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Threads of Identity 1 – the half-way stage?

Halfway(?) through Threads of Identity 1

Halfway(?) through Threads of Identity 1

Having done what I call the construction sewing on this – putting down the foundations and making sure the whole thing sticks together – I can move into the more interesting decorative phase.   This piece is turning into a bit of a delight for me because it is going together easily and it is allowing me to enjoy really beautiful textiles.  So, there is some more of the lovely linen on the left, and on the right some of the exquisite silk from Margo Selby.  These textiles are so beautiful they don’t really need much doing to them.  The big tassel in the centre is made from a lovely double-sided silk furnishing fabric, and was supplied, as was the piece of old lace at the bottom by my mother.  Once I have finished attaching these elements, the fun can really start with the embellishments, which I think will start to let a narrative emerge.

Threads of Identity 1 lace detail

Threads of Identity 1 lace detail

I think this will be an interesting example of letting the piece speak to me and tell me its own story.

Teaching gender, talking about sewing

Linford Christie at his embroidery

Linford Christie at his embroidery

Today I start a series of lectures for undergraduate students and the first class is on gender, the body and organisation.  I thought it might be a good way into this to think about a gendered occupation and I suddenly remembered two pictures that I have used before.  The first is this one of Linford Christie learning embroidery.  It was part of a campaign by a Government body, Learning Direct, to encourage us all to acquire new skills for the knowledge economy.  I don’t have a note of the date unfortunately, but I do know that it was produced when Christie was at the height of his pomp after his gold medal successes at the Barcelona Olympics.  The message seems to me to be, here is this man, champion of the world. the conquering hero, the epitome of masculinity, strength, courage, competitiveness, determination, the fastest man on earth.  Even he can learn embroidery.  I don’t how much they paid him, but personally, I don’t find Christie convincing.  His body language is ill at ease, and his smile seems forced.  He clearly finds the embroidery frame a threat to his masculinity.  I contrast the machismo of Christie with the following:

Young woman at her sewing machine

Young woman at her sewing machine

This image is possibly even more startling and I wish I knew its provenance.  It was given to me after a lecture I used to do on portrayals of women sewing.  This is quite extraordinary for a stitcher – what exactly is she making with all that tulle?  A set of net curtains?  And why exactly is she stark naked?  Is this pornographic?  Or does the bird cage in the top right-hand corner suggest a feminist subtext?  But the association of the feminine with sewing and sewing with the feminine is very clear.  It reminds me of Roszika Parker’s great assertion: ‘To know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women’ in The Subversive Stitch.  Parker’s thesis is that young women were taught the qualities of femininity – taught how to be women – by being taught embroidery.  They were taught quietness, self-containment, composure, to keep their heads down, to be neat, to be diligent, to see things through, to be silent and content with their own company.  And to be happy to stay at home.  She also states that young women were taught to copy designs and not to be independently creative.  Parker suggests that this was so successful that embroidery and femininity became synonymous: embroidery was women’s work, and thus we are set up to find the super man in his glory Christie, funny when he picks up a little cross stitch.  The Subversive Stitch has just been republished and is well worth getting hold of.  Its title comes from Parker’s theory that women have always used needlework as a way of making statements about their worlds and of challenging societal norms and constraints placed upon them.

I am not sure that my young economists will go for this.  But it is always worth a try.

To gush or not to gush

Detail from Body Shop International Quilt

Detail from Body Shop International Quilt

 

I was struck on re-reading my most recent post by how fond I am of adjectives like ‘gorgeous’ and ‘wonderful’.  People who know me outside cyberspace will know that I am not normally a gushy person.   So I fell to thinking about why I am quite so fulsome in my praise.  The first reason is that it’s accurate.  If you pick up a piece of the Linen Shop’s Scandinavian stripe linen you will never be all that happy with an inferior linen ever again.  The second reason, though, is because I want this blog to celebrate beautiful textiles and to be a place where textile fanciers can get together to indulge themselves.  If you are a fabric-type like me then there is a real excitement about handling fabric like Margo Selby’s luscious silks, or Georgina von Etzdorf’s glorious printed velvet.  When I walked into Margo Selby’s shop and found bags of bits on sale that meant that I could own a large selection of them without bankrupting myself I really did have a rush of adrenaline that other people get jumping off cliffs attached to rubber bands.  Well, maybe not quite as much, but you get the point.  I feel the same way about beads, hence the picture at the top of this post which has fabric (silk) and beads.  So, when my new colleague, Nick, sent me a jiffy bag of glorious glass beads with metal foils in them, it cemented our friendship.  I literally gasped as they fell out onto my lap.

