It was the best of days, it was the worst of days…

Parc Guell, Barcelona

Parc Guell, Barcelona

Well, yesterday was a strange day.  I went to the Bristol Embroiderers’ Guild Exhibition at Stoke Lodge in Bristol.  It was a lovely show because it had so much exquisitely done traditional work: stump work, gold work and black work.  I love contemporary embroidery and textile work and will be posting about the exhibition I went to on Saturday, but I also really admire the skill that goes into traditional fine work.  That I can’t imagine ever doing it myself  increases my appreciation of it.  And who can resist an exquisitely embroidered 3D uterus in a glorious pastiche of Victorian stuffed birds under glass, presented under a stunning glass cloche with embroidered flowers?  So that was great.

Then I went home and disaster struck.  My beloved Bernina packed up.  I can’t believe it.  I have only had that sewing machine for 20 years and hammered it regularly and never had it serviced, and it packed up.  The feed dogs just said: ‘No, don’t think we will, actually.  Enough’s enough, Ann.’  I felt awful.  It really upset me.  It is such an old, reliable friend.  I did momentarily think it would be an excuse to buy a new one, but I want my old friend and companion.  It is a stress reliever, it is usually up for anything, we know each other’s foibles, it never complains.  But, it wasn’t playing ball yesterday.  It would stitch perfectly but it wouldn’t feed the fabric through.  And this happened half-way through a line of stitching.

I should have packed up there and then, but, as it was stitching, I thought I would do some free-motion quilting.  Bad decision.  I should have quit while I was ahead, but no, on I pressed, and, for the first time ever in a good twenty years of machine stitching I sewed through my finger.  I have always been scared of getting a needle through my finger and never have, but, I wasn’t prepared for it.  It was like something out of The Tudors.  I was amazed that there was so little blood, but my long-suffering husband had to pull the broken needle out of my finger with a pair of pliers.  And today there is hardly any trace of it and no pain.  So, not the domestic horror I had imagined when I wrote a short story at primary school about someone stitching through her finger in an English country garden on a summer afternoon.  (I went to an odd school.)  Then I imagined blood seeping out over bright white linen.  Very wrong.  Good.

But I started with a picture of Barcelona because I have been there several times and thought I was shortening the odds on having my purse stolen the more often I went.  So, the last time I was there  my purse was stolen, and guess what, the world didn’t end.  My lovely friends rallied round, I borrowed a fancy phone and got the number of my bank on the internet, reported the loss and my cards were cancelled immediately.  There was hardly any cash in it, and I had just been to my favourite notebook shop and so had done my shopping.  The worst had happened and I survived.  And the same with the needle and the finger.  The thing I had been dreading most had happened and it didn’t hurt as much as I thought.  I am not advocating stitching through fingers, but I am interested in how we can buck up and get on with it.

And now to find a sewing machine repair man.

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If you don't like pretentiousness, look away now

