Invitation to my University of Bristol Workshop, November 2014


Every year the faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Bristol organises a week of events in which academics share their research with anyone who is interested and not just other academics.  It’s called the Thinking Futures week.  This year I am doing it.

It will be a workshop with two fantastic academics, Harriet Shortt and Jenny Hall, who both use quilting in their research work, one with hairdressers and the other in midwifery, and me in the morning talking about what we do and what we have found and showing our work.  In the afternoon we will have a sewing bee for charity and do some informal storytelling.

The event is free.  It is on 5 November at the Friends Meeting House in Bristol.  Refreshments, including lunch, are provided.

If you would like to come – and I really hope lots of you will, please go to the following webpage:


You will find the link to eventbrite so you can register.  If it won’t work, please let me know.

I hope to see lots of you and to hear your stories and see your work.


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The joy of making



I am not entirely sure what this post is going to be about.  I spent quite a lot of the weekend sewing, which was a massive luxury.  I am preparing a new talk which will be given its first airing next week, and I am desperately trying to finish some samples.  The picture at the top of the post is an example of the drawing with the machine technique that I have just begun to experiment with.  It is a made-up plant in bud stitched onto linen and what I always call cotton bump – curtain interlining which has a great texture for pieces like wall quilts which don’t have to be washed.  If you do wash it you get a great antique effect.

I thought it would be worth talking about something called ‘flow’ in the creativity literature, because I really experienced it when making these small panels.  I enjoyed making them very much, but it was more than just liking doing the work, it was more like what William Morris called ‘joy in work’, an extra dimension to having fun with a hobby.

Flow is a term coined by Mihályi Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian theorist of creativity and happiness, because in his field work his interviewees told him that they were experiencing something that felt like being carried along by a river.  Csíkszentmihályi was interested in what happens when you become so immersed in something that you lose all track of time, and although you have worked hard you have more energy than when you started.  Sewing can definitely be an example of this, when your mind seems to go into a different mode of thought.  For this to happen, Csíkszentmihályi posits three conditions:

  1. You have to be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.  So you need to know roughly what you are trying to achieve – quilt or a panel or garment.
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.  So, is it any good?  Is the sewing machine doing what you want it to do?  Does the thread keep on breaking?  Have you estimated amounts well?
  3. You have to have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and your own perceived skills. You have to have confidence in your ability to complete the task at hand.  So, it must be hard but not too hard.  You have to work at it, but not be so challenged that you are tense or anxious.

The flow state is characterised by a number of requirements:

  1. You have to be completely in the moment and to be able to concentrate fully and intensely – which you can do when working, particularly if you have a room set up for it like me.
  2. There has to be some action like sewing and this requires awareness of what is going on, again a sort of focussed concentration.
  3. You have to lose yourself in it.  I think that this is akin to a phenomenon which I often have, and which other makers understand but those who do not make find hard to comprehend, which is the feeling sometimes when I make something that I didn’t make it, that it made itself and I just provided the hands.  Very odd.
  4. You have to be in control, though.  You make the choices and the decisions, which we all do when we sew – or draw.  You decide when to finish a seam or what stitch length or tension to use.  When I am doing the free machining, I decide on the way I move the fabric to produce the appropriate mark.
  5. Time, as I mentioned above, is distorted.  You don’t know if you have been sewing for fifteen minutes or three hours.  Time seems to stand still.  Great sports players talk about time slowing down so that they can make the perfect shot at their leisure.
  6. You feel that what you are doing is intrinsically valuable and worthwhile.  So even while you are making you feel things going well, producing something desirable if only to yourself, that even if no-one ever saw it, it is worth doing.  It is pleasing to the maker.  It is rewarding in and of itself.

And it makes you feel better.  I tried to write down what I felt during the sewing session, which is difficult after the event.  I described it as stimulating, bewitching, addictive, cleansing and energising and flow.

The reason is, I think, that I rather fell in love with what I was making and, all false modesty aside, it was really easy.  I got my background, used some 501 spray to hold it to the cotton bump and then cut out my applique and stitched with a very heavy dark grey thread:



Really easy, and yet the result was very pleasing.  I began to reflect on whether this was because I was making something very derivative which struck me as being in good taste which I recognised as arty rather than being something authentically mine.  I wondered if this was a different manifestation of the just show up and provide the hands and the universe will do the rest phenomenon.  I am not sure.  I don’t know if this is derivative or does mark a new departure in my style.  It is heavily influenced by Janet Clare, but I see myself in it.  Certainly in scenes like this:


which has quite a bleak and melancholy feel to it.

