Field notes from Utopia

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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This is fern stitch with variegated thread onto a thick blanket-y wool that I dyed.

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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.

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This is a variation on a theme.  I love these big disc beads.  They remind me of pumice or some other sort of lava.

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This is  a found piece of curtain fabric and the pom pom is part of it.  It is stitched down with layered fern stitch.

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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.

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Another bead and seeding combo.

I wanted to use these little wooden hands because of the importance of the hand made on this weekend:

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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.

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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:

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This is another picture of part of the piece showing how the panels fit together:

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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.

 

A new project

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I’m sorry that I haven’t been posting much recently.  I usually wait until I have finished to post about my work, but the latest piece might take a while so I thought I would do some work in progress.

This is the start of a quilt using some heavy fabric from IKEA.  It will be broken up by two appliqué panels, and this is the first.  It is the start of a large branch – this is the full 45″ or 115cm of the background fabric.  It’ s very nice shot Indian cotton on some chambray that I had left over from a dress.  It has had a couple of false starts, and I had to undo the flowers I was thinking of before I could start this new design.  The unpicked appliqué looks a bit sad:

I will post some more on my progress.

 

Brunel Broderers’ Exhibition at Newark Park

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On my recent visit to Newark Park I was lucky enough to see the Brunel Broderer’s exhibition, which was of work made in response to the house and gardens.  I really hate singling people out in exhibitions, because often it is just a matter of taste as to whose work you prefer, but there was some glorious embroidery on display.  I particularly liked seeing the sketchbooks accompanying the work, and I liked the way that it was spread throughout the house and not just in the gallery.  For example, my good friend Liz Hewitt had this rather lovely piece in a little ground-floor reception room:

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This is a little taster of the rest of the show:

The combination of this very high quality contemporary needlework, and the older pieces I mentioned in an early blogpost make this a really good day out for sewers of all sorts.

 

 

 

Laura the fox takes a moonlight stroll in her new lacy black stockings

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Last week I went to Bristol Quilters’ workshop with Mandy Pattullo.  I had a great day.  Mandy Pattullo is an artist whose work I have admired since I saw it at the Festival of Quilts a couple of years ago.  Her work is with old and often recycled textiles and embroidery.  She was very generous in allowing us to photograph her work and so here are a few photos to show the sort of work she does:

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She gave us each a piece of a plain old quilt and some templates for flowers and hearts and things, as well as a couple of pieces of very worn old quilts which we used to start the background.  I decided early on that I wanted to make a fox as we are having fun and games with our dogs getting us up at 4.00 am most mornings to root out whatever is in the garden and which I think might be a little vulpine friend.

I was sitting between two great quilters, Alison and Nathalie, and they gave me the fabric for the fox’s body and legs.  I was really pleased to be able to use Nathalie’s Laura Ashley fabric for the fox’s body as this fits in with the project that I have been doing for ages.  Alison gave me the fabric for the legs – which I would make much finer if I did it again.  Foxes have black legs, surprisingly, and this was the best we could do, but they do look like lacy tights, which I rather like.

The method is to block in some thing like the fox body or a vase and then to take a water soluble pen and draw a line and then improvise round it.  I drew my line which I turned into a tree.  It’s done with chain stitch in stranded embroidery cotton.  The whole piece came together at the end when I put those black flowers clipped out of a quilting cotton and then stitched down with detached chain stitch and colonial knots, the latter done in orange to try and tie everything together.

The fox was done in needle-turned applique which I enjoyed doing far more than I expected.  Then I put a mix of slivers of leopard print cotton and straight stitches in a variety of threads, some of which were given to me by my good friend Mary from her mum’s stash:

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I embroidered the eye and nose.  I finished the piece with a backing of terracotta Laura Ashley fabric to echo the fox.

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This is the page from my notebook/sketchbook about the piece:

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I really enjoyed the workshop and meeting Mandy, who was great.  I want to do a bit more in this sort of style but without the old quilt as I don’t have one to cut up.

Dragon Hide 3

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This is the third dragon hide in my series with my Grate Frend, Beatriz Acevedo.  I am aiming for 25, but we’ll see how far I get.

This one is made from a bag of beads I got for three pounds in a sale in Hobbycraft.  I have used about half of the acrylic jelly beads which I just thought looked like dragon scales.

I started by quilting the green silk, which is a sort of pale yellowy sage green not the silvery looking green in the photos.  It absolutely refused to photograph in its true colours.