Threads of Identity 3 - detail

Threads of Identity 3 - detail

This is the blog of an academic quilter, and I really do use my quilts and textiles to think about issues in my work.  I draw on the work of several continental philosophically inflected thinkers, and they are very often concerned with the role of language in shaping our everyday lives.  We are imprisoned by our inadequate language, because we cannot think outside it.  In a sense we can only experience what we have a word to describe.  So, love is a good example.  We have one word, really, that has to cover all sorts of love and is clearly inadequate for the job.  Hence the jokey phrase, the Greeks have a word for it.  They did.  Eros, agape and so on describe different kinds of love.  So there is a problem if you want to write about experience that you only have the words you have and they are not up to the task you want them to do, but you have to use them because they are all you have.  One attempt to signal the inadequacy of language to capture and re-present our experience in a written text is to do something typographically on the page – to write the word with a line through it, to show that this is what you allude to, but it isn’t the whole story, the word won’t do, but it’s got to be employed if we are to have any hope of doing or saying anything.  The word is on the page and crossed out, showing it will have to do because we have nothing better.  So, you could talk about femininity. This would signal that you are using the word fully aware that it describes a state of being which is not captured by a sign on a page trying to encompass a feminine experience which cannot take account of all the forms of femininity in the world and those yet to be invented (and not constrained by patriarchal practice).  The technique is known as putting a term ‘sous rature’ or ‘under erasure’.  The term originally comes from Heidegger but was used extensively by Derrida.  It is a way of deconstructing the text, showing the process of language.  I am quite interested in this, because I am interested in the sensory or aesthetic, where you often can’t quite describe what is going on.  Seeing a piece of art is has an effect which is difficult to describe but which you know you feel.  Benjamin had a go at working out what we mean when we describe a work’s aura, for example, but that word doesn’t quite do it.  The idea of ‘sous rature’ isn’t about not quite being able to put your finger on something, but about a word not quite being able to encompass all the possibilities in an idea, but, I think it’s a fascinating idea.  How do you signal the impossibility of accounting for what we experience and how we form our identities?

On top of this, I am interested in how using textiles can expose some of this.  I work in a world where numbers matter and are held to be true, even though we all know that statistics can be manipulated.  We trust them because we trust what we can count.  But,  numbers only tell you what they are not so good on why or how.  I try in my textiles almost to make models of how we know what we know in the world (epistemology).  Knowledge is partial and gets obscured and painted over.  So the cloth and to some extent the stitching in this piece is ‘sous rature’ – there but obscured.  Derrida used the technique to show the simultaneous presence and absence of meaning.  It’s there but it’s not there.   We get glimpses of the cloth but we can’t really see it, although we can see enough of it to reconstruct it in our mind’s eye.  The cloth is definitely there, but it’s not there because you can’t see it.  This is difficult stuff, but what I want to draw attention to is how we are formed by a language which has very limited capacity to describe how we feel.  Trying to understand what it is to be feminine without going to stereotypes of Barbie dolls is hard, we have what Audre Lorde might call ‘supplied’ terms which limit what we can be.  This clogginess is what I am trying to get at by placing my stitching under erasure.

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Obliterated cloth – another way to torture fabric

Threads of Identity 3 - initial stages

Threads of Identity 3 - initial stages

 

This is the beginning of the third piece in this sequence.  Number two is still under construction with not that much to say about it.  But number three, here was started at the weekend when I really wanted to do some foot -down machine quilting.  The need to thunder away at a piece sometimes does come over me and these small quilts are ideal for working through the creative urge.  This one has a small piece of an early Laura Ashley print at the top.

Detail of Threads of Identity 3 - the Laura Ashley fabric

Detail of Threads of Identity 3 - the Laura Ashley fabric

 

The other thing that I wanted to do was to quilt and then paint over it.  I am not sure why, but I have been wanting to do this obliteration of the piece for a while, and the very pale neutrals of this piece seemed to be an ideal base for a painted over piece.  I used gesso on a brayer.  Although it takes some nerve to paint over a lovingly stitched piece, it does bring up the quilting really well.

 

hreads of Identity 3 - detail of quilting

hreads of Identity 3 - detail of quilting

 

The fabric here is an exquisite embroidered linen which is another remnant passed onto me by my mother.  It seemed like sacrilege to blank it out, but I think it really does highlight the quilting.  Here’s a back view of the quilting:

 

Threads of Identity 3 - reverse

Threads of Identity 3 - reverse

I think that one of the reasons that I wanted to go for this blanked-out, bleached out approach is that I went on a workshop last year with The Textile Study Group http://www.textilestudygroup.co.uk/members.html.  This is a long-standing and very accomplished textile group of impressive stitchers, but I was also fascinated by the way that a group that had been together for a long time had developed something of a house-style.  My work has been big and colourful and highly decorative for a long time, and a lot of theirs was stripped back and minimal.  Opposites attract and I found myself really wishing that I could produce something similar.  The workshop  was run by Cas Holmes who works with a lot of recycled materials, again in quite a minimal and bleached out way:

 

Cas Holmes - with permission of the artist

Cas Holmes - with permission of the artist

 

Here’s another:

Cas Holmes - with permission of the artist

Cas Holmes - with permission of the artist

 

Her website is http://www.casholmes.textilearts.net.  The workshop was great.  Full of very friendly and supportive women who were welcoming to the strangers who joined them.  They were great fun to be with and we had a lovely time with them.

