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Book Cover

Amber Butchart

The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes

This book is a tribute to serendipity. A silk-covered scrapbook wrapped in brown paper, bought from a London bric-a-brac stall in the 1960s, and forgotten for more than fifty years, was given to Kate Strasdin, a textile histo-rian, by an elderly lady at a lace-making class in Devon. Strasdin’s six years of research reveal a fascinating story which starts in the early days of the textile industry in North-West England, continues to the emerging trading settlement of Singapore, on to Shanghai and back to Lancashire.
Strasdin’s knowledge is evident in her descriptions of the fabrics displayed in this diary and her understanding of the techniques and processes involved in their manufacture. Each swatch, carefully mounted and annotated with a neat copperplate date and name, comes alive in the reader’s mind: ‘a cream satin figured with a floral brocade…iced with lace’, ‘a shaded cotton gauze in gradations of blue and brown diamond motifs’.
But who is Fanny Taylor, who wore the striking pink silk? What do we learn about Sarah Newman and her drawing-room chintz? The pale blue pages of this dress diary were full of names and dates but there were few clues as to the identity of the owner. Intriguingly the first page contains three samples of white material and a narrow trim of lace beneath which is written, in handwriting differing from the rest of the diary, ‘This is the lace that trimmed the dress that my charming Anne was married in’, and at the bottom of the page is a width of pale oyster satin, ‘This is the dress she wore after the wedding at Breakfast’.
Strasdin could see that this was probably a gift from a husband to his wife on their wedding day, but who were they? It was not until the author discovered a tiny inscription much later in the book where Anne wrote above a swatch of sprigged cotton, ‘Anne Sykes, May 1840. The first dress I wore in Singapore, Nov 1840’. Bingo! A solid clue. Perhaps because this was such a momentous moment for Anne she felt that this ‘finely woven white cotton printed first with a delicate blue fleck and then overprinted with trailing sepia tendrils, small flowers picked out in pink and green’ deserved a formal record. This was the breakthrough that Strasdin had been hop-ing for. All she had to do now was go to The Singapore Free Press online where she found a brief entry in the ‘Shipping Intelligence’ column for 31st October 1840: ‘By the Friends Mrs Sykes. Adam Sykes’. The Friends was a packet sailing ship.
It was now "relatively" straightforward to search through parish records and census returns to piece together Anne and Adam’s history. After six years of painstaking research, Strasdin is able to reveal so much about their lives, their families and the development of the Lancashire textile industry as well as share with the reader the minutiae of daily life for a middle-class Victorian woman and her friends. This is too good to miss.

Chatto & Windus

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