Now I'm a Milk Thistle

I've had a bit of a lonely half term; my family were away, most of my friends were working, and Pip has been very busy with work and being a new home owner. I did manage to host a small gathering yesterday, with home-baked brownies and pumpkin pie, though; there are far too many sweet treats left lying around the house!

I may have spent a lot of time with Mad Men boxsets, but I did try to use the time semi-productively; whilst slobbing I was stitching, too. In fact, Milk Thistle is finally finished.

The book deals with sickness (and sickliness) and recovery, the subdued gloom of the English national psyche, weeds, delicate flowers, frailty, vulnerability, stereotypes and performativity of femininity, Romantic literature and poetry, and thorns amongst the roses. Milk thistle is thought to be good for the liver, so the book is also about bravery; about not being lily-livered.

Conceptually I think it's the most cohesive of my three artist's books; however, due to the thin fashion and quilting cottons I used for its cover and pages, it doesn't feel quite as "structurally sound". But I did get a chance to experiment with a few techniques learnt during my time at the RSN, as well as some new ones; Turkey rug stitch, Victorian cross stitch beading, and ribbon embroidery all make an appearance.

So here it is, the completed Milk Thistle, an idea it has only taken me two years to realise:


































The text of the book:

We are wilted English roses grown pallid and wan, wandering moors, moaning "Willoughby, Willoughby" at thin air for hours.

I'll twist my ankle attempting to commune with nature, and fall deep in the shaded wood, become a shrinking violet, growing smaller and smaller until one day I simply vanish.

Down in the thicket, the bright fairy bower, I am sickly and fey, I'm a delicate flower.

Up in my garret, my ivory tower, I wax and I wane, I pale by hour.

Laid up in bed with the curtains drawn, lily livered and lovely eyed, stitching petals between pages, paper thin Honesty skin - quick! Sew up the gaps! Don't let the light in.

In the darkness thorny thoughts crowded my head and I thrashed in my flower bed so ineffectually, a delicate flower choked by creepers, bound up by pansy sickness.

Nobody brought me a bedside bouquet, but everywhere I wept, petals sprung, until I watered a meadow.

The White Lady came to me. She told me "Dab tincture of milk thistle under your weeping eyes. It's good for the liver and you need all the unlilying you can get. Remember you're a milk thistle; a tenacious weed."

I was an English Rose.

Then I was Rose Madder.

Now I'm a Milk Thistle.

I'm looking for somewhere to exhibit Milk Thistle, alongside my other two artist's books, if at all possible. If you're interested, please don't hesitate to get in touch!


Tincture of Milk Thistle

I am imminently to be employed (finally!) so won't have quite as much time for making and blogging, at least for the next couple of weeks.
 
 At some point during that time I'm hoping to squeeze in getting the eighth and final page of Milk Thistle done, because, as of today, page seven is finished!
 
 
 
This page is based around a wise old crone; a white witch called the White Lady, who has some advice on bravery to impart to the young Milk Thistle.
 
The text reads:
 
The White Lady came to me. She told me
 
"Dab tincture of milk thistle under your weeping eyes.
 
It's good for the liver
 
and you need all the unlilying you can get.
 
Remember you're a milk thistle;
 
a tenacious weed"
 


 
The page is illustrated with the very tincture the witch describes. Milk Thistle is indeed used to treat liver problems (although in this case is used metaphorically, to treat a "lily liver"; to treat cowardice).







 
I'm quite pleased with the way the page has come together, particularly the tincture. I've got some puzzling over how best to portray the final page, though!



Helenium: tears

The sixth and latest page of Milk Thistle is one of my favourites, possibly because it is about crying, which one could argue is my very favourite theme (see here, here, and also here).

I stitched some stanzas of Keats's Ode on Melancholy on to a handkerchief (aptly), and based the illustration to accompany the lines on this illustration from a book that I snagged from my Mum's work:



But more on that later.

The reason why tears feature prominently on this page is because it is based around a Kensitas Flowers card featuring Helenium, a flower which, in Greek mythology, grew where Helen wept.

Consequently, the text I have written and stitched for the page reads

Nobody brought me a bedside bouquet,

but everywhere I wept, flowers sprung,

until I watered a meadow




To accompany the Kensitas Flower, I stitched the following line from Keats's On Melancholy on to my handkerchief:

But when the melancholy fit shall fall

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

And hides the green hill in an April shroud

as I felt they were appropriate. The eye illustration that accompanies the text is the "weeping cloud" of the poem.























