Fellowship Flag Potion

I think two blog posts in one day is virtually unprecedented; I don't remember doing this (other than for brief announcements) since I posted daily during my final year of university. But I digress.

This week's #secretsofselfpreservation potion is quite a personal one (as if the entire project wasn't personal enough already!) I have been settling into my new job and trying to do the right, responsible, grown-up thing(s) and make the right choice(s). But after a particularly gruelling day this week I went out for burgers and to dance to a Blues Brothers tribute band some mates are in, and it reminded me that it's important to make the most of being young while I still am, too.

That is why this week's potion reads "Adult, but don't carry the weight of the world on your shoulders". That's "adult" as in the verb; "to adult". It's a very Web 2.0 term.





This week I handed in an entry to an art competition organised by Uniting Friends some of the young people I work with created. The theme of this year's competition was "Dear Prime Minister", and the young people made a double sided "flag" celebrating what they love about our centre, the legacy of William Morris in our community and building, and showing the way we feel about the cuts and the new government. So it made perfect sense to use snippets left over from the flag as the "potion ingredients" this week. There are offcuts of the fabrics the young people used as a patchwork representation of the centre's logo, including several William Morris prints, and a headline proclaiming "Young adults let down on basic skills"; something we try to reverse, in some very small way, through our work.






Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

Tangled Yarns: Alke Schmidt at the William Morris Gallery (Part 2)

Earlier I explained that, through Tangled Yarns, Alke Schmidt reminds us of the obscure and murky chain of supply in the textile industry. But it was ever thus; Tangled Yarns explores the (dirty) politics and morality of the textiles industry from the 1700s to the present day. And seemingly, little has changed. Though the chain of supply today may often be a mystery, in her work Stained Alke traces the mid-1800s supply chain from cotton plant to dress. She illustrates how a garment's origins, even then, could leave an invisible smear unbeknownst to the wearer. 


A wealthy woman in an elegant, delicate ball-gown peers through a barrier of columns of an 1840s cotton print which separate her from the women who clothed her. As with many of the works in the exhibition, cloth, stitch and paint weave in and out of each other, and composition says just as much as content.



The women the elegant lady peers at are a plantation slave, a Lancashire mill worker and a cottage industry dressmaker. Each category of exploited worker became the focus of a moral outrage in the 1800s, just as the treatment of Bengali textile workers is now, and rightly so. Even the self-employed dressmaker working from home lived a meagre and often starving existence; there are accounts of cottage industry stitchers losing their eyesight by candlelight in the seminal text The Subversive Stitch.

Alke's dressmaker has dark circles under her eyes and stitches by a guttering candle; perhaps her eyesight, too, will soon falter.


As Alke’s exhibition demonstrates, structural violence towards women permeates and has always permeated the textile industry. In around 1719, this violence become more overt, when, as Alke rather brilliantly puts it, some women became literal "fashion victims". British weavers were feeling increasingly threatened by the popularity of patterned Indian and Indian-imitation cottons. Rather than directing their resentment at the producers of such cottons, wool and worsted weavers took to the streets and began attacking women wearing garments made from the printed cottons. The attacks included ripping and cutting the cloth, setting it on fire, and throwing acid at the women to burn their skin. It quickly became a witch-hunt in which the recipient of the violence was not the clothes but the women wearing them. They were branded Calico Madams, the title of the piece in which Alke brings all these rich and subtle threads of research (or tangled yarns, if you like) together.


As her base Alke has chosen a calico in the style of early 18th century Indian designs. The next layer is a reproduction of an illustration from the period celebrating the passing of the ban on Indian cottons. Finally she has painted the "calico madams" themselves, fighting off their attackers and lying defeated on the floor, where the rump of a woman becomes the site of the cottons being "burnt at the stake", with flames flickering around and leaping up to assault the fleeing women. Of course, the phrase "calico madams" was a way of attacking women for their sexuality, and conflating this sexuality with the way they were dressed. Therefore the flaming pyre appears on one of the most sexualised parts of a woman's anatomy.


Calico Madams is one of the most technically accomplished and conceptually rich works in the exhibition. It is multi-layered both literally, with pattern, print and paint interlacing seamlessly in and out of each other, and figuratively, with countless threads of research woven together without over-burdening the whole.



It gives me courage as an artist who sometimes worries that there's "too much going on" in her own work. 

Tangled Yarns is an eminently apt title for this exhibition; it would be impossible to separate out the strands of race and gender, exploitation and violence with which the textiles industry is intertwined, and Alke doesn't attempt to. Instead, she explores how these strands relate to one another, in a triumph of intersectionality.

I have written about a handful of the works in the exhibition, and have spent almost two thousand words doing so. I hope this is some indication of how thought-provoking, conscience-pricking, and technically astute Tangled Yarns is. As a result of visiting the exhibition, I have chosen to make a real commitment to being an ethical fashion consumer. How many exhibitions cause us to transform our lives (and the lives of others) for the better? I would hazard a guess that it's not that many.

Tangled Yarns is exhibited at the William Morris Gallery until the 25th January 2015.

Frayed: Textiles on the Edge at the Time and Tide Museum




An excerpt from Lorina Bulwer's stitched letters

Every now and then, you go to an exhibition that speaks to you on such a personal level it seems tailor made for you. It was that way for me with an exhibition of feminist art at the Ben Uri Gallery in 2012, and it was that way with the Frayed exhibition I went to see at the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth last Saturday.

The exhibition centred around how stitched artworks could act as personal testament, salvation, or therapy. Large swathes of the text accompanying the exhibition could have been lifted directly from my dissertation.

Stitching began as therapy for me; a way of busying my hands so my mind could work things out, and heal. Consequently, many of the art works in the exhibition were very relatable, a couple almost painfully so.

Elizabeth Parker's sampler

I got to see one of my favourite pieces of stitch ever (which I'd studied during my degree) up close, and read every word of it. This huge sampler of blood red text sewn on to minuscule canvas was stitched by Elizabeth Parker, a young woman who lived in the 19th Century. Elizabeth begins her stitched text with the paradoxical phrase "As I cannot write"; she hoped that she would learn to write with a pen, but for the time being she could only stitch her story. And what a story; born into an impoverished family who gave her everything allowed by their limited means, abused (and even thrown down the stairs) by her former employers, Elizabeth wrangled with suicidal urges and their impact on her immortal soul. As the part-confession, part-testament continues, it moves from autobiography to prayer to desperate, uncertain plea to God, to anybody who can save her from herself and her "sins". Hauntingly, Elizabeth's sampler ends with the words "What will become of my soul?"

 Elizabeth's story ends happily, however; the blurb that accompanied the sampler told us that she lived to the grand old age of 76, and presumably accomplished her dream of learning to write, as she became a teacher in a village school. I found it heartening that Elizabeth's story reaffirms that people who struggle with mental health issues can live full, long, productive lives; that there is redemption, and that the meditative, contemplative, suturing act of embroidery can help lead to this; we can stitch ourselves back together again.


Quilts created by prisoners, in the 1800s and now
A section from one of Lorina Bulwer's stitched letters

The exhibition included examples of textiles created by individuals who had suffered many different forms of psychic blows; from kits worked by soldiers convalescing in the wake of the Second World War, to a quilt created by female prisoners under the guidance of Elizabeth Fry, to pieces created as part of a mourning process, to perhaps the most startling items in the exhibition, a series of embroidered letters painstakingly pieced together out of scraps and rags by a resident of a lunatic ward (as it was then known) of Great Yarmouth Workhouse at the turn of the 20th century. It is not clear whether this woman, Lorina Bulwer, came to the workhouse because of her mental health problems, or developed mental health problems through coming to the workhouse. Either way, I doubt her environment could have helped, and she was certainly not a well woman; in one of her extraordinary, cathartic, stream of consciousness, unsettling letters, she announces that she is the illegitimate daughter of Queen Victoria; in another she is obsessively preoccupied with hermaphrodites and Socialists, and the "ills" they have supposedly brought her.


Further excerpts from Lorina Bulwer's densely stitched letters
Her letters and her story make me glad to be alive now, when mental health issues are so much better understood and sympathised with. However, despite the hardships Lorina endured, whether at the hands of the state or her own mind turning against her, her letters have survived, and once seen, cannot be forgotten. However fragile and irrational Lorina was, I wager she was quite a tough woman, and disturbing as her stitched letters may be, they are a testament to her irrepressible spirit.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fascinating blog which can be read here.

