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What I did on Saturday

Olympic Cauldron: beautiful and functional

Olympic Cauldron: beautiful and functional


I spent Saturday afternoon in the company of the delightful Gwent Quilters giving the talk at their annual Summer lunch.  They gave me and the medieval historian a lovely lunch and Medecins sans Frontieres a very generous donation.

One of my very favourite writers on gender and organisation is Joyce Fletcher who also wrote some interesting stuff on learning and development.  Most academic writers on this assume that development means learning to be a separate, autonomous, individuated in the trade, person.  Fletcher invites us to think about this again and to consider the possibility that what we want is more rather than less connection in life and that learning is a communal activity.  She builds on the work of Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver who advocate ‘growth in connection’.  I was reminded of this after the talk at Gwent Quilters.  Fletcher advocates approaching life expecting to learn from our encounters with other people.  I think she’d wholeheartedly approve of the Gwent Quilters.

Over lunch we talked quite a bit about the opening ceremony of the Olympics.  The consensus was that it started off a bit wobbly, but that by the end we were all drawn in and really enjoyed it.  We thought it was an interesting response to the opening ceremony in Beijing.   Breathing life into something exhausted like the grandiose, inflated, macho Olympic Opening Ceremony demands some creativity.  I wonder if this was an example of a single mind creating something rather than a committee coming up with imitative blandness.  So, it was an interesting discussion about creativity and innovation based on a case study.  Not really what I was expecting when I sat down.

But being with the women and approaching the presentation like a conversation also made me think as I was going along.  I was talking about my Laura Ashley project and about how the majority of quilters in the UK got started using her offcut bags.  I suddenly began to think about the ramifications of the company and the industry it went on to spawn: the quilting industry: shops, exhibitions, manufacturers, magazines and books, longarm quilters – would any of this have happened if Laura Ashley hadn’t made the pure cotton with the right scale of print available to us just as second wave quilting took off?  It’s a very good example of what [the medieval historian considers the wrong sort of] historians call a counterfactual.  What if?  What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo?  What if Katherine of Aragon had had six strapping sons?  Or the old favourite, what if Cleopatra’s nose had been half and inch longer?  It’s hard to say, because patchwork took off in the US where they don’t seem to have been so attached to Laura Ashley remnants, but it certainly made it easier for women to take up the craft in the British Isles for 50p a go.

Then I was thinking about this being a pastime, or social phenomenon in which you can very clearly see a point of origin.  Just about every woman in the room nodded when I asked if they had started out with Laura Ashley packs.  The company, her vision after seeing that Women’s Institute Quilt Show, was the fons et origo of the passion and delight of every stitcher in that room more or less.  I wonder how many other pastimes, hobbies, obsessions can trace their roots back to a single source and to a single company.  I was struck forcibly about the strength of those weak ties.  We never knew her but she brought us all together in that room

So, two insights into my current research and into an on-going interest in creativity, plus an apricot mousse to die for.


PS for any Gwent Quilters reading this, sorry the medieval historian and I won two raffle prizes.  I felt very guilty, but I love winning stuff and the braids are going to a very good home.


Gold, glitter and glamour

Last night the BBC took a short break from wall-to-wall Olympic coverage and showed the first in a series of three programmes about colour.  The series is called A History of Art in Three Colours.  It’s presented by James Fox.  The programme itself was a bit unconvincing.  A claim was made that Klimt was attempting to reinstate gold as a precious thing after its debasement in the aftermath of electroplating.  This might be true, although I would have liked a bit of proof rather than assertion.  That said, it was a lovely thing to look at for an hour, and I look forward to blue and white which are to come.  The programme had a warm golden glow and glittery feel to it.  So we got Tutankhamun’s death mask:

And Cellini’s salt cellar:

And the Scandinavian Sun Chariot of Trundholm:

And, of course, quite a bit of Klimt, particularly The Kiss:

All the gold was sumptuous and lovely, and very, very glamorous.  Glamour is a theme that I have been thinking about a lot in my work on women and brands.  Anita Roddick had personal glamour and Laura Ashley promised a kind of aspirational, glamorous chateau-style lifestyle in the nineties.  Gold is clearly glamorous and nicely ambivalent.  It’s beautiful and dangerous, larded with temptation.  Miraculous.  I love the way that it doesn’t corrode or tarnish so that when the Anglo-Saxon treasures come out of the ground they are always pristine.  The boy pharaoh lives forever, as does Klimt’s wonderful Adele Bloch-Bauer

‘Mehr Blech als Bloch’  [more brass – money – than Bloch] was the joke when it was exhibited.  I got the idea of the programme, the links between what we hold most precious and gold, but the presenter himself was an interesting case with regard to glamour.  He wore Tarantino Reservoir Dogs outfits throughout:

Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs

Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs

It didn’t matter what the terrain or temperature, our boy was in his black and white outfit, usually with Ray Bans:

Among the ruins

Among the ruins

On the prairie

On the prairie

Hearing the sound of music

Hearing the sound of music

I understand about the demands of continuity, and I was glad that he didn’t whip out the gratuitous iPad without which no documentary now seems to be complete, but somehow it the suit, shirt and tie just didn’t look hip or cool or glamorous.  It looked contrived.  It looked like he was trying.  It didn’t look effortless.  And it looked derivative.  The sitting in the sun in a white shirt, black tie and black suit and Ray Bans looked like a still from any number of films, including one of my very favourites, Grosse Point Blank:

With John Cusack.

Dr Fox looked like he’d watched a lot of Taratino and Robert Rodriguez at an impressionable age.  Glamour, I think, has to look like your style.  Dr Fox looked styled.  Elizabeth Taylor or Talitha Getty would have wafted through those locations in kaftans looking utterly convincing:

Talitha Getty

Talitha Getty

And look at this for glamour:

This is a woman who even wore her rubies and diamonds in the swimming pool:

This might seem to be a digression, but although Taylor clearly thought about the impression she was making, she looked utterly like herself even in her pool.

So what about glamour in my own work?  Why all that gold and beading and jewels and sparkle?

The work demands to be looked at – these are showgirl textiles.  The Body Shop Quilt requires its own space in any exhibition (and gets it) and preferably a halogen spot to bring out the bling.  So glamour demands attention.  Glamour is about lustre, about light.  It is about surface.  And in my case glamour is about excess – where it can easily tip over into camp, gaudiness, chaviness and trashiness:

This brings me back to one of my favourite topics: taste.  Glamour doesn’t normally suggest good taste, but really glamorous people, Taylor and my mother’s instant selection, Joan Crawford, know when to stop.  They know when to take one piece off.  They are self-aware.  This is the sort of glamour which makes us think if we tried very, very, very hard we could actually achieve:

And we can’t finish about gold and glamour without this picture:

These thoughts are still underdeveloped, but it’s good to have a tv programme that makes you think for once.

Love at first sight




Well, I’m back from my stint in Catalonia, and staying with my mother for a couple of days.  While out in Nottingham buying thank you cards for all the people who deserve to be thanked after the conference and the trip to Perafita, I stumbled upon this wonderful stuffed bird.


I have a guilty secret which is that I love the new generation of stuffed animals that you can now get for children.  I love the realism of them, and the way that they use fabric so cleverly.  So, Christine, here, has a wonderfully repulsive head made of pink towelling-type fabric:


And surprisingly ratty fur fabric for her body.  I saw her across a crowded shop and it was love at first sight.  I even took her to a country park as we were walking the dogs to take some action photos:




The other reason that I love her so much is a bit more academic.  One of the stock definitions of creativity is the bringing together of two things which currently exist in the world to bring about something new.  So, good old burrs and tweed trousers to bring about velcro, that sort of thing.  I like the combination: child’s cuddly soft toy and reviled scavenger, harbinger of death and notoriously ugly bird equals Christine.  It reminds me a bit of Alf Rehn’s lovely book on creativity Dangerous Ideas in which he talks about needing to connect with unlovely things sometimes if you want to be truly creative.  It’s not just about loveliness.  Ugliness can spur creativity too.  So, Christine will find a home with a rather strange stuffed lucky fox a student gave me and my Frida Kahlo stuffed doll in my office.  And two stuffed dogs.  And some gonks.  And my stuffed college cat.  I begin to see why one of my students once called it a teenage girl’s dream bedroom.  She is lovely, though.



Family joke


It’s a family joke that no matter where we go on holiday, no matter how remote or how desolate, I will always find the quilting shop.  Yesterday was no exception.  We were in a tiny hilltop town in Catalonia which seemed only to have one cafe – in Spain? – but my eye was caught by the poster at the top of the post advertising quilting classes in another small Catalan town.  I thought no more of it, until we stopped for coffee in St Quinze de Besora.  Walking back to the car, I couldn’t help but spot the shop in the poster, even though it was shuttered up against the afternoon heat:



I’m not sure if it’s a gift or a curse, but funnily enough, no-one was prepared to wait around until 5.00 pm with me until it opened.



Drawing with children

Well, I did say that I would blog this week if I got good enough wifi, and the apartment we are staying at has great access once we worked out the name of the network.

I find myself with two small boys which is very unusual for me, but it has catalysed my sketchbooks in interesting ways, So, for your delectation I begin with lion/dragon/dogs, followed by a simple dragon dog:

Drawing with children, which something I haven’t done for years, is a lot of fun.

Here’s another dragon, a symbol which seems to be coming to the fore for me:

This one comes from a technique where you slap on red paint, then blue paint, then yellow paint and then look for animals in the random strokes.  I got a dragon, a poodle and a snake.

I didn’t do this one with the boys, but here is my machine for a flower to select another flower for cross-pollination.

The ideas are from a great book, Drawing Lab by Carla Sonheim:

And to end with this is a Modigliani portrait.  Lots of ideas and lots of fun:

Celebrating 200 posts

So, it turns out that that last post was my 200th.  I am amazed.  On my return, to mark this occasion, I will be giving away a prize to someone who reads the blog regularly rather than an international one like I did last time.  So, when I get back I will set that up.  One’ lucky winner’, as they say, will get a piece of my work.


Just so you know…




There will be a short hiatus on this blog as I am going to the annual conference (www.SCOS.org) of the scholarly organisation of which I am currently chair.  So there won’t be much going on here for about a fortnight as the medieval historian and I are having a few days off after it.

I am going to present some of my Laura Ashley research at the conference, particularly the methodological stuff about what you do with an invisible research population or what you do about stories that do not get told.  Dealing with what is known in the trade as the absent present.  I have been aware that people have only told me happy stories about their relationship with the brand and I want to find a way to tell the unvoiced stories as well.  So, I have been making a series of dolls who can tell the absent narratives, including this one, my current favourite, Barbara.  She is only my current favourite because she is the last one I made.  All the dolls have Laura Ashley fabric somewhere about them.  Barbara has a pretend vintage Laura Ashley quilt as an apron.  Others have dresses made from the fabric:




Given that these are part of the paper I will present, it would have been a good idea to have made little dolls that are very portable, but I chose to make dolls that are about 20″ high and in some cases quite heavy.  Genius.  Photos will have to do instead.  So, I will write more about them later.  In the meantime, Barbara, the medieval historian and I are off on our travels.


Ballgowns at the V&A

On Monday, Lisa, a new friend and colleague, and I met in London, and, as part of our time together, went to the ballgown exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.   We were more interested in talking about our work than looking at great art, so this show was preferable to, say, the invisible art at the Hayward Gallery, which is probably great but requiring a fair bit of concentration.  The ballgowns were perfect: visually delightful and enough nostalgia for the two of us to get to know each other effortlessly by talking about what we remember our mothers wearing or what we loved as children.

The catalogue, of course, is absolutely sumptuous.  The Victoria and Albert have recently started to outdo themselves with a series of books about costume and design, and this catalogue is definitely one of them.   The exhibition appeared to be colour-themed rather than chronological, and it was grouped around broad themes such as the ball, the wearers, the big occasion, and now the red carpet, but the dresses that were chosen seemed to be in a very similar palette in their groupings.  Upstairs was a gallery full of contemporary ballgowns had some breathtaking dresses.  So, all in all, a very good show for some escapism and wallowing in the loveliness of yards and yards of the very best fabric and half a ton of crystal beads.  And, of course, as I was wandering round, I tried hard not to think about the privilege on view, the energetic symbolic maintenance of the British class system or the celebration of anorexia in most of the contemporary frocks.  That aside, perfect.

Anyway, I wanted to do this post because it was only when I got home and looked at the catalogue that I realised that the slide show projected around the walls of the contemporary part of the show had models with the most spectacular hats/heads made out of altered books.  The books themselves weren’t in the show which is a great pity, but are lovingly reproduced in the catalogue for which they were made.  So, here are a few of the altered books headrests I could find on the web:

And this stunning creation, which was on one of the loveliest dresses in the show:

The headpiece was an explosion of butterflies out of the book:

So, if you like altered books, it’s worth getting the catalogue for a whole range of really inspiring ideas.  And the interesting part for me was that they weren’t the creation of a book artist, but of the set designer for the photoshoot, Vincent Olivieri.  He and the photographer, David Hughes, deliberately chose to work with books.  According to the catalogue:

That Hughes and Olivieri used books creates a reference to a fairy-tale or story-book context befitting the grandness of the idea of the ball gown and the sense of occasion it implies.  This could be an imaginary fiction as much as the real story or biography of the previous owner of the gown.  The use of second-hand books also represents the new function of the dresses as historical artefacts now collected and stored by the V&A, itself a seat of learning and an repository of books and knowledge.

Magdalene Keany (2012) Introduction: Pictures Worth a Thousand Words, Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950.  London: V&A Publishing, pp. 10 and 13.

So, an added bonus when I got home.  The exhibition continues until 6 January 2013, and I intend to go back with my sketchbook.

What I watched at the weekend – The Hollow Crown

If you have read this blog fairly consistently you will know that I love to watch historical dramas with very high production values just for the sumptuous costumes and other textiles.  Hence, you would watch the 1970s Six Wives of Henry VIII for a history lesson (and proper acting) but The Tudors for the frocks.  And if you want a feast for the eyes (and some scenery-chewing acting) then get the box set of The Borgias.

On Saturday evening the BBC began showing its high end production The Hollow Crown, the cycle of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays.  This is absolutely to the taste of the Medieval Historian who is heartily fed up of the Tudors, and I love a good costume so everyone was happy.  I don’t want to give my review of the interpretation of Richard II because I don’t claim any special insight and this isn’t an Eng Lit blog, but the Medieval Historian was tearing his hair out about everything from the armour being wrong, to the anachronistic use of a telescope, to people wading out of boats, to kings and nobles hanging about without retinues, to ….  You get the idea.  But, it was visually gorgeous.  And even the Medieval Historian loved the beginning which did capture the aesthetic of Richard’s famous portrait:




It’s hard not to love this one taken during filming, though, in which Ben Wishaw, playing Richard II rather captures the feel of his interpretation:



The glorious gilded Richard was a delight:



And he looked ravishing trolling about on a Pembrokeshire (I think) beach:



But then so did his deposer, Henry Bolingbroke (played by Rory Kinnear):



These are very manly plays about men doing things in a man’s world, so the female characters are in short supply, which is a shame as that’s where the costume designers can really let rip.  But there was sufficient cloth of gold in evidence last night to keep me happy.  Even in the Medieval Historian eventually conceded it wasn’t meant to be a documentary, and that is was nice not to see everyone running round in camouflage calling their AK47s ‘swords’.




What I learned about creativity from Nick Cave this week


There aren’t many of us left, but I am one of the few remaining people who still watches television programmes roughly when they go out.  We’ve got one of those fantastic digital things that will record a whole series for you and let you watch something you ‘taped’ while ‘taping’ something else, and I love the BBC iPlayer, particularly on the iPad, but there is something very satisfying about looking forward to a programme and sitting down and watching it with the Medieval Historian and our two dogs and cup of tea (or glass of wine).  I am also a connoisseur of various oddities which move alarmingly round the schedules.  All of which means that we take the Radio Times.

Last week’s number had an interview with Florence Welch, whose music I really want to like, but do find a bit heavy-going.  The interview was okay, but there was a passage towards the end in which the interviewer, Ginny Dougary, clearly unafraid of namedropping wrote:

We talk about the process of songwriting.  I mention something Nick Cave said to me about his love songs waiting patiently for him to finish them.

This really jumped out at me.  It is a variation on my feeling when my work is going really well that I am just the hands who turn up to make something tangible out of what is already hanging there in the air, making real what already has life in some other modality.  It is a very strange sensation.  When it’s finished I sometimes look and think, ‘I made that’, and it seems to have no connection to me at all.  Another metaphor would be that of a midwife rather than a mother because of the detachment that implies.  The maker is involved with the delivery of the object but has no visceral connection to it.

But I love Cave’s quotation, because of the quality of relationship with what he makes that it implies.  The love songs wait patiently.  I love the idea of politeness here.  It’s not something that you often get in writing about creativity particularly the burst of testosterone which the three minute pop song seems so often to imply.  The love songs show great self restraint.  But there is also an undercurrent of impatience.  ‘Look, we’re here and ready to go and you are faffing about going to the supermarket, or doing the washing up, or sleeping.  Come on we have a life to get on with.’  There are also very pushy creations that make you get up at three in the morning to facilitate their entry into the world (as with my turf, surf and sky samples, that I blogged about last week).  That sort of creativity is feverish and can be exhausting.  But there is also this form, quiet, certain, inevitable and calm.  The inevitability is present in Cave’s statement.  The songs are there.  They just need him to get his act together to bring them into this world from wherever they current are.

Finally, I love the animism in this quotation.  The songs have a life.  They are alive.  They are things which have agency.  They cause things to happen in the world around them.  They are not inanimate.  I think this about some of my work.  It certainly communicates with people. and I once had a very strange experience where I could read the emotion behind every piece of textile work given to me to hold by its maker – a very unheimlich or uncanny experience.  I don’t know much about Actor Network Theory but I have always been interested in that notion that things and not just human beings  can have agency in systems.   There is a book about art in which Mitchell argues that pictures have a life of their own.  In an interesting passage he writes that we all know that pictures aren’t alive, but we continue to act as though they were.  If you don’t believe me, he says, try taking a photograph of your mother and cutting the eyes out.  Even as a thought experiment this is difficult to say the least.

So, even though Florence and the Machine is a bit lost on me, reading about her certainly stimulated some thought.  Oh, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s ‘Into my arms‘, might just be the most perfect and patient love song ever written:

I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know darling that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Not to touch a hair on your head
To leave you as you are
And if He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms
Into my arms O Lord
Into my arms O Lord
Into my arms O Lord
Into my arms
And I don’t believe in the existence of angels
But looking at you I wonder if that’s true
But if I did I would summon them together
And ask them to watch over you
To each burn a candle for you
To make bright and clear your path
And to walk, like Christ, in grace and love
And guide you into my arms
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms
And I believe in Love
And I know that you do too
And I believe in some kind of path
That we can walk down, me and you
So keep your candle burning
And make her journey bright and pure
That she will keep returning
Always and evermore
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms


Dougary, G. (2012) ‘Go with the Flo’, Radio Times, 23-29 June, 10-12, quotation on page 12.

Mitchell, W.J.T. (2005) What do pictures want?  The lives and loves of images.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.