So, for those of us who buy fabric and then can’t bear to cut into it but get it out to stroke periodically and then put it away again, or who regularly spread out their bead collection and pick them up to feel their coolness in the hand, I shall continue to indulge in words like ‘gorgeous’, ‘luscious’, ‘sumptuous’, ‘lustrous’ and ‘glorious’.  As Jane Austen said, let other pens dwell on misery and guilt.  Let’s enjoy some beauty on a Friday afternoon.

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Is less more? Or is more more?

Threads of Identity project detail

Threads of Identity project detail

 

I went to Bristol Quilters last night, which is the biggest group I belong to with about 100 members.  Although there are far too many of us to stitch, we do have a great show and tell where we share our work. and we can afford to have really wonderful speakers.  Last night’s was Karina Thompson who makes gorgeous, tactile, sophisticated slashed textiles.  I have put a link to her website on the blogroll but for the record it’s www.karinathompson.co.uk.  It was interesting to hear her talk about her work as she is definitely a textile artist rather than an arty quilter, and she spoke the language of a practising artist.  I really like the fact that Bristol Quilters has speakers who are very traditional quilters one month and textile artists the next.  I think it keeps us fresh.  My good friends Becky and Alison who have featured in this blog before went to her workshop and said she was a great teacher as well.  I loved her idea of controlled fraying for when she brushes her textiles into a chenille-type quality.  It was also interesting to hear her talk about her fascination with the doing the least possible to suggest an image.  Some of her work is minimalist; only the barest evocation of a landscape.  This is in total contrast to my own.  I am interested in sumptuous, encrusted, glittering surfaces.  In my imaginary museum of quilts it would be interesting to hang her’s next to mine!  Anyway, treat yourself and have a look at her website.

This morning I indulged in one of my guilty pleasures which is to listen to Melvin Bragg’s Start The Week on BBC Radio 4 while doing some stitching.  I know I should be hard at some administrative task, but it puts me in a good mood for the day to listen to STW and that must benefit any students whose work I am marking.  Today was on the Battle of Bannockburn which is entirely irrelevant.  Last week’s was on Aristotle’s Poetics and I spent the whole 45 minutes taking notes.  So it evens out.

To get to the point, the picture at the top of this post is of the start of my Laura Ashley project inspired by my trip to the Foundling Museum.  I thought it might be interesting to document the progress of the piece – which is very small – only about 14 inches square.  I intend each piece to start the same size and to develop out of a sample of Laura Ashley fabric.  I am not planning much but am responding to the sample, but I would like stories to emerge out of the juxtaposition of cloth.  I started with what turned out to be a fairly fine synthetic fabric which looks like unbleached cotton lawn, which I will use as the foundation for all the pieces.  The wadding is bamboo, which I quite like because it is very low loft.  For once I have started with the frames.  I usually make the pieces and then have to have them expensively framed.  This time, I thought I would be a bit cleverer and get the frames and make the pieces to fit.  Fine, but box frames are like rocking horse poo – extremely hard to find.  In the end I went to good old IKEA and bought five large square frames.  I thought the black edges might be appropriate to the memorialising aspect of the quilts.

On Sunday afternoon I made the basic sandwich and chose potential elements for the piece.  I started with a scrap of Laura Ashley fabric as each piece will have one sample, and off I went.

