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Outside: Activating Cloth to Enhance the Way We Live


Last week I went to a wonderful one-day conference at the University of Huddersfield about, as the header says, activating cloth to enhance the way we live.  I was put onto this by my Grate Frend Beatriz and send my thanks to her.  Essentially, the day looked at how cloth can make our lives better and more meaningful and how it can create communities. What I loved about it was being with enthusiasts for cloth.  I have to spend a lot of time explaining how I research in my own community of Organisation Studies, but with this group it was taken for granted that cloth is just plain important.

I am not sure where to start in talking about the conference, and I don’t especially want to point things out like school prizegiving because the whole thing was so good and engaging and inspirational.  I really wanted to do some community work like the first keynote Jennifer Marsh, and sat wracking my brain for insipiration.  What would engage my community?  White middle class, middle-aged, menopausal women? I couldn’t see them wanting to wrap up buildings like Jennifer does, but to say that they weren’t interesting enough to involve in such a project was to betray them and their invisibleness all over again.  I will continue to think about this.  I loved one quotation from Jennifer, though, ‘textiles have found me.  I don’t think I have found textiles per se.’  I know exactly how that feels.  The quilting chose me.  If I were a painter people would take me a lot more seriously (if I were a good one), because textiles are so ordinary and so everyday they aren’t taken seriously.  They are not sufficiently elite.  And that is one of the reasons we love them.  They are democratic.  They are for everyone.  All the time.  Again, Jennifer: ‘Textiles connect people far more than I could or any one individual could.’  Jennifer was great because besides being a sculptor who works in community textile projects, she is pretty much a full-time project manager dealing with a massive amount of planning and administration.  It would make a great teaching case – if only it were more informed by the spirit of capitalism not community!  Anyway, you have to admire someone whose latest quilting project is to wrap a Saturn rocket, and who has to solve the problem of how to line a quilt to cover what is essentially a massive lightening conductor.  If lightening hits there is a good chance that the heat will bond the lining to the rocket and that would require constructing scaffolding so that she could go up with a team of people and scrape it off.  Not your run of the mill problem.  The website for her project (which needs volunteers to make two foot square quilts to add to the wrapping) is at: www.thedreamrocket.com/.

There were a couple of speakers talking about a great project to recycle the textiles left behind at music festivals for use with homeless people.  This is a real case of cloth making a difference.  There is an element of craftivism in this in the work volunteers do to put a hand-stitched and embroidered pocket in each sleeping bag.  But what I really loved about this was the way that the volunteers in the shelters sometimes take such care: choosing textiles that match and tone, and turning down the corner of the bag, in the way that swanky hotels provide a turning down service.  I know you could see that as a parody of five-star luxury but I think it’s about generosity and respect.  I am not particularly sentimental about the homeless, having done the occasional stint in a shelter in my youth, but I love the idea of textiles, of cloth providing some dignity to people who have very little and are routinely ignored and dehumanised on our streets.  The first speaker on this project, June Hill, had a lovely image for this saying that we live separately and together like warps without a weft.

The final speaker of the day was Betsy Greer who is the person who coined the term ‘craftivism’.  Her website is at //craftivism.com/.  The idea is that craft+activism=craftivism.  So, as I understand it, this is about making the world a better place through handwork.  It is about rejecting the mass-produced and the homogenised nature of so much of our ‘shopping experience’; it is about protesting through public displays of craft.  Although I dislike yarnbombing (wrapping trees in knitted scarves, for example) on aesthetic grounds, I like the idea of providing an alternative set of things to look at other than mass advertising devices – particularly those large LED advertising hoardings which are becoming so common.  As I say, I don’t much care for nasty acrylic lamp post cosies, but I loved it when someone in my neighbourhood painted all the post boxes lilac for a month.  It made me smile.  I practise what I call aesthetic activism in my work – being critical of what big organisations do through the production of quilts.  I have blogged about this before, but essentially quilts invite people in.  They are warm and tactile and friendly.  They draw attention.  Screaming and shouting and being outrageous feels great for the people doing it, but tends to alienate everyone else.  But I want to draw people in to get them to think about what organisations do, rather than smacking them in the face and alienating them with outrage.

Probably the thing I loved best, though, was the talk by Lesley Millar, who is a Professor at the University for the Creative Arts.  Her website is www.transitionandinfluence.com/, and is an inspirational site.  Her strapline quotation is:


Cloth is the universal free element.  It doesn’t have to explain itself.  It performs.