Anyway, the next stage is to do some embellishment over the white-d out stitching.

 

 

Threads of Identity 1 – again

Threads of Identity 1 - close-up

Threads of Identity 1 - close-up

I think that this panel is finally finished, although I have at least two quilts which I don’t think will ever be done: The Body Shop Quilt and The Starbucks Quilt.  But this one seems to have decided that it is complete.  This is how it started:

Threads of Identity 1 - initial stages

Threads of Identity 1 - initial stages

Then I added some more elements:

Threads of Identity 1 - 80% done

Threads of Identity 1 - 80% done

I thought that this was more or less finished, but it didn’t tell me it was done.  I have blogged about this before.  I think artworks, or projects if you don’t like the loaded connotations of ‘art’, speak to you, before during and after their creation.  Some are incredibly chatty, like the Body Shop Quilt, while others do it a bit more quietly and sporadically.  This one was a whisperer.  But an insistent one.  It really wasn’t finished despite the nice decorative elements like the little framed Virgin and the rather glorious spotty snake.  It needed more, and what it needed was some hand stitching.  I increasingly find that the things I make get upset if I try to rush them, or don’t want to put in the work, or don’t lavish enough attention on them.  The minute I started to put in the black stitching to bring out the snake a bit more, it came to life:

Threads of Identity 1 - stitching detail

Threads of Identity 1 - stitching detail

I was always unhappy about the way it seemed to fade out a bit at the point of the antique lace at the bottom and the final stage was to find some mother-of-pearl buttons and stitch them on with thick black stranded embroidery thread to act as punctuation marks:

Threads of Identity 1 - button detail

Threads of Identity 1 - button detail

This device also pulled in the blue felt heart which had looked a bit marooned prior to getting its button.  Once I had done this and added some rudimentary embroidery such as the chain stitch to the side of the Laura Ashley swatch the piece felt complete and I knew it was done:

Threads of Identity 1 (2011) The Final Piece

Threads of Identity 1 (2011) The Final Piece

It just remains to put this into the box frame I bought for it, and then the first piece in this project is done.

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Thinking about narrative

Threads of Identity 1, 2011

Threads of Identity 1, 2011

This is the first finished panel of my Laura Ashley/Threads of Identity project.  The project is an example of what Laurel Richardson might call ‘Creative Analytic Practice’ or CAP.  I like CAP because it combines the creative – usually writing in Richardson’s case, with the analytic.  This is about something, it investigates something, it holds an inquiring position.  This project is slightly different for me because it is creative.  It isn’t based on any form of data such as what someone said in an interview or what I read in a published source.  This is a project which I would like to make a different kind of inquiry; one based on imagination.

Imagination is usually seen as a bad thing in research.  There must be no whiff that we are making things up.  That would invalidate the whole enterprise and expose us to ridicule and charges of something bordering on fraud.  But imagination is a really valid component in research.  Imagination and intuition play a huge part in how we find things out and then what we make of them.  This project is just foregrounding the method.

So, my research design here is to take fragments of cloth and juxtapose them (back to Benjamin and his montage techniques which I blogged about earlier this year).  From this some sort of narrative will emerge.  I have no idea what will happen when I start.  I chose the pieces of fabric, inspired by the exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London, by colour.  Here they are all lovely slightly sooty shades of blue.  Then I stand back and see what I have.  I love what happens in this process.  It is like alchemy.

I started with a scrap of Laura Ashley fabric given to me by one of my quilting friends, Alison, and built out from there.  But what seems to have emerged from there is a story which goes from left to right like book might.  I think there is a story of rags to riches.  The piece is far more sumptuous on the right hand side.  The snake down the middle seems to suggest a turning point.  Things were never the same after the woman encountered the snake.  Her identity changed forever, and her material life changed for the better.

I would love people to look at this piece and make up their own narrative from the elements I provide as a prompt.  I will post a larger picture and would welcome any imagined life-stories people would like to post.

So the aim of this as a research method, which I acknowledge is experimental, and never likely to be mainstream, is to draw attention to our sensemaking processes, and the way that we make sense of our world by constructing stories.  Laura Ashley, in this project is just the stepping off point.  Or maybe she is the muse, but that’s a whole other project.

What I did last Saturday

My green pepper collage, 2011

My green pepper collage, 2011

On Saturday I went with my intrepid friend, Mike, to a collage workshop run by Anne Carpenter in Bristol.  We had a great time.  Anne Carpenter has been making collage for a considerable time and has great expertise.  She was very encouraging of our efforts and we both went home feeling pleased with our work.  Mike was more ambitious than me and chose to do a full-blown still life:

Mike's still life collage

Mike's still life collage

I loved this.  It was so full of life and gave a real feel of what it’s like to have a vase of spring flowers in front of you.  I also loved the ever-so-slightly sinister snaking dark green leaves on the right, which lift it out of just being a pretty picture of a vase of flowers.

My own attempt was interesting from a process point of view.  I kept on thinking what a great base it was for some serious stitching, but, of course, the whole point was to produce collage.  So, I was very frustrated for most of the morning.  Then I decided to go a bit free-form and to stop trying to do those particular peppers and just do peppers and I got on much better.  The layering really helped.  Then a few random threads over the top because I like a mess and then some tiny scraps of white fabric to represent salt and I was off.

Green pepper collage (detail)

Green pepper collage (detail)

I added the salt because I wanted to make them into pimentos de padron (or similar) which is one of my husband’s very favourite things to eat in Spain, despite the fact that every so often there is an innocent-looking one which blows your head off.  The Spanish ones are very short and smaller than the ones here, but it’s the thought that counts.  I think I like the fabric version enough to have it framed.

The postscript to this lovely day was that we went for a quick drink after the workshop to a trendy bar in a trendy bit of Bristol, where we were politely (well, not that politely) but firmly frozen out for being over 25.  Still, at least we weren’t invisible for once…

How well my husband knows me.

Mexican Wrapping Paper

Mexican Wrapping Paper

It was my birthday this week.  It is only when your presents come wrapped in paper like this that you know your 25 year investment in a relationship was time well spent.  I liked the presents, but I loved the paper!  How well the historian knows my taste and where I get a lot of my inspiration.  For example:

Detail from shrine, 2009.

Detail from shrine, 2009.

This is a transfer using acrylic medium of a postcard sent to me by another friend who knows my taste, Amanda.  Such a lovely piece, and I remembered to reverse it so that the writing is the right way round!  Here’s the full piece:

Madonna Shrine 2010

Madonna Shrine 2009

I probably like the back as much as the front:

Madonna Shrine reverse

Madonna Shrine reverse

This is the prototype that I made for a series of shrines about iconic Body Shop products.  I wanted to know if the construction would work and the thing would stand up.  I also learned about the way the edge of the very thick and wonderful to stitch handmade felt was stretched and thus the whole thing leans a bit.  I don’t mind this.  I think it adds to its fake antique charm!

Final example of how much I love my madonnas in their nichos:

Ann's business wisdom: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Ann's business wisdom: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

And a detail:

Detail

Detail

(Frame made of old toothpaste tube and nail varnish, repousse-ed from the back with an old biro).   Final Madonna printed onto cotton ironed onto freezer paper and put through the printer:

Madonna del parto

Madonna del parto

That’s enough madonnas for one day, (ed.)

