The Embroidered Wrestlers of the North

by David Ellison

Photography by David Ellison

The following text is an excerpt of the essay ‘Capturing Customs’ by London-based writer and curator Lou Stoppard inside Tek Hod: The Embroidered Wrestlers of the North, a new book of photography by David Ellison published by Centre Centre, UK. ‘Tek Hod’ refers to the opening move in the wrestling traditions of England’s Lakes District, a centuries-old ritual that sees outdoor displays of brute strength meet the fragile art of cross-stitch embroidered costumes.

Capturing Customs
by Lou Stoppard

A custom can be a tradition, or it can be a kind of protest. Ellison’s images consider both possibilities. Of course, the images are about time, too – and about the way in which its passage both erodes and galvanises. William Litt, champion wrestler turned writer and poet, wrote about the popularity of “back-hold wrestling” in 1778 for Wrestliana (1823):

Since those days of our fathers, great indeed is the change effected in the habits, customs and manners, of all classes of people throughout England; and in no part of it more than in the north. The festivities of Christmas, the hilarities of sheep-shearing, and other seasons of mirth and jollity, are now but the mere shadow of what they were, even at the short distance of time we treat of. Though some dainties, neither much known nor wanted in those days, are now in common use, yet home-brewed, that soul and cementer of good fellowship, so often spoken of in raptures by aged, has nearly disappeared. At that time, if money was more scarce, ale was better and cheaper; and pastimes were not only frequent, but enjoyed with much less care for to-morrow.

Indeed, Ellison’s TEK HOD images are as much about societal memories (or the fantasies of those memories) and dreams as they are about pastimes. The punch of each picture – the pathos, the beauty, and, of course, the delicious yet respectful wit – comes in the contrast underpinning what we see. At its most basic, that divide is between something “basic, primitive” (as wrestling is described in Roger Robson’s 1999 Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling: a Documentary History) and something so committed to finesse; to performance, to posturing, to flamboyance. To fashion.

Robson dates Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling back centuries. Many have suggested that the Vikings brought their wrestling style to the Cumbrian coast during their colonisation; according to Robson, there’s “no way of knowing”. Some, buoyed by early Irish carvings depicting wrestling, theorise that Irish captive slaves introduced the sport to Iceland, teaching young Vikings who then in turn brought it to Cumbria on their invasion. Yet, and as Robson asks, “wouldn’t it have been easier for the Irish to have paddled over here direct?”

His history cites an educational treatise from 1581, which advocates wrestling as part of the curriculum:

The vehement vpright wrestling chafeth the outward partes of the bodie most, it warmeth, strengthneth and encreaseth the fleshe though it thinne and drie withall. It takes away fatness, puffes, and swellings: it makes the breath firme and strong, the bodie sound and brawnie, it tightes the sinews and backs all the natural operations.

For all its physical benefits, the sport has always been about more than fitness. It looks beyond the body to the mind, and to one’s community and surroundings – to the beauty of the green space, to a backdrop of castles, rivers, fells and dales. These are the principals on which every match is fought. Yes, there are the rules – the particulars of the tekkin hod grip, after which Ellison’s series is named; the necessarily fancy footwork; the Dog-Fall, which occurs when the judges are unable to declare a winner (the match simply starts again) – but there are also ideals, which froth into identities. There is the commitment to place, to craft, to skill.

Photography by David Ellison

It is easier to date the fashions of wrestling than it is to date wrestling itself. The intricately embroidered costumes we see throughout Ellison’s images, and in the other material included in his book, gained popularity after 1860. Since then, the looks have changed only slightly. “Suspenders came and went,” writes Robson. “Grandad vests changed to singlets, for a time flat caps were worn in the ring, neat swimming trunks are still an acceptable alternative to the velvet centrepiece, shorts, particularly Bermuda shorts, were banned recently as a variation of the centrepiece.”

It would be easy to dismiss such regulations, and the costumes they dictate, as the amusing products of folklore or ideas arising from regional blinkers. But, as Ellison’s images highlight, the costumes are not merely picturesque and wholesome (even if they are lovely; some, unsurprisingly, take hours to finish). Ellison points to the way the motifs, details, and the craft itself celebrate “a pre-industrial world of the countryside and rural traditions.” They, are, he says, perhaps an example of an “invented tradition”, a term made prominent in 1983 by the historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger; in other words, they owe nothing to a genuine ‘ancient tradition’, but instead reflect contemporary conditions and a reaction to industrialisation, to change, and to the march of modernity. The costumes have links, Ellison argues, to the principals and aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts movement – to the questioning of the waste, the pace, the pollution, the puffery of wares. In wrestling, the strip is at the heart of the whole performance – not just the performance of the sport, but also that of the identities wrapped up in it. The strip is a protest, of sorts. And of course, it’s a fine line, if any line exists at all, between protest and performance.”

Words by Lou Stoppard

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