Embellished: new vintage by Karen Nicoll


Occasionally I recommend a book on this blog.  There are so many new craft and design books that it is hard to know what’s worth money and what isn’t because initially they all look so tempting.  I think I might have passed over this one if I hadn’t read a review somewhere, which would have been a shame.  It is one of those books which could have been written for me,  and so if you are reading this blog because you like my work, it could possibly also have been written for you.

It’s by Karen Nicol who is an embroiderer who works in the fashion industry.  Essentially she shows how she takes a variety of traditional techniques and updates them for high fashion.  It’s a sumptuous picture book which then has a very short piece on how she achieved the effects.  It really isn’t for beginners as those explanations are basic to say the least, but it is so visually stunning that it is irresistible:



I got mine from boring old Amazon, but I dissever from her website that you can get an autographed copy which would be much more exciting.   Her website also has a lot of the images from the book if you don’t want to buy it.

There are some great inspirational quotations in the introduction.  Inacio Ribeiro, who is one of her clients and half of Clements Ribiero, for example writes:

I think every true artist has a journey to undertake, a learning curve in the process of mastering his or her craft.  The journey moves from embracing the beautiful to finding a personal vocabulary beyond it, something fresh and relevant that reflects one’s inner workings as well as one’s times.  (p. 6)

The journey metaphor is definitely wearing a little thin, but I like the idea of moving beyond producing lovely things to finding  your own style, and then using them to say something about the world.  I also love Nicol’s description of being really caught up in a project:

I find returning to my own studio at such times unbelievably exciting, arms full of base cloths to work on and scraps of colour pinned to sheets of paper.  My brain fizzes with ideas and suddenly all of the previously irrelevant and obscure visual messages and technical ideas that have been unconsciously stored begin to slot into place and a gloriously feverish time of working ensures.  (p. 14)

I think that’s a wonderful description of the embodied quality of creativity, when it just won’t leave you alone and it does feel like a fever.

Finally, I love the way that some of the jewellery is photographed on men:


It is a sumptuous book and I think it might really help me over a bit of a block I am having at the moment.  Playing with her chosen techniques: tufting, sewn strips, fagotting and so on might give me the shove I need to get going again.

All I need now is a bit of spare time and a cup of tea to read it a bit more slowly and let ideas start to form.  Which will probably be just after Christmas.


My latest (small) quilt

Most quilters I know have a travelling project, something they can take with them on holiday, or on a long journey, or for the really obsessive, to do in waiting rooms on visits to the doctors or dentists.  I have just finished one of these projects which I started on a trip to see my Grate Frend Beatriz to work on a project we are doing together.  So this piece has nothing to do with anything.  It was just a way of having some stitching to do on the train.  It’s finished.  It has nothing to do with Laura Ashley, or identity formation, or place, or anything.  It is just pretty fabric.

I think I dyed the purple-y fabric myself.  I certainly intended to paint the wavy quilting, but in the end, I didn’t think it needed it:

The lovely pale rose buttons on this quilt were a present from Beatriz which she gave me on the visit and which fitted perfectly with the colour scheme.  The fact that they were a gift means that I now can’t sell the piece or even give it away.  I find the whole area of gift theory really fascinating.  The other buttons were out of a bargain bin in a wool shop in Bristol, although they were still pricey.  The woman behind the counter said, ‘Oh, you’ve had a good rummage, haven’t you?’  This struck me as a bit redundant; isn’t that what bargain bins are for?  Anyway, I have taken to putting a dab of glue behind big beads and buttons so that they don’t move about when you stitch them on, and this is what I did with these.

This is a detail of the applique :

Both of these fabrics were purchased.  I love hand dyes, but I don’t like doing it, so I am always willing to pay someone to do it for me.  The perle thread, which is always a joy to work, with is from Winifred Cottage, and it is what makes this piece work, I think.

A few people have commented recently that it’s interesting to see the pieces ‘in the flesh’ because you don’t get much sense of size from the blog.  For the record, this one is about twenty two inches by about twelve inches.  It’s also a faced quilt.  I quite like taking the patchwork right to the edge of small pieces.  I think it looks more arty than putting a binding on it.

So that’s my travelling piece finished.  I will need to start another one sooner rather than later.

What I did at the weekend – mainly for fabric lovers



The Medieval Historian was working on his big book yesterday and this left me at a bit of a loose end.  I had the afternoon and the car to myself, and so I decided to go to Downend to have a look at Fabric Plus.  Downend is not exactly the ritziest shopping area in Bristol, but this fabric shop has opened and I thought I should give it a visit.  Plus the idea of having all the time I wanted to look round without sighing and. ‘I’ll just go for a bit of a walk’, echoing in my ear was too good to miss.

Fabric Plus is pretty much what it sounds like.  It is a fabric shop which also sells knitting wool and haberdashery.  It had the big rolls of sparkly stuff for making into dance costumes for little girls, but it also had a pretty decent range of patchwork cotton, and some nice printed cotton on the roll.  I bought some cotton printed with strawberries in a blue colourway.  One of my side projects is making a series of quilts with St Andrews Quilters where we all have our own quilt at the end.  Mine is predominantly blue, but has strawberry prints which I have collected over the years, so finding a blue-ish strawberry print for five pounds a metre for the back was great.

The fabric I fell in love with, though, was this one, a gorgeous peacock print:


I think it’s by Rowan.  I couldn’t resist it.  I checked to make sure that I could cut round a complete peacock with a view to using it in an applique, and I think I might make another peacock panel.  The one I made for the Threads of Identity series which has been in the Bath Textile Artists Show in which I have taken part, has been a big success – people seem to love peacocks.  So I wonder if another peacock panel might be fun to make.  I am aware of the irony, that for me, the peacock symbolises grown-up mature, wonderful women, when the bird itself is male.  I link it with Hera, queen of the gods, but maybe strong, powerful, grown-up mature women need a bit of masculine energy in the mix too.

I also bought a bag of remnants, which for the most part are a bit uninspiring:


but I would have paid the £1.50 requested just for the furry bit:

I have no idea what I am going to do with it, but it was far too lovely to pass by.

The other thing I really liked about the shop was that there was a wide range of people in there, some buying fabric for their granddaughter’s majorette dress, some buying knitting wool and putting stuff by, which something I remember from my childhood, and some like me, treating ourselves to beautiful fabric because we just wanted it.  And, there was precious little card-making and rubber-stamping stuff.  I know that these hobbies have kept craft shops open, which is great, but it was a relief not to see yet another fabric shop drown under a wave of card blanks and ink pads.   The shop felt like a community resource, and I hope it prospers.


, ,

What I did at the weekend – collectively

As I blogged earlier in the week, I spent the weekend with a group of people interested in collaborative writing techniques.  In the event we did a fair amount of arts-based inquiry into our subjects, which tended to be on memory work, as formulated by the great German scholar, Frigga Haug in her approach to collective biography.   We spent quite a lot of the day doing what one of our convenors, Suzanne Gannon, called ‘running interference’, so we had to write about the colour red and then pass that work onto the person on our left who had a task to do which involved altering our text, or adding to it, or subtracting from it, or writing it from a different point of view.  I got a text from Ken, who was sitting next to me who had written about an altercation with his partner about the colour in which he had become very excited.  I had to write into Ken’s text and add my own sentences.  The idea was to experience losing control and ownership of your own writing, a process which is essential for collective writing.  You cannot be proprietorial.  So I took a paragraph of Ken’s and wrote into it.  Ken’s original text is in italics:

I hate the imperialism of red.  Written by a Cornishman.  No true born Englishwoman could have written that sentence.  Separatist, I think with a slight curl of the lip.  Cornwall for the Cornish.  Daphne du Maurier run riot through the landscape, blotting out all the red, insisting on the black and silver.  Well, not for us Englishwomen, bred to thrill to the sight of a scarlet coat.  Bred to give balls the night before Waterloo and to attend to the officer class, to offer comfort to the troops.  Imagine Jane Austen, BBC classic serials go-to girl, with out the Blankshire regiment in their red coats and epaulettes and brass buttons and tight, tight white trousers.  Her oeuvre would disintegrate without the threat of Boney and the scarlet-coated response.