Tom Lubbock, ‘The Secret Life of Cloth’, Independent, 18/6/02


She specialises in Japanese textiles and regularly curates exhibitions including ‘Lost in Lace’, which is currently on in Birmingham.  What I loved about her presentation was the seriousness with which she takes cloth and the range and breadth of her interests.  She described, for example, two films, In the mood for love and Hero, in which the textiles almost become characters in the action.  But she also presented in a really poetic evocative way and I am sure that I will be engaing with her work for some time to come.  Her ideas about how we imprint ourselves and our identities in the textiles we wear is particularly interesting with regard to my Laura Ashley project, for example.

The only problem that I had with this lovely trip to another discipline – like going to a foreign country – is that they are much cagier about letting you have the paper before they are published.  This is fair enough.  But the contrast with my discipline where we would hand deliver a paper to anyone interested enough to want to read it, did make me smile.  Berg may publish the papers, so that would be worth waiting for.

I think that the influence of this conference will stay with me for a long time, and I am indebted to Bea for putting me onto it.




Eliza, Anita and Me

I have been spending some of my time this weekend finishing an academic paper on using portraiture as a research method, looking at what the visual image can help us to say about people we study that the written account cannot.  It’s an idea that I am really interested in.  One of my favourite phrases about the sort of work I do, is ‘every ethnography ends in a betrayal.’  This means that as you work on a person or group of people you end up being critical and negative.  Certainly people I know who have done PhDs on living authors ended up disliking them and this leaks into the finished writing.  I really didn’t want to be like this in my work on Anita Roddick.  She meant so much to me as an impressionable adolescent that I want to preserve her memory.  Plus, she did so much good in the world that the odd temper tantrum, bit of insensitive and thoughtless behaviour and ….  well you get the idea, might be excused.  But for the sake of completeness you have to confront the fact that she wasn’t perfect.  I doubt that she would want to be portrayed as a saint either.  So all this is swirling round, and using visual methods helps to resolve it.

I used a method called montage in which pictures are juxtaposed without direct commentary.  So, when I did field work at the Body Shop, the medieval historian used to listen to me talking about it (which I wouldn’t do now with a much greater appreciation of research ethics) and commented that it sounded like I was talking about Elizabeth I and her court, which is a lovely neat way of encapsulating the more difficult elements in Anita’s behaviour, by presenting them in the long dead (and thus very unlikely to sue) Elizabeth I and letting the viewer draw their own conclusions about the parallels with Anita.  This is helped because there were real similarities between the women.  They were both powerful women in masculine worlds.  They both presided over the creation of an Empire.  They both had people desperate to please them and gain favour from them.  They both loved great clothes.  Elizabeth was capricious, had favourites, was vain…  You get the idea.

One of the surprises of the project, though, was how interesting I found the symbolism and iconography of Elizabeth’s portraits.  There is the rainbow because she alone gives light, the sieve because she sorts the wheat from the chaff, the pillar of constancy, the snake of wisdom, ermines, phoenixes, olive branches, globes, stormy seas, eyes and ears, the list goes on and on.  She is also compared with numerous Classical goddesses and biblical figures: Diana/Cynthia/Belphoebe chaste moon goddesses whose youth and beauty is constantly renewed like the waxing and waning of the moon, Aurora the glorious goddess of the Dawn, Astraea, the last of the goddesses to live with mortals who will return to earth and usher in a new golden age, as well as Deborah the judge and mighty leader in the old Testament, the second Virgin Mary and the woman clothed with the sun from the New Testament and so on.  I thought it might be nice to explore the effects of adding some of this imagery to Anita.  I liked the idea of making some portraits of her using the goddesses and possibly the symbols, but time rather got the better of me and I only managed to make one portrait, in paper collage not cloth of Anita as Flora.  This is the result.  I took my inspiration from a fantastic but weird book called Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa, by Hans Silvester, published by Thames and Hudson.

The photos are really stunning:

It’s a glorious book that my friend Liz H put me onto and full of inspiration.  Given Anita’s love of going to remote places to look for product ideas, I thought that her Flora would not be a wafting about in a gauzy frock goddess like this famous example:

Her Flora would be far more elemental and wild which is why I liked Silvester’s portraits so much.  So I replaced Anita’s famous wild hair with huge leaves, which I cut from paper I had marbled using the dilute paint with cling film dropped onto it technique.  These fell over her face as I was arranging them, and I liked that effect.  It reminded me just how identified Anita was with the Body Shop: she was it and it was her.  The two were one and I think this comes across in the collage (which is about A4 – certainly the size of a sketchbook page).  It came alive when I added some red berries:

Unfortunately, there wasn’t space in the academic paper to write about this or to include the portrait, but it is a possibility for the book I hope to write, and which I had a good meeting with a publisher about last week.  Anyway, it was a nice way to spend an evening, and really says something about the wildness in Anita which was good to capture.

We have a winner

You may remember if you have a look at this blog regularly that I joined in the Great BlogParty Giveaway.  Well, the winner has now received the mystery prize and so I can put up some pictures here.  It is quite a small piece – about the same size as A4 paper, and it is pretty much made of silk.  So, the ‘snow’ in the front is slashed silk, and the sky is a piece of silk dupion.

There are about five different very pale shades of silk slashed together to try to give that effect of snow in the dark.  I was quite pleased with the little house:

Which was a happy accident – it was only when I put the piece down on the background the wrong way round that it suddenly ‘worked’ – the reverse of the piece of fabric which had come off the embellisher was much more muted than the right side and being paler it receded and increased the sense of perspective.  A really good mistake!  I was also pleased with the trees which were from an ancient piece of pva fabric (you get a piece of plastic such as a polythene bag and  water down the pva and pour it onto the plastic.  Then you drop threads into it.  When it dries it forms a fabric which you peel off the plastic and which you can then use as it is or tear apart or cut into shapes or work into with stitch.  The fabric softens with age as it absorbs moisture from the atmosphere – weirdly.  Those of us who work with pva a fair bit might imagine that it is impervious to water, but it seems to go right on absorbing once it is dry.  Very mysterious).

At all events, the recipient was happy with the piece, which is what matters, and I enjoyed making it.  So everyone is happy.  I will be doing another giveaway, but not as part of an international event.  I would like to make something to give to regular readers of the blog.  I think possibly for the 200th post.

So, farewell, then, ‘The Tudors’, hello, ‘The Borgias’

One of the thing that always amuses me about my blog is the number of people who come to it through searching on ‘Tudors’.  They must be mighty disappointed when they click on that particular link.  My interest in The Tudors, other than Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s perplexingly more Irish accent as his Henry VIII gets older, is very much in the costumes and jewellery.  So, I was sad when it came to an end, but, what joy when I happened upon a box set of The Borgias in the DVD section of Sainsbury’s.  For some people inspiration comes from Nature, for others it is the National Gallery or Tate Modern, but for me, it seems, the Muse resides in Sainsbury’s entertainment aisle.  It seems strangely apt.  Be that as it may, The Borgias is quietly hilarious.  The Medieval Historian sits and fulminates at its historical inaccuracies, while I gently remind him that it isn’t a documentary.  Example: Lucrezia Borgia’s wedding dance began with a tune that had been out of date for a hundred years and ended with one not written at the time of the nuptials (imagine knowing that sort of thing, by the way).  But I watch it for the wonderful costumes, and in this case, set design.  It is sumptuous.  It is a feast for the eye.  It is gorgeous.

The Renaissance princess costumes are lovely:

And this is absolutely sumptuous:

And Joanne Whalley, playing the discarded mistress/matriarch looks fantastic:

A bit different from those of us who remember her from The Edge of Darkness and really wanted to look like her.  There are fantastic outfits for Jeremy Irons as the dodgy pope, and Cesare and the boys, but I really liked the episode with the moorish prince and all the orientalism that Edward Said could dream of, including Djem, the younger-brother prince, rather disappointingly bumped off with a very fetching gold brocade cushion (so disrespectful to the soft furnishings if nothing else):

The costumes have their own wiki as part of a bigger Borgias site (www.theborgias.wetpaint.com).  Well worth a look if, like me, there is nothing like a bit of beading to get you going.

Further Adventures in Reading

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

I have been writing an academic paper on portraiture, finally doing something with the Body Shop quilt which demanded so much time and attention for so long.  As part of my research I finally sat down and read Roland Barthes’ classic work on photography, Camera  Lucida.  Now, these French authors are never easy, and there are vast tracts of the book that you need a very solid education in Classics even to get near (he tends to clarify his rather obscure meanings by going back to the latin), but, in certain passages it is a really beautiful book.  It starts as a discourse on photography and it takes an unexpected turn when he comes across a photograph of his (dead) mother which, although it does not look especially like her, is her, or as Barthes puts it, expresses her air, her reality, what she was to him.  This leads onto a whole range of reflections about photography and reality, and death, and history and commemoration.  I just want to mention a couple, though.  The first is a passage which considers our relationships with people we love and their photographs:

From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star…  And if Photography belonged to a world with some residual sensitivity to myth, we should exult over the richness of the symbol: the loved body is immortalized by the mediation of a precious metal, silver (monument and luxury); to which we might add the notion that this metal, like all the metals of Alchemy, is alive.  (pp. 80-81)

Barthes is a difficult read (although in some works he is really funny which is more than you can say for most of the French post-modernists and post-structuralists, see for example his essay on the fringes in the Marlon Brando film of Julius Caesar), but sometimes he writes this wonderful poetic prose which is just lovely, and in this case somehow consoling.  Of course he is writing about an archaic world now.  I cannot imagine anyone writing as movingly and indeed romantically about digital photography – no silver involved there to my knowledge – as we squirt cartridge ink onto paper.  The disappointed romantic (as I was characterised in my eighteenth-year) in me cannot help but respond to rays from stars and vibrant silver.  No room for die-hard rationalists here.

The second passage, however, indirectly has something very interesting to say about creativity.  Barthes is aware throughout the book that he is very often the subject of photographs himself as something of a celebrity (as a public intellectual, a phenomenon the British can’t quite imagine).  He is fascinated by photographs as testaments to what has been in front of a lens.  It is the only thing that we can be more or less certain of with photographs: that something passed before a lens at some point, although even this has changed with advent of Photoshop, of course.  Anyway, he writes:

One day I received from a photographer a picture of myself which I could not remember being taken, for all my efforts; I inspected the tie, the sweater, to discover in what circumstances I had worn them; to no avail.  And yet, because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there (even if I did not know where).  This distortion between certainty and oblivion gave me a kind of vertigo, something of a ‘detective’ anguish […]; I went to the photographer’s show as to a police investigation, to learn at last what I no longer knew about myself.  (p. 85)

I wrote about the idea of making art as a way of getting to know the self in the last post on Jeanette Winterson, and although the metaphor of the detective is intriguing, I want to think about something else.  I think his experience gives a fascinating angle on one of the elements that intrigues me about creativity expressed through art: the fleeting quality of meaning, and the whole area of the intentionality of the artist.  One of my favourite anecdotes is from Tom Stoppard, the playwright, who was asked about the meanings of one of his plays.  Someone asked him a question along the lines of ‘When X did Y it meant Z, didn’t it?’  He said that he couldn’t deny that such a meaning was possible, but he certainly didn’t remember putting it in.  It was like going through customs, he said, and rolling up your sleeve to find ten watches up your arm: you couldn’t deny their presence, but you certainly couldn’t remember putting them there.  I often feel like this when people tell me what my work is about.  For example, I made a liberated quilt a la Gwen Marston, which had houses on it.  I wanted to use some lovely red fabric with Russian matryoshka dolls and, as instructed by Gwen, I fussy cut the fabric so that the dolls’ faces looked out through the windows of the wonky house I had made.  I will never forget someone looking at it and asking me if it were a comment on the sex-trafficking of Eastern European women to work in British brothels.  At one level yes, if you think it is social comment, it is, but actually, it was a piece of whimsy.  Not helped, it must be said by my liberal use of spiky grey fabric which looked like some sort of nightmare forest from the bleakest of Grimms’ fairy tales, but it was most definitely made as a domestic wall-hanging.  Now looking at those bleak faces staring out of that bleak house I see it rather differently, and it has certainly never been on the wall.

The moral of the story, then, for me, is once you have finished with a piece of work as any kind of co-creator, it goes out into the world and you no longer have any control over what happens to it.  Of course, you might have a completely different take on this story.


Adventures in reading

Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson

I have been doing a bit of traveling recently, and the older I get the less I like it.  I think it’s because so many things have gone wrong over the years that I haven’t got that supreme blase confidence that I am invincible that I had when I wandered round Europe on trains on my own in my early twenties.  I have now had to cope with lost passports, missed connections, lost luggage, missed trains, dashes across vast airport terminals and so on.  Anyway, one of the remaining joys of travel for me is that it is one of the very few opportunities that I get to read for pleasure.  I have to read a lot for my day job, and I don’t very often want to start again in the evening, but airports, planes, hotel rooms and reading go together for me.  No-one can get to you to do something.  You can’t really work because of interruptions and all the stuff going on in your peripheral vision and you get whole hours of undisturbed reading space.  I really look forward to it.  So, on this latest trip I decided to read Jeanette Winterson’s new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal.  I had heard it serialised on the radio before Christmas and I wanted to read the unabridged version because I was interested to read more about what she thought about depression.  In the event, it was a fascinating book because Winterson and I are almost exact contemporaries, and her evocation of growing up in the North of England was both familiar and utterly strange to me, but it was that fascinating feeling of ‘I was alive while the things she is describing were happening.’  I would recommend the book which is another version of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit which a lot of us saw serialised on television, and still remember vividly.

The reason I wanted to blog about the book is that a large part of it is about writing and therefore about creativity.  I was particularly struck by one passage in which she talks about a certain powerlessness that can come with creation:

It took me a long time to realise that there are two kinds of writing: the one you write and the one that writes you.  The one that writes you is dangerous.  You go where you don’t want to go.  You look where you don’t want to look. (p. 54)

Clearly, Winterson with her extraordinary upbringing of rejection and cruelty, is going to be taken to very difficult and disturbing places with her writing which may not be the case with those of us who work with visual things.  But there have certainly been moments when I have made things that I would not want to share with anyone.  I think, however, that even if we don’t end up doing memory work or retrieving parts of our identities and psyches that are pained and damaged, the act of creating does cause us to change and develop.  There are two kinds of quilts: the ones you make and the ones that make you.  I have made plenty of quilts where there was very little investment of me in them.  These have tended to be pieces in which I have followed patterns, or made blocks for a larger sometimes group piece.  I have chosen fabric and placement but haven’t made huge investments in them.  But there are others, like the monumental Body Shop quilt and the Starbucks quilt and the Marks and Spencer quilt where I felt taken over by the whole creative process and unable to stop.  The death quilt is another example.  The Laura Ashley/For the Love of Cloth quilt is likely to be another.  These are the pieces where I feel that I just turn up and provide the hands: the quilts make themselves, and by externalising some part of me and my psyche/identity/mind/biography they make me.  They are reflective practice, to use a term which is still in vogue in my academic area. They are autobiographical, and they act like a mirror to show me parts of myself that I didn’t necessarily know about.

Winterson thinks this is almost always a good and healing thing.  She challenges the stereotype of the dangerous, unhinged, fragile artist.  Art is reparative.  She borrows from psychology.  According to Melanie Klein, for example, our minds want to be whole.  Our personalities want to be integrated. We do not want to feel mental anguish.  We want to be fully functioning.  Winterson, writing with Freud and Jung in the shadows, says:

Creativity is on the side of health – it isn’t the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness. (p. 171)

I have spent nearly a fortnight solidly passing judgement: marking, reviewing academic papers, commenting on proposals for conference papers, and as fast as I finish one task another seems to present itself, like the waves coming in on a beach.  I have been feeling very stressed at the prospect of deadlines, and by the responsibility of sorting the wheat from the chaff: it is only my opinion but it has repercussions in people’s lives.  And I have noticed that I find myself yearning for next week when I will have worked my way through the bulk of this and will have time to do something creative.  And, when I sat down and quietly and rhythmically slip-stitched the binding on a panel for the Laura Ashley quilt, it did feel like a respite from madness.  Again, I don’t think that there is as much at stake for me as for Winterson, but I recognise the therapeutic impulse behind making.

I think that lots of people feel guilty about spending time on their creative work because it doesn’t feel like real work, but, I think I can infer from Winterson’s book that if you don’t do the creative work that you are drawn to, you will never be happy.  Here is quite a substantial bit of the text on happiness:

…earlier meanings build in the hap – in Middle English, that is ‘happ’, in Old English, ‘gehapp’ – the chance or fortune, good or bad, that falls to you.  Hap is your lot in life, the hand that you are given to play.

How you meet your ‘hap’ will determine whether or not you can be ‘happy’.

… What you are pursuing is meaning – a meaningful life.  There’s the hap – the fate, the draw that is yours, and it isn’t fixed, but changing the course of the stream, or dealing new cards, whatever metaphor you want to use – that’s going to take a lot of energy.  (p. 24)

So pursuing a creative life will take a lot of investment, as so many textile artists know, but so will refusing the ‘hap’ and always putting the sensible stuff first.

I recommend the book.  I read it in a single day in transit.  It had sentences that caught a raw spot in me and made me flinch or want to weep.  I think I might try something a little bit lighter on the return leg…

Jeanette Winterson (2011) Why be happy when you can be normal?, London: Jonathan Cape.

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What I did on Saturday

I am what I sometimes refer to as ‘stupid busy’.  For some reason, I am completely swamped by the day job with deadlines piling up all around me and no idea how I found myself in this position, and this is why I haven’t been posting much recently.  The temptation when I am so pressured is to abandon doing anything creative (and I defy anyone to see marking as creative except in the very loosest sense and moderating other people’s marking is even less so).  But I have learned in the past that if I don’t do anything creative I get nastier and nastier and tetchier and tetchier and that, strangely, won’t help the students as the frustration will come out somewhere in the marking process.  So, on Saturday afternoon I managed to find three hours to do some stitching.  I was putting the binding on first part of my big Laura Ashley quilt, which like most of my large pieces is made in panels.

This is a detail of the quilt panel which is made from, I think, two bags of Laura Ashley squares for patchwork which have been lying about for at least twenty years.  There will be more about the quilt in subsequent posts.

What I wanted to write about today, though, is something that struck me while I was doing the very dull, prosaic work of putting the binding on.  I make folded-over continuous binding on my quilts when I do bind them.  I like it because you get nice neat mitred corners and it’s very sturdy and you measure once and that’s it and you don’t need to pin whole thing twice.  And it’s very even, and even I, queen of the slapdash, get a neat, professional effect which I sometimes want.  But there is a lot of dull stuff – particularly pressing it before it goes on, and this gives great thinking time.  One of my favourite thinkers on creativity and, indeed, happiness, two things he links firmly together, is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who is credited with developing the idea of being’ in the zone’.  It’s applied to sport a lot – those moments when apparently you have hours to hit the right shot because time seems to slow down and you are in perfect synch with your environment.  I will never know about this, but I like what he says about being in the zone because I definitely experience it when I am sewing, particularly at the machine.  He says that you lose track of time – you could have been working for an hour or three hours, that you have more energy when you finish than when you started, and that you experience total contentment and well-being (it’s a while since I actually read this stuff, but I seem to remember those were the hallmarks of being in the zone).  To get into the zone you have to be doing something which you can do well but which is not so hard that you get frustrated and give up.  So driving is difficult because of everything going on around you but it’s possible to do it without becoming too overstimulated and that’s why so many people get ideas when they are driving.  I find this with sewing on binding.  You have to watch what you’re doing if you don’t want to burn your fingers on the iron, or lose the quarter inch allowance when you are stitching but it doesn’t demand your total concentration.  So, yesterday, repetitively pressing and stitching I wandered into the zone.

I have been trying to make a showstopper Laura Ashley quilt for at least a year, but the one thing that I have learned is that these pieces want to be small.  This is a whole other post, but they want to be miniature.  They want to sit in the hand.  They want to be keepsakes.  They don’t want to be huge embellished wall pieces.  I need and want a quilt to be the opposite bookend to my huge Anita Roddick quilt, but I have not been able to make one.  The fabric cries out against it.  So, I have a number of false starts.  It has become apparent to me as I have been working on the Laura Ashley pieces, and doing some interviews with quilters, which I really do need to buckle down to this spring, that this quilt for me is not about Laura Ashley plc at all.  This work is about my love of patchwork, quilting, cloth and sewing.  And cotton.  So, this quilt is really not about the company.  Whereas my Anita Roddick/Body Shop quilt could most definitely be called Anita and Me, this one, I think, is going to be called For the love of cloth.  My academic research for this project has definitely lead me into thinking about the sociology and anthropology of cloth – hence the Death Quilt, and I have loved doing that part of the work.  What this quilt seems to want to talk about is how I started stitching in the first place.  So, finally, we arrive at the point of the post.

