Painting for No Apparent Reason

I thought you might like to see this blog about the compulsion to make and how your whole world goes out of kilter if you can’t.

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What I learned from the ladies of Coombe Down


Last week I went to give a talk on Laura Ashley to the Coombe Down Ladies’ Group in Bath.  It only dawned on me very slowly that this was not a sewing group, but a general interest group.  They had invited me because one of their members had heard me at a sewing group, but they were not particularly interested in the craft.

This called for a bit of quick thinking on the night.  I noticed a plant stall at the back of the hall, and that the raffle prize was a copy of one of Alan Titchmarsh’s books on bulbs.  So, I thought perhaps instead of talking just about sewing I should slant the talk more to creativity in general, particularly as planting and tending a garden is such a creative task and one that can consume your whole life like quilting if you let it.

So most of my examples were about gardening about which I know next to nothing, but which got approving nods so I must have been on the right track.  I was a bit surprised, though, when I heard myself starting to talk about creativity in general.  I am a career academic, and so I am loathe to speak in public about stuff that I can’t point to some sort of evidence for, and therefore making pronouncements is not my usual style.  That said, I do have a very deep conviction that our ability to make stuff, whether or not it distinguishes from the animals, is a source of real joy and satisfaction to us.  There is a school of thought that being able to make things with our hands gave us an evolutionary advantage and made sure that maker’s genes were selected for preservation, which would make sense if you want a mate who can build a shelter or get your rudimentary clothing to stay on.  Whether we buy into that or not, I think that people who have a creative outlet get to experience more of life than those who don’t.  I am probably bound to say that, but I have always had this gut feeling that stifled creativity leads to destruction – which is warped kind of creativity.  Expressing creativity – choosing which bulb to plant and watching it grow, decorating a cake for a special occasion, getting the right tie with the right shirt, or the right t-shirt with the right pair of nasty baggy trousers, all cause a little flow of creative energy which I think is part of being human and certainly part of taking delight in life.

I have no evidence from psychology or biology about this, but I do think it’s the case, and I do think that’s why making is having such a resurgence at the moment.  Just a bit surprised to hear all this come out of my mouth in a church hall in Bath.

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The £50,000 question


Big Keith's appraisal in 'The Office"

Big Keith’s appraisal in ‘The Office”

Events took a surprising turn this week: I had a really useful appraisal with my new colleague, Jon Beaverstock.  Appraisals, for those of you fortunate enough not to know, are meetings where you discuss your performance for the previous year and plan for the coming one.  John Cleese made a fortune out of training videos and one of the most successful was called ‘The Dreaded Appraisal’.  I am not sure why they are so unpopular: an hour to talk about yourself ought to be a luxury, but people often resent the time, or dread the attention or feel as if they are being blamed for something.  There is a wonderful example of a terrible appraisal in The Office, which suggests it is painful for the appraiser as well as the appraisee.  All this is a preamble, to a really good question that Jon asked me when we were talking about applying for research funding (which is the one part of my job which is really difficult for me as I don’t need much money to do my research).  His question was, ‘If you got £50,000 to buy yourself out of your teaching for a year, what would you do?’  This is a great question because there are things that I would like to do if I had a substantial block of time.  After thinking about it, here are two answers:

  1. I would like to develop a project which has gradually been coming together over the last few years looking at textile businesses which are headed by women: Laura Ashley, Cath Kidston, Gudrun Sjoden, Amy Butler and maybe Orla Kiely.  I am interested in knowing whether women associate with the woman behind the brand, and what sort of images of womanhood they are promoting.  I see Amy Butler as the spiritual heir of Laura Ashley, with a fresher colour palette and bolder designs but with the same vision of femininity.  Plus I am interested in the materiality of the objects they sell – does the fact this is cloth with all its associations in our life cycle – which I have blogged about before, make any difference to the brand and its image.  This would involve a trip to Sweden to see Gudrun S and one to the US to see Amy Butler, so it would involve a slab of cash.
    Gudrun Sjoden

    Gudrun Sjoden

    Cath Kidston

    Cath Kidston

    Amy Butler

    Amy Butler

    Orla Kiely

    Orla Kiely

  2. I would be interested in researching the Manchester-Africa printed cotton trade in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The cloth I am thinking of was printed in Manchester for the export trade, so it looks as though it is African but the design was all done in England and then shipped.  Yinka Shonibare OBE uses something very similar in his work, although his is called Dutch wax cloth, it is pretty much the same thing.imgres-4 imgres-3 images-18We had a talk years ago at Bristol Quilters on this trade as the last factory was about to shut down and all the archives junked.  At the time I wasn’t in a position to much more than say, ‘that’s a shame’, and the archives have probably long since disappeared which is a real problem as once they are gone they are gone.  But this was a big trade and a significant part of our textile history which may just have disappeared and that would be a real shame.

So, just in case the universe is listening, I have changed my mind and would really like a grant to do one of these projects.  I’ll let you know if the universe delivers.






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Louise Gardiner at Bristol Quilters




Last night were were exceptionally lucky to have Louise Gardiner, a professional embroiderer of twenty years standing, to talk to us.  First of all she is a very engaging speaker, bursting with enthusiasm and passion for embroidery.  She is very funny and tells great stories, so she is a delight to listen to.  That aside she is also a very talented embroiderer and designer.  This meant that the slides and the things that she brought with her were really sumptuous.  I think just about everyone in the room wanted one of her scarves by the end of it, and I could definitely see myself lounging against one of her exquisite velvet cushions.