Threads of identity 1 – standing back from the work

Threads of Identity 1

Threads of Identity 1, Ann Rippin (2011)

It is a really beautiful day in Bristol.  The sun is shining and the sky is blue.  A perfect early spring day.  The Christmas roses in the garden are starting to come out.  I mention this because one of the things I like to do (and I have simple pleasures) is to take my work into my dining room and photograph it in close up on the very rare occasions when we have strong sunlight.  The way the sunlight hits the stitching and forms deep shadows gives me great pleasure, and I think we should take pleasure in our work.  Here’s an example:

Close-up of Threads of Identity 1, detail in strong sunlight

Close-up of Threads of Identity 1, detail in strong sunlight

I think it brings out the texture in the work which sometimes gets lost behind glass.  I frame work behind glass as often as I can because I think it is hard to get textiles taken seriously and putting them in a frame and glazing them helps to make them more serious.   Here’s another strong sunlight piece:

Threads of Identity 1 - strong sunlight close-up

Threads of Identity 1 - strong sunlight close-up

A couple of years ago I bought a camera which is very unprepossessing and tends to raise a bit of a snigger when it comes out of my bag.  The reason I bought it is that it is very good for an amateur photographer like me to take close-ups.  I can hover three inches (6cm?) over the surface of the piece and it will still be in focus.  The first time I did this I fell totally in love.  It is like looking down a microscope and seeing a different world.  I literally saw my work differently.  I saw a wealth of detail, particularly in the machine stitching which I had no idea was there.  It was like scales falling from my eyes.  It reminds me of a great story I heard the playwright, Tom Stoppard tell on a talk show years ago.  When people gave him their interpretations of his plays he had to say that he was a like a man going through customs and being stopped.  On taking off his jacket (this was before increased security at airports, of course), he discovered he had an armful of contraband wristwatches.  He couldn’t deny they were there, but he didn’t remember ever putting them on.  I feel the same way when people tell me what my quilts are about for them.  I can’t and wouldn’t argue, but I don’t remember putting that stuff in.  It’s the same with the close-ups – I can’t deny that the stuff is there, but don’t remember consciously inserting it.

Changing tack slightly, probably my greatest intellectual crush of all time is Walter Benjamin.  One of the forerunners of critical theory, Jewish intellectual, German, he was hounded to his death by the Nazi regime.  Although I don’t understand all of his work, the stuff I get, I really get, and I think he was an absolute genius.  He completely understood how mechanical means of reproducing works of art was going to change the way we understand them, interact with them, and use them.  He looked at the camera lens and he understood what it meant and how it would change the human condition by changing how we, in the occularcentric (to use the trendy jargon) world see, perceive, use our senses.  He said that the artist, looking at a close-up of their work would have a completely different relationship with it.  Now, I do not consider myself to be up there with the great artists he was concerned with, but I do think I make art, and I think that my relationship with that art has changed totally since I started seeing it in minute detail.  There is a kind of loveliness at that level which I have no real responsibility for, but which I really enjoy.

Body Shop Quilt panel - close-up on the dining room table.

Body Shop Quilt panel - close-up on the dining room table. The pearl beads turn into scultpure.

(For those interested, Benjamin’s 1936 essay in which he discusses these ideas is ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical (Re)production’, and is widely available, including as a slim volume with his essay on Kafka, which is the best thing I have ever read on bureaucracy.  In the Penguin Great Ideas series.  There is a particularly good website devoted to the study of his work at http://www.wbenjamin.org/walterbenjamin.html