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I did some bubble quilting, then stitched on the beads with two strands of black embroidery cotton, and then because something was missing, I filled in the gaps with big seed stitches.  I started to put tiny seed beads in the gaps between the big scale beads, but they really didn’t add anything for once.  Equally putting on more of the scaly beads didn’t seem to improve the piece.  Here are the close-ups:

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I love this piece because I really like work which is heavy with beads.  This is dense and drapes beautifully.

Dragon Hide No 2

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As suggested by the title, this is the second blog post on my series on dragons with my grate frend, Beatriz Acevedo.  This is another piece which has a lot of stitching on it because I had time over the Christmas break to spend stitching, which I generally do while watching television.  Christmas is good for this, otherwise I can spend hours watching the specials and become slightly goggle-eyed.

This piece started with a piece of strange stretchy dress fabric which I bought in a lucky dip bag at the Knitting and Stitching Show in October:

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It is choc-ful of lycra which makes it quite difficult to sew, but if you distort the fabric it just springs back, so it is hard to make a mess of.  I thought it looked like a reptile hide, and so I backed it over some very heavy yellow silk and a thin curtain interlining and then stitched into it.  I tacked it down using fly stitch, which I use a lot, but which went a bit odd when I decided that I liked it portrait rather than landscape.  I fixed this by stitching over the top with more fly stitch:

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and then I added a lot of beads which I had got very cheaply in the Hobbycraft sale in Nottingham with my mother.  The whole thing jumped into life, though, when I added some tiny red seed beads:

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just enough to move the eye around.  I remember from some distant history of art class that medieval stained glass artists often put dots of red around the edge of windows as the eye reads these as a frame.

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I enjoyed working with this unusual fabric and making a magical pelt whether or not it has been splashed with dragon blood…

Dragon hide no 1

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The theme of my favourite conference, SCOS, this year is The Animal, and my grate frend, Beatriz and I have decided to do some work together.  We are going to make a piece each week for twenty-five weeks, (deep breath) based on the dragon.  Beatriz mainly works on paper and in mixed media, and so she will paint; I am going to use a lot of cloth.  We are working on the dragon because it is the SCOS emblem, and that of many of the cities we have visited with the conference over the years.  We thought a mythological beast might bring something extra to the proceedings next year in Uppsala.

So this is my first offering.  I made it over Christmas when I had plenty of time to do colonial knots in front of the tv.  I decided to do a dragon pelt.  It is a variation on clamshell patchwork.  When patchwork had its big revival in the 1970s, the how-to books were full of how to do this form of piecing.  If you look closely at them, however, the finished items are really pretty small.  This is because it is really fiddly and time-consuming and requires the ability to get a smooth curve on every single piece.  There is often a reproduction of this piece of antique clamshell, which I think is in the Victoria and Albert’s collection:

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That sort of green piping suggests to me that this was made by someone with a great deal of leisure who wanted to show her fine needlework skills to the marriage market.  Be that as it may, the examples in the books are usually cushions, spectacle cases, bag flaps and, surprisingly often, owl chests.

I decided to avoid the tricky piecing and gathering that long curved edge by making mine out of felt:

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This is very cheap felt from Hobbycraft.  I would have liked to have used some of the gorgeous handmade woollen felt that I see at the quilt shows, but just after Christmas a trip to the retail park was pretty much all that was on offer, so I decided to use this pretty nasty acrylic stuff.  It has a nasty, almost squeaky texture, and it only comes in pretty garish colours, but it is really forgiving.  I stitched the clamshells onto some old curtain interlining:

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and stitched it down with what looks like black, but which is actually a very dark brown, embroidery floss, two strands.  Both fabrics are springy which meant I could pull the clamshells about to fit as much as I liked.  Then I decorated with deliberately free-hand cut contrasting circles and put them on with straight stitch and colonial knots.  I always use colonial knots since I had an impromptu tutorial at the Festival of Quilts with Sandie Lush.  The are much easier to do than french knots and they hardly ever go wrong.

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I wanted a really folkartsy feel to this piece.

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I wanted to invoke the embroidery that I had grown up with, but also to make the piece feel like something you might find tucked away in an ethnographic museum somewhere.

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I was thinking about the sort of embroidery on the right-hand side of this instruction booklet which I found on the web, the sort of thing my mother did in the seventies in her modern free-embroidery classes.  My attempt was the opposite of fine needlework.  Overall, I think it worked quite well to give me a dragon pelt:

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I can’t help thinking that a dragon pelt is a good thing to have.  I am sure that one like this would be protective, which is not a bad thing to have at the beginning of the new year.  Dragons as protectors is something that Beatriz and I want to look at because it is the other side of dragons as hoarders and fierce, attacking defenders.  So in some ways, this is a (very small) safety blanket.