Over and above that though, she was fascinating on the subject of being a single woman supporting herself for twenty years as a professional embroidery artist.  As she said, she gave up her first ambition to be an actress because that didn’t seem like a very secure way to make an income, and choosing embroidery was not that much safer.  Her conclusion was that she did not choose embroidery; it chose her.  This was a theme she returned to again and again: embroidery is an addiction.  Kirstie Allsopp apparently called it the crack cocaine of craft, and while that’s a bit of an exaggeration, it does capture something of the compulsive nature of embroidery, including the desire to have those threads, and beads, and paints, and gadgets and and and.  It is a therapy and a curse, as Louise said.  And I really liked her thoughts about how by choosing to embroider you already put yourself outside the mainstream and the conventional, not that you have much choice.

She was fascinating on the subject of building a business and the demands of doing commercial work.  The physical act of doing embroidery has left its mark on her, and she is having to find ways round not being able to stitch for hours on end – although I thought training her dog,  Billy Fox, to work the sewing machine was inspired.  The only snag I can see is that terriers are not exactly the most biddable of creatures, and I think he would be better sticking to modelling than producing:


She is developing a new line: designing and printing onto fabric.  This allows her to do less actual stitching which has become painful for her.  I really liked the way that she talked about the demands of running a business if you an artist and how much of your time you have to spend on marketing.  She estimated that she spends 70% of her time on her computer doing marketing and brand-building and social networking.  It is time well spent as she has a lovely website.  She talked about the tug of selling work and knowing that you won’t see it again.  I once gave someone the choice of all my work and they chose a piece about Freddie Flintoff with little framed pictures of him on it (it was about corporate foundation myths!) and she said she would replace them with pictures of Jon Bon Jovi.  Part of me wanted to grab it back and say she couldn’t have it, but things take on lives of their own and we have to be prepared for that.

Compromises had to be made in the work produced for this Kettle Chips campaign

Compromises had to be made in the work produced for this Kettle Chips campaign

She ended by talking about why embroidery is so important, and gave quite an inspirational speech about how we must be passionate about what we do and not apologise for it.  Lots of people are cashing in, which is fair enough, but those of us who have been embroidering for years need to be proud of our work and show it and be happy to take it out into the world.

So, it was an excellent evening, and I recommend her as a speaker.  There are articles about her in the current issue of Embroidery Magazine and BBC Homes and Antiques Magazine and she is going to do more work with Kirstie Allsopp, so we should be seeing more of her soon.

Video of the Spring Exhibition – The Art of Beatriz Acevedo

This is a lovely overview of my Grate Frend Beatriz’s recent exhibition. Even in the pouring rain in Bristol, it’s a cheerful start to the day. I hope you enjoy it.

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What I did at the weekend


I love Bank Holidays because I don’t feel so guilty about spending a chunk of time in my workroom.  I started off today making a quilt for a new baby, but it went horribly wrong when I rather overestimated my ability to machine quilt it.  I decided to cut my losses and just work on something I wanted to do, so I turned to a project which I have had  on the go for a little while: a very liberated and scrappy log cabin quilt.  This is the same idea as the emergency project we have in my small quilting group, the Saint Andrews Quilters, where we have a bag of one inch strips which we pick at random to make up the blocks.   I stopped with four ‘logs’ on each side, but I am terrible at doing this neatly and always going in the same direction.

I wanted to do something using printed commercial fabric.  I started quilting because I loved cloth so much – and this was the seventies when there were some ‘challenging’ prints.  So, the afternoon spent chopping the fabric up and then sewing it together again was a real treat for me.

I once heard a professional quilter say that if you want a scrap quilt you have to use scraps.  So, I include a lot of fabric I really don’t like but which I seem somehow to have acquired and mix it in with the good stuff.  These blocks really are better the scrappier they are.  So I put in some very old-fashioned-looking peach fabric and some skull and crossbones, as well as a ditsy pink flower print.  I bought some orange on beige fabric for the quilt, which is not in the spirit of it, but I knew that it would be a sparkle fabric and I think it is.  Given that my stash is almost all blue, I wonder why there is so little of that colour in the blocks so far.

The other surprise was that I spend most of my time at work challenging the idea that rational processes are always the best way to organise, but I found myself trying all sorts of things to develop a quick way of doing the blocks.  In the end, I just started to stitch complete blocks, one at a time, just for the fun of seeing the finished pieces emerge.

So, I had a lovely time, and in about fifteen years no doubt I shall have a lovely bathmat size quilt.



Stroud International Textile Select 2014



The Medieval Historian and I went to the Stroud International Textiles Select 2014 today.  We went to the main exhibition in the Museum in the Park, which was fine, and had some nice work by Caroline Bartlett, but the majority was not really what I would call textiles.  Nice though it was, there seemed to be quite a lot of ceramics and paper.  Another venue, The Pink Cabbage Gallery, had some absolutely wonderful work by a group called Sticky Paper whose members include Liz Valenti, Diane Jefferies, Tamsin Golesworthy, Susi Harries and Gabriel Broad.  The works were in paper, but I really loved everything in the show.  The website for Sticky Paper gives a good overview of the collection.  The show was paper works mainly about clothing, but there were some very nice boats as well.  I would really recommend this show, which is a short walk up the main hill through Stroud and is on until 24 May 2014.