Gillian Travis at Malvern Quilt Show




There was a lot of lovely work on show at Malvern, but the ones I liked the absolute best were Gillian Travis’ Indian quilts.  I think this is probably because my own work is going through such a figurative phase.  I loved the vibrant colours and the clever techniques


Nice use of block printing over the finished piece, here, for example, and I like her substitution of foil for glass shisha mirrors.  I also really liked the use of a small mini-quilt on the side of the main piece picking up a design element:


The figure here is a very clever layering of black tulle.  This is the ‘detail’ quilt


I also admire the machine quilting in metallic thread, which really isn’t as easy as it looks here.

Her book with Pat Archibald, Dual Journeys in Stitch is absolutely gorgeous and had the weird effect of making me want to reach not for a needle but my sketchbook.  I did say that I wouldn’t use many photos as people are  increasingly nervous of having their international property stolen, so she has a lovely blog, website and facebook page, so there is plenty of opportunity to see the work.  Here’s one more quilt to finish the 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:



War Collar 4: The Blood Collar



This is the first collar I made.  I started by thinking that the throat was a vulnerable part of the body with so much blood so near the surface and made the collar in blood red tones.  As I have done more work on the whole area of amulets I have learned that there is an element in many of them of confusing evil spirits or deflecting their attention and getting them to pass on.  So, in a world of violence already being smeared with blood might mean that the aggressor will move on and leave you alone.

That’s the serious stuff.  The lighter stuff is that I love working with red.  It is a richly symbolic colour about danger, blood, sex, sin and so on, but also celebration and life.  I find it an energising and life-enhancing colour.  I also learned early on from studying Kaffe Fassett and his work that to work well with red you need to include lots of shades of it.  They seem to hum together and to vibrate.  Fassett often throws in a bit of lime with his red or turquoise blue, which I didn’t do with this piece.



I calmed it down a bit with some gentle beige:


These little rolled beads are made from some mock suede (another luxury furnishing fabric provided by my mother’s friend’s son) printed with transfer paint and then wrapped with some beads.


There is also some crimson furnishing velvet and little rosettes of thread.


The centrepiece is a big felt flower which I made but never used for a Christmas wreath.  The cord is a simple plait of the fabrics used in the piece.





War collar number two


The second collar in my series of wearable armour for corporate women is this blue neckpiece.  The idea here is to make a protective piece.  So, according to the sort of folklore I was brought up with, blue wards off evil spirits, which is  apparently why we dress baby boys in blue, and thus the piece is largely blue.  In other traditions shiny things dazzle the devil and keep him away from you, so it has lots of golden coins.  The piece is also clearly a nod to the lovely tribal embroideries that are inspirational for so many of us.  The best example for me is probably, as I have said before on the blog, The Shining Cloth:


This is a book that I think everyone should have, as it is packed with glorious photos of amazing decorated cloths.

My piece has been hanging about for some time waiting to be made into something.  I got into a good habit a couple of years ago of using the leftovers at the end of a project to make up a block, and eventually you have enough to make a quilt.  This piece was leftover from a series of small quilts about Walter Benjamin which I made last year:




I had this very pretty little piece made up of bits of hand-dyed fabric:


It had some machine stitching on it:


And I decided to do some hand-stitching with the lovely Madeira lana thread:


Then I squared it up a bit and sewed on the coin charms which I think I got very cheaply at a Hobbycraft sale:


Finally I made the cord:


This one is very light, and I think it could be worn.  Being a major fan of the kaftan, I have several things it might go with.  But it will be interesting to see which ones people do want to wear when I go to the next stage of the project.

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What I did on Saturday – Bristol Quilters’ Exhibition



This weekend we held Bristol Quilters’ Exhibition.  It comes round once every two years which is a really good spacing because it gives us time to produce some very nice pieces.   I can’t single out any one piece, and I can’t put everything in, so I will just include a photo of a poppy made by Alison, one of my oldest and best quilting friends.  I am just stunned at the craft and skill and know-how that went into the production of this:

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In some ways, though, the standard and beauty of the quilts is a secondary issue about the exhibition.  What was really striking was the atmosphere in the halls.  We had over a thousand visitors, which is exceptional, and they were all really enjoying the occasion.  With my academic hat on, I was wondering why this was.  There has been a lot of work in the past looking at what makes voluntary organisations work.  Why do people work so enthusiastically for free.  Peter Drucker, the very well-known Swiss management guru wrote extensively on this.  Of course, a lot of the academic interest in this is how can we take this enthusiasm and commitment and turn it to commercial advantage.  No-one has succeeded so far as I know.  I am less interested in that than I am in why that exhibition was such a lovely experience for those visiting.  I am still working on it so here are some bullet points!