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin, 1892-1940

Creativity, experimentation, plenty and generosity

Samples of slashed fabric

Samples of slashed fabric

I blogged last week about the talk we had at Bristol Quilters by Karina Thompson.  Although I didn’t get to the workshop she ran, I did think that I would have a go at slashing layers of fabric using her technique.  Controlled fraying rather appealed to me.  So, I made some samples, and the above was the result.  She takes a very stiff brush to the layers after she has stitched and cut.  I couldn’t find a suitable brush so I used the edge of the rubber door wedge I use to tilt my machine so that I can see what I am doing.  It worked really well, and I enjoyed the process and liked the end result.  Karina said that doing all the dull up and down stitching was boring, but I was only making small samples.  I really liked the way she suggested making ‘stuff’ and then seaming it together later.  I make samples and chuck them in a bag and then fish them out later to combine with other ‘stuff’ to make my pieces.  That’s why it’s sometimes difficult to say how long something took to make.

One of the reasons that I think that my attempt came out so well is that I had some fantastic fabric to play with.  The texture is great because I was able to use so much silk so freely.

Slashed fabric sample 2

Slashed fabric sample 2

The reason for this is that my mother gives me a lot of great free fabric.  She has a friend whose son, Graham, makes wonderful window treatments for very wealthy clients and gives mum the offcuts.  So I have a lot of long thin pieces of beautiful cloth: linen, silk, cotton and the odd interesting synthetic, which are cut off when he hangs the curtains and then trims the hems.  I do sometimes get bigger squarer bits, and I get a lot of old sample books.

Body Shop Quilt panel made with Graham's bits

Body Shop Quilt panel made with Graham's bits

Because this fabric is free and would otherwise be thrown away, I feel really quite relaxed about using it in a way that I wouldn’t if I had paid a fortune for it.  I like the idea of recycling rubbish into something worth having.  And it makes the point that you see in work about creativity that in order to be creative people need resources.  Scarcity, despite necessity being the mother of invention, doesn’t support creativity, it inhibits it.  I can afford to have a go at stacking six layers of exquisite woven silk and then hacking it to bits because it doesn’t really matter if it all goes wrong.  Then again, I like doing something constructive with mistakes as well, but that’s another matter.

Finally, it makes me think about the importance of generosity.  I think that it is a great quality in life in general, but it’s also important in academic life.  Here’s what Professor Alf Rehn, a bit of an enfant terrible in Organisation Studies, has to say about generosity for academics:

Too many people in academia are greedy, and too few realize that this is a bad idea… Generosity, in this context, is a question of paying homage, being able to say who has affected your thinking – and also whom you are thinking with, as the notion of thinking as an individual activity should be abandoned… Academic generosity can come in many forms.  It can be something small, like referencing a doctoral student in an article, even though you could easily ignore it, or it can be bringing people into a workshop or a publication, or it can be a case of simply remembering to mention good work in a random conversation.  It is always, however, a case of having respect for academia as a social sphere.  It is also a question of having respect for yourself.

Alf Rehn (2006)  The Scholar’s Progress: Essays on Academic Life and Survival, Lincoln, NE: iUniverse: 3,4.

Given what is happening in British universities at the moment, it strikes me that this is well worth bearing in mind.

 

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Threads of Identity 1 – the half-way stage?

Halfway(?) through Threads of Identity 1

Halfway(?) through Threads of Identity 1

Having done what I call the construction sewing on this – putting down the foundations and making sure the whole thing sticks together – I can move into the more interesting decorative phase.   This piece is turning into a bit of a delight for me because it is going together easily and it is allowing me to enjoy really beautiful textiles.  So, there is some more of the lovely linen on the left, and on the right some of the exquisite silk from Margo Selby.  These textiles are so beautiful they don’t really need much doing to them.  The big tassel in the centre is made from a lovely double-sided silk furnishing fabric, and was supplied, as was the piece of old lace at the bottom by my mother.  Once I have finished attaching these elements, the fun can really start with the embellishments, which I think will start to let a narrative emerge.

Threads of Identity 1 lace detail

Threads of Identity 1 lace detail

I think this will be an interesting example of letting the piece speak to me and tell me its own story.