Goth ladybirds






I am sorry for the gap in my postings.  This is because I have been marking exam scripts against the clock.  At the weekend I did get time to do a few things, which I will write about separately, but most of my spare time was spent on making these giant ladybirds to give as prizes next Monday.

The event is the celebration party at the end of a project that I have been working on with my GRATE FREND Beatriz on education for sustainablity with her undergraduate business studies students at Anglia Ruskin.  They have done fantastic jobs and we wanted to give them something to take away.  So, I have made these giant ladybirds which are very much in the spirit of sustainability.  The mascot of the project is a ladybird who appears in all our presentations and reports.  So it seemed like a good idea to make them as momentos.  The skull and crossbones fabric was bought from a market stall and so is almost reclaimed, and the heads and some of the backs are made with black curtain lining which was going to be thrown away.  To give them some body they are stuffed with rags rather than polyester stuffing and the rags are horrible polycotton which would have gone to landfill.  Some of them have buttons saved from a skip for eyes;  these have plastic jewels from Paperchase.  

I have some more to make which are not so gothy and this is just the first batch.  They are quite quick to make but making lots of the same thing is pretty tedious.  But as I love Beatriz and her fantastic students it is good to give them something handmade.

After this, back to the Benjamin project, which will please the Medieval Historian as he finds the outsize flock of ladybirds staring at him a bit unnerving:





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What I did at the weekend


As part of my day job, I chair a scholarly organisation of academics working with critical or alternative ideas about management and organising, SCOS, which stands for Standing Conference on Organisational Symbolism.  I am currently SCOSBoss.  This weekend was our Spring board meeting, and because the conference will be held in Utrecht in July 2014 we went on a visit to the university where it will be held for a look round.  It’s a really lovely place, a bit like Amsterdam but less busy and frantic.  I’ve always found Amsterdam a bit febrile, but Utrecht is much more relaxed, and half an hour from Schiphol by train.

Obviously there was serious business to be done, but our hosts arranged a walking tour of the city after the board meeting.  And naturally, as we were appreciating the Roman origins and the havoc caused by the Reformation and the various invading armies that this part of the Netherlands experienced, I was on the look out for shops.  There are two canals in Utrecht and one of them has a wonderful art shop, a bead shop and – of course – a quilting shop.


The quilt shop which is called Carol Cox is really lovely.  She seems to specialise in Japanese fabric and in gently faded colourways.


I particularly liked the way that she had some quite small scale pieces of patchwork framed as little works of art rather than turned into wall hangings.  I think this gives patchwork the dignity it deserves.


I bought some really exquisite Japanese fabric which has pattern on the reverse made by the weave:


And here are the fabrics in the same order on the reverse:


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I alos bought some fat quarters of a genuine Dutch fabric, a dress weight version of a reproduction chintz which I loved for the design and the sheen, but also the subtle colours:


As ever, I could have spent an absolute fortune.  There was a hitch with my mastercard not being acceptable, so while I was digging around for the euros the lady who served me, who might have been Carol herself, gave me a lovely piece of very pale blue fine linen as a free gift. I thought that was a lovely gesture.

I couldn’t resist this book which is in Dutch but has great pictures:


It has a slightly different edge to textiles than you get in British collections, and I reasoned to myself that it wasn’t likely that I would come across it again, so I had better grab it while I saw it.

By the way, be careful if you decide to google Carol Cox.  There is a very enthusiastic amateur pornographer of the same name and you might not end up on the site you were expecting.

On the way back to the hotel I went into a wonderful art supply shop.  It had the full range of my current favourite Posca pens, and this lovely display of powdered pigment, plus the glass pestles to mix them with oil.


After that was the bead shop which had the beads in printers’ trays in chests of drawers:


Utrecht also seems to be a home for yarnbombers, and this is one of the most extensive ones I have ever seen:

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It turned out to be a sort of advertising installation for a children’s shop over the bridge, but it was one of the more visually appealing yarn bombs I’ve come across.

Finally, at the airport I bought a copy of this magazine, again in Dutch, but for paper lovers, it was a real treat:


I would definitely buy it in a British edition.


There is a nice website and blog for this publication, but I couldn’t see if you can get an English version.

So, throw in the Museum of Contemporary Aborginal Art and the Miffy museum and it’s a location for a textile/art lover’s perfect weekend.