But I want to return to the joy and delight in bunging down some fabric, stitching into it and amazing yourself with what emerges.  I was happy to see these pieces turn up:


These eggs were made with really gorgeous tiny fabric samples of silk, cotton and wool furnishing textiles.  I couldn’t throw them away despite their size, and was so glad when I found a use for them.  Lay me a pretty egg is a reference to a commenter on a recent post telling me that it was her dialect for someone making a mistake – a nicer version of ‘he really laid an egg there’.  I wanted to use the phrase.


These are made up berries, but the quality of the line for the stem and branches really delighted me.  This sounds immodest, but I had the feeling that I could have closed my eyes and this would have come out right.  It is also completely different to my usual drawing style which is a single continuous line filled in with a watercolour wash:


This is  sketchbook page showing my usual simplified but quite definite drawing style.  The sketchiness is great in the embroideries.  It allows for all sorts of instant corrections if the drawing goes badly:


This is another interesting example of this project allowing me to explore some theory that I have worked with for years in a new way.  It is a good example of action research – but that would have to be the subject of another post.


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On the joy of getting something right



Last week I had a particularly bad day at work.  I went to a meeting where just about every behaviour I warn students about was on display.  So, no-one (except idiotic me) was prepared to stand up to the leader, the decision was made to do something that we had done several times before which had always failed, and there was a collective delusion about the organisation we work for and how prestigious it is.  This is known as corporate narcissism – when you fall in love with your organisation and convince yourself that it is so great that nothing but success will be had.  It almost always leads to your competitors overtaking you.  So, decisions were made based on what we always do which looks really logical in short term but actually endangers our long-term prospects.  I couldn’t quite believe how people were behaving.  I have a bit of a reputation in my department for being right.  This is not because I am psychic, but just because I have been around the block many times and have seen it all and its consequences before.  If you do x then you will get y.  No-one wants to hear this, of course, and so no-one wanted to hear my point of view and I left the meeting wondering why I had been invited, and hoping I wasn’t asked again.  Despite the fact that I think I had a valid point, I left the meeting feeling stupid, naive, gullible, childish and a fool.

So, what a fantastic relief to make the small panel at the top of this post.  It took less than half an hour.  I absolutely knew what I wanted to do.  I had the materials to hand.  I found some eggs to trace as I find egg shapes peculiarly hard to draw.  The Bernina worked first time.  So, the speed was pretty much a function of preparation rather than skill.  The end result, however, pleased me very much.  Those of you who read this blog occasionally will know that I like sparkle, deep rich colours and textures, trimmings, embellishment and more meaning more.  But this piece has a very restrained palette and simple stitching and that makes it work in a naive folklore-ish way.  This is a new way of working for me, and I like the contrast with my more ornate stuff.

But what I really wanted to think about was the sheer joy of having an idea for something and then sitting down and being able to do it, to know how to do something, to be confident in my ability, to have a clear ‘voice’ in the work, to be able to initiate and then execute something really well.  I experienced real joy in making.  I felt a visceral excitement, and this was heightened by the previous week’s experience of being stupid and worthless.

When I call myself an academic quilter, it is usually because I use my work to think about academic, cerebral things, but my very brief sewing experience this morning consolidated a great deal of what I know about group theory and decision making, and about strategy, organisational behaviour and leadership.  This is going to sound a bit pious, but organisational politics and dysfunctional organisations are death.  Creativity is life.

This is the finished panel after I added the writing:


A big 400th thank you



Amazingly this is my 400th post.  So rather than writing about my work, I wanted to say thanks to everyone who reads it regularly – and visitors, too.  It means a great deal to me when people come up and say that they read it and enjoy it.  I really do want to publicise my research with people outside universities and thereby show you want is happening with at least some of your tax.  I also want to share things that I love and pass on suggestions and contacts.   I enjoy making e-friends, some of whom go on to be friends in ‘real life’.  My blog is part of my life and work now, and I am very grateful for your continuing support.

Happy 400th posting.




What I did at the weekend



You may be familiar with the phenomenon of saying yes to something which seems in the very distant future only to find it coming up very quickly indeed.  Well, flicking through my diary last week to see what was coming up, I stumbled upon an engagement to address the Bristol Quilters at the AGM.  Which is fine, except they have heard most of my ramblings and I never want to look like a complete wassack in front of them as they are my home crowd.

So, I thought I would develop an idea which has been brewing for some time about friendship quilts and album quilts and giftgiving in particular.  I thought I would turn to the quilts that my sewing group, St Andrews Quilters have been making for each other.  This would form the foundation of the talk, which is great except the first one we made has gone missing.  The theme was hens and chickens so I thought I would put in some other quilted chicken stuff, which would mean making some.  I made a start at the weekend and here is a preview of one piece:


Which on reflection bears a striking resemblance to this one which I think Mary made at the workshop:


Mine has some hand embroidery in Madeira Lana thread which is wool and nylon and gives a nice distinctive mark.  The second piece is done with heavy furnishing fabric as the background:


I thought the sky was a bit louring, but I love using up these samples of very expensive furnishing fabrics rather than throwing them into landfill.