  1. The rooms were awash with colour and pattern.  I am convinced that colour therapy works.  Goths dress in black for a reason.  I love bright pink and orange, preferably together, when I am a bit depressed.  Humans love pattern.  We read pattern.  We know when it is wonky.  We love it when it is regular.  We make pattern instinctively.  Our concentration, it seems, improves when we doodle.  We are pattern-making and colour-loving animals, and that room was full of both.
  2. The rooms were stuffed to the gunwales with love.  The quilts were often made with love for someone – a husband, child, friend, relative, but they were almost all made for the sheer love of quilting.  I think that this is one of the great mysteries of the material world.  We really do sense the emotion behind made things.  Not all the time, but often we love a textile because of the emotion which has been infused into it.  I think visitors were picking up that they were in a great vault full of love.
  3. People were joyful.  The magnificent organisers of the show, again it is invidious to name names, were really delighted with the way it was going.  The welcome at the ticket desk was warm and genuine,  The people who exhibited were delighted with the response to their work.  We all felt proud to belong to a group which could produce such high quality work.  Other quilt groups who came felt inspired to try out some of our group ideas.  There was a tremendous feeling of ‘we did this’.  I imagine that you get this in all sorts of settings: concerts, community gardens, charity runs and so so on.  We did this.  We are successful.  We have made a contribution.  We are good.  And I think that is infectious.
  4. There was cake.  Now this is not as flippant as it sounds.  There was cake, reasonably priced, beautifully presented, served with real warmth, and largely handmade.  Again, this is really important.  Not only do we want the unprocessed delight of a cake made in a domestic kitchen rather than stuffed full of preservatives in an industrial bakery, but we also, again, I think, ingest that love that we sensed in the quilts.  One of my favourite novels is Like Water for Chocolate in which the cook’s emotions all find their way into what she is cooking, with all sorts of consequences.  I think there is some truth in it.  Love on a plate.
  5. The whole event was a celebration of creativity.  I have long thought that thwarted creativity is responsible for all sorts of ills in people.  Expressing your creativity is, again, a very human act.  Until very recently in our history we had to be creative to survive – someone had to build a shelter, a pot, a trap, and it would probably help you get a mate if you were good at it, and we tend to be better at things we enjoy.  So your DNA as a good maker would probably get passed on.  Being creative is part of being alive.  I am tempted to think that we should give the socially disruptive a couple of hours with a gelli plate and some paint and let them get on with it.  Creativity and boredom don’t really go together at all.  I live in a city famous for its graffiti which tends to bear this out.  That creative urge will express itself somehow.  So a ritual celebration of our usually overlooked creativity is bound to make everyone feel better.

I am not totally starry-eyed about this.  There is huge competition in quilt groups, and jealousy and resentment.  There are major disparities in wealth and the access to materials that brings.  There are hours of tedium in quilting, which is why so many who can afford it tend to have their quilts professionally quilted (including me).  There is frustration at getting it wrong, or where it won’t fit, or running out of a particular fabric, or the sewing machine playing up.  But overall, we love it because it allows us to access part of ourselves which would otherwise be frustrated and would turn in on us.  And, I defy anyone to say that the atmosphere was not positive, joyful even, but at the very least infused with delight.

In addition…

I put in two pieces: my little Lauras quilt:



which I will blog about later – now that it is finished, and my memorial or mourning quilt:


Not a great photo, but you can see the very basic piecing with a lot of embellishment on top.  The fabric came from Peggy Pounce, whom I used to quilt with for a very long time.  When she died we all had some scraps leftover from a quilt she made and used them to make something of our own.  I am very interested in the way that we commemorate so much with quilting: new babies, weddings, children leaving home, anniversaries and so on, but don’t really continue the old death quilt tradition.  There was a quilt in the exhibition made of a husband’s shirts, which had a really elegant simplicity:


Made by Ann Kelly, it was called  A hug from John.  There were other memorial quilts, but these were really outweighed by the celebration of life pieces.  We don’t do the sitting by the bedside that our Victorian foremothers did, so we don’t need to have something to fill the hours and take our minds off things, but I think there is also something about the last taboo that we don’t want to engage with.

An added bonus was a small exhibition of the school magazine covers of Badminton Girls’ School which was our venue.  They ranged across most of second half of the twentieth century, and were produced by the girls.  They are a rich source of data on the changing fashions in graphic design:

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The 2013 issue, by contrast had a photo of a young woman, positively glowing, as she climbed a sheer rock face.  Although I loved the image of her, I thought it was a bit of a shame that the treasure trove of graphic styles seems to have come to an end.


