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Deconstructed stitching


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

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


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


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



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


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




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

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


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

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On not having a Kaffe Fassett quilt




I haven’t posted much recently because I am mainly trying to finish things off and there isn’t much to show.  I have taken two quilts to be professionally quilted which is a great way of getting them out of their plastic bags and off my workroom floor – so I feel like I am progressing the tidying up, although I then have to do something with them when they return.  I made the first one to cover the sofa when the dogs are bounding about, but, of course, so much work has gone into it that I now can’t let them anywhere near it.  It was made of scraps but these have been transformed into precious fragments after hours have gone into the cutting and stitching.

That aside, I have been finishing off a quilt that my sewing group made for me.  We all took a month of the year and chose a theme and the others in the group, The Saint Andrews Quilters, made the blocks.  So we have had pretty hearts for Valentine’s day, and sparkly fireworks for November, and shiny crystaline snow for January.  My month was either June or July (I don’t have a great head for details), and I wanted to use up a stash of strawberry prints that I have had for a long time.  I began collecting them because strawberries are the Medieval Historian’s favourite fruit.  Shortly before they closed down Rose and Hubble, did a line of really luscious strawberry prints and I couldn’t resist.  So, I chose a very simple Kaffe Fassett design and off we went.  This is the quilt from Quilt Road, one of those irresistible Rowan books:




And this is the book:




And this is Kaffe wearing the quilt on the back of the book:




And now we are getting to the point of the post.

The quilt is very nearly finished.  I am stitching the borders together, and it is really nice, but not what I was expecting, and this is what I wanted to blog about.  I really love Kaffe Fassett’s work and have done for ages.  I bought a copy of Glorious Knitting and pored over every beautiful page and photograph.  I love that idea that you don’t just use one red you use ten, or ten blues, and a flash of lime green.  I have loved his work for years.  But my quilt, which I will photograph when it’s finished, just didn’t look like Kaffe’s: lovely as it is,it isn’t Kaffe.  It has a large variety of blue fabric but it doesn’t have that Kaffe colour drench effect.

I was leafing through the introduction to the book and found out why.  As he says, traditionally quilters use a lot of contrast in terms of light and dark.  Make sure your lights are light and your darks are really dark, and be careful about those mediums is advice that I have been given on any number of workshops.  And if you are interested in playing around with block designs, that is good advice.  If you want those blocks to show up you have to make sure you have enough contrast in the fabric.  But Kaffe isn’t really interested in making Irish Chains that leap out at you, he is interested in a wash of colour, so he deliberately chooses all medium tones.  This is conventional wisdom overturned, but it does explain how his colour glows, and why my quilt with its strawberry prints on pale backgrounds don’t zing like his.  The question then becomes, does this matter or not?

At one level it does because I started out to make a Kaffe Fassett quilt, but in another it is quite a good thing, I think, that I didn’t make a clone.  I have got a quilt which mine and which makes me think of the Medieval Historian, rather than having a pale imitation of Fassett’s style, which he does much better than I can.  Starting with a strawberry printed on white, I could never have achieved a Fassett colourwash, but I have achieved a quilt which will have tremendous sentimental value and which has luscious strawberries all over it.  I remember a very well known quilter running a workshop in Bristol in which people used her techniques and closely specified materials who was then surprised when all the workshop samples looked as if they could have been made by her.  She was really disappointed but gave people no room to improvise.  I am not that good at slavish copies.  Better a really good version of yourself than a pale imitation of someone else, as the saying goes.


(D)rag Doll III





Some of you who read this blog regularly will know that I have been working on a project about a theory in gender studies that we are all, as women, wearing drag.  This doesn’t just mean that we dress in men’s clothing and try and pass as what are known as homologues, although many of us do this at work, it means that we have to try and dress to reach an approximation of some idealised version of femininity which very few of us ever attain.  Drag Queens ‘queer’ this image of femininity by heightening it so much that it becomes ridiculous; they expose what an artificial and ‘supplied’ ideal this is, but ordinary women are also expected to carry this off in every day life, and it is virtually impossible. otherwise we would all be considered to have film star looks and the cosmetic industry would be about tweaking perfection rather than selling us false hope.