I think I might have been heavily influenced by the quilting history books I have been reading lately, because even though I wanted this to be a sort of Hans Christian Andersen fairytale chicken girl, I seem to have channelled some very hard-working prairie pioneer girl:


Her skirt is a piece I fished out of the bin at the Janet Clare workshop.  No piece too small for my grasp.  I am interested, though, in her face.  I loved the part of the workshop where Janet advised us to start drawing faces and see who turned up.  She doesn’t have a little sweet face, and cutting her blouse freehand in reverse (because it was on bondaweb and needs to be cut backwards) gave her this folky feel.  The hair in her eyes also contributes to the look of someone too busy on the windy prairie to be fixing up her bangs.  Plus those hands look like they might have red knuckles from the lye soap.

I intend to make a couple more panels and then to mount them on a larger piece of fabric, possibly stretched over a block canvas.  Incidentally, I quilted/embroidered these while watching a tribute to Bruce Springsteen which only contributed to the feeling of Americana.


Janet Clare Workshop


I was very lucky last week to go to Janet Clare’s talk at Bristol Quilters and then to her workshop the following day.  The talk was about publishing her books, and came in a series of talks we have had recently on quilting as a business, rather than as technique.  She had some really interesting advice about how to be a professional artist.  I liked the idea that she put on a uniform – which you can see in the picture above: her customised pinny, a pair of clogs and red lipstick.  She also challenges herself to do one risky thing on Fridays which she is convinced bears dividends.  She is a very good speaker and it was a stimulating talk.

The next day I did her workshop on drawing with a sewing machine, which is something that I haven’t done before.  Clearly she is great at it:

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And being a dog lover, I really liked the terriers that occur in her work.


I didn’t see this lovely pieced landscape with the tiny house until the end of the day or I might have tried to make one.  But you do need an artist’s eye to carry off this sort of playing with scale.

In the end, though, I really took to the drawing with the sewing machine element, and found I had a bit of an aptitude for it.  Our first exercises were structured really well.  We started with some calico and a wadding layer and wrote our names, and then drew a face using our machines..  These two elements were the most difficult and so everything was easier after that.  I thought that was a great way to teach this technique:


Then people shouted out animals that we had to draw out of our imaginations, which was more of a challenge.

I liked Janet’s approach to this.  If it doesn’t work: throw it away.  It’s too hard to unpick tiny machine stitches.  Just start again.  Which is why she starts with faces.  If you get that right the rest is relatively easy.  I also liked the way she said just start stitching and see who turns up.  She was right, characters did turn up like this one that I made (and see the disapproving bird in the sample above):


After we had got this far we had to do a repeat element and think about the connections.  Mine were pretty straight forward and based on zentangles, so the links weren’t that interesting:


Janet’s parade of ducks showed how it should be done:


After we had stitched a base outline, we moved onto fusing fabric on top, which we then stitched into again.  So I could redeem myself with some acorns and some linked leaves down the side, and some ladybirds which I introduced because they are my friend Beatriz’s favourites:

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Once we had done this we were off to design our own pieces.  Sadly my camera was full so I could only take a few photos of the pieces that other participants produced, but they were lovely:

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I was a bit stuck because I didn’t have much of an idea what I wanted to do, so I used some of the sketches I made at the Gudrun Sjoden exhibition on a recent visit:


I know she has no feet, but I couldn’t bear to cut off the trousers!  After this I decided to make some fashion plates:

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Finally I made a nice piece which did not fit with the other fashion models.  It was supposed to be a bit Dior new look, but it ended up rather flamenco-y:


But not too bad, considering it was free-hand out of my head:


Once more, everything I used with regard to fabric was scraps saved from landfill.  I like this because it makes you not precious about using the fabric or cutting into it.  This is all furnishing fabric scrap, mainly from sample books, but that is all you need for small-scale applique.

I really liked this technique, although I did a lot more stitching than other people, including Janet, so mine has a more scribbly finish, and I will use it again, probably when I get on to working on Gudrun Sjoden.



Remembering Heather Hopfl


This is a slightly unusual post today.  My very good friend and mentor, Heather Hopfl, died this week and this is a short tribute to her.

