Student Spotlight: Lindsey Wilson, “Grief Unveiled: A Study on Victorian Mourning Practices and Spiritualism”

grainy, sepia-toned black and white image of a woman in Victorian garb spewing white "ectoplasm" from her mouth.
Lindsey Ruth Wilson. “Ectoplasm Revealed.” Performance and installation. 2021. Image credit: Dave Wigman.

We sit down with Lindsey Wilson, a recent Design Studies graduate of the School of Human Ecology at the University of WisconsinMadison, a Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection Assistant, and textile designer/artist at Lindsey Ruth Designs, to ask her about her research, design work, textile art, and new photographic project (and how she ties it all together).

CDMC: Congratulations on graduation, Lindsey! Can you share your Senior Thesis work with us?

Lindsey: My Senior Thesis is Grief Unveiled: A Study on Victorian Mourning Practices and Spiritualism. My intention is to bring awareness to the collective mourning and shared isolation that society upholds around grieving through an exhibition of Victorian mourning practices.

Image of a sheer white textile with ghostly forms waving in the wind outdoors
Lindsey Ruth Wilson. “Ectoplasm.” Silk organza discharged with rongalit. Original screen design. 2021. Image credit: UW-Threads, Andrew Atwell.

Through the practice of Spiritualism, those in mourning would communicate with those who have passed through the veil. Often, this would lead to a materialization of a spirit, or an otherworldly viscous substance that is exuded from the body of a medium. This material is ectoplasm; Many of the historic photos of 19th century séances portrayed mediums expelling this from their mouths. One of the textiles I created for my thesis is a yardage of silk organza discharged with rongalit, giving it an extraterrestrial eminence.

CDMC: You’ve also created hairwork like the pieces in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, correct?

three woven hairwork pieces on black bases (hair is woven into flower forms)
Lindsey Ruth Wilson. “Life in a Bell Jar.” Human, horse and acrylic hair. Wire. Floral tape. 2021. Image credit: Wilson.

Lindsey: Yes. Another way that Victorians coped with loss was through handiwork. This is something that resonated with me, as working with textiles often affords me the same comforts. Hairwork was something that was particularly popular during the Victorian era both as a way to commemorate those gone and celebrate the living. In my research I found that while many smaller pieces were made as mourning pieces, larger wreaths were often composed of hair of the living. Using traditional gimp work under the guidance of Karen Bachmann, I created three bell jars using a combination of my own hair, and that of my great-grandmother who passed away before I was born. Fittingly, much of the fabric she had at the end of her life ended up on my crazy quilt too!

CDMC: A Crazy Quilt?

photograph of a quilt laid on a chair near a window.
Lindsey Ruth Wilson. “Woven into Memory.” Hand woven fabric (saori, rigid heddle, Jacquard, floor loom), vintage scraps from Wilson’s family, embroidery floss, handwoven and hand-dyed backing. 2021. Image credit: UW-Threads, Andrew Atwell.

Lindsey: Yes! I also recently created a work titled “Woven into Memory, a modern day Crazy” as an additional part of the senior thesis exploring Victorian crazy quilts. I wove yardages of saori, then cut it up and pieced it back together with vintage fabric found within my family – a modern day spin on a Victorian crazy quilt. The final work took seven months  to complete and was composed of textiles dating from 1927-2019.

CDMC: You also worked within the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection while studying at UW; what was it like to work hands-on with a textile collection?

Lindsey: As far as HLATC work goes, it has been a researcher’s dream to have been able to visit the collection and work from primary source material, particularly the hairwork pieces we have! I took much of my inspiration from the pieces I interacted with and was able to work backwards by examining the finished flowers.

CDMC: How are you tying together historic research, collections work, artistic practice, and performance across time with your work?

Lindsey: This might be my favorite part of my thesis – that I was able to meet at the intersection of my top tier passions. As I was conducting research in the fall, and creating my pieces in the spring, I was consumed and led by a narrative that I began to write while I was in the making process. This opened a window to a performance that I had not anticipated but was more than prepared for. In a way, I felt like I had come full circle, as I spent my earlier years of undergrad and high school in the performing arts.

Below is the performance narrative that describes the basis of the photographic work [which contain “installations” of the hair work and my textile designs]. As my research and practice move forward, I hope that the story will grow as well. Perhaps “Mathilda and Harriet” will find themselves together again between the veil of both worlds.

grainy, sepia-toned black and white image of a woman in Victorian next to a woman wearing a veil; etched words appear at the bottom of the image.
Lindsey Ruth Wilson. “Daguerreotype: A Visit With Mathilda.” Performance and installation. 2021. Image credit: Dave Wigman.

Harriet knew suffering. She feels as if she is constantly walking through waist deep sand dunes at the cape. As if she’s being held underwater, until she can’t breathe, gasping, salty water choking her. Her desperation is a stench. Pungent to the point of inducing nausea. Every morning she repeats the ritual. Tumble out of a foggy slumber, induced by a cocktail of lithium and chloroform. Button the boots. Tie the cape. Set the hat firmly on her head. Let the veil fall gently, caressing her cheek, much like Tillie used to do, tucking away a loose curl. Down the hall, ignoring the closed doors behind which her sister laid coughing until she perished, she glided down the stairs to the parlor, where she had set up vigil. Harriet took her place at the tea table across from the beloved doll that once belonged to Mathilda. The house was quiet. The clock struck 3 times, and as Hattie counted the clangors, she shuddered. She poured tea that had been set out by the maid earlier that day and breathed in the earl grey that Tillie loved so. Hattie took a sip, then tilted her head back, closing her eyes. Mathilda was here.

CDMC: Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your work, Lindsey! Congratulations, again, on your graduation and we wish you the best with your next steps.

closely cropped portrait of a smiling woman with curly hair wearing green glasses.

Lindsey Wilson graduated this May from UWMadison with a degree in Textile Design and Art History. Inspired by photographs, ancestral material culture, and the loose threads of stories passed down through generations, she strives “to make sense of the curious and often unexplainable world we live in. The grounding process of creating textiles connects her to her past while weaving a map for the future.” View more of her work at her website; or follow @lindseyruthdesigns on Instagram.