Back to the doll.  One of the things that I have been interested in in the research that I have done is the polarisation of masculine and feminine and colour.  There are two approaches.  One is that the male is black-clad and therefore sober, rational, objective, above trifles, solid, austere, unchangeable.  This is achieved through the dark business suit.  The female, however, is associated with bright colours, embellishment, nature, the body, emotions and so on – like the ‘savage’ and uncivilised, according to Goethe.  The other schema is that men are associated with black and women with white: the bride, the vestal virgin, the weeping widow, the veiled woman, and I think, the Edwardian lady, gracious, charming, elegant, and, generally speaking, at home.  Having made the black-suited (D)rag Doll I and the colourful orientalised (D)rag Doll II, I decided to make a white (D)rag Doll III as an end to the series.  I was going to make a Frida Kahlo doll as she is so well-known for her eyebrows and moustache and the first two were moustachioed dolls, but in the end I realised I just wanted to make a Frida doll and there was no real theoretical point.  So here is (D)rag Doll III, resplendent in antique lace (given to me by the wonderful Julie, an ex-student) and silk which I bought in a pack of samples of wedding dress fabric.  I think the antique lace means that she really does come out looking Edwardian – very Downton Abbey:




I gave this one a face, because I wanted to say something about cosmetics which are such a large part of the drag act:




And I needed her hair to be soignee, and so I made her a snood out of gold tulle, which I don’t think is particularly authentic, but it was beyond me to make the hair into a convincing chignon, although I did try for about half an hour before admitting defeat:




She is a very pretty doll, but she looks sad to me.  She was an absolute delight to make, though.


My latest (small) quilt

Most quilters I know have a travelling project, something they can take with them on holiday, or on a long journey, or for the really obsessive, to do in waiting rooms on visits to the doctors or dentists.  I have just finished one of these projects which I started on a trip to see my Grate Frend Beatriz to work on a project we are doing together.  So this piece has nothing to do with anything.  It was just a way of having some stitching to do on the train.  It’s finished.  It has nothing to do with Laura Ashley, or identity formation, or place, or anything.  It is just pretty fabric.

I think I dyed the purple-y fabric myself.  I certainly intended to paint the wavy quilting, but in the end, I didn’t think it needed it:

The lovely pale rose buttons on this quilt were a present from Beatriz which she gave me on the visit and which fitted perfectly with the colour scheme.  The fact that they were a gift means that I now can’t sell the piece or even give it away.  I find the whole area of gift theory really fascinating.  The other buttons were out of a bargain bin in a wool shop in Bristol, although they were still pricey.  The woman behind the counter said, ‘Oh, you’ve had a good rummage, haven’t you?’  This struck me as a bit redundant; isn’t that what bargain bins are for?  Anyway, I have taken to putting a dab of glue behind big beads and buttons so that they don’t move about when you stitch them on, and this is what I did with these.

This is a detail of the applique :

Both of these fabrics were purchased.  I love hand dyes, but I don’t like doing it, so I am always willing to pay someone to do it for me.  The perle thread, which is always a joy to work, with is from Winifred Cottage, and it is what makes this piece work, I think.

A few people have commented recently that it’s interesting to see the pieces ‘in the flesh’ because you don’t get much sense of size from the blog.  For the record, this one is about twenty two inches by about twelve inches.  It’s also a faced quilt.  I quite like taking the patchwork right to the edge of small pieces.  I think it looks more arty than putting a binding on it.

So that’s my travelling piece finished.  I will need to start another one sooner rather than later.

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What I did at the weekend – collectively

As I blogged earlier in the week, I spent the weekend with a group of people interested in collaborative writing techniques.  In the event we did a fair amount of arts-based inquiry into our subjects, which tended to be on memory work, as formulated by the great German scholar, Frigga Haug in her approach to collective biography.   We spent quite a lot of the day doing what one of our convenors, Suzanne Gannon, called ‘running interference’, so we had to write about the colour red and then pass that work onto the person on our left who had a task to do which involved altering our text, or adding to it, or subtracting from it, or writing it from a different point of view.  I got a text from Ken, who was sitting next to me who had written about an altercation with his partner about the colour in which he had become very excited.  I had to write into Ken’s text and add my own sentences.  The idea was to experience losing control and ownership of your own writing, a process which is essential for collective writing.  You cannot be proprietorial.  So I took a paragraph of Ken’s and wrote into it.  Ken’s original text is in italics:

I hate the imperialism of red.  Written by a Cornishman.  No true born Englishwoman could have written that sentence.  Separatist, I think with a slight curl of the lip.  Cornwall for the Cornish.  Daphne du Maurier run riot through the landscape, blotting out all the red, insisting on the black and silver.  Well, not for us Englishwomen, bred to thrill to the sight of a scarlet coat.  Bred to give balls the night before Waterloo and to attend to the officer class, to offer comfort to the troops.  Imagine Jane Austen, BBC classic serials go-to girl, with out the Blankshire regiment in their red coats and epaulettes and brass buttons and tight, tight white trousers.  Her oeuvre would disintegrate without the threat of Boney and the scarlet-coated response.

She thought back to a dusty schoolroom in which she had never sat.  She saw the motes dance in the golden summer light.  She smelled the chalk dust on the air.  She was sitting, she thought, in her mother’s classroom, or her father’s.  Two thirds of the map is coloured red.  The empire on which the sun never set.  How the hell did that happen?  There weren’t that many of us.  How the hell did we manage to subdue quite so many natives.  And who, once we had done it, decided that it should be coloured red?  Was it an attempt to drench the map with blood, blood spilled in the name of his or her sovereign majesty?  or was it because early on red was the colour of imperialism, the subject under discussion?  The Tudors had their green.  Elizabeth I her black and white.  Did someone else choose red?  Well, as Cecil Rhodes so memorably said, to be born an Englishman is to win first prize in the lottery of life, and he might have said, to be handed a bottle of red ink and a brush at the font.  Go and decide which bit of the map you want to colour red and don’t come back until you have done it.

Just the word red packs a punch: I hate the discursive force of the way in which it colonises senses of colour.  It is the case that when the red mist descends everything else is pretty much blotted out.  I see this, although I haven’t ever killed anyone, or indeed anything except pot plants with much regularity.  Girls don’t go in for killing particularly even now.  It’s pretty much only chanteuses who put on those Charge of the Light Brigade jackets and pout lacquered red lips on their publicity material, and it always looks like reverse drag, Vesta Tilley walking among us again.  It is the case, though, that once you have seen red nothing  is ever the same again.  Once you have loosed that temper it is hard to reign it back in.  And once the colour red has danced on your retina nothing is ever really the same again either.  She thought back to an introduction to philosophy lecture about the unfortunate Mary, who in the thought experiment, had never seen the colour orange.  And then she did.  One day she woke up and did.  She had missed the point of poor old Mary’s sadly blighted perceptual processes, because she had been so struck by the poverty of a life with no orange in it.

And then in Autumn as the leaves are turning,

orange is the smell of the bonfire burning.

Synaesthesia and Mary destined never to meet.  But she wondered what life would be like without ever seeing red.  Christmas would be bleaker, bleaker than the Midwinter already was.  And, should you glance at the map on the schoolroom wall, you would never realise the full extent of your cultural heritage of violence, appropriation, displacement and oppression.  Red makes a very convenient shorthand.

She couldn’t argue, seen like this red was a discursive entity reducing, blunting and actually discolouring through the very processes which lead to its existence.  And a creeping, corrosive one, red rust silently eating into metal, flaking away things that previously had seemed very stable.  Red, it transpired could be a very subtle enemy.

On the Saturday evening after we had been writing quite a bit we started painting and collaging this enormous piece, seen here in its finished form:

We had to base the artwork on what we had written.  I chose to play with ideas around being British and the collective colonialist past and so I started by making my own map:

The tricky bit was that we then had to be prepared to let other people contribute to our work.  I really didn’t like the idea of that, but in the end, the addition was really rather nice:

The substitution of the Brighton Pavilion for the Taj Mahal  is witty and improves the whole.

I was quite interested in why this had been a bit difficult.  The exercise we did on day two involved making things on our own, and I was happier with that.  I didn’t mind people adding to mine – although I might have done if there had a been a lot of ‘interference’ but I really didn’t like working into others’ paintings, although I did a little bit, mainly with a fish stamp which I thought pulled the whole thing together a bit.  I have to face up to the fact that it is never enough for me just to make and be part of the process: the end result needs to be pleasing as well.

It strikes me as I sit here writing this now, that all this is a bit odd given the amount of collaborative work I do in quilting groups.  I have done pieces where they go round a group and each person adds a bit, and I have made any number of group quilts with the very excellent St Andrew’s Quilters over the years, and I have never had any problem there.  Why should quilting be quite easy to do collaboratively, and art-making with academics quite so difficult?  Is it because the Academy is all about individual effort, and I can’t shake off years and years of conditioning?  Or is it because quilting is usually do to with pattern making rather than analysis?  Is it because in quilting we are all pretty much equally skilled, whereas with the art created at the weekend lots of people were happy to make a statement or show a feeling rather than trying to produce a finished piece?  I also found that I was very happy to do the work – the writing and the painting and collaging, but I didn’t want to join in discussions which were about theorising what is becoming known as the material turn in Social Sciences.  Materiality has been my thing and I don’t want to share.  I was really surprised how strongly I felt that.  And I was disappointed.

While I ponder all this, I had a great time doing my first ever mono prints, which I have seen film of Tracey Emin and Laura Kemshall doing, but had never done myself:

And here is the lovely mono print that Tessa, another of our convenors did of me telling stories in the playground, taken from a piece of my writing:

What I did on Saturday

I know that this is a blog about academic quilting, but it is also for people who love embellishment and textiles.  So, yesterday while the Medieval historian was doing work of international importance in Blagdon, Somerset, I went off to have a look at the Mulberry Factory Shop in Shepton Mallet.  As usual there was nothing that I could afford even at 50% so I went back to the car and saw a sign for an upmarket designer outlet next door.  This turned out to be a much happier hunting ground.  Anyway, I put aside my customary guilt about the conditions in which these slippers were produced because they are just so ridiculous and exuberant, and my old pair are literally falling apart.  Plus these came in this lovely embroidered calico bag.

Speaking of wrapping, I went back to the vintage dress shop in Stroud while I was on my writing retreat last week and bought a brooch wrapped with the usual care:

I fear I may have been well and truly rooked over the vintage Laura Ashley dresses I bought, but look, a satin rose and pink tulle…

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My latest quilt


This is my new quilt.  It is a cautionary tale really.  I wanted to have a second large ‘statement’ piece in the York exhibition and so I went flat out to finish it, with predictable results.  I love all three elements just not together.

The idea of the piece is that it is about patchwork and quilting.  In the middle is St Laura.  I have made her up.  She is the patron saint of patchwork and quilting because Laura Ashley got so many British quilters started.  So this is a thank you.  But, as someone pointed out at the exhibition, she doesn’t have any hands.  So I am not sure just how good she would be as a patron.  The reason for this is that I used the very simple forms that I have been seeing in great museums over the past couple of years.



These are based on examples in the stunning museum of Catalan art in Barcelona.  I have become worrying interested in using very simple shapes like smock-type sleeveless dresses or t-shirts or bottles and seeing how many different designs I can use them with.  It’s a bit obsessive when I get going.  The little keyhole shaped figures are perfect for this.  And that’s why I used the shape on the quilt.  The interesting part is filling that shape:





There is more than a hint of Klimt here, of course. but I also think that there an allusion I wasn’t particularly expecting to illustrations in children’s picture books possibly from vintage sources.  For example, I love Eric Carle’s work:


The other thing I love about this is that it was the opportunity to work with things that I have been given by great textile enthusiast friends.  So there is some wonderful silk fabric (the whole thing is done in silk) donated by one of my blogging friends who makes historical reproduction textiles – I am sure that isn’t the correct term but her blog is well worth reading www.opusanglicanum.wordpress.  She sent me a packet of the most exquisite woven silk scraps.  My mother donated a lot of the plain silk from some sumptuous sample books.  I got the silk for the wimple at Maculloch and Wallis in a ten pound bit bag of bridal fabrics which was a huge bargain in a shop which does not exactly give it away.  A lot of the beads and sequins came from my lovely friend Janice, who does frankly gorgeous bead weaving and makes scarves and neckpieces I defy anyone to resist.  And much of the lace came from a wonderful woman and ex-student of mine, Julie, who passed them on from her grandmother:



The background, which is a wool and cotton Laura Ashley fabric I bought in a sale years ago, needs a lot more quilting, but I thought that it gave a suitably medieval manuscript feel:



I think these are characteristic of the early Middle Ages which fitted the central figure.  The rose floral Laura Ashley chintz at the bottom is a reference to the banks of flowers you get at the feet of madonnas in Roman Catholic churches in the Netherlands.  I bought that remnant from the Llanidloes Quilters on the visit to Wales which started this whole project.

So, apart from needing to do more quilting and the fact that the halo, which is a bit too extravagant, overbalances the whole thing, I quite like the central panel.

The piece as a whole is meant to show my own transition and that of the craft as a whole from stitching those fifty pence big bags into patchwork to the contemporary freer, wonkier and more design-led style of piecing:



My very elementary nine patches on the left were made from packs, but by this time they were die-cut rather than the fents or offcuts originally sold.  The same for the much more sophisticated fabric on the right, pieced in Gwen Marston’s liberated piecing style.  The left hand side is hand-quilted and washed in very hot water to get it to puff up a bit like an antique quilt.  The right hand panel is machine-quilted with a bit of hand embellishment.  The separate bits are great but together they don’t quite work.  I think this is because of something that quilters have known for years: you have to be very careful how you use white.  Here it completely unbalances the whole thing.  So, I might have to resort to the collager’s friend, black tulle, and my own friend: the bead.  I certainly need to think and salvage.

That said, I loved making all the bits, and I think the piece even in its unsatisfactory state really does say something about my love of the craft.


Gold, glitter and glamour

Last night the BBC took a short break from wall-to-wall Olympic coverage and showed the first in a series of three programmes about colour.  The series is called A History of Art in Three Colours.  It’s presented by James Fox.  The programme itself was a bit unconvincing.  A claim was made that Klimt was attempting to reinstate gold as a precious thing after its debasement in the aftermath of electroplating.  This might be true, although I would have liked a bit of proof rather than assertion.  That said, it was a lovely thing to look at for an hour, and I look forward to blue and white which are to come.  The programme had a warm golden glow and glittery feel to it.  So we got Tutankhamun’s death mask:

And Cellini’s salt cellar:

And the Scandinavian Sun Chariot of Trundholm:

And, of course, quite a bit of Klimt, particularly The Kiss:

All the gold was sumptuous and lovely, and very, very glamorous.  Glamour is a theme that I have been thinking about a lot in my work on women and brands.  Anita Roddick had personal glamour and Laura Ashley promised a kind of aspirational, glamorous chateau-style lifestyle in the nineties.  Gold is clearly glamorous and nicely ambivalent.  It’s beautiful and dangerous, larded with temptation.  Miraculous.  I love the way that it doesn’t corrode or tarnish so that when the Anglo-Saxon treasures come out of the ground they are always pristine.  The boy pharaoh lives forever, as does Klimt’s wonderful Adele Bloch-Bauer

‘Mehr Blech als Bloch’  [more brass – money – than Bloch] was the joke when it was exhibited.  I got the idea of the programme, the links between what we hold most precious and gold, but the presenter himself was an interesting case with regard to glamour.  He wore Tarantino Reservoir Dogs outfits throughout:

Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs

Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs

It didn’t matter what the terrain or temperature, our boy was in his black and white outfit, usually with Ray Bans:

Among the ruins

Among the ruins

On the prairie

On the prairie

Hearing the sound of music

Hearing the sound of music

I understand about the demands of continuity, and I was glad that he didn’t whip out the gratuitous iPad without which no documentary now seems to be complete, but somehow it the suit, shirt and tie just didn’t look hip or cool or glamorous.  It looked contrived.  It looked like he was trying.  It didn’t look effortless.  And it looked derivative.  The sitting in the sun in a white shirt, black tie and black suit and Ray Bans looked like a still from any number of films, including one of my very favourites, Grosse Point Blank:

With John Cusack.

Dr Fox looked like he’d watched a lot of Taratino and Robert Rodriguez at an impressionable age.  Glamour, I think, has to look like your style.  Dr Fox looked styled.  Elizabeth Taylor or Talitha Getty would have wafted through those locations in kaftans looking utterly convincing:

Talitha Getty

Talitha Getty

And look at this for glamour:

This is a woman who even wore her rubies and diamonds in the swimming pool:

This might seem to be a digression, but although Taylor clearly thought about the impression she was making, she looked utterly like herself even in her pool.

So what about glamour in my own work?  Why all that gold and beading and jewels and sparkle?

The work demands to be looked at – these are showgirl textiles.  The Body Shop Quilt requires its own space in any exhibition (and gets it) and preferably a halogen spot to bring out the bling.  So glamour demands attention.  Glamour is about lustre, about light.  It is about surface.  And in my case glamour is about excess – where it can easily tip over into camp, gaudiness, chaviness and trashiness:

This brings me back to one of my favourite topics: taste.  Glamour doesn’t normally suggest good taste, but really glamorous people, Taylor and my mother’s instant selection, Joan Crawford, know when to stop.  They know when to take one piece off.  They are self-aware.  This is the sort of glamour which makes us think if we tried very, very, very hard we could actually achieve:

And we can’t finish about gold and glamour without this picture:

These thoughts are still underdeveloped, but it’s good to have a tv programme that makes you think for once.