Deconstructed stitching part two


This one really is for the academic quilting followers, so you are completely free to ignore it, but I am committed to sharing my academic work with anyone who is interested, so here goes.

The most interesting part of this for me is the transformation that came over the piece when I rubbed the paint, and particularly the almost elemental red oxide over the stitching.  This paint colour looks organic – which I suppose rust – red iron oxide is.  One of the reasons I was so pleased that it looked like Native American rock art is it seemed to fit really well with Benjamin’s interests in the origins of art in his wonderful essay, ‘Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction’.  He thinks about the earliest art and what it was for and what it meant.  He comes to the conclusion that it had a ritual or sacred purpose, and that wrenching it from that context, as we can when we have mechanical means of reproduction, destroys much of its meaning.  We don’t exactly know what cave paintings were for, but they mean less on a souvenir tea towel than they do in the cave.

One of the things that I am really interested is the claim that arts-based or studio-based approaches to scholarship produce different knowledge or produce knowledge differently, so, what can we learn by making art that we couldn’t learn by an interview? or do we come to know it in a new way – in our bodies as well as our minds, for example?  Despite the fact that this is often my chosen methodology, I am very sceptical, which I think academics should be. I think that a  good interview can yield a great deal of material, certainly enough to provide very useful insights.  But in my experience, making art pieces allows me to access and link material that I had apparently forgotten or did not realise I knew.  So, I sat down and thought about what I had learned from making this piece, that I couldn’t have gleaned from sitting down and really thinking about Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Destructive Character’.

I think that I learned more about my intellectual relationship with Benjamin than I did about the essay itself.   I wonder if I see the ‘auratic’, Benjamin’s term for the power that a work of art can exert over the viewer, because of my own travels, to see Telegraph Rock in Arizona for example, ancient art which is graphic and linear and pigmented in the same tones as this piece.  Or does the auratic suggest itself because subconsciously I know that Benjamin is interested in what art does and what it is for and how it began and what it tells us about our human condition in this modern era?  Context, as Benjamin tells us, is everything.  I understand this in a particular way – seeing the prehistorical in a tangle of threads, because I am making it while steeping myself in Benjaminian thought, indeed in order to penetrate more deeply into that thought.

A lot of modern textile work is about making something evocative of something else: a rusting corrugated iron shed, a section of peeling paint, crumbling plaster on an old wall.  It is about rendering one visual and tactile experience in terms of another one.  The City and Guilds craft tradition is all about this.  It involves preparing working drawings (PWD).  But the best textile artists seem to me not to do this, but to produce a version of or a response to the thing itself.  The best textile art tends not to be figurative but to be about something.  It evokes and connotes rather than depicting or denoting.

This is the case with the deconstructed stitching.  It is about technique.  The painstaking decorative embellishment of hand-crocheted cotton lace which is at the top of the piece and which I made while young and still dreaming of idyllic bedrooms with voile curtains wafting in a gentle breeze, and the even more superfluous deconstructed stitching produced for itself have no practical value.


It is decorative and degenerative art in one sense.  So the two are bound together – they are both decorative and both useless to some extent.  In one way, the lace has more integrity as it will at least potentially be put to use on bed linen.  The deconstructed stitching has no use value at all, but it does draw attention to the circumstances of its own production.  Lace has a certain timelessness and has had a massive exchange value hence all those portraits of Elizabeth I in her ruff and cuffs:


but deconstructed stitching is of its time.  The world has already moved on to technological innovation: digitally produced work, work involving chemical processes, work exploring haptic possibilities and technological interaction with one’s environment.  But it could be argued that the destructive character has cleared the path for these innovations.  Textiles, embroidery and surface decoration needed to break through the status quo, maybe hegemony, of  crinoline ladies and bell pulls and pious samplers before it could recover a sense of stitch as being in interaction with the human, holding material stuff, clothes, domestic textiles, armour, nets and so on, together to facilitate life and communal existence:


The destructive character, sweeping away the detritus and letting the air in, allows for a return for textiles with a very clear use value.  Although, in a final irony, the new textiles concerned with haptic possibilities: sound sleeves that create ambient soundscapes as the sensors on the wearer pass through the environment and shirts that will measure body functions and provide feedback, belong to the potentially distopic world of elite individuals cocooned from human contact like first-stage cyborgs, like all those people walking their dogs in glorious open countryside with their headphone on or their earplugs in.  Textiles again are transcending the individual human and allowing escape from the immediate, just as an embroidered petticoat or glove or tray cloth has always permitted a small aesthetic escape into a decorated world better than the mundanity of this one.  Small moments of aesthetic delight taking us temporarily out of the dullness of the quotidien.