Putting one stitch in front of another

Hello all. Where oh where have I been for the past month and a half? Well, I've been feeling under the weather, in many ways quite literally; the storm that huffed and puffed and blew our neighbour opposite's fence down didn't help. This time of year hits me hard, but at long last I seem to be emerging from the big black maelstrom that was gathering above my head.

In the winter months I find solace in posting loved ones little treats, in an effort to raise our collective spirits as the nights draw in and the days grow shorter.


I have also been spring cleaning (so appropriate for November, I know), and my bedroom is finally an approximation of what I've been wishing it to be for years (though there's still bunting to be put up; one can never have too much bunting...). More importantly, however, my room is clean and tidy, which I must say is something of a revelation to me. Who knew this would lead to me actually knowing where things are?! The plan now is to apply my (somewhat idiosyncratic) organisational methods (business cards go in a box with embroidered patches, obviously) to the makeshift "studio" in the loft, which is currently crammed to bursting with fabric, thread and other gubbins.

Noelle the narwhal "helping" me get organised
And yet more gubbins are pouring in; I seem to be becoming a receptacle for all the unloved fabric and needlecraft equipment that has been languishing in the attics of loved ones and acquaintances; not that I'm complaining in the slightest! I've had a surfeit of gorgeous '60s and '70s quilting cottons of late, and other bits and bobs which aren't quite to my taste are taking a little trip to Significant Seams to be turned into all manner of exciting textile-y goodness.

A little peg lady who sat atop a swag bag of fabrics donated to me; I think she looks like a little mini-me, don't you?

Besides gathering a snowball of beautiful fabrics, there is so much else to look forward to right now; mine and Pip's two year (really??) anniversary is coming up on December 1st; Christmas holed up in the Highlands with my family and an almost obscene amount of delicious food; returning to Hampton Court in January invigorated and ready to give my training in the ancient art of hand embroidery my all. Until then, I shall be taking time to look after myself and enjoy the season, and above all simply putting one stitch in front of another.

A rainbow on my window one recent morning reminded me to be grateful for the little things in life



"Working towards normality": the story of my life

Tea, comforting films, Pip, and the spirit of the Suffragettes are helping me power through


Colours of the deep blue (and green and purple and pink and orange and grey) sea

The beginnings of a coral garden


                                   
Tarnished jewel-toned seawater cottons and metallics



Jacquard Stitch (Please try to ignore the surrounding spaghetti junction; Canvas Work is like sausages; it's delicious, but you don't want to see how it was made)


Big Teeth: The Storybook Opens

As an artist, it isn't often that everything comes together in a perfect configuration (ignoring for a moment the fact that perfection doesn't exist). So it is with my most recent project, Big Teeth (though it came pretty damn close!)

Just as I was stitching the third to last button hole through which to lace ribbon tying the pages of the book into its codex, I realised that I had cut the button holes on the wrong side of the page. Luckily this page flowed almost as well with the text the wrong way round; both sides fit in with their neighbouring pages almost seamlessly, though my mistake was disastrous enough and for a few minutes it looked like an all out temper tantrum was imminent.

I present to you the almost-exactly-as-I-envisioned-it soft sculpture fairy tale artist's book, Big Teeth:

















This book has been brewing in my head for years. When I originally wrote the first version of the text, I was around fifteen or sixteen, and envisioned the book in paper, collage style. I subsequently lost all copies of the text and had to re-write it (and hopefully improve on it slightly) from memory.

Now that I am a needlewoman, it seemed appropriate to weave references to cloth and textile techniques into the pockets of the book.

The text as I intended it to read:

Big Teeth

Please  have a heart, my dear
Mine's a glass slipper
At a stroke it'll fall apart
My pulse beats quicker
Than paws on soil of some sauteed savannah
So make haste, my sweet
See if the shoe fits before
Lions and tigers and bears
Pour out of the rafters

The narrative thread

Trust me, my love
A love like this looks better
From far, far, far away
Up close the most I'll offer
(A special offer to you,
My flavour of the day)
Is a quick kiss
Quicker kick in the teeth
And a hasty getaway
Over the hills and dales and
Away to never ever land.

By the path of pins and needles

So please let's hold the Cinderella
You see
There comes a time when the stretchmarks show
And the glass slipper
Off it slips
And burrows under
Laundry piles and candelabras 
And lions and tigers and bears
Descend from the rafters

Heavily embroidered

So trust me, my love, a love like this looks far better
From far far away
When it has quite such big teeth big cat full fat feelings
Caresses, distress and all the rest, it leaves me reeling
(Soon the lions and tigers and bears
Will descend from the ceiling)

Girl afrayed

You may very well say, my charming fella
"Whatever the weather we'll weather it together"
But don't make it oh so Cinderella
Said I don't see what's so brave about lions, 
But perhaps it'll help
Although I'm trying
 I'm big cat, small claws
Big cat wound up now
Tin can alley cat, canned meow
And despite my best intentions
I shall go to the ball
I shall have it all
But what then?

 
I am worn to a ravelling

Well, mistakes happen, and now Big Teeth is safely off to the gallery and, unless they follow this blog, visitors to the exhibition will be none the wiser! I do hope they interact with the book's pages, though...

OOMK at the ICA


I missed OOMK zine‘s launch the other week as I was up in the Scottish Highlands, which is a real shame; it looked like a fab night!
However, I did make it down to the ICA on Saturday to pick up my copy of the zine. Page 28 features a little article on exhibiting in the E17 Art Trail by yours truly. When I first exhibited in the art trail two Septembers ago, I never would have dreamt that my experience would end up in a publication sold at the Institute of Contemporary Art! I almost feel like a “proper” artist.
004005
OOMK (or “One Of My Kind”) zine “is a highly visual, handcrafted small-press publication. Our content largely pivots upon the imaginations, creativity and spirituality of women.” The theme of Issue 1 is Fabric, and the full colour zine is filled with textile art, collages, comics, and articles (including one by Betsy Greer, the coiner of “craftivism”). Get your hands on your own copy here.

"Like a baby book?"


When I tell people that I'm making a soft sculpture book, that is often their first question.


I am not making a baby book; I am making a book which explores the softness of women. A book composed of layers (tissues, fabric?) of women's history, women from my family, women to whom the handkerchiefs concealed in the pockets of the book belonged.

On Being Soft is a patchwork book on two levels; a book patched together out of fragments of fabric, and of fragments of text; of overhead conversations and asides, text messages, private thoughts. Of scraps.


The book artist and critic Johanna Drucker wrote in her essay Intimate Authority: Women, Books, and the Public-Private Paradox that It is not by accident that we see so many materials in  their (women’s) (book)works: doilies, pieces of silk, fragments of kimonos, clothing scraps, soap, photographs, small scrolls, jars and other containers, reused stamps, buttons, ribbons, snippets of this and that.


One female artist who constructed a number of soft books from a life's stash of "snippets of this and that" was Louise Bourgeois. Two, Ode à l’Oubli and Ode à la Bièvre, made in 2002 when Bourgeois was ninety, are constructed from linens she collected over the course of her life, including, Ann Coxon tells us in her book Louise Bourgeois, "the set of monogrammed napkins from her bridal trousseau that serve as the backing for many of the pages". I sewed on linens of a similar age as these linens in my Cure for Love project, although they were not mine but my great-grandmother's; I haven't lived a lifetime in which to hoard beautiful fabrics rich with memories yet!




Speaking of memory, Ode à l’Oubli translates roughly as "Ode to Forgetfulness"; it is the product of a long, rich life. I wonder if the phrase "I had a flashback of something that never existed", printed in red ink on one of the fabric pages of the book, is a wry reference to senility? Certainly Bourgeois' mind was sharp until the very end; she produced art right up until the week before her death.


The only other text which appears in the book is also printed in red ink on old linen (red was a very significant colour for Bourgeois; she wrote that it was both the colour of blood and the colour of paint). It reads "The return of the repressed". Ode à l’Oubli is a book about repressed memories which rise unbidden to the surface; Coxon writes that its pages "tell a story perhaps only truly readable to the artist herself".


The pages of the book are buttoned into the binding so that they may be taken out and displayed on a wall. The pages of my book will also be removable and rearrangeable; each will have a pair of button-holes and will be tied into the cover with ribbon.




There is currently a Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Freud Museum which borrows its title, The Return of the Repressed, from Ode à l’Oubli. I will be visiting the Museum soon to see some of Bourgeois' textile textual art in person.