Tek Hod: Embroidered Wrestlers of the North examines masculinity and ritual
Brought together in a new book by CentreCentre, David Ellison’s photographic series features striking portraits of the Cumberland and Westmorland wrestlers and their delicate yet flamboyant hand-stitched costumes.
- Jenny Brewer
- 9 December 2020
- Reading Time
- 3 minute read
Photographer David Ellison first found out about the Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling scene when he moved to the area as a teenager. Years later he wrote his PhD on the Lake District, and embarked on an in-depth documentary project to investigate the tradition-steeped sport. Featuring striking photographic portraits of the wrestlers and their intricately hand-stitched costumes, alongside in-action shots capturing matches against the rural backdrop, the resulting series examines masculinity, ritual and community through this fascinating niche.
The sport dates back as far as the early 18th Century while its traditional embroidered costumes arrived in the 1860s, applying adornments typical of the Victorian era and later the Arts and Crafts Movement. David writes in the book how famous wrestlers of the time were pioneers of the decoration, often using natural and pastoral motifs packed with symbolism. “Witnessing the spectacle now – wrestlers clad in what is essentially Victorian costume, stood on post-industrial land – its tradition is vividly disrupted,” David writes. “Unfolding in a picturesque setting like the Lake District, on the other hand, the sport’s uniquely vernacular fashion seems to fit the occasion. Here, the clothes become a manifestation of their invented inheritance; in fact, some costumes worn by legendary wrestlers from its heyday have been passed down to children and even grandchildren.
“Today, some embroidered costumes worn by teenage wrestlers seem to relate more to contemporary culture than rural design. The displacement of the sport from countryside pursuit to suburban activity has a symbiotic relationship with this change in aesthetics, and the difference in styles between older and younger wrestlers remains an intriguing contrast.”
Now, the series has been brought together by publisher CentreCentre, working together with David to present his research and photographs in one beautiful package. Tek Hod: Embroidered Wrestlers of the North also features essays by the photographer and Lou Stoppard, and archival imagery that shows what has (and hasn’t) changed across history. David approached graphic designer Patrick Fry, who co-runs the publishing house, to make the book, “looking for someone who understood both the cultural and aesthetic value in this tradition,” Patrick tells It’s Nice That.
“David had been photographing the people and landscapes associated with Cumbrian and Westmorland wrestling for the last ten years,” the designer explains. “He had amassed a series that was both a journalistic overview of the sport and its traditions while simultaneously achieving something far more personal and intimate through his portraiture.” The graphic design was a “balancing act, Patrick says, between referencing the “charming” embroidery and reproducing David’s photography “in the refined manner it deserves”. There was also a lot of disparate content – what with the archive imagery, portraits, landscapes and ephemera, “so the design and sequencing had to work hard to ensure it flowed effortlessly” he adds.
The cover was embroidered by Nora Hayhurst and Margaret Brocklebank, two local master embroiderers who also created many of the costumes worn by the wrestlers inside. For the interior typography Patrick and the team used Italian Old Style – “despite being a Renaissance style typeface, it has a strange quality in this context,” he describes, “a quaint rural charm that felt harmonious with the graphic details embroidered throughout. The archival photographs are printed in black and white on a “sludgy” green stock to give the effect that they are fading away, “almost forgotten in the muddy fields they once wrestled in”.
With the tradition in decline and slowly fading in popularity, the skills in both wrestling and embroidery may be lost to future generations, Patrick says. “This really gave us a goal for the book to help preserve and encapsulate the tradition so that it will never be forgotten. The book will also help spread the word about this small regions unique pastime.”
This book does just that, shining a spotlight on the characters of the scene and their delicate yet flamboyant hand-stitched costumes, and respectfully celebrating the sport’s incredible history. Between the lines it also tells a story of a “double struggle” says Patrick “against an opponent, and against the threat of dwindling tradition”.
Tek Hod: Embroidered Wrestlers of the North by David Ellison is published by CentreCentre.
GalleryDavid Ellison: Tek Hod: Embroidered Wrestlers of the North, published by CentreCentre (Copyright © David Ellison, 2020)
David Ellison: Tek Hod: Embroidered Wrestlers of the North, published by CentreCentre (Copyright © David Ellison, 2020)