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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.




Finding inspiration in different places




Since my elevation to the peerage (I have been promoted at work from Senior Lecturer to Reader, which is meaningless outside the university, but very meaningful indeed within it – and the Medieval Historian is now Professor Medieval Historian), I have very little time left over from the day job so my posts have been a bit few and far between.  I don’t want to let the blog go, though, so here are some more inspirational things for me.

The first, surprisingly is from nature.  Walking the mutt makes me at least conscious of the changing seasons, and late autumn/early winter is a special time because the fallen leaves take on an interesting washed out tone where the yellow and orange sometimes turns to pink and red like in these:


The colour combinations here are great.

Second lot of inspiration comes from a far more secular space: the lampshades in the Rooftop Restaurant at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford:


Very pretty, although no doubt a nightmare to keep clean.


Textiles for when you can’t sleep.

The other night I was finding it very difficult to sleep, so I turned on the television and watched Troy (2006).  It is not a great film, but it does have the most fantastic costumes.  The Trojans wear gorgeous indigo-dyed outfits, and it is worth watching just for those.  I couldn’t find many pictures on the web, but all the way through people turn up in beautifully dyed cloth.  Towards the end Peter O’Toole as Priam turns up in a gorgeous white robe with dip-dyed indigo shoulders.  Lovely.  Here are a few pictures that I could find.

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I suggest some knitting or something for the interminable battle scenes, though.

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Kaffe Fassett at the London Fashion and Textiles Museum



Yesterday I went to the London Fashion and Textile Museum with my Grate Frend, Beatriz.  We went to see the Kaffe Fassett exhibition.  She had never heard of him, which I found a bit strange as all knitters and  patchworkers and needlepointers in the UK will know his innovative and colour-soaked work.  Anyway, it was a lovely show – unfortunately it finishes tomorrow, so you will have to be quick to see it.

I took some pictures, but flash wasn’t permitted (understandably) so my photos are a bit murky.  There was plenty of his work on display including his paintings which I think I have only seen reproduced in his books up to now.

What was interesting to me, however, as a raging egotist, was Beatriz’s comment that his work is like mine.  I think it is probably the other way round.  He has been a huge influence on me, and still is, I think.  Since I came across his first book Glorious Knitting at an impressionable age, I haven’t been able to resist a yellow background:


His work has always been highly decorative, with detail being one of the main design elements:

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I love these little crocheted and beaded caps he seems to be doing now.

But I think that what I mainly got from him was something about pattern.  I remember going to a lecture by him in Bath years ago and taking away one thing he said which was that if you repeat something, even a mistake, it will look deliberate and like part of a pattern.  This has saved me on a number of occasions:


Pattern making, particularly with beads, is a huge part of my work.

Finally, he gave me what he gave lots of women in the eighties and nineties, a freedom with colour.  Again, I remember reading in one of his books that one red is difficult to work with, but ten reds are easy and give a vaguely faded feel to a piece.  I have used this a lot in my work.  Firstly lots of red which I love, and secondly lots of variations on a colour in one piece of work:


I’m not sure if you can still get this pencil print, but it is exactly how I feel about red, pink and orange.  This is why I will never be a really trendy embroiderer.  I cannot do that bleached out, stripped back stuff.  I think colour is life.  I have taken to wearing bright red lipstick in my fifties just for the hell of it and life really changes.  I had a friend who said that if every woman in the country were given an Estee Lauder Parallel Red lipstick we could do without assertiveness courses altogether.


Confidence with colour marks Kaffe Fassett’s work and I think I owe him a real debt for that.

images-3PS.  Naturally I bought his autobiography in the tiny shop.  I got it home to find it was an autographed copy which was a delight.  On reading it, however, I discover his birth name was Frank.  I seriously don’t think he would have gone so far called Frank Fassett.  Kaffe, by the way, comes from a children’s book about Ancient Egypt that he loved.



