St Fagans National History Museum – handling quilts collection


On Thursday I gave myself the great treat of a coach trip to St Fagans Museum of National History, just outside Cardiif in South Wales.  It was Bristol Quilters’ Annual Summer Outing, and we went to see the handling collection of vintage Welsh quilts.  What a good idea a handling collection is.  There is something about quilts which just makes you want to touch them.  They are lovely to look at, but imagine having this on a table in front of you and not being able to touch:



The curator, Elen Philipps, assured us that the donors had all agreed that the quilts could be touched when they gave  them so there was no guilt attached to running our fingers over them, although we did all wash our hands on entry.

I am not a great connoisseur of antique quilts.  I love them, but I am not particularly knowledgeable about them.  So this is just a few photographs of the beautiful things we were able to see and touch:








Elen Philipps was a very good guide to the quilts and had chosen an interesting selection to present from very high quality whole cloths to utilitarian ones which interesting stories.  She was very good at balancing setting the objects in their historical context with a clear love of the textiles themselves.  She also put us onto a fantastic exhibition of red and white quilts, Infinite Variety which were shown at the Museum of Folk Art in New York.  There is a great You Tube video which shows how innovative the mounting of the quilts was.  I would have loved to have seen it.

St Fagans also has some quilts on display in its permanent gallery, and a rather eclectic selection of fashion associated with Wales.  It also has lovely gardens, and is mainly known for its buildings which have been saved from decay and demolition and rebuilt brick by brick on the site.  It was also lovely to have a day out in the company of like-minded people.


What I made at the weekend

The photographs today might take a bit longer to load as they are much higher than resolution because I wanted them to show some of the detail that the phone photos tend to blur.

Soo, I’m not really very inspired by nature.  I am inspired by artists who are inspired by nature, but really I get my spark from manmade things.  (I have just spent several minutes trying to avoid the loaded manmade, but person-made is too ugly for words).  I like finding inspiration in the baroque, renaissance and gothic.  I find it in jewellery, textiles, decorative arts, the Financial Times, all over the place, but never on a seashore and never in a wood.  Both those sorts of places offer balsam for the soul, but they don’t feed directly into my work.  I have never worked with peeling bark or rusty metal.  I like ornamentation, decoration, encrustation.  So being confronted by the natural is a bit alien to me. I very often even work in synthetics, although silk and cotton do figure heavily in my work.  The point of this preamble is to say that once again, confronted by the beauties of nature, I produced something an anthropologist rather than a botanist or a zoologist would fall upon.

First up I made this, which looks better in this arty photo than it does in real life:

I was using a lower-grade plastic coated snakeskin printed leather provided for us to try out before moving onto the exquisite stuff Basil, our tutor provided.  I decided to pleat and fold it, and quite liked the ceramic look it produced:

I liked this and decided to include other materials in the folds:

(Very many thanks, by the way to Janice T who gave me a big bag of beads which I used in this and who hasn’t been properly thanked yet.)  The beads were from an old necklace and the holes were drilled on a curve meaning I couldn’t get a needle through, so they are wired on with wire from lovely Debbie B. who was sitting next to me.  Basil is committed to working with every bit of everything and never throwing anything away, so this community effort to bring the piece to fruition seemed in keeping with the masterclass.

Having got this far, I was away.  I knew I wanted to spend the weekend folding and stuffing leather!

While I was waiting for the medieval historian to collect me, I was flipping through some of the gorgeous books Janet Haig at Heart Space had brought in for us, and saw this in a book on weddings:


Again, the inspiration comes from things that people have made.  I loved the stacking up of row after row of beads.

So, I went home.  I went to bed.  I couldn’t sleep because my mind was churning and so I got up and made all the ideas I had for leather in furnishing fabric.  So this is the maquette:

And here’s a detail of the wrapping and stuffing:

I had seen some beautiful orange-y yellow leather I wanted to work with and to contrast that with blue.  I found a piece of backing which I had done some work on, but not really finished made from upcycled plain white tissue, machine-stitched into a grid and then soaked away in parts.  This was then painted, gilded with the cheapest gold poster paint for kids from Tesco and mounted on deep blue habotai silk with wadding:

Basil had a pricking wheel which allowed me to make vey accurate pleats in the leather by stitching into the regularly spaced holes, and this lead to amazingly controlled work for me:

I thought I had finished the piece:

I decided it needed more blue and that I would have to put something over an existing area of beading:

One of the things that I had really enjoyed doing on this piece was making beads.  Normally I hate this stuff, but the leather was very accommodating and the process was fun.  I also refers back to the headresses I had liked:

As we got to the end of the workshop I was getting  a bit tired and a bit at a loose end, and so I picked up this trial piece again.  Coincidentally, two weeks ago I had recourse to Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, to help me find something at work.  I do not know why I ask him to intercede and I only do that about once every ten years (very sentimentally important earring, my dog and then some important papers).  Because I don’t trouble him very often – not being a believer it seems a bit impertinent to pester, he always comes through.  I promised this time that I would make him something in thanks, so here is my thank you offering, my ex voto, to Saint Anthony made almost entirely of leather beads including at least one made of perch skin:

And a close-up:

I will do a much more academic piece on this and the political significance of excessive work in another post, but I will finish with thanking St Anthony one last time.

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What I did at the weekend – Turf, surf, sky with Basil Kardasis, Heart Space Studios, Bristol

Salmon skin painted and gilded on black silk chiffon

Salmon skin painted and gilded on black silk chiffon

Imagine the scene: it’s, say, a wet Wednesday in the pseudo November we have been enjoying here in June in the UK. The marking is finished but your brain is almost dead, shrivelling from the side of your skull from the sheer tedium of reading the same thing in different handwriting fifty times on the trot.  Idly scrolling through your email you suddenly see an invitation to a workshop on something which at least looks different, a masterclass on using completely different materials to those in your usual repertoire, the turf, surf and sky of the title.  A bit pricey, but for two days with materials and sustenance.  I had to sign up.

The masterclass started with a getting to know you drinks party on the Friday evening at which Basil, our tutor, showed us the concertina paper book  equivalent of a powerpoint presentation of glorious images from nature as a way of getting our minds to start thinking before we started.  I thought the drinks were a really good idea as so many people come to workshops totally inhibited and convinced that everyone else is either professional or professional standard and coming straight off their retrospective at the Victoria and Albert.  So the ice was broken before we started work.

The masterclass was about working with materials that we wouldn’t usually use including animal skins and feathers.  I chose mainly to work with leather, and couldn’t resist buying this glorious piece of lazer printed, stamped and gilded scarlet suede:

It was pretty expensive but my heart lifted when I saw it, and it reminded me of all that glorious leather ‘wallpaper’ in grand houses and Renaissance costume and fine bookbinding, and, and, and.  Plus red and gold.  I can never resist that.  Probably the most amazing stuff was the dried, cured and tanned fish skins.  So this is dyed and manipulated fish leather:

This is a fabric made of pieced together eel skins:

And this is a gilded salmon skin:

I bought a piece of perch which had been tanned and dyed black which handles just like suede.  I could fill the blog with pictures of the exquisite materials.  Basil, the tutor was very generous, and the price of the masterclass included generous amounts of backing fabrics and threads and beads, and Janet who runs Heart Space was magnificently open with her stash.  So there was plenty to work with.  The literature on creativity tends to state that you need abundance to create the conditions for people to create, although we were all stunned by the end of the first morning when we were introduced to the materials.  Basil presented us with material rather than inspiration.  The inspiration came from materiality rather than source material.  The emphasis was on making and design rather than creating finished pieces, and we were very actively discouraged from thinking about making our things into bags, hats, waistcoats and, for the corset makers who were sitting opposite me, from making corset panels.

I found this part extremely difficult.  The embroiderers on my side of the room are used to producing panels.  Almost anything can be mounted as a panel or hung up as a wall hanging, so not making a thing is very difficult.  I am also a great finisher rather than producer of samples.  I think this is because I work, so when I go to a class I really concentrate and get on with it.  I am not great at sitting with the process and seeing what emerges.  I think that this might be an area which really needs work, because something very new might emerge if I did give it more time, but the goddess of finishing things makes very regular calls on me.

Basil was a really lovely person to work with.  He clearly knows and loves his materials and his enthusiasm really is infectious.  He is fascinated by seeing what the materials will do, how they can be manipulated and changed, what secrets are left to be revealed in a material as ancient and well-known as leather.   He had a lovely visualisation exercise at the beginning of the class, and unusually he didn’t show any of his own work or sketchbooks.  There was no influence or stimulus except what was in our heads or what the material suggested.  At the end of the class he asked us to talk about our work and to say two words which captured our experience of doing the work.  My two words were feverish and food.  The creativity for me was feverish.  I was gripped by it.  I was inhabited by it and taken over by it.  Sometimes creativity is calm and relaxing and meditative, but other times it is like a fever, demanding and tiring.  All those old images of the tyrannous muse descending and driving people mad are sometimes true.  My other word was food, though.  All that touching sensation generating materials and looking closely at them felt like restocking the larder or recharging the batteries for weeks to come.

The other people on the masterclass were really delightful and very generous with tools and materials.  They were interesting people to sit and talk to at lunch and they produced some fascinating work.  I really enjoyed spending a weekend with them.

There is a lot to write about the process, but I will end here with some more pictures and my next blog will be about what I made.

Pink reverse of the piece at the top of the blog

Pink reverse of the piece at the top of the blog

Eel skin

Eel skin


What I did at the weekend II

After the success of the trip to the Design Museum in Denmark, it would have been greedy to have hoped for much more, but on Saturday my magnificent hosts Sara and Alf and my new partner in art, Sara’s son Mathias, went to the Louisiana Museum north of Copenhagen.  The museum itself is a stunning building in a lovely park and it is situated on the coast.   You can see this from this picture of the cafe:

And they serve a Danish speciality, strawberry tarts:

There is a wonderful shop which is the only place I would go Christmas shopping if I lived in Copenhagen.  It’s a good job I was having trouble with my credit card or it could have been a very expensive trip indeed.

One of the real highlights, though, for me, was the provision of activities for children.  So, not just a treasure hunt with a clipboard, but a whole children’s wing housing three floors of activities and workshops.  There are small suitcases themed to go with the sculpture park or the current exhibitions and they contain materials so that the children can respond to the art in a variety of media.  It is brilliantly well thought out.

The day ended with me and Sara and Mathias making clay sculptures together of the Giacomettis we had seen in the gallery.  The children’s wing is sponsored by Panduro which helps as there is an endless supply of materials, but there are also plenty of staff on hand and a strong sense of generosity of spirit about the place.  I love using clay – real clay, which is cool and responsive, so it was the perfect thing to do before going to the airport to get my flight home.

While I was there the current exhibition is called Pink Caviar and is a show of recent acquisitions.  The first installation on the way into the gallery was of large enamel painted panels which immediately struck me as ready made quilt designs:

And here is my grainy shot of the same thing:

And a moody shot of the reflection in the window:

The gallery is clearly a huge success.   I think it’s because it is such a complete aesthetic experience and on a sunny day it was quite beautiful inside and out.  But, as Mathias pointed out, next time we go we go straight to the clay station and get working.  Food and shopping can wait!

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What I did at the weekend





Sometimes life is awful and other times the gods take your blessing bucket, fill it up, press it down and then put a bit more in.  This is the case for me with what is often a deeply boring part of an academic’s job: external examining.  This is the way in which universities ensure comparability of standards across the sector and it involves looking at student work from another university and agreeing that it is equivalent to that done on your degrees.  So it’s basically yet more marking.  But, fortune has seen fit to give me two lovely programmes to audit, one at Ashridge in the UK and one in Copenhagen.  All of which is a long-winded introduction to today’s post in which I want to write about Rokoko Mania, an exhibition at the Danish Design Museum in Copenhagen.

Although I have been to Copenhagen a few times, I had never been to this museum which is in the swankiest part of town just up the road from the Royal Palace.  I just went on spec, but when I got there I found an exhibition which could have been made for me, looking at the links between excess and the Rococo and design.  It had some fantastic costume installations, samplers, paisley, sketchbooks and extensive examples of Yinka Shonibare MBE, one of my favourite textile artists.


Shonibare reimagines conventional imagery such as statues of Britannia using African fabrics to comment on colonialism and imperialism.  This show included screenings of a ballet he costumed, A Masked Ball, which I don’t think I would have had access to otherwise.  The above photo is of costumes from the film.  His work usually deals with headless mannequins so it was a delight to see the costumes in movement.

But the show also included the work of Nikoline Liv Andersen ,whose work I didn’t know.  Now, I don’t normally like work which seems a bit gimmicky such as this which is made from plastic drinking straws, but these three dolls, as she calls them, were absolute showstoppers:

The exquisitely crafted costumes were topped off with eighteenth-century style wigs which morphed into monkeys:

These photos are very dark because the show had a number of very old textiles on display which you can’t expose to bright light, but they give a sense of the drama of the piece.  There was also a video of the artist talking about developing the work in which she showed the working process in her sketchbook.  I would kill for one of the books.  They were artworks in their own right.

Another textile artist, Laura Baruel, took a very different approach using only white to symbolise air, water, wind and so on in more monumental figures:

So, the whole thing was a delight and as it might turn into an article about excess and luxury it might even be considered fieldwork!

One final thought.  On the way to the exhibition I went past a cafe which was full of the most beautiful men I think I have ever seen in my life.  They looked like an aftershave commercial.  I was rather taken aback by seeing so much beauty.  It is rare to see beauty so striking that it seems unreal.  Being interested in aesthetics I am interested in beauty and this is something I might return to in subsequent work.  Plus, I have never understood how some people get so far with so little obvious talent besides being pretty.  Seeing these preternaturally handsome men suddenly made me realise the power that the very beautiful can have over the not so fortunate, it is mesmerising, hypnotic and strange, like stepping into another reality or dimension.

