A couple of months ago, I went on a fantastic weekend at Shore Cottage Studio. I have blogged about this before, but, to recap, it is a gorgeous studio on the Dee Estuary which runs short courses on a variety of activities (textiles, glass making, photography, laser cutting, for example). It is run by the family team of Sue, Laura and Kris. This is the word cloud of their trip advisor feedback:
Word clouds make patterns in which the largest words are the ones most frequently used. I am very interested to see ‘love’ so prominent here. I suspect it comes from comments such as ‘I love the Studio’, but I thought it was a place which just about ran on love. That’s why this post is called ‘Field notes from Utopia’. I felt loved the minute I walked through the door and that is a utopian feeling. So this post is about my embroidery, but also a little bit about Utopia. If you aren’t interested in Utopia, just skip to the pictures of the embroidery, which I hope you enjoy.
I am really interested in utopias because they are so contradictory. One person’s Utopia is another person’s dystopia. For example, in HG Wells’ The Time Machine we have the Eloi who seem to have the perfect peaceful, aesthetically beautiful life but who are actually so calm and refined that they are unable to achieve anything new or creative, plus their life depends on an underclass called the Morlocks, a dystopian troglodyte society who only come out at night, but who have the energy to do stuff and in the end to rise up against their oppressors. One reading of the novel is that the Eloi represent a communist group, and, as we know from our own recent history, communism is seen as paradise by some and oppression by others. Utopia and dystopia again. This was the plot of endless episodes of the first series of Star Trek. Captain Kirk was always finding new civilisations which looked wonderful at first sight, but which were always inferior to Earth. And tribes of cultural studies scholars have provided readings of this as code for the Cold War struggles in the US when Kirk and Spock and Uhuru were created. I am also interested in utopian communities’ carrying within themselves the seeds of their own destruction (we are going in for political economy a bit today). So, religious groups often go off into the wilderness to find a pure place where they can practise their beliefs without persecution or pollution. The problem is that sooner or later differences of opinion arise, and no-one is quite pure enough to satisfy the demands of the leader so you get a split and another attempt at a utopian community elsewhere. These sorts of communities can topple over into cults which often end disastrously, such as David Koresh and the Branch Davidian. Finally, I am interested in the role of place in all this. Very often utopians leave a place they consider toxic to go and set up a new purer place elsewhere. Utopias always seem to be places of tension, reactions against, flights from, black and white situations where you are either right or wrong. There is not much space for grey in Utopia.
Anyway, for me, Shore Cottage is a form of Utopia. It is a place where I felt completely at home, loved and cared for, and able to develop my creativity. I was there as part of a project looking at the anthropology of the Dee Estuary and to do a short ethnography (although really there is no such thing: ethnography done properly is an extended business). Ethnographers make field notes and so my embroidery represents field notes in cloth.
I designed it to look like an artefact an ethnographer might take with them, so it rolls up:
The linen has a toile print of a river, which is the nearest that I could get to an estuary. The tree rather appealed to me.
It unrolls to show several ‘leaves’ or panels:
The piece uses the fabric and thread that I dyed on the weekend with Sue. Some of them were left whole just to show the effects such as this microwaved tie dye:
This is a really brilliant simple technique for hand dying cloth which I will use again. There is also a piece of overnight rust dyeing:
Brilliant results overnight onto this piece of linen. The marks were so beautiful that I didn’t want to mask them with stitching or embellishment.
I kept the stitching pretty simple on the rest of the panels:
This is fern stitch with variegated thread onto a thick blanket-y wool that I dyed.
This shows simple straight stitches arranged as seeding, vertical cross stitch and some running stitch. I used the big black and white bead as a sort of sample, like you might get in a ethnographer’s collection of material.
This is a variation on a theme. I love these big disc beads. They remind me of pumice or some other sort of lava.
This is a found piece of curtain fabric and the pom pom is part of it. It is stitched down with layered fern stitch.
This is also a tiny found sample of furnishing fabric. I loved the indigo and white. The white thread is quite thick and reminded me of sashiko. I wish I could get my stitches that even. I am not sure I quite like the uneven spacing of the mauve beads, but had I been making this in my tent by hurricane lamp in the nineteenth century, I might not have been able to get them straight, so I left them.
Another bead and seeding combo.
I wanted to use these little wooden hands because of the importance of the hand made on this weekend:
I got them from Artchix Studio, which is run by a lovely Canadian woman. I have lots of things from her shop, but I have stopped using it because the postage is ruinously expensive and then there are charges on top when the parcel gets here. Gorgeous, unusual, inspiring stuff but now very pricey. That aside, these hands are lovely. They are about two centimetres long. I like the combination of the handmade and the manufactured. They are all alike and symmetrical, and yet they have a real charm for me.
The above is some knitting tape which I dyed and couched down and then stuffed with brown glass beads which I got from a Hobbycraft cheapo clearance bag. I also recycled some embroidery I did a couple of years ago. They maybe jump a bit, but I think they look slightly like sketches of landscapes that you get in ethnographer and explorer notebooks:
This is another picture of part of the piece showing how the panels fit together:
You can just about see in the top left-hand corner that there is a heart shape. I found a stone on the Dee Estuary beach which had the suggestion of a heart on one side and I thought that this was emblematic of the Studio. I was really pleased when Sue noticed that a heart had emerged from the hand dyeing on this swatch. To the left of that, which you can see in the picture at the top, there is a piece of embroidery taken from a vintage tablecloth I bought from a textile fair last year. This refers to the hand-embroidered vintage tablecloths that they used at the Studio and which I really enjoyed.
This has been a long post, so thanks to reading to the end if you did.
2 thoughts on “Field notes from Utopia”
Hi Ann, do you know Ruth Levitas from Bristol Uni? She has done a lot of work on Utopias too.
Yes, I met her a few times. I think she thought I was a bit lightweight. I thought she knew her stuff!