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Threads of Identity V

Those of you who have been reading the blog for some time may remember that I produced a series of small pieces based on Laura Ashley fabric in a sort of memory box arrangement with other artifacts.  When we were putting up the exhibition at the Guild in Bristol there was a big gap just about the right size for the last of these Threads of Identity pieces.  This acted as the spur to me to finish the piece which was in bits at the time.

As a recap, I started making these pieces as part of my Laura Ashley project after seeing the Threads of Feeling exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London.  That show had the pieces of cloth that women attached to the registration forms when they gave up their babies so that they could later identify them if they had the opportunity to reclaim them.  I was fascinated by the idea that cloth can be a marker of identity and so I made some pieces based on imaginary lives of women who clung onto pieces of Laura Ashley cloth.  The first four were entirely imaginary: a missionary, an archeologist, a fashion designer and a pastry cook, but the final one is my own piece and I included all sorts of very personal things in the piece and lots of things about what I love about patchwork and quilting.

I don’t want to go into the very personal pieces in a very public forum, but I will examine some of the meanings in this narrative piece.

The elements of my life include things like the brooch that was passed on to me from the Medieval Historian’s aunt:


It is put onto a piece of dark red silk to build up a little unit in the way that Beryl Taylor suggests.

There is a little Mexican tin shrine at the top of this picture which contains an image of Ethel Merman:



A mutual love of the work of Ethel Merman is the basis for a friendship with a very fine academic colleague which has lasted several years.  We are bound together by esteem of the divine Ethel as much as through common research interests,

The piece as a whole alludes to my love of quilting and the stories which have always had resonance for me.  So the central motif of the acorn applique comes from Ruth E Finlay’s Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them which was first published in 1929.  She tells the story of the block she found of an unfinished applique in turkey red.  The story is of a young Victorian gentlewoman on the coast of America who hated needlework and longed for adventure.  She met and fell in love with a sea captain, but the romance was thwarted by her father who did not think that the man was good enough for her.  One night the captain came for her and she left the patchwork block behind.  Of course, it ends tragically as the ship sank as they were sailing away on honeymoon, and all that remains is the needle, still threaded, rusting in the block:



So, I have left my needle to rust into the block over the fullness of time.  The netting over the top is a reference to quilt conservation which is another love.  I love the romance of the story but also the way that it points to the materiality of the craft.  This thing is all that is left of that life, and it was clearly carefully conserved and preserved by her grieving family.

The other story which I find intensely moving is about the Changi Quilts which I have also blogged about previously.  These were made in Changi jail after the fall of Singapore.  The Red Cross got sewing materials through to the women in their jail and they made squares of embroidery to be made into a quilt to be delivered to the men’s jail to signal that the women were still alive.  The women embroidered things that were significant to them: a daffodil for Wales, a bird, a flag and so on.  I always imagine what this would have been like for me and the Medieval Historian and how he would have waited to find out if I were still alive and what I would choose to put onto the quilt.  The women were given squares of hankerchief linen so I bought an old hanky and used it as a background:


I think that the Medieval Historian would look for a Westhighland White Terrier as we have two of them, and I used this embroidered patch from an old birthday card:


I hope that he would see the dog and know that I was still alive.

This piece was a lot of fun to make, and I was surprised how the clarion call of the deadline pushed me into action.  I wonder if it would ever have been finished without the rush.  I like the end result very much.  It says a lot about my life with my husband, but also my life in quilting which has also been the source of much pleasure and companionship over the years.

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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.

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St Laura and the Nuits blanches

On Friday night I found myself completely unable to sleep: wide awake, thoughts racing through my head.  I tried all those relaxation exercises, but after a while I gave in and got up.  I went downstairs and make some instant Horlicks.  We must be the last people on earth that either a. do this, or b. even have Horlicks on the premises.  I have no idea if it works, but I like the ritual.  You feel you are doing something about the insomnia.  Anyway, while I had been tossing and turning I had been thinking about a new quilt for the Laura Ashley project which I want to be on a big scale to match the Anita Roddick quilt.  The problem is that the tiny Laura Ashley prints really only lend themselves to traditional pieced patchwork and doing anything on any scale is hard.  Then I started to think about another project which has long been on the back burner with my lovely friend Beatriz on contemporary occupational saints.  Beatriz is interested in South American practices such as taxi drivers having their saints prominently displayed on their dashboards.  I am fascinated by the project but have found it hard to start.  Then I began to think about Laura Ashley as the patron saint of patchwork and patchworkers – well, Saint Laura at least.  I don’t want to be creating creepy things about an actual person.  So, I thought I could do a medieval job on this and have a generic face rather than a portrait, and then no-one would be offended or upset.

I started to make sketches in my workbook based on drawings I had done in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, National Museum of Catalan Art which is in Barcelona and which I have blogged about before.  It is the Medieval Historian’s idea of paradise.  I really love the Romanesque fresco collections such as this, which is probably the most famous image:

So you can see that these were taken from the interiors of Catalan churches and preserved (against theft, apparently) in the museum.  I love the boldness of the painting:

I know of old, though, that they never have the image you want in the bookshop, so I do a lot of sketching.  Here are the pages from my sketchbook which I intend to use for the project:

While I was having the sleepless night I decided to experiment with a technique I haven’t used before – contour drawing with closed eyes.  The idea is to develop spatial awareness in your drawing and to free it up.  It is really tempting to cheat and open your eyes.  So you just draw the outlines of whatever it is but don’t look.  When you have done that you can work on the drawing in any way you like.  I coloured in the outlines and was really surprised to find the fifties feel to the drawings and the Cubist echoes.  I can’t use them for the project but I enjoyed doing them:

The drawings weren’t too bad, but the detail was always off-set which gives it the Cubist feel:

There’s a hint of Picasso in it:

More on the project as it gets going, but it felt like a surprisingly productive way to spend a sleepless night.

Oh, and it turns out that there is a Saint Laura – this from Wikipedia:

Saint Laura of Cordoba’ (SpanishSanta Laura de Córdoba) (died 864) was a Spanish Christian who lived in Muslim Spain during the 9th century. She was born in Córdoba, and became a nun at Cuteclara after her husband died, eventually rising to become an abbess. She was martyred by Muslims who took her captive and scalded her to death by placing her in a vat of boiling lead. Her feast day is on 19 October; she is one of the Martyrs of Córdoba.

But the position of patron saint of patchworkers appears to be vacant.