These two aesthetic experiences one after the other left me really quite energised and exhausted at the same time.  I couldn’t wait to get back to the sketchbook and the work table, which must  be the sign of a creative day!

Jemima Lumley – very talented maker

Super quick blog today.  The gorgeous and lovely Jemima Lumley is featured in the latest edition of Landscape Magazine.   I am slightly amazed that I can utter the phrase, ‘Jemima is my favourite jeweller’ as I am a bit surprised to find myself with a favourite jeweller, but she makes gorgeous things which suit teenagers and mothers and mothers’ mothers as well, and which are always very well-received.  She also made me a lovely pomegranate cuff which was featured in the article and can be seen in the picture with the page from Jemima’s sketchbook where she worked out the design.  I really love this cuff and am wearing it as I type this.

Here’s a picture of the cuff:

Jemima sells from her website as well as from a lovely shop/studio in Bristol called Fig.  It is absolutely my favourite place for birthday cards and presents.  And all unique and handmade.

I am so pleased that she is getting this sort of publicity and support.  She has made me several things for significant birthdays and anniversaries, always commented on and coveted.  Always loved by me.

Back to blog

Well, glory be, the Festival of Marking 2012 is over.  I finished this afternoon, and am now a free woman for the next three days at least.

While I have been chained to the red pen I haven’t done much at all, but the Medieval Historian is having some sort of rush of blood the head and wants to do some DIY, including, finally, helping me to put up the Death Quilt.  I have blogged about it before, but as a quick recap: I made this as a memorial to mark the twentieth anniversary of my Dad’s death in October 2011.  I also made it because I am interested in how women have used quilt making to mark significant events in their lives: weddings, christenings, departures and so on, but not death.  In the nineteenth century when mortality was a much more present reality than today women made death quilts and mourning quilts including those made while sitting with the dying.  There are examples of women making quilts from their husband’s shirts after their death, but this is quite rare now.  I will come back to this in subsequent posts, I expect.  But this is my first attempt, and it is very Victorian with the mourning statuary and the toad, a symbol of life and death.  I love the quilt.

This isn’t the best photo of it, as I took it with my phone, but it shows how I mounted the piece onto a painted ready stretched box canvas.  I painted it with a glorious rich very, very dark brown emulsion from Farrow and Ball called Tanner’s Brown.  I prefer this to black which can be a bit stark and would have blurred into the quilt itself.  The wall was also painted another in another Farrow and Ball colour, Brassica, which is a chalky light purple-y colour, and the two together look very sophisticated together – nothing to do with the rest of the room or the rest of our life, but rather pleasing as a combination.  It’s the first time I have given a largish piece this treatment and I very happy with the way it came out.  I think I will do it again.  The quilt itself is faced rather than bound and this gives it a softer outline which I think contrasts quite well with the strong lines of the mount.

I have started using photographs from my phone as they are so much quicker to load, but I think I might go mad and use one from my camera to give a better resolution for this quilt as it is detailed and rich, and worth seeing the paint colours together.   I am not quite sure that we will want to live with this moment mori for that much longer but I will definitely think about using this mounting technique again.

What I did at the weekend

There is a tiny hiatus in the marking and so I thought that I would recommend an exhibition to those of you who live in the South-West of England, The Brunel BroderersCuriously Enough.

The exhibition is in a beautiful converted watermill in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, close to Stroud, which is always worth a visit.  Many of the exhibits are based on narrative and fairy stories, and there is some truly exceptional work.  I don’t want to single out anyone in particular but it is a long time since I enjoyed everything in an exhibition and even bought a piece of work.  This show is lovely.  The following photographs are from the Brunel Broderers’ website and blog:

It is a small show and easy to see in a morning or afternoon.  The stewarding was very friendly and welcoming and informative without being overpowering or feeling like surveillance.  The chocolate flapjacks in the cafe were exceptional.  All in all a lovely afternoon out, especially with a drive through the edges of the Cotswolds thrown in.

The details of the exhibition are as follows:

‘Curiously Enough’
Ruskin Mill College, Horsley, Glos GL6 OPL
Saturday 2nd to Thursday 14th June 2012
Exhibition will close at 1pm on June 14th
Open Mon to Sat 10am to 5pm

If you go, make sure you go to Ruskin Mill and not the college as the address and postcode are misleading, although there is a very lovely riverside walk between the two sites.  Here’s a photo I took of the poppies blooming on the path:

Taken with my phone and not an instagram app in sight!