Yesterday, as I was sewing the binding around these very simple nine-patches, I was thinking about how I started making patchwork with my mother when I was pretty small, and I remembered that a few years ago I found a copy of the book which I would say started it all in a jumble sale at the Friends Meeting House on Gloucester Road in Bristol near where I live.  I need an old book on sewing like a hole in the head, but I couldn’t pass it by.  I expect I paid a pound for it.  But when I opened it, it really was like a time machine.  I was right back in Nottingham as a little girl making a doll quilt.  How traditional is that – starting off making a doll quilt before progressing to the full-size version?  It is like Little House on the Prairie all over again.  Here is the very page of the instructions in My Learn to Sew Book, published in 1970 from which I made my first quilt:

I really wish I still had the quilt.  I remember it vividly.  It was made up of predominantly turquoise blue prints, almost certainly polycotton, stitched at random like this one, and very definitely no work of art.  The real turning point came when my mother made a similar piece but arranged the patches in diagonal rows like a quarter of a Trip Around The World.  I thought it was the most exquisite thing in the world and had plans to make it into a clutch bag, although what a ten-year-old would do with one of those escapes me.  Anyway, that was it.  The bug had bitten.  The rest is personal history.

I have a rather large professional problem which is that although I think this stuff is fascinating, I cannot see any way of turning it in an academic production, and this will need some creativity of a different order, but it might make for some interesting autoethnography, which is a social science technique which involves examining a phenomenon through personal experience – investigating an illness by giving a personal account, for example.  It isn’t considered quite nice, though, by the majority of social scientists.  At the moment I am prepared to ‘sit with it’ with all this and see what emerges, but I begin to think that there is a book about Laura Ashley, stitching and the construction of femininity.  I just need an imaginative publisher to go with it…

That aside, I thought I would include some pictures from the book.  This is the full-page spread. for example:

This is a pattern for a hedgehog pin cushion which I am so going to make (watch out at Christmas, my friends):

Here are some wonderful late sixties/early seventies illustrations which I think formed my aesthetic judgement early on:

And finally, here is a page of patterns for felt bookmarks which for some reason sent the biggest wave of nostalgia crashing over me:

Right, catharsis over, back to the marking…


Shall we read what it says on the label?

I very seldom make samples in my work.  I know everyone else seems to swear by them, but I am too impatient.  But for the death quilt, I did and ended up with a mini quilt.  I used the sample to try out facing a quilt to finish it which I had never done before and which worked out quite well.  But this particular disaster happened after the main quilt was finished and I experimented with a way of handling the central image just to see what would happen and not as a try-out for the full thing.  I wanted to knock back the central image, which on the finished thing I did by putting a layer of black tulle over it – which I have already blogged about.  But one of the purchases I made with my Christmas money (presents, remember, being exempt from the spending embargo) was a jar of Golden Crackle Paste.  Now, I thought this was like crackle glaze and would allow me to get a crazed varnish effect over my image, but actually it is for painting over and isn’t transparent at all.  Instead of a vintage sepia Victorian gothic effect, I got this:

Not quite what I had in mind.  So, then I had to see if I could  salvage it, and if necessity really was the mother of invention.  But it is lucky that this was on the sample and not the finished piece.  Totally my own fault.  And a learning opportunity, as we say in the trade.

In the end, I sanded back the dried paste, put a thin wash of Golden Fluid Acrylic paint over the whole thing, and then put some gold paint around the frame part.  I think it’s come out quite well, but I prefer the netted version on the finished quilt.  But it was interesting to have to salvage it, and I had the words of the great Tim Gunn from Project Runway ringing in my ears when the latest of his trainee couturiers does something stupid: ‘Make it work.’  See what you think:

Finished panel

Finished panel

Finished panel on death quilt

Finished panel on death quilt

Adventures with the Instagram

Hopwood Park Service Station

Instagram is an app for the iPhone that my dear friend Beatriz put me onto.  I don’t particularly want to use it to send photos instantly to the unsuspecting, but it is a good fun way to add effects to photos taken on the phone.  I liked the gothic magnificence of Hopwood Park Service Station shortly after Christmas taken with this app and shown at the top of the post.

So here is a small gallery of photos zushed up a bit with Instagram (which is free, incidentally):

Dear old Flossie in saturate tones with my Kaffe Fassett quilt

Dear old Flossie in saturated tones with my Kaffe Fassett quilt

Alison and David's vintage brocade sepia-ed up

Alison and David's vintage brocade sepia-ed up

Julie's vintage lace gothicked up

Julie's vintage lace gothicked up

Furnishing fabric sample given the Victoriana treatment

Furnishing fabric sample given the Victoriana treatment

Meg and Edward's keyring

Meg and Edward's keyring given the Victorian cabinet photo treatment

Three classy linen avians

Three classy linen avians

Lots of fun and a great suggestion from Beatriz.


So, I was listening to the radio this morning when…

Hockney, 74, has a poster advertising his new exhibition which reads: “All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally”.

Asked in a Radio Times interview if he was having a dig at Hirst, Hockney said: “It’s a little insulting to craftsmen, skilful craftsmen.”

Hirst has previously defended using assistants to complete his paintings.

He employs up to 100 people in a “factory” that works as a production line for his spot paintings and completes the painstaking work on installations like his diamond-studded skulls.

Speaking to Time Out in 2006, Hirst likened himself to an architect running a practice, rather than a traditional artist.

“I sit in a chair and watch, while they do the work,” he said.

“I employ about 100 people… It’s too many; it feels more comfortable at about 60, otherwise I lose my involvement. I need to know everybody, to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses.”

Hirst is not the only artist to employ an army of assistants – Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol and sculptor John Chamberlain have all used them.

Before the impressionist movement of the 19th century placed an emphasis on personal vision, even masters such as Michelangelo, Rubens and Rembrandt all relied on assistants and apprentices.

In the Radio Times, Hockney said: “I used to point out at art school, you can teach the craft, it’s the poetry you can’t teach. But now they try to teach the poetry and not the craft.”

He also quoted a Chinese saying, that to paint “you need the eye, the hand and the heart. The two won’t do”.

Hockney’s exhibition, David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, opens at the Royal Academy later this month. He told the Radio Times he had spent three years working on it.

The artist has just been appointed a member of the Order of Merit by the Queen – despite turning down a knighthood in 1990.


For those of us who work so much with our hands it is an interesting debate.  It raises questions of authenticity and ideas such as the ‘genuine article’.  With regard to elite fine art, though, I wonder if it really matters at all.  If Hirst’s genius is in his ideas, does it matter if he had anything at all to do with the making of the piece?  And if everyone knows that it is likely to be the work an apprentice, or from the studio of, does it matter to the purchaser?  Hirst apparently did not paint all of his dot series because he found the actual work boring and thought his assistants would make a better job of it, which could be said to benefit the customer.

I think you know exactly what you are buying into when you buy a Damian Hirst piece, and the knowingness of it all makes me a bit queasy rather than outraged, but it seems to me that it is only the logical extension of an art market.  Given that notions of beauty or emotional response to art have come to be seen as hopelessly sentimental and socially constructed manipulations, I can’t see that it matters much whose hand actually applied the paint.

But.  For those of us who work in textiles, I think this gives us all sorts of things to think about.  Saying that Hirst must paint his own work is to say that his body and not just his mind has to be involved.  The head and the hand.  This is something that those of us who pursue textiles either as professionals or serious hobbyists to use Stebbins’ lovely phrase, know all about.  We take it one stage further – our bodies actually go into the work.  You can see it in the marks we make with our stitches which carry traces of bodily work, but also our bodily products go into the work.  Our saliva from threading our needles, sweat, the oils on our fingers, and sometimes our blood when we prick ourselves with needles and pins all find their way onto and into our cloths.  I suspect that there are bits of skin and hair embedded in the layers of our quilts as well.  You literally, and depending on levels of squeamishness or fastidiousness, disgustingly buy a piece of the artist when you buy a quilt.  In my work there is a very intimate bodily relationship between me and it, and it is the very antithesis of the one with an artist like Hirst.  In absenting himself from the actual making, Hirst is illustrating that much maligned Cartesian dualism, the split between the mind and the body.  In my work I don’t have the choice.  The mind, the body and the thing are inextricably linked.  In my academic work we are always talking about transcending binaries such as male-female, mind-body, gay-straight, able-disabled, good-bad as these are considered constraining, imperialist and oppressive, so it is interesting that my stitched textile work, to use the very trendy phrase in social sciences, transcends the binaries.  In fact, it could not do anything else.