre as a serious form of art. Thus, the female makers of domestic realism from the 1850s present an immanent challenge to the still-prevalent notion that this genre occupied only a modest position in the cultural hierarchy of the arts in the nineteenth century.

Women writers of this time were almost always also women crafters. The ubiquity of women’s domestic handicrafts in this period meant that most women were involved in multiple forms of creative making, much of which was never preserved or recorded because it was considered personal, amateur, or ephemeral. The project will make available some of that work through its digitization of rare and culturally invaluable, recently discovered object housed in the archives at the University of Exeter: a 20-volume manuscript literary magazine titled “The Busy Bee”, that includes contributions from over 30 amateur essayists, as well as articles from eminent domestic realist novelist, Charlotte Yonge.

The historical research is designed to consider how women writers conceptualized their writing in terms of decorative art forms and how their experience of making such objects influenced their thinking about the nature of creative work. It will deploy a series of case studies of women writers whose work has been neglected or considered second-rate because of their use of the domestic realist mode. The historical and creative/collaborative aspects of the fellowship will both be conducted within the framework set by nineteenth-century principles of decorative art production and are intended to examine the mutuality of the literary and the craft process.

The project is also setting out to explore women’s contemporary experience of making the art of common life through working with project partners to investigate the forms of making most common to women’s decorative craft work through our Patchwork Object Project.

The Patchwork Object Project

Together with artist Ruth Broadway, we have developed a call for contributions to create an ambitious collaborative work that responds to the theme of ‘women’s creative identities’. We welcome patches from anyone, anywhere, that tell stories that speak to our theme. For more information on how to contribute to the Patchwork Object, see our Get Involved page.

This collaboratively sourced and created patchwork object will be overseen by Broadway, and it will be assembled with fabric sourced from members of the public, partly in the course of community making days held at MAKE Southwest and Killerton House. These events have the potential to impact participants, who will be asked to reflect on their practices, their conceptions of themselves as craftspeople and artists, and the impacts of collaborative making. Responses will be gathered during each event, by observation, individual question, and group survey, to establish a baseline for evaluation of the projects ongoing connection between practice and research.

Banner image credit: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums