Bright Star – film for textile lovers

So, last Saturday evening the BBC did us an enormous favour and showed Jane Campion’s film, Bright Star which is about John Keats and Fanny Braune’s rather doomed love affair.   I loved the film because of its gorgeous costumes, the way the costumes were part of the story, and the way sewing and fabric was part of the storytelling device.  Fanny is shown as being obessed with clothes and fashion and has gorgeous things to wear throughout:

And she spends hours stitching and embroidering (and wearing very becoming bonnets).  When Keats dies her clothes become sombre and dark, echoing her mood, and she makes a gift of an embroidered pillow for his brother’s coffin when he dies early on in the film.  The use of fabric almost like a character in the film reminded me of classics like Hero and In the Mood for Love, where the clothes tell us about the emotional states of the characters.

I thought the film showed how important stitching was and still is to some of us as a consolation, but also as a way of giving meaning to our lives and helping us to form and maintain our identities.  Fanny exists through cloth to some extent in this film.   I read a brief extract from an interview with the director in Selvedge, definitely the best textile magazine/journal in the UK, in which she said that she was commenting on how undervalued women’s work is.  Hours and hours go into it and it is completely overlooked and trivialised.  Which is a bleak thought.   The film is a delight for the eyes, though:

I would have liked a bit more of the poetry, because I encountered Keats at a dangerously impressionable young age and never really got over it, but if you like stitching it would be worth seeking this out for a special treat.


What I did on Sunday

The weather here on Sunday was absolutely beautiful, like a perfect English summer day, as opposed to late March which is almost always cold and wet.  So, after the household and familial duties, including taking the dogs for a long walk, I didn’t have that much time in my workroom.  I did some finishing off jobs, which is always satisfying, and I found a pile of four by two inch rectangles of yellow cotton quilting fabric, which I have an idea my Grate Friend Ceri cut.  I have no idea what they were doing on my work table, but my room is such a tip at the moment that all sorts of things churn their way to the top.

Anyway, I said a couple of blogs ago that I love anything on a yellow background and so I decided to lay them all down on a piece of fusible wadding and see what happened.  In the event I quilted a monstrous pot plant!  I have no idea where that came from either.  I was aiming for a sort of medieval illustration tree, but this came out instead.  I used the leaves to practise different filler patterns which was fun.  Again, I have no idea what a pea pod is doing in this but I just like embroidering them:

But the piece I like best is the pot and this was a useful experiment.  It’s one of the pieces of fabric that I was given at Christmas and it looks great with this lovely Sulky thread in purple and blue over it.

I will use that again as a design element.  Otherwise it was just good fun to make.

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Winter III

Winter III

Winter III

You may remember that I have signed up for a challenge to make a small quilt on a given theme every couple of months.  The first theme is winter, and you may also remember if you have read the blog recently, that I  realised by doing this task just how little inspiration I take from nature.  This is my third and final attempt and it is much more autobiographical than botanical!

I took a piece of fabric which I really like and applied a small square of rich purple hand-dye and then did vermicelli quilting all over it.  Then I rollered on some black gesso, and finally applied the gold sun which you might have seen in the first attempt I had at this.

The problem for me is that I associate winter with the loss of light which I feel quite badly.  So here we have the colour of the lovely peacock blue and purple blocked out by the black paint – a bit like The Fast Show sketch with Johnnie the artist going into one of his bleak moods, if you know that programme.  The sun is large but watery in this quilt, and the piece came to life a bit when I zigzagged in black thread round it.

It is a slightly depressing piece, but the sun always comes back – so perhaps I should have called the quilt Sol invictus instead.

Not that much to say about it, but I thought you might like to see what I decided to submit in the end.

From the archive: one of my favourite pieces

As I mentioned in my last post, I have found a cache of good photographs of some of my older work, and this is one of them.  This is a piece called ‘Touch’ from a series I did on corporate excess and the five senses.  I don’t want to go into lots of detail about the project, but a few details will probably be helpful.  I went to see the wonderful Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Musee Cluny in Paris with the medieval historian and just thought they were fabulous.



The Lady and the Unicorn - A mon seul desir


I felt a bit sorry for the other tapestries in the museum because once you had seen these all the others looked crude in comparison.  They clearly impressed Tracey Chevalier, the writer, as well, because she wrote a nice novel about them.  They were made for a nobleman on the rise in the French court to impress visitors basically, and each one showed one of the five senses with some sort of contemporary luxury item associated with them.  So sound had a small portable organ, taste had a dish of sweets, vision had a mirror and so on.  The sixth tapestry is a bit more mysterious where the lady is either putting away or putting on a beautiful necklace.  Anyway, I started wondering what a very rich young corporate star on the rise through, say, one of the big investment banks, would commission on a series of tapestries in the same vein.  I looked for inspiration to the Financial Times How to Spend It supplement which is one of the glossiest publications around.  I had lots of fun with the quilts.  This one, which is about touch, is based on collecting imperial Chinese robes.  You need to be seriously rich for this because they are expensive – the yellow ones particularly so – and you need an air-conditioned room to keep them in.  I also think that if you bought one you would want to try it on – even if only for a moment, to take on some of that power which has seeped into the cloth.  (I wrote this up, and this is the stuff that Zigmunt Baumann quotes for those of you who are interested in arcane academic stuff).

But, this is one of my very favourite things of everything that I have ever made.  First, I am a sucker for anything on a yellow background.  I love yellow.  I know it has negative connotations of jealousy and cowardice and infection, but I think it is sunny and joyful and I really love it with purple and lavender and mauve.  I use it a surprising amount.  Second, I think that this is some of the best design I have done.  It just worked right from the beginning.  Third, it got finished.  This quilt has three layers, bondaweb and acrylic paint.  It was an absolute nightmare to stitch.  But I have always thought it was one of my best efforts, and it is one of the ones that I would be very reluctant to part with.

Here’s a bit of luck



I started thinking today about the exhibition I am going to have in September.  It probably seems a bit late to be starting to think about this, but I have got almost all the work already done.  I thought I had better start thinking about things like putting together a catalogue of some sort, probably a self-published blurb book, but I only have photos of my more recent work on account of changing systems and computers last year.  Anyway, imagine my delight when a whole CD of photographs of my work which never worked on my PC miraculously burst into life on my Mac, so plenty of photos now to work with, including this very small piece – about A4 size which was made with the leftovers from a round robin project I did several years ago.  I’ve always really liked this mini quilt, and the two others also made with remnants.  The round robin theme quilt was Angels and mine were great hefty things rather than floaty ethereal beings.  Alarmingly, the left over quilts seemed to feature dismembered limbs and bodies floating in a swimming pool, which wasn’t what I had in mind, but things were quite hard at work at the time and maybe that anxiety found its way into my work!  Here are the other two pieces:



Walter Benjamin and Ways of Seeing

While I have been producing some academic work on Benjamin, I had another look at the notebooks I made last year.  This is a quick post of pictures to show some of the things that I find fascinating about his work.

The first is that he said that the camera would have an impact on how we view art because it will allow us to see it  in new ways.  He implies that even the maker will have a changed relationship with their work.  I found this when I first saw extreme close-ups of my own work, including every fibre on the thread holding the beads on.  In close-up these elements can look sculptural, and the following page from the notebook shows by juxtaposing a close-up of my work with a piece by Henry Moore how this might work:

The second thing I wanted to think about was Benjamin’s insistence that art gets much of its meaning and certainly what he called its aura from its context.  So a painting of a saint in a monastery means something different to seeing it in a museum or on a Christmas card.  And John Berger picked up the theme in his foundational TV series and  text, Ways of Seeing in 1972 when he showed how cropping images which is very easy with photographic reproduction and even easier now with digital photography again could, by changing how we see a painting, change its meaning.  So, this is a demonstration from my notebook on ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Representation’:

Cropped, this looks like a portrait of a young girl, but if we take the mask away:

We can see that it’s Mary Magdalen, particularly if we know how to ‘read’ the jar of ointment.

It’s when I get these brisk mental workouts that I realise how much I enjoy being an academic.  I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to deal with ideas for a living.

13 Notebooks for Walter Benjamin

I have been doing some work on a project that I made last year in which I created thirteen notebooks as a tribute to Walter Benjamin, who is one of my favourite theorists.  I’ve blogged about Benjamin before, so won’t go into much detail, but the reason that I love his work so much is because it is concerned with lots of things that interest me profoundly.  So, he was one of the first people really to think about how photography and mass reproduction of work would alter the way we view art and see the world around us.  He was interested in montage as a method where you assemble materials about an issue or phenomenon and trust that the viewer will make sense of them for themselves.  He was interested in history, storytelling, collection, translation, art, some bonkers esoterica, all the things that fascinate me.  I love his essay on unpacking his books which leads into a really insightful discussion of what and why we collect, and his great work, ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.  It doesn’t do any harm that he is quite a tragic figure, a refugee from Nazi Germany who committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Gestapo on the eve of what he did not know would have been his escape to the US.  He left behind a briefcase but not all the contents were intact, so it is possible that somewhere on the border between France and Spain there might just be the manuscript of his Meisterwerk waiting to be discovered.  He also had a disastrous love life and couldn’t find a job in a university and so had to make his living by writing.  Which means there is plenty of it, and people spend their life working through it.

The final element about Benjamin that I love is that he loved notebooks – he used them extensively with tiny writing covering every last bit of paper, and he loved the aesthetics of them – the bindings and the quality of the paper.  He was also obsessed with the number thirteen, which is why I started the project.  So here are some photos of some of the books.  I will be putting up a permanent page at some point, as I want to create a resource of examples of art as research for anyone who wants to use them in future – just attribute them in some way at some point if you want to work with them!

Well, now, this is a bit overwhelming, but…

Well, now, I was brought up to display only English modesty and self-effacement and never, ever to blow my own trumpet, but I was speechless to read this about myself on a blog by one of my colleagues at Essex University.  I am a bit shy about sharing it, but I thought I would offer someone else’s take on my academic quilting:


Ann Rippin: Academic & Artist – Kat

To choose one women out of the hundreds I’ve met who inspire me seems a rather unfair task. There was my primary 1 teacher, Miss O’Donnell, who I remember thinking was rather brave having a couple of grey hairs and being a ‘Miss’ in a sea of ‘Mrs’  at my first school (I guess you still pick up on a tyranny of matrimony even at aged 5, right?!) Or, my swimming teacher, Marion, who would stride confidentially along the pool beside these flaying waifs trying to mimic the front crawl, and then later on, let us swim away from her after we have tuned in to the water– she always seemed to own the water , even though she wasn’t in it, showing how some women can make you feel safe even though they’re not directly next to you. Or the women in my family – my mum, sister, aunties and also my grans, the latter who I’ve only really known through family stories but sound as wonderfully formidable as I would wish my genes to come from.

But for now I’m going to focus on Ann, a fellow academic from Bristolwho I’ve had the blessing of knowing for about 10 years now who has transformed the way I think about research through her wonderful quilts (examples of this can be seen on her blog – ). Somewhat surprisingly I don’t actually know much about the life choices Ann has made, or it they were choices or chances, so am of course in danger of pinning aspirations and ideas onto her that are actually a reflection of my own lack or wanting.  But for me, Ann optimises what it means to be a feminist, even though we’ve never really discussed this in depth.  She is a fantastic scholar: thorough, an oracle of knowledge, inspirational teacher and a nourisher of other peoples potential. But whilst others (myself included here) have somewhat bowed to the patriarchy of academia – producing articles for certain journals, performing  or making rather cynical strategic choices about how we perform being a scholar as a cerebral disembodied being – Ann has managed to forge a way that creates a feminine space that cannot be held to account or measure by masculine norms inherent in our sector. Ann could have chosen to play the boys game, but instead she has undertaken a Project that refuses to bend and lean to certain tides of  fashion and tell the story of her research in the most beautiful artefacts.

In some ways, there is an expectation that female role models should carry elements of sacrifice or compromise, and it is very easy to tell stories like this which always carry a shadow of the masculine expectation – you could frame Ann as making a compromise in her career whilst men  who are younger and arguably less talented become professors.  But this is not what I see.  I see an inspirational person who has managed to create a career based on principles of womeness. Unlike other female beacons that appear in the media, she hasn’t died in some horrific way which both crystalizes her eternal youth and sets her up to be a tragic, unobtainable creature by which we are somehow all measured,  a la Diana or Marilyn. In fact, I hope she lives her life her life out in a lovely retirement home in the West of England. But the quilts she makes embody something that can’t be reduced or captured by male-dominated dialogue  – they are female.

It really does make it all worthwhile.  The blog, which is lovely, inspirational and well-worthing looking at is the Goldhawk Project (


 Quick post today


Quick post today.   This little album comes from one of our Chinese students.  They give us presents like this quite a lot.  This one is a book of paper cutouts of signs for Chinese horoscopes.  My sign, the rat, happens to be the one showing.  The cutouts, which are done by hand, are really exquisite and used to decorate windows, particularly at the Chinese New Year.  They are there to bring good luck and health and wealth.

I have added this picture, though, to show the lovely Japanese-style stab binding in yellow against the dark blue of the binding.  The whole thing is delightful, and I can’t imagine sticking them on the window and then throwing them away.  I think the collector’s album is a much better idea.


Winter II

Winter II

Winter II

Well, you will know if you saw my last post that I have enrolled in a challenge to produce an  8×10″ quilt on the theme of winter and it is not going that easily.  I discover that I am not particularly inspired by nature and this is a bit of an uphill struggle.

So this is my second attempt.  It is playing with the spikiness of the winter garden.  I used a piece of pva and thread fabric that I made last summer.  It involves getting a plastic bag or piece of polythene and slopping some watered down pva glue onto it.  Then you drop threads into it and then pour more dilute glue on the top.  When it’s dry you peel it off the plastic and you can stitch into it.  I usually make the glue too strong. I think you really need a third glue and two-thirds water, but lose my nerve and add more pva, which in this case made the fabric far too stiff to stitch.

I finished it off with a pale winter sun which I think reflects my current passion for sixties design.  I’m sure I grew up with this on crockery!

So this piece is okay, but, I think I was kidding myself as I was making it that it was good enough for an exhibition.  I will find some use for it at some point, but it’s back to the drawing board for Winter III.