She thought back to a dusty schoolroom in which she had never sat.  She saw the motes dance in the golden summer light.  She smelled the chalk dust on the air.  She was sitting, she thought, in her mother’s classroom, or her father’s.  Two thirds of the map is coloured red.  The empire on which the sun never set.  How the hell did that happen?  There weren’t that many of us.  How the hell did we manage to subdue quite so many natives.  And who, once we had done it, decided that it should be coloured red?  Was it an attempt to drench the map with blood, blood spilled in the name of his or her sovereign majesty?  or was it because early on red was the colour of imperialism, the subject under discussion?  The Tudors had their green.  Elizabeth I her black and white.  Did someone else choose red?  Well, as Cecil Rhodes so memorably said, to be born an Englishman is to win first prize in the lottery of life, and he might have said, to be handed a bottle of red ink and a brush at the font.  Go and decide which bit of the map you want to colour red and don’t come back until you have done it.

Just the word red packs a punch: I hate the discursive force of the way in which it colonises senses of colour.  It is the case that when the red mist descends everything else is pretty much blotted out.  I see this, although I haven’t ever killed anyone, or indeed anything except pot plants with much regularity.  Girls don’t go in for killing particularly even now.  It’s pretty much only chanteuses who put on those Charge of the Light Brigade jackets and pout lacquered red lips on their publicity material, and it always looks like reverse drag, Vesta Tilley walking among us again.  It is the case, though, that once you have seen red nothing  is ever the same again.  Once you have loosed that temper it is hard to reign it back in.  And once the colour red has danced on your retina nothing is ever really the same again either.  She thought back to an introduction to philosophy lecture about the unfortunate Mary, who in the thought experiment, had never seen the colour orange.  And then she did.  One day she woke up and did.  She had missed the point of poor old Mary’s sadly blighted perceptual processes, because she had been so struck by the poverty of a life with no orange in it.

And then in Autumn as the leaves are turning,

orange is the smell of the bonfire burning.

Synaesthesia and Mary destined never to meet.  But she wondered what life would be like without ever seeing red.  Christmas would be bleaker, bleaker than the Midwinter already was.  And, should you glance at the map on the schoolroom wall, you would never realise the full extent of your cultural heritage of violence, appropriation, displacement and oppression.  Red makes a very convenient shorthand.

She couldn’t argue, seen like this red was a discursive entity reducing, blunting and actually discolouring through the very processes which lead to its existence.  And a creeping, corrosive one, red rust silently eating into metal, flaking away things that previously had seemed very stable.  Red, it transpired could be a very subtle enemy.

On the Saturday evening after we had been writing quite a bit we started painting and collaging this enormous piece, seen here in its finished form:

We had to base the artwork on what we had written.  I chose to play with ideas around being British and the collective colonialist past and so I started by making my own map:

The tricky bit was that we then had to be prepared to let other people contribute to our work.  I really didn’t like the idea of that, but in the end, the addition was really rather nice:

The substitution of the Brighton Pavilion for the Taj Mahal  is witty and improves the whole.

I was quite interested in why this had been a bit difficult.  The exercise we did on day two involved making things on our own, and I was happier with that.  I didn’t mind people adding to mine – although I might have done if there had a been a lot of ‘interference’ but I really didn’t like working into others’ paintings, although I did a little bit, mainly with a fish stamp which I thought pulled the whole thing together a bit.  I have to face up to the fact that it is never enough for me just to make and be part of the process: the end result needs to be pleasing as well.

It strikes me as I sit here writing this now, that all this is a bit odd given the amount of collaborative work I do in quilting groups.  I have done pieces where they go round a group and each person adds a bit, and I have made any number of group quilts with the very excellent St Andrew’s Quilters over the years, and I have never had any problem there.  Why should quilting be quite easy to do collaboratively, and art-making with academics quite so difficult?  Is it because the Academy is all about individual effort, and I can’t shake off years and years of conditioning?  Or is it because quilting is usually do to with pattern making rather than analysis?  Is it because in quilting we are all pretty much equally skilled, whereas with the art created at the weekend lots of people were happy to make a statement or show a feeling rather than trying to produce a finished piece?  I also found that I was very happy to do the work – the writing and the painting and collaging, but I didn’t want to join in discussions which were about theorising what is becoming known as the material turn in Social Sciences.  Materiality has been my thing and I don’t want to share.  I was really surprised how strongly I felt that.  And I was disappointed.

While I ponder all this, I had a great time doing my first ever mono prints, which I have seen film of Tracey Emin and Laura Kemshall doing, but had never done myself:

And here is the lovely mono print that Tessa, another of our convenors did of me telling stories in the playground, taken from a piece of my writing:

What I am doing this weekend



I am currently on a weekend writing programme at the Ammerdown retreat centre just outside Radstock.  I mention  this because I ran into MacLean, the person who suggested that I start this blog so that she could keep up with I am doing from her home in the US.  Ironically, she has never seen the blog.  But, thanks to her for suggesting the venture which has brought me a lot of fun and new friends.

The photo at the top of the page is of some scarves that my great friend Sue’s brother sent home from Jodhpur where he now lives.  They are recycled silk saris stitched together with a form of kantha stitch.  I couldn’t resist these two, despite already having bought a beautiful shawl. I thought textile lovers would like to see them, but I am also amazed that even on retreat we can create shopping opportunities.






Still life with work in progress

I am aware that I haven’t been posting much on the blog recently and this is because the beginning of term has taken up all my time and energy.  But I want to keep the blog alive, so here are some photographs which I took while working on my research project with the lovely Beatriz and Charlotte.

One of the things that we have been thinking about is what difference it makes that the project is run by a woman and composed largely of women.  One thing is the care that the project leader, Beatriz, takes of us.  Here is the exquisite lunch she served in her house where we were working:

And here is another arty shot of work in progress

I love the way the light makes patterns on the paper as it passes through the glass.

I will blog more about feminine ways of team working as we gather more data, but for now, I just wanted to share the still lives.

, , , ,

Threads of Identity V

Those of you who have been reading the blog for some time may remember that I produced a series of small pieces based on Laura Ashley fabric in a sort of memory box arrangement with other artifacts.  When we were putting up the exhibition at the Guild in Bristol there was a big gap just about the right size for the last of these Threads of Identity pieces.  This acted as the spur to me to finish the piece which was in bits at the time.

As a recap, I started making these pieces as part of my Laura Ashley project after seeing the Threads of Feeling exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London.  That show had the pieces of cloth that women attached to the registration forms when they gave up their babies so that they could later identify them if they had the opportunity to reclaim them.  I was fascinated by the idea that cloth can be a marker of identity and so I made some pieces based on imaginary lives of women who clung onto pieces of Laura Ashley cloth.  The first four were entirely imaginary: a missionary, an archeologist, a fashion designer and a pastry cook, but the final one is my own piece and I included all sorts of very personal things in the piece and lots of things about what I love about patchwork and quilting.

I don’t want to go into the very personal pieces in a very public forum, but I will examine some of the meanings in this narrative piece.

The elements of my life include things like the brooch that was passed on to me from the Medieval Historian’s aunt:


It is put onto a piece of dark red silk to build up a little unit in the way that Beryl Taylor suggests.

There is a little Mexican tin shrine at the top of this picture which contains an image of Ethel Merman:



A mutual love of the work of Ethel Merman is the basis for a friendship with a very fine academic colleague which has lasted several years.  We are bound together by esteem of the divine Ethel as much as through common research interests,

The piece as a whole alludes to my love of quilting and the stories which have always had resonance for me.  So the central motif of the acorn applique comes from Ruth E Finlay’s Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them which was first published in 1929.  She tells the story of the block she found of an unfinished applique in turkey red.  The story is of a young Victorian gentlewoman on the coast of America who hated needlework and longed for adventure.  She met and fell in love with a sea captain, but the romance was thwarted by her father who did not think that the man was good enough for her.  One night the captain came for her and she left the patchwork block behind.  Of course, it ends tragically as the ship sank as they were sailing away on honeymoon, and all that remains is the needle, still threaded, rusting in the block:



So, I have left my needle to rust into the block over the fullness of time.  The netting over the top is a reference to quilt conservation which is another love.  I love the romance of the story but also the way that it points to the materiality of the craft.  This thing is all that is left of that life, and it was clearly carefully conserved and preserved by her grieving family.

The other story which I find intensely moving is about the Changi Quilts which I have also blogged about previously.  These were made in Changi jail after the fall of Singapore.  The Red Cross got sewing materials through to the women in their jail and they made squares of embroidery to be made into a quilt to be delivered to the men’s jail to signal that the women were still alive.  The women embroidered things that were significant to them: a daffodil for Wales, a bird, a flag and so on.  I always imagine what this would have been like for me and the Medieval Historian and how he would have waited to find out if I were still alive and what I would choose to put onto the quilt.  The women were given squares of hankerchief linen so I bought an old hanky and used it as a background:


I think that the Medieval Historian would look for a Westhighland White Terrier as we have two of them, and I used this embroidered patch from an old birthday card:


I hope that he would see the dog and know that I was still alive.

This piece was a lot of fun to make, and I was surprised how the clarion call of the deadline pushed me into action.  I wonder if it would ever have been finished without the rush.  I like the end result very much.  It says a lot about my life with my husband, but also my life in quilting which has also been the source of much pleasure and companionship over the years.

, ,

Telling Tales – Bath Textile Artists’ New Show at Bristol Guild

It’s an exciting day today – the Bath Textile Artists’ exhibition at Bristol Guild ‘goes up’.  I have to drop off my my work at 10.00 am.   This is our first big exhibition for a while, and features all sorts of beautiful textile work.  It will be a feast for the eyes and a temptation for the fingers.

One of my problems, though, is that there is a not unreasonable expectation that we will produce work for sale.  I very rarely sell anything, although I do give things away.  Up to now if I sell cards I give the proceeds to Medicins sans Frontieres.  But I agreed to produce some things for sale and decided to make some more of the Laura Ashley purses.  I used scraps of Laura Ashley fabric on a plain base and added bits of silk, brocade, and a lot of bits of Liberty fabric that I found in the great clear out.  Over the top I put a remnant of a polyester curtain which isn’t exactly a net but isn’t that sheer either.  It had tiny polka dots all over.  Then I went a bit mad with the machine embroidery on the sewing  machine my mother gave me, which is a fancy Singer.  She passed it on to me because it weighs roughly the same as a chieftain tank and she hasn’t got the strength to heave it about.  Compared with the tiny IKEA special I mentioned in a previous post it is like something you would weight down a washing machine with.  But I had a lot of fun trying out all the stitches, some in metallics, some in boring beige, some motifs, some repeat lines and so on.  Then I took the hot air gun to the top layer for the antique look.  The curtain fabric melted in a very interesting way, which got a bit lost when I did the hand sewing but is still visible in parts.  So, some hand embroidery and a fair smattering of beads later then were finished.  I really liked adding beads to traditional embroidery stitches like fly stitch:

I used a lot of old jewellery that I found in the great clear out as well, and once I had broken it up it came in very handy for the trims such as on the last piece I made:

This piece was made by patching together the leftovers from the other purses, so was particularly satisfying to make, and I think it has a Victorian crazy patchwork kind of feel.

Here are the other purses.  They are for sale – proceeds to charity – but I have put a whacking price on them so that no-one will buy them.  I never want to let new things go!

I have been reading a lot about Laura Ashley recently, and I think she would have loved this project – using up every scrap and keeping my hands busy would have appealed to her, I think.  Plus the nostalgic feel to the project is in-keeping with her approach to design.

The exhibition, ‘Telling Tales’ will also have my Threads of Identity pieces and the Ghost Dolls.

It is at Bristol Guild Gallery, 68/70 Park Street, Bristol, BS1 5NY from 6-27 October.  Monday – Saturday 10-5.00.  The private view is this Saturday and you don’t need a special ticket – mention my name on the door!

My fellow exhibitors are:

Yvonne Auld

Barbara Butler

Janet Clarke

Cheryl Cross

Nina Davis

Chris Harley

Margaret Heath

Liz Hewitt

Heather Martin

Gloria Pugh