Returning to the panel, its scale shows the smallness of the enterprise.  The Destructive Character works on a much larger canvas.  Benjamin is talking about making a new society.  But in its evocation of the prehistoric it does ironically offer a vision, however temporary and fugitive, of a slate wiped clean, of a time full of potential which need not result in the etuis and firescreens of Victoriana, a possible future of right relationship with the environment.


This is just a first attempt at tracing what making the textile pieces can contribute to scholarship, and it won’t appear anywhere in quite this form, but I wanted to document a process of thinking about the work.  More pictures, less verbiage next time.


New look


I thought it might be time for a change, so I have changed the layout of the blog, what WordPress call the theme.  Let me know what you think.  This one seemed to me to give bigger images and clearer (ie bigger) text.

I might change it again after a trial run, but it feels a bit like spring cleaning the blog as well as the workroom.

The picture is just a monoprint I did last year.

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Deconstructed stitching


This is the first in a series of small pieces which I intend to bind into an artists book.  The book will be a bit experimental and will deal with Walter Benjamin’s very short piece of writing, ‘The Destructive Character’, first published in 1931.  I will write about the essay itself separately, as it might be a bit of an acquired taste, but it’s not necessary to know about the writing to have a look at the textile piece.  As the title of the essay suggests, however, it is about the Destructive Character.  Essentially, Benjamin is arguing that life has got too full of stuff and we need someone to come in and throw the windows open and let in the fresh air.  I interpret it as saying we need to get rid of all the Victoriana and become modern.  You can see the start of all those clean, straight lines and machines for living that high Modernism produced having their origins in ideas such as Benjamin’s.

I thought it might be interesting to approach the notion of the destructive character in a number of textile ways.  I remembered, some time ago, reading about deconstructed or destroyed stitching as being the very last word in modern textile work.  Unfortunately, I can’t find the reference.  Essentially deconstructed embroidery involves producing some heavy stitching and then cutting into it to deconstruct.  In the example I read about, it was then covered in white emulsion paint so that it became less about stitching and more about pure texture – the stitches dissolved into the latex.  So, I started with some very fine crochet cotton, from the crochet lace sample also in the finished piece, and a piece of open weave furnishing fabric on a very, very loose linen scrim.  I stitched layer after layer of mainly cretan stitch but also a bit of fly stitch and some herringbone:


After this I slashed into it with a very ordinary pair of scissors:


(incidentally, I am amazed at the quality of the close up on the phone on my camera, which I use so that this site doesn’t take forever to load).  I really like the effect of this and the almost grass-like effect of the little tufts of thread:



Once I had cut into it, I put on a layer of gesso rather than emulsion paint, as the latter always has a shiny and rubbery look to me.  I’ve done this before with another piece which was about obliterating colour and emphasising stitching in this quilt which is part of the Laura Ashley project:


After I’d gessoed it, I rubbed in some bronze Golden Fluid Acrylic and then some translucent red oxide.  The transformation was really interesting.  The bronze looked dark and only just caught the light a little bit, but the red oxide gave it an earthy pigment-y feel which made me think about very old forms of art such as rock art:




I really like this effect and think I might use it again.

I thought the piece was finished but looking at it today I’m not so sure.  I don’t want it to be over-elaborate, but it isn’t telling me yet that it’s finished.


Although I am going for Benjaminian juxtaposition and letting the viewer make their own interpretations approach, I think the separate elements probably need more integration – or maybe not if they are going to book pages like specimen books.  This may be one to sleep on.

A trick of the light.




Very quick post today as it is back to work time.  There will be more as the Muse visited in style yesterday, but for now here is a picture of an observation on the way to bed after a very fulfilling day.  I was sorting the dogs out in their bedtime routine when I realised how the darkness in one room and the light on in the hall threw the quilting in this quilt into deep relief.  I probably couldn’t get a better shot of the quilting in bright conditions.  So it is dark and I didn’t retouch it, but it shows up the quilting on my new quilt really well.

More posts later in the week.  For now, the day job.