There are only two more pages to go now, and then I can (finally) stitch the whole thing together. It's been a long commitment but I think it will pay off.

The Soft Corner Shop

This month, my Instagram has been awash with images of a brilliant, seemingly simple idea; Lucy Sparrow's soft sculpture corner shop.

Deceptively simple though Lucy's concept may be - to fill a disused corner shop with hand stitched produce - don't be fooled. That hand stitching took eight months of fourteen hour shifts; as I well know, hand sewing is a very labour intensive process, particularly when, as in this case, one is attempting to faithfully replicate, in fabric, items which existed first in an entirely different medium.




When we arrived at the Corner Shop, in spite of today's dreadful wet weather, the place was buzzing. The other visitors had clearly made the same pilgrimage through the rain we had, and there were squeals of delight as they recognised much loved family favourites.




This nostalgia is partially engendered by the era that the Corner Shop is set in. Lucy has chosen to create products from the mid 90s, when she had her first job in, you guessed it, a corner shop. I barely remember Funny Feet, for example, though they were more familiar to Pip, who is a couple of years older.

Therefore this is a true labour of love on Lucy's part, and an affectionate look back at her coming of age. Over four thousand hand stitched items is no mean feat, and I take my hat off to Lucy for her sheer perseverance and vision. I can't wait for my stitched Chipsticks (how's that for 90s nostalgia?!) to arrive in the post.

















Lily livered

I'm not at all sure about the latest page of Milk Thistle (although I am halfway there now). A few things went wrong in its making, and I almost wished I'd used a brighter, more minimalist background fabric.


One thing I am happy with is the sprig of Honesty I scanned and used as the page's pocket; it is ethereal, almost ghostly; a fellow artist on Instagram described it as "fairy money". It's the perfect holding place for the red lily Kensita's woven silk flower card.







The text of this page reads

Laid up in bed with the curtains drawn, lily livered and lovely eyed

Stitching petals between pages - quick! 

Sew up the gaps! Don't let the light in

There is a separate text sewn on to white work fabric which reads

I thread my needle by the sun's light

I lose eyesight by candle light

This is based on a passage in The Subversive Stitch which describes how cottage industry embroiderers ruined their eyes through sewing by candle light.

This page is based around how invalidism, together with embroidery, became a part of the inculcation of the feminine in the nineteenth century.

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...

Rest Cure


As much as I do love London, occasionally I need to escape it for a little while. I've been feeling a little disenchanted recently; I think from constantly working so hard on projects, from the long summer which I've been failing to fill effectively, and from spending too much time staring at screens (she says, staring at one!)

So a two week rest cure at my parents' house in the North West Highlands was just what the doctor ordered. I brought my current project, Big Teeth, along with me (and got a surprising amount sewn on the train!) My aim for the holiday was to sit and sew and look out at the sea.

So far it has also included rather a lot of staring at screens (surprise surprise), fine food (and wine!), and the odd walk around the hills and down to the beach. The wild landscape is the perfect setting for constructing a book about fairytales (many of which, of course, had fairly savage beginnings).

First of all, here are some holiday snaps:



An old friend adorning a stone shed on the walk down to the beach (painted by a family friend).

Giant daisies growing against the shed in my parents' garden.

The first bushel of gooseberries grown in the garden; there's almost enough for a crumble!

An entirely unintentional shot of me wandering around in the garden in a lovely dress.
Of course, most of my time has been given over to sewing, and this current project isn't an easy one (but then I'm always one to bite off more than I can chew!)

Someone else who hasn't been finding my sewing easy is our dog, Rosie. A few days ago, the phone started ringing whilst I was mid-stitch; thinking it might be my boyfriend, I got up in a rush, thrusting the embroidery aside. It landed on the dog.





Poor pet!

My reading material for the holiday has been fairly light; I desperately wanted to read The Little White Horse, but couldn't find it at home or at my Grannie's (hers is the house next door to my parents'). Instead, Grannie lent me Linnets and Valerians, also by Elizabeth Goudge. I must admit, so far I haven't touched it; I've been too engrossed in Issue Five of Magpie Magazine, which, as well as being full of beautiful photographs and articles, has quite a number of the best poems I've read in recent years. They've inspired me to write some of my own (not quite ready to share yet, though). My final "reading material" is my previous artist's book, On Being Soft, which is sob-inducingly superior to my current efforts, but acts as a good source of inspiration nonetheless.


And on to those poor efforts! I think my real problem is that the story/poem that runs through the book is rather text-heavy, and my pages are rather tiny!


The first few pages are charmingly off-kilter, but the last couple are so dense the text is almost illegible! The second to last page in particular is just not gelling for me; I think the blanket stitch around the text is too bright. I may unpick it and start again. Also, the last line of the first page is missing and I can't for the life of me find where it's gone! Typical me!







I do like the soft tones of the scanned and cloth-printed Polaroids against the clumsy blanket stitch and the hand sewn text, though, and I am (more or less) happy with every page other than that pesky second to last one. Perhaps I should have stuck to using the same fabric for each page, as I did with On Being Soft. Oh well, I'm sure the contents of the Polaroid pockets will be more impressive. And speaking of, I'd better crack on with them. No rest for the wicked!


Cover to Cover

I'm making good progress with Big Teeth, the new artist's book I'm working on. Yesterday I finished hand stitching the front cover, and today I've cut out all the pages and will start on the text of the book after this blog post.

That's not to say it hasn't been a difficult process so far; choosing to render the entire book in hand stitching meant lots of unpicking and re-stitching! But I'm sure the end result will be worth it. Hand stitching a piece just gives it so much more soul.

I chose blue and white faded striped fabric, and sewed the cover with the stripes going vertically, so that the pattern was akin to a tube of toothpaste (such big teeth need a lot of brushing, after all!)








I'm happy with the book thus far, even with its imperfections (which is quite something for me!) I think I'm going to very much enjoy this little project undertaken for the Book Marks exhibition.

Big Teeth

Possibly thanks to my little exhibition at Arts and Crusts, I was recently contacted by E17 Art House, a local picture framers and gallery, and asked to participate in a new exhibition there to coincide with Waltham Forest's literary festival in October.

Words Over Waltham Forest aims to incite participants and the public to "tell tales, spin stories, recite rhymes, loosen tongues as Words over Waltham Forest celebrates creative writing, literary inspired art, reading, freedom of expression, language and literature across Waltham Forest."

I have a couple of plans for "literary inspired art" afoot, but first I must create a piece for the Book Marks exhibition at E17 Art House. And, always being one to bite off more than I can chew, I've decided to create a follow up to On Being Soft, my first soft sculpture artist's book.

This new book will be titled Big Teeth, and in keeping with the literary theme, will focus on fairytales and all the allusions to textiles therein, and how there is no such thing as a happy ending. It will have more than a whiff of Hounds of Love about it, being narrated by a heroine who is unwilling to give into love and its trappings.

Here is the design for the book's front cover.


Big Teeth refers both to the wolf in grandmother's clothing ("My, what big teeth you have") and to being afraid of the unruly emotions of life and love (life's "big teeth").

I picked up all the fabric to construct the book from fabric donations at Significant Seams for a very reasonable price; I love the slightly worn, pre-loved look of donated fabric. The fabric this embroidery will be stitched to make up the front cover is a faded "toothpaste stripe", which I felt very appropriate.

Soft: group show at The Mill

Tonight my parents and I paid a visit to the newly installed exhibition at The Mill, Soft, in which my soft sculpture book, On Being Soft, features (that's a lot of "softs"!)


There really is something for everyone at the exhibition; knitted wall hangings, silk Devoré, soft sculpture, even a cross stitched  QR code! In fact, almost every imaginable type of textile craft/art was featured.




This gorgeous quilted wall hanging by Gilli Haqqani, titled Easter at Kew, is an incredibly intricate (and large!)example of free machine embroidery. It was one of my favourite pieces in the exhibition.



Another large piece, Bambooed by Sba Shaikh, showcased silk Devoré, a technique in which a chemical gel is applied to silk, dissolving it and leaving burnt-out sections. Sba used the gel to create bamboo patterns.


This is a working, cross stitched QR code by Kelly Duggan.




This colourful, hugely touchable piece was created by Debs French and Morwenna Brewitt from hundreds of pompoms.


Another colourful piece, a naive elephant  appliqué  constructed from recycled textiles by Gillian Lawrence.




This series was another one of my favourites from the exhibition; stunningly realistic soft sculpture kitchen appliances by the formidably talented Harriet Hammel.



A Grand Lady appliquéd and framed in velvet by Sheila Aslan.


This quilted wall-hanging by Fatima Ahkrah-kha is a little too traditional for my taste, but beautifully executed.





Having a chat with some ladies who were admiring my book!