Teaching gender, talking about sewing

Linford Christie at his embroidery

Linford Christie at his embroidery

Today I start a series of lectures for undergraduate students and the first class is on gender, the body and organisation.  I thought it might be a good way into this to think about a gendered occupation and I suddenly remembered two pictures that I have used before.  The first is this one of Linford Christie learning embroidery.  It was part of a campaign by a Government body, Learning Direct, to encourage us all to acquire new skills for the knowledge economy.  I don’t have a note of the date unfortunately, but I do know that it was produced when Christie was at the height of his pomp after his gold medal successes at the Barcelona Olympics.  The message seems to me to be, here is this man, champion of the world. the conquering hero, the epitome of masculinity, strength, courage, competitiveness, determination, the fastest man on earth.  Even he can learn embroidery.  I don’t how much they paid him, but personally, I don’t find Christie convincing.  His body language is ill at ease, and his smile seems forced.  He clearly finds the embroidery frame a threat to his masculinity.  I contrast the machismo of Christie with the following:

Young woman at her sewing machine

Young woman at her sewing machine

This image is possibly even more startling and I wish I knew its provenance.  It was given to me after a lecture I used to do on portrayals of women sewing.  This is quite extraordinary for a stitcher – what exactly is she making with all that tulle?  A set of net curtains?  And why exactly is she stark naked?  Is this pornographic?  Or does the bird cage in the top right-hand corner suggest a feminist subtext?  But the association of the feminine with sewing and sewing with the feminine is very clear.  It reminds me of Roszika Parker’s great assertion: ‘To know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women’ in The Subversive Stitch.  Parker’s thesis is that young women were taught the qualities of femininity – taught how to be women – by being taught embroidery.  They were taught quietness, self-containment, composure, to keep their heads down, to be neat, to be diligent, to see things through, to be silent and content with their own company.  And to be happy to stay at home.  She also states that young women were taught to copy designs and not to be independently creative.  Parker suggests that this was so successful that embroidery and femininity became synonymous: embroidery was women’s work, and thus we are set up to find the super man in his glory Christie, funny when he picks up a little cross stitch.  The Subversive Stitch has just been republished and is well worth getting hold of.  Its title comes from Parker’s theory that women have always used needlework as a way of making statements about their worlds and of challenging societal norms and constraints placed upon them.

I am not sure that my young economists will go for this.  But it is always worth a try.

To gush or not to gush

Detail from Body Shop International Quilt

Detail from Body Shop International Quilt

 

I was struck on re-reading my most recent post by how fond I am of adjectives like ‘gorgeous’ and ‘wonderful’.  People who know me outside cyberspace will know that I am not normally a gushy person.   So I fell to thinking about why I am quite so fulsome in my praise.  The first reason is that it’s accurate.  If you pick up a piece of the Linen Shop’s Scandinavian stripe linen you will never be all that happy with an inferior linen ever again.  The second reason, though, is because I want this blog to celebrate beautiful textiles and to be a place where textile fanciers can get together to indulge themselves.  If you are a fabric-type like me then there is a real excitement about handling fabric like Margo Selby’s luscious silks, or Georgina von Etzdorf’s glorious printed velvet.  When I walked into Margo Selby’s shop and found bags of bits on sale that meant that I could own a large selection of them without bankrupting myself I really did have a rush of adrenaline that other people get jumping off cliffs attached to rubber bands.  Well, maybe not quite as much, but you get the point.  I feel the same way about beads, hence the picture at the top of this post which has fabric (silk) and beads.  So, when my new colleague, Nick, sent me a jiffy bag of glorious glass beads with metal foils in them, it cemented our friendship.  I literally gasped as they fell out onto my lap.

So, for those of us who buy fabric and then can’t bear to cut into it but get it out to stroke periodically and then put it away again, or who regularly spread out their bead collection and pick them up to feel their coolness in the hand, I shall continue to indulge in words like ‘gorgeous’, ‘luscious’, ‘sumptuous’, ‘lustrous’ and ‘glorious’.  As Jane Austen said, let other pens dwell on misery and guilt.  Let’s enjoy some beauty on a Friday afternoon.

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Is less more? Or is more more?

Threads of Identity project detail

Threads of Identity project detail

 

I went to Bristol Quilters last night, which is the biggest group I belong to with about 100 members.  Although there are far too many of us to stitch, we do have a great show and tell where we share our work. and we can afford to have really wonderful speakers.  Last night’s was Karina Thompson who makes gorgeous, tactile, sophisticated slashed textiles.  I have put a link to her website on the blogroll but for the record it’s www.karinathompson.co.uk.  It was interesting to hear her talk about her work as she is definitely a textile artist rather than an arty quilter, and she spoke the language of a practising artist.  I really like the fact that Bristol Quilters has speakers who are very traditional quilters one month and textile artists the next.  I think it keeps us fresh.  My good friends Becky and Alison who have featured in this blog before went to her workshop and said she was a great teacher as well.  I loved her idea of controlled fraying for when she brushes her textiles into a chenille-type quality.  It was also interesting to hear her talk about her fascination with the doing the least possible to suggest an image.  Some of her work is minimalist; only the barest evocation of a landscape.  This is in total contrast to my own.  I am interested in sumptuous, encrusted, glittering surfaces.  In my imaginary museum of quilts it would be interesting to hang her’s next to mine!  Anyway, treat yourself and have a look at her website.