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My new series: Walter Benjamin: The Destructive Character


One of the big projects that I have been working on this summer is an artists’ book about a particularly short article by Walter Benjamin, one of my very favourite academic writers.  The article is called The Destructive Character and was published in The Frankfurter Zeitung in 1931.  I chose to look at it because the theme of SCOS, which is the conference I attend every year, in 2013 is Creative Destruction (which is the sort of thing that economists love to talk about).  As I am by no stretch of the imagination an economist, I decided to take the essay by my bonkers and beloved Benjamin and see what it had to say about destruction.  Which was fine until I read it and realised that I didn’t understand a word of it.  Benjamin can be really crystal clear or he can be incredibly difficult.  Sadly this was one of his difficult pieces.  But I had decided that it would be a methodological piece and that I would use techniques borrowed from action research to work on the article.  There is plenty to say about this, but here I will just say that one of my actions or experiments was to make some textile pieces based on my reading of the text, which I did before going to speak with someone to help me understand its academic content.  So I have two sets of ideas – one coming from my inadequate and naive reading of the text and one coming from reading it with a genuine academic with knowledge of the Frankfurt School and their influences.

This first quilt that I want to write about comes from the naive element of the work.

The essay is about the Destructive Character who brings about change by destroying what was there before.  This is the basic idea of Creative Destruction.  Think about Picasso sweeping away academic drawing, or Punk Rock tearing down the elaborations of Prog Rock.  From the rubble something new and vital emerges.  In this passage, Benjamin writes about the Destructive Character clearing out the old to make way for the new and finding the work energising and therapeutic:

The destructive character is young and cheerful.  For destroying rejuvenates in clearing away the traces of our own age.  It cheers because everything cleared away means to the destroyer a complete reduction, indeed eradication, of his own condition.  But what constitutes most of all to this Apollonian image of the destroyer is the realization of how immensely the world is simplified when tested for its worthiness of destruction.  This is the great bond embracing and unifying all that exists.  It is a sight that affords the destructive character a spectacle of deepest harmony.  (p. 301)

So, bearing in mind that this was written in 1931, we can see a claim that in order to move forward we have to rid ourselves of the trappings of the past.  We have to blow away all the accumulated clutter of the Victorian or Bismarkian era, of what Benjamin might have known as the Gruenderzeit.  The huge history of the long nineteenth century has to be destroyed for the future to emerge.  With hindsight, of course, we can see that the twentieth century to come included some horrifying applications of science in the Gas Chambers and with the atomic bomb which are often quoted as the demonic ends of the Modernism that Benjamin seems to be cheering for.  During the twentieth century we got considerably better at killing each other efficiently, and some machines have made life worse rather than better.  Apollonian thinking is about rationality, clarity, logic, reason and the mind.  It is contrasted with Dionysian thinking which concerns the body, pleasure, excess, the material, the earth.  It is dark where the Apollonian is light.  My little quilt takes these ideas on.  It shows the ultimate killing machine, the Death Star from Star Wars.


The contrast between the Apollonia and the Dionysian can be seen in the quilting – best seen from the back:


The traditional feather pattern vs the spiky ‘modern’ MEMEMEME quilting.

All this made me think about a phenomenon that I have noticed with my mother and reports from friends with mothers of a similar age: a real desire to start throwing things away, to declutter, to clear their attics and to give away stuff that they have been hanging onto for years.  I wonder if this is a manifestation of the destructive character in everyday life.  I think that there are a few reasons for this desire to brush away the past:

  1. It represents dismantling a nest that is no longer needed.  Even the grandkids have grown up now.
  2. Giving treasures away makes sure that the right people get the right things and avoids the unseemly dash to empty the house by avaricious daughters-in-law after one’s death.
  3. It makes clearing out the house after one’s death easier for the children.
  4. It is an opportunity to divest oneself of material things before going to a better, tidier place.

Cleansing and death, then seem to be in some way connected.  Minimalism can quickly edge into sterility.  For Benjamin who was a product of the Gruenderzeit or high Victoriana, Modernism meant freedom and justice, a whole new set of possibilities after the heyday of imperialism.  But for the 2013 reader, we can see where it has toppled over into the dehumanising cult of efficiency as beauty and goodness (which is why you can no longer see your bank manager, and why you are constantly directed to a website rather than a person – it is more efficient).

So, I found the challenge of this article to be an aesthetic one.  My customary style is heavily ornamented.  I encrust surfaces and stitch on top of stitches.  This essay challenges me to make beauty out of stripping back and taking away, which is just what a lot of modern embroiderers do (see for example, Cas Holmes, Bobby Britnell, Shelley Rhodes).  It’s not a challenge I found particularly easy, and this is because for me, decoration is life, exuberance, abundance, multiplicity and joy.  My favourite colour is red in all its forms, not white or metallic., reflective silver.  I am happy to destroy things in a ‘what if?’ way, but I like to build up rather than tear down.

This is what I love about Benjamin, though, he always makes me think and work.  So, to end, here are some sketchbook/workbook pages: