What I did at the weekend


Connie, the wonderdog

Connie, the wonderdog



I’m sorry that there has been such a gap in posting recently.  I am doing some hand stitching on my Laura Ashley project and it takes a long time with not that much to show for it.  But, I will get back to writing about sewing as soon as I have something useful to post.

This weekend, however, was a drawing weekend in the Cotswolds which was a birthday present from my lovely friend Mike.  We went with his sister, Sarah.  It would have been the perfect spot for a drawing weekend were it not for the fact that it never stopped raining – cats and dogs, heavens hard, stair-rods, the works.  So we might have been out drawing trees and spring flowers but we weren’t.  We stayed inside and did a lot of drawing stuff.

It was an interesting weekend for two reasons.  The first was that over half the people on it genuinely had never picked up a pencil in their lives and it was fascinating to see how pleased they were with their representations of just about anything.  This bears out my pet theory that people would be a lot happier if they reconnected with their hands in making things.  The second reason it was interesting was that the tutor was a commercial artist rather than a fine artist, and he was really interested in drawing things that would work – steam engines, buildings that would stand up, cars, and wheels.  He was not entirely delighted with my choice of subject, Connie the pink chihuahua.  I went into Paperchase to buy the correct size drawing pad for the weekend, knowing that I had been invited to take something to draw but hadn’t, and so when I saw Connie in the sale bin for £3.50 it was love at first sight.  Connie is short for Consuela, btw.

Anyway, I had a lovely time and drew her over and over again:



This is my first go and clearly Connie has the front end of a chihuahua and the back end of a dachshund, but I persevered.  Subsequent attempts were rather better:



Which is Connie looking winsomely over her shoulder, and then we have the most popular rendering of Connie among the party:



And then my favourite:



Connie says ‘Adios amigos’.  Probably the best of the lot, though was this one which Sarah did during a lull in proceedings:



I really enjoyed the weekend and I learned a lot and my technical ability for things like buildings and faces has really improved.  I feel much more confident about sketching now and I want to try and keep it up.  But I was really in the zone on Saturday, the drawing, which I don’t normally like much, came really easily and even bits of machinery matched up when I drew them.  So, it might well be the case that drawing is to some extent a matter of practice, and I am not sure that I have time to keep that up.  I didn’t get on brilliantly well with the tutor who didn’t like people going off piste and seemed a bit thrown by a pink soft toy.  He really didn’t like people using colour and told Mike off for it, and that was a strain for someone who loves hot pink like I do.  But the discipline of doing it his way probably was really good for me and will come in useful next time I try to draw in a museum.

So, my takeaways were: practice really does make perfect with drawing (I loved having a whole day on Saturday where all I did was draw), the technical stuff is boring but it works, you should draw what you love most of the time, but occasionally you should draw something you hate (my locomotive, for example) because it makes you concentrate, and confidence is everything and that is exactly what most people lack in their drawing.

In short, a brilliant weekend with Mike and Sarah and a great experience even in pouring rain!

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Quilting to please myself

I was at a bit of a loose end yesterday – I had finished the marking and didn’t feel like doing anything very mentally demanding, so I decided to go up to my workroom and assemble a small project I have been working on for quilting.  In the end, for some reason, I started playing around with the leftovers from that project to make a little piece just for fun.  The fabric comes from a manufacturer’s sample that my ever resourceful mother got from a warehouse/shop in Leicester called Kisko.  I think it cost about £3.50.  So far this is the second mini-quilt I have used it in.  The backing is a piece of Laura Ashley wool/cotton blend that I bought years ago and made a horrible dress from, and the binding was leftover from another project.  The wadding is fusible cotton.   It is a small piece – about 13″ by 16″ (33 x 41 cm).

Those are the bald facts.  But this is in a small series I want to make about what I love about quilting.  I want to make some small quilts which will eventually go on painted box canvasses exploring my love of the craft.  So this one is a reference back to the very first quilt I ever made for my doll when I was a very little girl.  I blogged about finding the book with the instructions some months ago.

So, I started to stitch  together the leftover squares from the first project – to be completed –  with a view to making a simple quilt.  But then the spirit of Gee’s Bend descended, and I decided to do some liberated Gwen Marston-style piecing.  The quilt really fell together, and I even found a bit of the peacock batik I used in the winter quilt which I posted recently and which was exactly the right colours to fit perfectly.  Then I decided to quilt it pretty freestyle, but, of course, I couldn’t resist using my favourite motifs: the feather and the bubbles.  To even it up I did the stylised sunflower up the side.  I stitched the binding on, trying to fight off the embellishment fairy, but no, she won and out came the Golden Fluid Acrylics and I used some bronze paint.  I think it really lifted the piece:

I normally paint over the stitching as it’s a wonderful way to hide wonky quilting, but on this occasion, spurred on by the Kemshalls’ wonderful painted quilts. I decided not to and I think the turquoise stitching and the bronze sing together.  I don’t like the bars up the side much, I thought it needed something on that right hand side.  I didn’t notice until I looked at this real close-up that the paint on the flower has some sort of streak in it – it is barely visible to the naked eye (and turned out to be chalk!):

I liked the heavy quilting on it, and this is probably best seen from the back:

The wool-cotton gives it a lovely soft feel.

So, this was a very quick make – I finished stitching the binding on while watching a documentary about women in the church in antiquity with the medieval historian hurrumphing in my ear, so the whole thing was made in an evening.  But it was a joy to make.  Nothing tricky.   Nothing to communicate.   No theoretical or methodological point.  Just a little quilt full of the things I love: great prints, sparkly blues, a bit of Bridget Riley, free quilting, liberated piecing, and painted surfaces.  Even the striped fabric on the mitres on the binding matched.  When I had finished it, I sat and stroked it and then propped it up and kept sneaking looks at it.  I had a real, ‘I made that moment’ with it, which I haven’t had for a long time with the big complex pieces which take months to make.  I wonder if it was because it was made from the starting point of love – what I love about quilting, and happy times making dolls’ quilts with my mother.  I love quilting and embellishing surfaces.  I certainly don’t do it through gritted teeth, but this very simple, unambitious piece brought me real joy and delight.  The exercise of skill.

One other thing occurs to me.  I seem to be in a real phase of wanting to show my skill as a maker.  So things are being properly bound, and I am seaming panels together rather than doing raw edge applique.  I am finding delight in going back to the prints I started out quilting with.  I wonder if this is because in my job I get so much criticism – student feedback, reviewers’ comments on my research articles, gradings, ratings, league tables, stats, and the feeling that nothing is ever quite good enough.  It’s my joke that if I said I had got the Nobel prize for physics I’d be met with, ‘Oh, we were rather hoping you’d get it for economics’.  So maybe this is me telling myself that I am good at something, and that I do have real inimitable skill.  It might be quilting as consolation, or it might be quilting as identity.  Quilting to please myself.

What I watched last night – Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels

Anyone who has read this blog for very long will realise that I have a really magpie sense of aesthetics.  I love sparkly things and the more the merrier.  Also, being a less than tiny woman, delicate and exquisitely fine jewellery looks stupid and lost on me, so I love big jewellery.  Plus I am really interested in glamour and am getting increasingly nostalgic for the sixties and seventies.  Put all this together and you come up with Elizabeth Taylor.  So, last night on British Channel Four there was an hour and a half documentary on the Christies auction of her jewels.  I had recorded it and watched it when I got home from my sewing group, otherwise, I think I would have had to find myself a glass of something alcoholic and sparkling to settle down for ninety minutes of sheer indulgence.  As it was, it was some fizzy water and a handful of nuts.  Nevertheless.  It was sheer joy.  Putting the starving millions aside just for a while, it was wonderful to wallow in a woman who really didn’t care how big a diamond was, if she wanted it, she had it.  She was only interested in bling and impact rather than innovative design, and she couldn’t care less about being called vulgar.  And she let other people try the diamonds on.

My favourite of all this was the set of rubies given to her by Mike Todd who was apparently the love of her life.  He presented them to her in the swimming pool.  She has no make-up on particularly and is just swimming but she looks so happy, and so fabulous:

She apparently wore jewels in the pool all the time.  The other really fascinating piece was the famous pearl which had been owned by Phillip II of Spain and Mary Tudor and ended up on Taylor’s floor being chewed by her dog:

Apart from the jewels, I absolutely love Elizabeth Taylor for the way she rocked a kaftan.  One of my very favourite photos of her is this one:

But I really can’t resist this kind of glamour:

And imagine opening the wardrobe and seeing this little lot – the collection of her kaftans which were also auctioned:

The only fly in the ointment is that Cecil Beaton, who took this magnificent portrait of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, complained that she had horrible halitosis.  I don’t know that anyone else mentions it much, but I need the mind bleach to get rid of the thought:

Anyway, I strongly recommend the documentary, with or without the glass of champagne.

Scholarly work on the tools of our trade

I have just finished reading this book by Mary Beaudry, which I bought in the Victoria and Albert Museum bookshop several months ago.  I say reading, but actually there was a lot of skimming involved.  This is a book for archeologists rather than stitchers.  I thought it was going to be really interesting as it has chapters on all the tools of our trade: pins, scissors, thimbles, scissors, needles and so on, but it is pretty much a field guide to these artefacts to guide archeologists when they dig them up during excavations.  The introduction was really stimulating, though, with Beaudry making a very good case for the association of women with the material findings of needlework – needles and thimbles and so on.  She acknowledges her massive debt (as we all do) to Roszika Parker’s foundational Subversive Stitch, and she builds on that work.  Beaudry makes the point that needles and pins and thimbles are so solidly associated with women’s work and thus women, that archeologists don’t really ever consider them.  She gives a very nice summary of the conflation with an artefact with a particular gender:

Throughout history, activities customarily performed either by men or by women have become associated with and deemed appropriate to members of one sex or the other.  Through such customary associations various undertakings and responsibilities have become culturally designated as the “natural” province of one sex or another and therefore integral to the definition of gender identity through designation of gender roles.  The processes, settings, tools and materials employed in an enterprise are metonymically transformed into symbols of sex-specific tasks and so become emblems of gender identity.  (p. 2)

She suggests we take a closer look, and that we consider the importance of context.  Needles are a good example – where you find a needle and how many you find will tell you quite a lot about the life of the owner.   I was also a bit surprised to discover that because there was so little money to be made from being a seamstress in the nineteenth century, women often supplemented their income with prostitution and thus the trade ‘seamstress’ became synonymous with ‘prostitute’, which sits rather oddly with all those Victorian ladies stitching away at crazy patchwork and so on.  I also liked the idea that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries so many pins were involved in keeping clothing in place that approaching a lady was a dangerous occupation, even arch-seducer Byron said it was like touching a porcupine.  I’d like to end with a really big claim from the beginning of the book.  In my line of work I get a lot of ‘where would civilisation be if no-one had ever…’  Beaudry makes her claim for the role of needlework in the establishing of civilisation:

Consider for a moment the likelihood that complex civilizations could have arisen if no one had invented cordage for tying up bundles, creating strings from fibers that could be manipulated in many ways, knotted, netted, laced through skins, woven into cloth.  If women had never experimented with fibers, if this experimentation had never led to textile production, to clothing, tapestries, blankets, bags, coverings of all sorts, the course of civilization, if indeed there was any would have been unimaginable, unthinkable.  Textile production and sewing of some sort have been tangled up with aspects of culture – technological, social, economic, ritual and so on – since early human history. (p. 5)

This strikes me as a pretty big claim, but it might bear repeating next time I get a crack about knitting, and doing something more mainstream!

The book is an excellent piece of scholarship and I think it will become a classic for archeologists, but it is a bit heavy-going for the lay reader.  Just in case you fancy  a look the details are as follows:

Mary C Beaudry.   (2006) Findings: the material culture of needlework and sewing.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

What I did on Saturday


Another quick post today.  This one is to show that I finally got round to doing something with two lovely gifts, and to add weight to my contention that I never met a bead I didn’t like.  This necklace is made from two lovely gifts.  The beads were a present from my very lovely colleague, Nick. who, before he started work with me, sent me a jiffy bag full of beads, and then for my birthday gave me a box full of these lovely items – two of each so that I could make a necklace.  They are just lovely.

The little framed icon at the bottom was given to me by my good friend and writing partner, Sue.  We have done a fair bit of work together on the appeal of icons and ex votos and are in the middle of doing another paper.  Neither of us understand why this kind of religious art has quite such a pull on two women who no-one would ever describe as religious.  Creativity can start with an itch to find out why (alongside the very popular ‘what if?’ question), and it has certainly kept us going for months.  This is the little image – on one side an icon:


and on the other one of Leonardo’s madonnas:



I have worn the necklace with a very plain T-shirt and a black dress.  It looks great, and I am delighted to combined two nice things from two lovely people.  And nice to think of them when I am wearing it.

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The Banana Man Quilt


This is my latest piece of work which I made as part of the re-writing of an academic paper.  I was writing about the interesting question of where organisations are, using the Body Shop as my case example.  I argue that organisations have no material reality – they exist through their products and services, buildings, staff, brand, and so on, but they are intangible.  They have no materiality, as we call it in the trade.  And so I go on to argue that they exist through our experiences of them as clients and customers or staff or other stakeholders.  One of the anonymous reviewers of the paper, one of the kinder ones, was interested to know about my experiences of the Body Shop, and so as I rewrote the paper I was thinking about my experience of doing participant observer research at the company and meeting Anita.  This quilt panel, which could form part of the enormous Body Shop quilt that I made last year, tries to say something about the experience of the company and its CEO for me.

I am back to my obsession with Walter Benjamin and his ideas about montage and juxtaposition, that the researcher collects things together but imposes no interpretation on them.  The viewer is trusted to be able to draw their own conclusions from the material in front of them.  John Berger illustrates this brilliantly in his book Ways of Seeing in which he presents a documentary-type photo of a poor Victorian child and then a sentimentlised oil painting of a street urchin and asks us to consider the issue of child poverty – and how we are trained to react.  I find all this fascinating.  So in this panel, again, I try to suggest a response to Anita Roddick by presenting an image of Elizabeth I as Gloriana.  I ‘saw again’ because I did this on the main quilt with this panel:

This is one of my favourite panels from the big quilt, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when Gloriana turned up on the new one.  Going back to the academic quilting, I use juxtaposed images of Anita Roddick and Elizabeth (Anita and Eliza) to suggest parallels between the two women that I don’t want to state explicitly.  So, I can say that Elizabeth I was capricious, stubborn, terrifying and so on without either doing damage to Anita’s reputation which I am keen to protect as she did so many great things, or getting sued.  Anyway, I found the photo-transferred panel of Elizabeth I (or someone who looks very like her) when I was rooting through some really ancient stuff looking for some Baltimore applique panels I did years ago.  I don’t remember making this piece at all, but I’m glad I found it because it is great with my theme of juxtaposition, and also gave me a great start on a colour scheme.

This was quite a difficult quilt to make.  I am still not sure that I got the design right, but I like the elements in it.  The left half of the quilt is about Elizabeth I and her gloriousness, and the right explicitly links her with Anita through the repeated use of an embroidery stitch called granite stitch:

This is used for the dress of both women.  I like this element in the quilt because I had it propped up as I was making it, and suddenly realised that I could continue the line of the dress out of the painting.  This continuing beyond the frame of the photo in sketchbooks is a very common exercise – which I have done, but could never really see the point of, but here it worked really well.  I finished off the bell shape of the skirt and then added a little embroidered slipper.  I also quilted into the picture as I find it is the only way to stop it ballooning up if I am going to do a lot of stitching round it.  If you look at the top of the picture of Gloriana, you will see that I fell spectacularly off the no buying anything wagon when I went to a wonderful bead shop in Cambridge, just down from Kettle’s Yard with my lovely friend Beatriz:

I couldn’t resist those plastic rose and chrysanthemum beads, and I bought the little pearl seed beads because you really can’t do something about Elizabeth I and not have pearls.  Having broken the duck I also bought the big blue ‘finding’ in the centre which was exactly right, and the bejewelled crown over Anita’s frock from Hobbycraft.  Oh dear.  A very severe lapse!  In my defence, the oval pearl beads had been in my stash for years.

Underneath the picture is a series of three little appliques based on the Body Shop products:

The quilt gets its name from these.  When I did my fieldwork at the Body Shop I saw the man whose job it was to feed bananas into a machine for a fortnight every year to provide the factory with one of the ingredients for its conditioner.  I have never forgotten it!  Anyway, this was my first go at writing with the machine which I think went quite well.  The wobbly repeated line round it felt a bit too modern and whimsical for my sort of quilting, although it is a very particular style and there is a lot of it about and I really like it, just not on my stuff!  I also used Steam-A-Seam rather than bondaweb which is my usual choice, but I really liked the new product and will use it again.

For some reason I wanted this quilt to be really well made, and so instead of my usual raw edge applique I did a lot of seaming together.  I chose to use some curtain fabric samples which were the right colour and texture to suggest an art gallery wall – and I am really interested in portraiture and museology so that was good.  But the end result – using a fusible polyester wadding for the first time, was trickier than I was expecting.  The machine quilting was fine, but the hand-stitching was a real nightmare.  Because I wanted to use every scrap of the upholstery fabric I included the bits that had been glued to the card in the sample book and, of course, this made it really hard to get a needle through.  So, I wanted to encrust the middle part with cross stitch and then stitch beads onto it, but frankly I gave up. I managed some, but fortunately the sequins were enormous and did an okay job on their own:

I found some very old faceted beads which bulked it all out and gave the right kind of encrusted feel to the piece.  This quilt is a lot about the glamour Anita Roddick exuded.  My experience of her, to go back to the start of the post, is of her glamour.  I won’t go into it here, as I have been writing about it, and academic theories of what glamour is and how it works, and I might come back to it in another post, suffice to say, when I met her she wasn’t in the dungarees and T-shirts I expected naively from her counter-cultural beginnings, but exquisite and very expensive clothes.  This quilt is a reference to the gorgeous little Dolce Vita black shift dress she wore when she addressed an academic conference in Boston as part of my research team’s presentation.  The first time I met her she was wearing what I think was an Issey Miyake linen dress with precision folds and a very expensive sheen!  There is no reason why she should have been wearing sack cloth and ashes, but it surprised me every time I saw her in expensive clothes.

Anyway, this has been what I have been working on for the last couple of months.  I really like it, but now need to think what to do with it.  I put a hanging sleeve on the back, but really it belongs to the monster piece I made last year.  More on adventures in hanging work very soon…