A couple of years ago, my colleague, Mary Phillips and I co-edited an issue of Management and Organization History on lost women in management history.  We had hopes of producing a roster of women who had contributed to management thought but had been airbrushed out of the official lists of theorists.  I was certainly thinking of Judy Chicago’s foundational work on great women in her Dinner Party installation, or more recently, Sue Tate’s work on reinstating Pauline Boty in the story of British Pop Art.  Unfortunately, we did not uncover some hidden-away founding mother, but we did get an inter-disciplinary mix of pieces looking at women’s largely unsung leadership.

Heather Hopfl contributed a lovely, and typically Heather-ish piece, on the heroines that she grew up with who provided moral leadership, and she went on to trace the way that late-stage Western capitalism had neutralised, and denigrated their contributions.  It is a scholarly piece which is fully informed with Heather’s enormous range of theoretical understandings from economics, psychology, philosophy, theology and sociology, but it also gives a very clear insight into why so many of us really loved Heather and her work: she shines through every page with wisdom, compassion, courage and love.

The article begins with the book of stories of heroic women that she received as a school prize for English.  Returning to the book years later she concludes the heroines abound in virtue, a term she wants to reclaim and rescue from its associations with prudery and passivity:

Before virtue came to be equated with the idea of moral exploitation, these stories invited readers to see the virtues of compassion, determination and resilience as human qualities to be acquired.  Nowadays, the acquisitiveness of late capitalism has succeeded to the extent that is has persuaded us that our greatest accomplishment is to lose our humanity.

Having set up her argument, she goes on to describe the virtuous heroines she would like us to contemplate:

What is remarkable about the stories of heroines is that they offer accounts of women who are strong and determined.  Sometimes, the women are determined in the face of male opposition and resistance which by stealth and perseverance they almost always overcome.  They show women as resourceful and clever: able to turn their hands to most tasks.  The stories tell of women who  are natural leaders, who take command under the most difficult circumstances.  These women have courage and fortitude.  They endure hardship in order to achieve their goals.  They show remarkable commitment to whatever cause they choose to take up.  They are dedicated to others, to science, to an ideal, and they are shown as resolute and unyielding in the service of this cause.  The stories tell of women who taught, nursed and sat in judgement and did these things well.  They are shown to be skilled able to make things from mundane domestic items to scientific discoveries.  They are women unimpressed by pomp and ceremony.

Those who knew Heather will recognise her in that description.  She was tireless in her challenge of what she saw as injustice and institutionalised cruelty.  She was absolutely unflinching in her attitude towards her illness, and wrote about the details of it as an inspiration to others to be brave and face reality with cheerfulness and resilience.  The only element is misses out is a keen wit and a sense of humour, which Heather had to the end.

I could go on to quote from the article, which is full of wisdom, and righteous anger, but I want to end with Heather’s own conclusion.  She was appalled by the way that the advances of feminism from its very first official wave in the nineteenth century had been subverted:

The stories of the heroines of fifty years ago and more are stories of recusancy.  They are stories of opposition.  They are in almost every case stories of gender politics.  We are deceived when we are told that they are stories of female oppression.  Where, at this distance in time from these stories, we feel uncomfortable is with our own persuasive narratives of liberation and heterogeneity.  But, this is the seduction and the capture.  We are so easily conciliated that we are unaware of the loss.  A deception has been perpetrated.  These women faced enormous obstacles but squared themselves off against them and responded with integrity and courage.  I want to end with the heroic view of women because the alternative is to proclaim women’s liberation by pointing to the freedom to drink in the street, to display one’s body for consumption by others, to see liberation as the lack of restriction to perform in the lap-dancing club, to talk about sex on late night chat lines, to have abortion as a right.  Of course, this does not reflect the day to day lives of most women but it does reflect the notion of freedom that is offered to women without shame or irony.  Rather then an exhortation to the good.  Give me virtue and courage any day…

Heather was ground-breaking in her thought, and able to explain those insights clearly and succinctly.  She never entered that ‘I have read more books than you’ competition which seems to have replaced originality of thought, insight or contribution on contemporary academic scholarship.  You had to admire her for her mind.  But she was also a great friend to me: the first person to see that I had the potential to be an academic with something to say and a distinctive, individual, interesting way to say it.  Her written style influenced me enormously, and every time I start a presentation or an article with a story which seems unconnected but which makes my point in a different way, I am following Heather’s example.  Every time I express outrage I am continuing Heather’s project.  Every time I ask myself whether my work is intelligible or just trendy academic-speak I am carrying on Heather’s commitment to education.

I will miss her, but I am very glad to have known her.

Battered and bashed and a lump in the throat.

I am sure some of you will have had a very similar experience.

The Art of Walking

I don’t do much about walking myself, but I know several people who read my blog are interested in it as a methodology, and might like this.