Initial stages of Threads of Identity 1, February 2011

Initial stages of Threads of Identity 1, February 2011

These are both linen fabrics.  The one on the left is one from a pile of samples my mother gave me ages ago from some of the last cloth produced by Rose and Hubble, a British company which is no longer in business.  The one on the right is from a bag of off-cuts of exquisitely beautiful linen I bought from The Linen Shop when I went to Art in Action at Waterperry about three years ago.  The Linen Shop sells seriously gorgeous linen with a lovely sheen and very subtle colours.  Even though the off-cuts were fairly cheap they are far too beautiful to cut into, and I had to give myself the ‘Do you want to die with this fabric in its pristine shape until the perfect project worthy of them presents itself, or do you want to enjoy them while you still have your faculties?’ talk.  I saw sense.  The Linen Shop’s website is http://www.thelinenshop.biz.  Again, treat yourself.

That’s probably enough for today.  But I will track the progress on this piece which is coming together surprisingly quickly in subsequent posts.

Painted quilts, pretend applique and what I love about my job

Bristol Blue Painted Bubbles, Body Shop Quilt, 2009-2010

Bristol Blue Painted Bubbles, Body Shop Quilt, 2009-2010

Slightly hurried post today as I am deep into the teaching term at Bristol and exam papers have to be set, students have to be taught and meetings have to be attended.  So, this is a detail from my very large Body Shop quilt.  It’s from the panel about Bristol and is a nice example of how mistakes can lead to good things and become happy accidents.

I made a photo transfer of Anita Roddick using a PVA medium and coloured photocopies, but instead of using nice smooth cotton I thought I would use silk, as the rest of the quilt is deliberately made from the fabric.  I chose silk noil which is one of my favourite fabrics but not a great choice for this technique as the nubbly raised texture meant that when I worked away the paper to leave the transferred image the silk started to come through and the whole thing started to break up.  So I left a bit of the paper on which led to kind of bloom effect, or as if the piece had been sanded.  In the end this turned out really well, as the paper took the paint particularly well.  And painting all over the print was an adventurous move that I wouldn’t have taken if the print had worked beautifully.  I am too respectful of the source material sometimes.  The finished panel looks like this:

Body Shop Bristol Panel

Body Shop Bristol Panel

The panel is part of the large quilt which I will blog about in the coming months.  It has highly autobiographical elements which I will also explain, but it was really interesting thinking about how to capture what Bristol means to me.  The Nottingham panel for my hometown has elements of oak leaves for the Major Oak which features in the Robin Hood stories, and lace, as machine-made lace was for a long time one of the principle industries in the region.  But, I am not native to Bristol and don’t feel connected to, say, Concorde, which a lot of native Bristol people do.  So, I turned to Bristol Blue, which is a characteristic glass made here with a wonderful deep cobalt colour.  But I also realised that Bristol for me is about great friends, but also about work.  And my work is about thinking, creating ideas and communicating some of them to others.  I cannot believe the luxury of being paid to think and read books for a living.  I am very lucky.  So, I covered it in thought bubbles.  One of these morphed into a traditional quilting design, the feather, which was a surprise.  But I liked it so much I repeated it elsewhere on the quilt as in this detail:

Gold feather and pomegranate detail

Gold feather and pomegranate detail

This one also features a pomegranate design.  The pomegranate is one of my personal set of symbols.  For me it’s about fecundity and creativity and plenty because of the seeds.  But, what I realised in making this particular panel is that if you do your quilting and then paint it looks like you are the most fantastic applique-er in the world.  It looks like a magnificent gold applique, which is an illusion, and a pleasing one!

Finally a word on method.  I just quilt free-hand.  I don’t draw or transfer the design.  I just sit down and do it, which means some of it is very wonky, but you can either cover it up with paint, or decide that no-one will notice from a distance.  I think the secret of machine quilting is to do it very fast.  You cannot be a good machine quilter if you are scared of your machine!  I love the painting part which is like colouring in or painting by numbers and I am delighted that the effect is so good for so little effort and not much skill.  It’s mainly about confidence, and great materials.  As ever the work is only as good, unfortunately, as the materials used to produce it.  The paint here is the wonderful Golden Fluid Acrylic which I love.  Even on the yellow silk the blue stays blue rather than turning green because the paint has so much pigment in it.

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You can take the hearts off the quilt, but you can't take the quilts out of the heart

Buttonhole applique on The Greek Slave Quilt

Buttonhole applique on The Greek Slave Quilt

Last night I went out with Becky, Alison and my Grate Friend Ceri, who has featured previously in this blog, for a quiet drink and a chat.  We talked about family and jobs and the realities of getting older, but we also talked a lot about the passion that brings us all together: sewing.  Becky is fantastic at recycling and cannot bear to throw anything away.  When she makes beautiful patchwork out of scraps it looks elegant and designed and covertable.  Alison makes beautiful quilts with the subtlest of colour schemes, and the lightest of touches of embellishments, and Ceri makes fabulous riots of colour which are both sophisticated and full of life.  For some reason, though, they seem to think I know more about patchwork and quilting than them, which is wrong.  The conversation turned to current projects and I started to talk about The Greek Slave Quilt, which has taken me by surprise because it is back to traditional pieced patchwork which I haven’t really done for years.  Suddenly, I have a desire to stitch pieces of fabric together.  It must be the recession.  We had all been to see the big quilt show at the Victoria and Albert Museum last year, and knowing that the Greek Slave had been inspired by that trip, Becky suggested that I enter it, when it’s finished, into the V&A’s competition for work inspired by a visit to the Museum.  I am a bit shy about this sort of thing, and so I demurred.  But, back at home and in bed, my mind started racing.  What would I have to do to turn it into an art quilt which might interest the V&A rather than just a ho-hum reproduction knock-off piece?

The answer seemed to me to combine the story elements from the Greek Slave Quilt, which I have blogged about before with the Changi Quilt which was also in the show.  The Changi Quilts have fascinated me for years.  Here’s a description from the Red Cross website about the quilts they own:

When Singapore surrendered to the invading Japanese army early in 1942, many service personnel and civilians from Allied countries – including women and children – were sent to an internment camp at Changi Prison.

Men were separated from the women and children, and there was little contact between them so families didn’t know if their loved ones had survived.

In the first six months of internment, women embroidered their names and an image that meant something to them on squares of fabric. The squares were sewn together to form quilts, which were given to the military hospital at Changi barracks. For many of the men, it was the first sign they had that their wives and daughters were alive.

(www.redcross.org.uk)

Changi Quilt

Changi Quilt

I have often wondered if I were in that situation, with Pete not knowing if I were dead or alive, what would I embroider on my square of fabric?  What sums up my identity, his identity or our identity in our life together?  What would he feel like as he stood there and examined the quilts as they came through looking for some sign that I had survived?  What single image sums up a life together?

The upshot of all this is that I decided to try to bring the two narrative elements together in the quilt and to make a small collection of things that I associate with Pete.  I will incorporate them into the finished piece in some way.  Quite a challenge putting objects onto such a traditional ‘2D’ quilt.  There is much more to say on this subject which I will leave for other posts, but I am struck by how much of my involvement in quilting is work of the heart.

In which the blogger admits that not everything always goes according to plan

 

Ann Rippin's Painted Madonna Quilt, (2010-2011)

Ann Rippin's Painted Madonna Quilt, (2010-2011)

One of the great pleasures of making is finishing.  Completing.  This doesn’t negate the joys of doing or creating but there is something very satisfying about putting in the last stitch or sewing on the last bead.  This piece was started about this time last year in a big burst of enthusiasm  I decided a wanted to make a madonna as part of the Candlemas celebrations I hold some years.  Again, being married to the medieval historian brings an awareness of these more or less forgotten high days and holidays, and I like tradition and markers throughout the year because I think we have lost a lot by not marking rites of passage or special times.  And Candlemas is traditionally celebrated with candles and cakes, which is a great thing to do during the dark days of February.  It is a commemoration of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the Purification of the Virgin Mary (hence the madonna) on 2 February.   It is also sometimes associated with cleaning and throwing away the remaining debris after Christmas, so finishing a piece also seems appropriate.  All of this meant that on Sunday afternoon I thought I would find this piece and attempt to finish it off.

When I started it, I was inspired by an article I saw in Quilting Arts Magazine about painting quilts.  I have, of course, lost the article since starting the quilt, but the author was clearly a very talented woman and she produced lovely smokey renditions of playing cards (I think).  So, I set out.  Now, most people trying out a new technique might start small, with a sample even.  But not me.  I wrestled with a large piece of calico on my very cluttered work table and set to.  This is a quilt.  Three layers with wadding and everything.  Then I drew the madonna onto the calico with a permanent fine line marker pen following a beautiful Renaissance madonna I found on the front of a book catalogue sent to the resident historian.

 

Anonymous Neapolitan artist, c.1510-20.  Madonna della Carita (detail).

Anonymous Neapolitan artist, c.1510-20. Madonna della Carita (detail).

How beautiful.  So, I have my outline and my quilt sandwich.  The author of the article I am quite sure told me to machine quilt it.  I ignored this, because stupidly I had put a lot of detail in, which would end up spiky rather than curved if I did it by machine.  And so I started.  The quilting took a while, but this was restful: following a well-delineated outline is a treat for most handquilters, and it could be done while chatting to other quilters.  The fun came with the painting.  The woman who told me to machine quilt had her reasons.  Hand quilters pull the thread slightly to get those characteristic little puffs to highlight the effect of light and shade, and those little puffs meant that every time I painted up to them I got a wavy line as the paint hit the hills and valleys.  Nightmare.  It took forever.  By this point it was clear that any Candlemas party would have been and gone and so I abandoned it.

 

Sample for painted quilt

Sample for painted quilt

About a year later I summoned my courage to start again.  I was using acrylic paint which was lovely but not suited to the job.  Pushing paint into all those points was just irritating and when I came back to it I got much looser and by the end was slapping on the white of the linen with abandon.

 

Detail of painted Madonna Quilt

Detail of painted Madonna Quilt

Eventually, after I stamped a design on the orange robe with gold paint,  the painting was finished.  Although the end result and the source material bore no resemblance, I thought it would pass for folk art and I had come too far to give up at this point (like waiting for a bus – when do you decide to give up and walk having already invested twenty minutes in the wait?).  The final part was to sand the quilt lightly and then paint over it with watered down acrylic paint.  I set to rather energetically with a sanding block which, as we shall see, had unfortunate consequences.  Then I made up my wash and put in some gloss medium to emulate layers of varnish (again unforeseen consequences).  I slapped it on the quilt.  I scrubbed and wiped and dabbed with a paper towel.  I used the leftover glaze to do so modelling with shadows around the eyes, and cheeks and fingers.  I left it to dry.

Well, most madonnas are known as the madonna of the lilies, roses, rocks, greenfinch, apple, or charity, like this one.  Mine could only be described as the Madonna of the Dirty Face or the Madonna of the Morning After the Night Before.  She looks how I feel.  And the addition of the gloss medium means that I have a rich brown stain all over my fingers which will not shift with scrubbing.

I may come to love her.  My husband will be terribly polite about her.  But I did want to share her because I think it is important that we admit that not everything we make is just gorgeous from the outset, and she is a perfect corrective to vanity.

The Madonna of the Dirty Face before her glazing

The Madonna of the Dirty Face before her glazing

Threads of Feeling at the Foundling Museum, London

Page from Foundling Museum records

Page from Foundling Museum records

 

Pete, my historian husband, always says that it’s the weaker students who tell him that one of the main reasons for studying history is so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.  Well, one of the mistakes that I keep on making is not going to exhibitions that run for more than a couple of weeks because I forget or never ‘get round to it’.  So, on Saturday, we did get round to going to the ‘Threads of Feeling’ exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London.   The hospital was established in the 18th century to take in unwanted children by Captain Coram, William Hogarth, the artist, and George Frideric Handel, the composer.   The museum is on the site of the original building in Bloomsbury, and its website is at  www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk.

We went to see the very small and beautifully done exhibition of pages from the ledgers of pieces of cloth preserved to identify the children should their mothers (almost always) come to reclaim them.  As the exhibition website explains

In the cases of more than 4,000 babies left between 1741 and 1760, a small object or token, usually a piece of fabric, was kept as an identifying record. The fabric was either provided by the mother or cut from the child’s clothing by the hospital’s nurses.  Attached to registration forms and bound up into ledgers, these pieces of fabric form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the 18th Century.

We both felt that the emotion could have been laid on with a trowel, but it was a thoughtful and tempered exhibition.  I had to laugh at myself, though, when I caught myself being furious with a very noisy group of schoolchildren crashing through the place so that they could fill in their worksheets while I was brimming over with compassion for these desolate babies and mothers.  A very English attitude to children…

For those of us interested in textiles, however, the pieces of fabric are extraordinary.  Because they have been kept out of the light they are as fresh as the day they were deposited at the hospital.  The pins holding the samples together haven’t even rusted.  And they form a major archive of 18th-century women’s and other domestic textiles.  What is missing is heavy work clothes worn by men, because the fathers so rarely appeared with the children.

I want to work with the themes and ideas of this exhibition when I get to grips with my Laura Ashley project, so I won’t go on much more here.  It is well worth making the effort to see the exhibition which continues to 6 March 2011.  An added incentive might be the rather splendid cafe on the ground floor, with a fine line in cake.  Or possibly the Handel room on the top floor with its leather wing chairs with speakers set in the wings at ear level playing selections from the composer’s catalogue.

As part of the exhibition, Annabelle Lewis of VV Rouleaux has made an installation called The Falling Thread.

Annabelle Lewis, The Falling Thread, 2010

Annabelle Lewis, The Falling Thread, 2010

 

Afterwards, we went round the corner to the British Museum and the Margo Selby shop, of which more in subsequent posts.

 

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On 'torturing' fabric

Detail of Pre-Raphaelite panel from Body Shop Quilt

Detail of Pre-Raphaelite panel from Body Shop Quilt

In an idle moment last night when I found myself wandering around the web instead of going to bed, I came across a website with prompts for bloggers with writer’s blog.  One of them suggested writing about a book that you would recommend to other people, and this in turn prompted me to think about a conversation I had with my grate friend Ceri (as Molesworth would say) at St Andrew’s Quilters, our quilting group, on Wednesday evening.  We were talking about Gwen Marston’s book on liberated quilting which is currently going for £127 on Amazon.  I got mine years ago and paid nothing like that for it.  I did spend an amount I am not prepared to disclose for The Whole Cloth by Constantine and Reuter which makes proper textile artists go weak at the knees, and which I subsequently found had come from a library sale so probably cost the crafty vendor under a fiver.  However.  The point of this post is not to have an informal quilters’ book group.  I want to talk a bit about torturing fabric.

So, when I went to Gwen Marston’s weekend workshop I went to the show and tell and sat next to a fantastic, committed quilter who does traditional work wonderfully well.  As we were chatting she said to me, ‘I do hope we’re not going to see a lot of tortured fabric.’  My heart sank, because both pieces I had taken along, and which I shall endeavour to find photos of, were prime example of such practices.  The piece at the top of this post, which is also my header photo is another example of exquisite cruelty to cloth.  In the case of the photo above, the fabric was attacked with a soldering iron.  Not even Quentin Tarantino would stoop to that.

The Pre-Raphaelite Panel, Body Shop Quilt

The Pre-Raphaelite Panel, Body Shop Quilt

When quilting magazines occasionally poll well-known quilters on which piece of equipment they could not bear to lose, I sometimes think it would be my hot air gun.  This beauty actually came in very useful recently when our pipes froze.  My charming husband was up a ladder thawing them out most effectively.  I can probably also use the leftover lagging to print with at some point as well, so the morning was not entirely wasted.

But, there are some of us who work in textiles who just cannot resist the quick zap with the heat gun over chiffon or IKEA curtain voile which melts back beautifully or this lovely sample of Italian furnishing voile:

Body Shop Quilt, filler panel detail

Body Shop Quilt, filler panel detail

I love those big baroque flourishes in quilts where there is the space.  I also love the nerve it takes to put the heat gun over the quilting you have so lovingly worked on for an afternoon.

