A collection of meticulously embroidered fabrics modelled on Catholic style and iconography, including a cape featuring 802 shamrocks – one for every child who died in an Irish mother and baby homes tragedy has been created by a Birmingham City University student. 

The Uncovered Secret Sin, a series of works and garments including the 10-foot-long shamrock clover piece and others featuring depictions of heaven and hell, was painstakingly created over several months by embroidery designer Madelaine Atkinson, a final year textiles student. Madelaine's collection – which will be exhibited as part of BCU’s Inspired Festival next week - is based on the religious imagery of Catholicism, drawing inspiration from the flamboyance, beauty and solemnity used in churches, well as papal fashion, accessories, ceremony, and performance.  

Intrigued by how designers such as Dolce and Gabbana and Alexander McQueen portrayed the Catholic church and their relationships with the religion differently through their creations, Madelaine undertook further research. She discovered the story of the mother and baby homes disaster in Tuam, in which hundreds of children born out of wedlock died from negligence and malnutrition. It was this story which led to the development of Madelaine’s final collection. 

She said: “During the last six months I have developed a concept for my final project which highlights the abuses committed in Tuam between 1925 – 1960, under the Catholic Church. This atrocity was masked behind the wealth and beauty of the Catholic visual identity.   

“Because I am a non-believer of religion, I needed to take time to reflect and decide how I wanted to transform the visual inspiration of Catholicism into meaningful outcomes. I hope my degree work shines a light on different cultures, periods of time and problems in society.  

“My hopes and ambitions are for my collection of fabrics to not only help highlight acknowledgement and compassion for the families affected by the Tuam tragedy and demonstrate my embroidery skills and creativity.” Madelaine’s work on the final project involved a huge amount of manual work to complete the detailed embroidery.

Placing sustainability at the core of her production, the student used repurposed materials, such as pearl beads, and worked with second-hand fabric, donated by fellow students, technicians, friends, and family. The Exeter-born student, who plans to work in the luxury and Haute Couture fashion house sector after graduating, said: “In order to achieve my concept, I produced evocative embroidery outcomes with my four completed creations using hand beading, digital embroidery, embellisher machine and applying traditional techniques such as stump work.  

“These methods are in keeping with the traditional style of making clothes and garments linked to the Catholic Church. Madelaine Atkinson’s collection of embroidered fabrics, entitled The Uncovered Secret Sin, will be on display as part of the Inspired Festival at Birmingham City University, which launches with the free Inspired Family Day on Saturday 10 June 2023. The Inspired Festival at Birmingham City University which runs from 10 – 25 June is a showcase of work created by exciting new talent from the University’s Faculty of Arts, Design and Media.  

The culmination of innovative thinking and collaboration between artists, actors, designers, writers, and musicians who have responded positively and creatively to unprecedented challenges, the Inspired Festival is exhibited throughout June across Birmingham city centre at a range of venues, as well as on digital and static billboards and across the University’s city centre campus.