“A View of the Foundling Hospital.” Hand-colored, black and white line-engraved and etched print on laid paper. Work by Robert Sayer. London, England, ca. 1755. (Courtesy Friends of Colonial Williamsburg Collections)

The blockbuster fashion exhibition of summer, the Met’s underwhelming “PUNK: Chaos to Couture,” tries to capture the subversive spirit of youths in 1970s London and their enduring influence on the closets of magazine editors. But another exhibition of British history and influence is making its way to Colonial Williamsburg; it’s the only textile exhibition that accurately portrays the enduring story of Britain’s castaway youths and their fabrics.

“Threads of Feeling” is an exhibition of the thousands of textile tokens left with the children at London’s Foundling Hospital from the middle to late 18th century. The 3-by-4-inch fabric swatches are the largest collection of 18-century common textiles from Britain, preserved for a heartbreaking reason. In 1739, wealthy patrons created the Foundling Hospital, a nice name for a large orphanage, to adopt and take care of abandoned babies being left at churches and on sidewalks across London. This orphanage took in thousands of babies left at its doors from 1739 to 1770, with the hope that mothers would ultimately return to claim their children if their monetary circumstances changed. So when the mothers left their babies, they often attached a small fabric swatch to identify the child. Often, the swatches were cut from the mother’s clothing, and included ribbons, embroidery and brightly colored materials that represent the textiles of the poor in 18th-century Britain.

Though not a traditional textile or costume exhibition, the trove of fabrics recasts much of working-class London in a vibrant, colorful light, opposing the drab, gray palette depicted in the writings of Samuel Johnson and his contemporaries. The men who chronicled life in London rarely described the attire of poor women; when they did, the colors of smut and sewage seemed to cloud their eyes and words. But the women, by and large illiterate, lived life in florals, needlepoint and intricately dyed fabrics.

John Styles, curator of the exhibition, said 18th-century textiles of the poor were rarely preserved, because most peasants sold old fabrics and clothes to be made into paper. For this reason, virtually nothing was saved for the historical record.

“What survived were wonderful garments worn by the aristocracy,” Styles said. “For the poor, there was an incentive to get rid of your old clothes and little documentation of what ordinary people wore.”

Red woolen cloth; ribbon of blue paduasoy silk; Diaper or Russia cloth attached to a piece of fine linen. England, 1758. Courtesy Foundling Museum. (Courtesy Foundling Museum and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Styles said the exhibition of tokens also shows variety of patterns and choices for women, which many associate with the Industrial Revolution, not the period prior.

“There are thousands of different designs, all accessible and relatively cheap,” Styles said. “We think about consumer society being rooted in the 20th century, but its roots are already there in the mid-18th century.”

The thousands of fabrics also serve another purpose: to showcase just how many lives were lost in 18th-century London. It may sound trite to call “Threads of Feeling” an unexpected memorial to orphaned children, but the vast array of decorative swatches signified death: Two-thirds of children admitted to the Foundling Hospital died because of infectious disease, roughly the same proportion that died in London overall.

Women left their children not because they were unwanted, but because the cities were death traps for infants.

“There was such pressure on these places to take babies that there were lottery systems,” said Ron Hurst, chief curator of the art museums at Colonial Williamsburg. “Mothers had to draw [lots], and you either got to leave your baby or take them away. It’s anybody’s guess what happened to the babies who weren’t accepted.”

Since the practice of leaving children at hospitals was so common, many historians once believed wrongly that women and parents were less attached to their children. Indeed, narratives of hardened mothers abandoning their children were documented in texts at the time, making children seem dispensable.

But what illiterate women couldn’t chronicle in books about life in London, they could weave into carefully crafted tokens of love for their infants. Some mothers illustrated enduring love with hearts and butterflies, symbols of innocence that displayed their deep attachment to their children. The most wrenching part of the exhibition is the mostly unrealized hope that mothers would return to claim their children. Of the 16,282 infants admitted to the hospital, only 152 children were reclaimed.

Textile token. Flowered silver ribbon with a paper note sewn to it. England, 1756. (Courtesy Foundling Museum and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Linda Baumgarten, on-sight curator of the exhibition, says the narrative of harsh women forsaking their unwanted children was an unfair assessment of the age.

“Scholars have begun to realize that parents didn’t think of their children as little strangers,” Baumgarten said. “This is concrete proof of what records suggest: Many mothers who left their children thought they were sacrificing themselves to give the child a better life.”

Threads of Feeling

at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, through May 2014.