The quilts will have their revenge, though.  I spent ages stitching voile over some exquisite squares of very choice fabric set out like mosaic, got the hot air gun out, turned it on and waited for the magic to appear.  And waited.  And waited.  And noticed a smell of burning.  The voile my mother had supplied me with from her curtain making contact was pure silk and had no intention of burning.  And that is why you should always make samples.  And thinking through what had happened and how this made me realise that you must respect the integrity of your materials suggests to me that perhaps after all you shouldn’t make samples after all.

For info: the stunning beads on this panel come from Anita’s Beads (www.anitasbeads.com) which is worth searching out at the Festival of Quilts just to meet the wonderful Clive.

My last word on shoes

Corporate Excess: Sight, Ann Rippin, 2005

Corporate Excess: Sight, Ann Rippin, 2005

Shoes seem to have been a bit of a theme in this blog this week.  I was thinking about this when I suddenly remembered that I had made a small quilt about shoes for an academic paper.  It is part of a series based on the famous set of tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn.

The Lady and the Unicorn - Sight

The Lady and the Unicorn - Sight

This is one of six monumental tapestries in the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris.  They were made for Jean le Viste, a magnate on the rise in the court of Charles VII, and are identifiable by his coat of arms.  They are probably late fifteenth century, probably made in Brussels and very definitely a hugely expensive luxury item.  Tracey Chevalier wrote a really good read novel about her imagined story of the making of them.  Each tapestry shows a different sense along with the lady and the unicorn and a precious object associated with the sense.  So taste has sugar, hearing has a small portable organ (with attendant small portable servant to power it) and sight has a mirror.  The sixth, rather mysterious, piece, A mon seul desir, shows the lady either putting on a beautiful necklace or putting it away and abjuring worldly goods.  I was so stunned by the size and quality of these French national treasures that I decided to think about what a young man on the rise through the world of high finance in the City might commission to impress visitors to his prestigious home.  What luxury objects might be chosen in the early years of the twentieth century.  I looked to The Financial Times How to Spend It supplement that comes out on the first weekend of the month for inspiration.  For sight I chose the work of a shoe maker who makes shoes not in pairs but in threes and artfully distresses at least one of them.  According to the article, Olga Berluti…

has something of the medieval alchemist about her, cooking up new patinas in her atelier, boiling up mixtures of cashmere and leather, trying out new techniques to create finishes unlike anybody else’s… For her things that have been worn have a romance, a glamour, a precious quality that nothing new can begin to replicate.  As she points out, “In the past, men – both aristocrats and peasants – wore their clothes until they were threadbare.  They would patch and darn these beloved pieces.”  She sees these patchings as being “like so many acts of bravery”.  “Il y a tout une histoire dans un soulier” (“there is a whole history in a sole”[sic]) is how she puts it. (HTSI, 133: 51)

It struck me that Olga had never been there at the end of a jumble sale when the really horrible smelly stuff is left.  I thought the notion of buying beautifully finished distressed shoes in threes was a deliberate subversion of wealth into a pastiche of want and need.

But, as so often happens, the quilt took on a life of its own, and what I like about it is that it is completely different under different lighting conditions.  Under artificial light the sequins in the background spring into life, while in daylight the texture of my approximation of Olga’s patching comes to the fore.  So the quilt really does play with sight.

Corporate Excess - Sight - detail
Corporate Excess – Sight – detail

For those who are interested, the distressed elements are largely made with melted ‘friendly plastic’  with the odd bit of gold tulle pressed into it, and some handquilting following the lines of the printed bronze leatherette.  The plastic and the leatherette were provided by my mother, the world’s best supplier of stuff for textiles.

For those who want to read my searing critique of the bonus culture five years avant la lettre, have a look at:

Rippin, A. (2007) ‘Economy of Magnificence: Organisation, Excess and Legitimacy’ Culture and Organisation, 13, 2, 115-129.