This morning I indulged in one of my guilty pleasures which is to listen to Melvin Bragg’s Start The Week on BBC Radio 4 while doing some stitching.  I know I should be hard at some administrative task, but it puts me in a good mood for the day to listen to STW and that must benefit any students whose work I am marking.  Today was on the Battle of Bannockburn which is entirely irrelevant.  Last week’s was on Aristotle’s Poetics and I spent the whole 45 minutes taking notes.  So it evens out.

To get to the point, the picture at the top of this post is of the start of my Laura Ashley project inspired by my trip to the Foundling Museum.  I thought it might be interesting to document the progress of the piece – which is very small – only about 14 inches square.  I intend each piece to start the same size and to develop out of a sample of Laura Ashley fabric.  I am not planning much but am responding to the sample, but I would like stories to emerge out of the juxtaposition of cloth.  I started with what turned out to be a fairly fine synthetic fabric which looks like unbleached cotton lawn, which I will use as the foundation for all the pieces.  The wadding is bamboo, which I quite like because it is very low loft.  For once I have started with the frames.  I usually make the pieces and then have to have them expensively framed.  This time, I thought I would be a bit cleverer and get the frames and make the pieces to fit.  Fine, but box frames are like rocking horse poo – extremely hard to find.  In the end I went to good old IKEA and bought five large square frames.  I thought the black edges might be appropriate to the memorialising aspect of the quilts.

On Sunday afternoon I made the basic sandwich and chose potential elements for the piece.  I started with a scrap of Laura Ashley fabric as each piece will have one sample, and off I went.

Initial stages of Threads of Identity 1, February 2011

Initial stages of Threads of Identity 1, February 2011

These are both linen fabrics.  The one on the left is one from a pile of samples my mother gave me ages ago from some of the last cloth produced by Rose and Hubble, a British company which is no longer in business.  The one on the right is from a bag of off-cuts of exquisitely beautiful linen I bought from The Linen Shop when I went to Art in Action at Waterperry about three years ago.  The Linen Shop sells seriously gorgeous linen with a lovely sheen and very subtle colours.  Even though the off-cuts were fairly cheap they are far too beautiful to cut into, and I had to give myself the ‘Do you want to die with this fabric in its pristine shape until the perfect project worthy of them presents itself, or do you want to enjoy them while you still have your faculties?’ talk.  I saw sense.  The Linen Shop’s website is http://www.thelinenshop.biz.  Again, treat yourself.

That’s probably enough for today.  But I will track the progress on this piece which is coming together surprisingly quickly in subsequent posts.

Painted quilts, pretend applique and what I love about my job

Bristol Blue Painted Bubbles, Body Shop Quilt, 2009-2010

Bristol Blue Painted Bubbles, Body Shop Quilt, 2009-2010

Slightly hurried post today as I am deep into the teaching term at Bristol and exam papers have to be set, students have to be taught and meetings have to be attended.  So, this is a detail from my very large Body Shop quilt.  It’s from the panel about Bristol and is a nice example of how mistakes can lead to good things and become happy accidents.

I made a photo transfer of Anita Roddick using a PVA medium and coloured photocopies, but instead of using nice smooth cotton I thought I would use silk, as the rest of the quilt is deliberately made from the fabric.  I chose silk noil which is one of my favourite fabrics but not a great choice for this technique as the nubbly raised texture meant that when I worked away the paper to leave the transferred image the silk started to come through and the whole thing started to break up.  So I left a bit of the paper on which led to kind of bloom effect, or as if the piece had been sanded.  In the end this turned out really well, as the paper took the paint particularly well.  And painting all over the print was an adventurous move that I wouldn’t have taken if the print had worked beautifully.  I am too respectful of the source material sometimes.  The finished panel looks like this:

Body Shop Bristol Panel

Body Shop Bristol Panel

The panel is part of the large quilt which I will blog about in the coming months.  It has highly autobiographical elements which I will also explain, but it was really interesting thinking about how to capture what Bristol means to me.  The Nottingham panel for my hometown has elements of oak leaves for the Major Oak which features in the Robin Hood stories, and lace, as machine-made lace was for a long time one of the principle industries in the region.  But, I am not native to Bristol and don’t feel connected to, say, Concorde, which a lot of native Bristol people do.  So, I turned to Bristol Blue, which is a characteristic glass made here with a wonderful deep cobalt colour.  But I also realised that Bristol for me is about great friends, but also about work.  And my work is about thinking, creating ideas and communicating some of them to others.  I cannot believe the luxury of being paid to think and read books for a living.  I am very lucky.  So, I covered it in thought bubbles.  One of these morphed into a traditional quilting design, the feather, which was a surprise.  But I liked it so much I repeated it elsewhere on the quilt as in this detail:

Gold feather and pomegranate detail

Gold feather and pomegranate detail

This one also features a pomegranate design.  The pomegranate is one of my personal set of symbols.  For me it’s about fecundity and creativity and plenty because of the seeds.  But, what I realised in making this particular panel is that if you do your quilting and then paint it looks like you are the most fantastic applique-er in the world.  It looks like a magnificent gold applique, which is an illusion, and a pleasing one!

Finally a word on method.  I just quilt free-hand.  I don’t draw or transfer the design.  I just sit down and do it, which means some of it is very wonky, but you can either cover it up with paint, or decide that no-one will notice from a distance.  I think the secret of machine quilting is to do it very fast.  You cannot be a good machine quilter if you are scared of your machine!  I love the painting part which is like colouring in or painting by numbers and I am delighted that the effect is so good for so little effort and not much skill.  It’s mainly about confidence, and great materials.  As ever the work is only as good, unfortunately, as the materials used to produce it.  The paint here is the wonderful Golden Fluid Acrylic which I love.  Even on the yellow silk the blue stays blue rather than turning green because the paint has so much pigment in it.