Alison Moger at Bristol Quilters

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This post is about lovely Alison Moger’s visit to Bristol Quilters last night, but it is also about synchronicity and that feeling that the whole world is coming together to help you in your work, which is a bit delusional, but most definitely seems to happen to people when they are in ‘flow’ with a project.

Alison Moger is textile artist who is interested in community narratives, specifically the narratives of families and place.  She makes pieces about women’s lives and concerns, working on recycled domestic textiles such as tablecloths, tea towels, tray cloths and shawls.  She then prints and embroiders and burns and bleaches and patches them into textiles which capture the story she wants to tell.  The stories are about women’s lives and how they have changed over the past couple of decades.  She has done commissioned work on hospital wards for people with Alzheimers making wallpaper from blown up stitched pieces which allowed the patients to navigate the space through pictures but also to remember how they used to do embroidery themselves.  She did what sounds like fascinating work in South Wales with families from the area affected by the recent wave of young people’s suicides to celebrate what was good about the community and to commemorate the dead.

She is Welsh herself, and makes pieces to preserve Welsh culture.  So there were pieces about the ‘Fair People’ who had, like herself, blond hair and were mistrusted in a community of the dark-haired, and stories from the Mabinogion with its attendant seasonal customs such as the skeleton horse who seems to have been some sort of trick or treat character.  She also talked about going on holiday to Porthcawl on the coal lorry when the holiday-makers took their own furniture on the truck to camp with.  The posh person with the caravan became the leader of the field kitchen.  Then they all waited for the lorry to return home.  I liked her idea of working into and onto tea towels because women often work out their problems while doing the washing up, and her invaluable advice, ‘Don’t go out with a man from Bridgend Road, especially if he keeps greyhounds.’

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So, it was a fascinating talk, and the work was really lovely.  But over and above that, I was intrigued to see just how closely our interests overlapped.  I am interested in textiles and their connections to women’s lives and identities.  I am increasingly interested in memory and aging.  And I am getting involved in working on community pieces which will have some connection to changing the world around me.  I had had a great conversation with a colleague about this at the university earlier in the day.  It felt like the universe telling me I was on the right path and to keep going as there are allies and helpers out there.  That is a bit Californian wacky-woo-woo New Age for me, but it was a good feeling.

Under lock and key

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(Please note: this is one of my slightly more academic posts – continue reading at your own risk of terminal boredom!)

One of the reasons that I like using textiles as part of my academic work is that it slows things down.  We are under tremendous pressure to produce published articles and this cuts down the time we have to consider what we are doing.  Reflection is a bit of a thing of the past.  This is fine for research which deals in quantitative data where analysis is largely mechanical and carried out by computers crunching numbers, but work which deals with ideas and the complexity of lived experience often needs a bit more time to ‘cook’.  The textile pieces provide this space and allow all sorts of things to emerge.

I had a case in point last week.  I am becoming very interested in what historians call the ‘long eighteenth century’, that is a period roughly from The Glorious Revolution (1688) to the Battle of Waterloo (1815).  I became interested in this through my work on Laura Ashley and the second phase of her design aesthetic which draws on this period, but, as I have done my research, I have become fascinated by  the period as a consumer revolution, when shopping became a real element of social life.  All of this is a preamble to talking about keys.

I have long used keys on my textiles, such as this really early piece which has a band of tiny keys on the right hand side:

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This is from a suite of five small quilts, several of which featured keys:

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The piece was about confession and secrets.  For me the most obvious symbol for secrets is a key.  I also like the duality of them – they lock and unlock.  They can be symbols of dead ends – the locked door, or opportunities as the door unlocks.  Keys are a significant metaphor in our language.  In my first job, in the dark ages, we talked about keyman insurance.  In my current occupation we have keynote speakers, and talk about the key work on the subject.  In the case studies we use to teach strategy there is often a key fact which unlocks the case.  In education in general, our children go through key stages.  I have some problem with this.  When I was a very little girl I thought you learned languages instantly by being given the translation key which transformed English into French and so on, and we see what a mess that can lead to with the translation programmes available to us now which lead to garbled approximations of a text.  I dislike this notion that education is an event – passing a keystone – rather than a unpredictable process.  Information, I suspect can be acquired to order – how to strip down an engine, for example, but wisdom and knowledge take a bit longer to acquire.  But this notion that there is a key which will unlock the world for us if we just look long and hard enough for it, is deeply engrained in our thinking about education.  George Elliot satirised it in Middlemarch with Casaubon’s fruitless, lifelong search for the Key to all Mythologies, a search for arcane knowledge.  He died suffering from this delusion.  Douglas Adams subsequently satirised this in his ‘Casaubon Delusion’ in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  The delusion is that we can overcome uncertainty by finding the key to all knowledge.  Keys and knowledge, then, are closely linked – locked into each other, perhaps.

So, I was a bit surprised when I was reading Amanda Vickery’s excellent book on Georgian life: Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England to read her comments on keys and their importance in Georgian homes.  She argues that keys became almost synonymous with women.

The association of keys with women is archaeological.  Anglo-saxon women were buried with keys.  A collection of keys hanging from the waist was a female ornament from at least the Renaissance.  Eighteenth-century pickpocketing trials reveal that keys were commonly found along with money, teaspoons, thimbles and scissors, pieces of jewellery and handkerchiefs in women’s tie on pockets.  Small padlocks can be found amongst the tokens vouchsafed by desperate mothers (probably servants) when they surrendered their infants to the London Foundling Hospital in the mid-eighteenth century.  In paintings, the bundle of keys was the attribute of Martha, the patroness of housewives.  Trial responsibility for the keys was part of female training.  (Vickery, 2009: 45)

And giving up the keys was a ceremonial passing over of power either from a sacked and disgraced housekeeper or a mother handing over her son’s inheritance.  Vickery is led to this consideration of keys through her examination of privacy in the eighteenth-century home.  Essentially there was none.  The only private space anyone, other than the very pinnacle of the elite classes, had was their locked box, to which they alone held the key.

I was struck when I was making the early pink quilt at the top of this post by all the keys on it, which I don’t really remember consciously putting there.  This led me to thinking about the most important key bearer of them all in my upbringing: St Peter.  Peter holds the keys to the kingdom, and this is a very interesting dynamic.  He decides who gets into heaven and who is refused admission.  Here he is on the Vatican, overlooking (I think) his cathedral in Rome, clutching his key:

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For me, then, St Peter is a symbol of patriarchy, the keeper of the rulebook which keeps social order in place, and that social order has man at the head of the faith and the family.  His word is absolute; there is no getting round him.

But, I think that Vickery also gives us a timely reminder of the connection between keys and women.  People frequently ask me where I get all the stuff for my quilts:

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I am given a lot of stuff (for which I am very grateful), but I also scour bead shops wherever I go.  I like using pieces which remind me of good trips, and some of the keys in these photos were bought in Denmark and Brighton.  What is fascinating about this is that the key is a very popular charm, as they are known, in bead shops which largely cater for young women who make jewellery.  The prevalence of key charms, which are also on sale in the big out of town box stores such as HobbyCraft, suggests that there is a ready market for them.  Young women – and longer in the tooth ones like me, must connect at some level with keys.  They appear to have a universal appeal, along with hearts and flowers and birds.  Clearly they are a supplied choice: we can only buy what we are offered for sale, but, their prevalence suggests that they are popular and have meaning of some description for the women who buy them.  It is as if, and that is a phrase that a proper academic would never use, they belong to a shared unconscious repertoire of images, and one with a complex set of gendered associations: inclusion and exclusion, public and private, hope and denial.

I am not sure what, if anything, to do with this.  One thing might be to look at old quilts and see if they have this imagery in amongst the freemasonry and the flora and fauna, to see if this is a recent resurgence in use of key imagery.  Another might be to do some empirical research – perish the thought – and ask women why they are attracted to keys as design motifs.  Perhaps they will talk about the five year diaries with tiny locks and keys that most women of my age were presented with at some point.  I don’t really know, and I don’t know if it’s worth pursuing.  Any ideas would be welcome.

Finally, I couldn’t find a way to fit this in, but one of the images I remember from reading books at school was this one from E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, published in 1902, in which It speaks ‘in a harsh, grating voice like large rusty keys being turned in locks’.   Which is a great image to end on.

 

Reference

Amanda Vickery (2009) Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

What I finished off at the weekend

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I am still working on this large Laura Ashley wall piece, although there are other things I should be getting on with.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I lost all interest in this piece and so I am rather surprised to find myself enjoying finishing it off so much.  I have two more of the Regency panels to go and then a very small Marie Antoinette and then I will have to get it all together which is going to be fun as it will be very heavy.

I am really pleased with these two panels, the one above and this one:

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The colours, which have not come out well in these photographs, go together really nicely.  Almost everything, as usual, is scrap and was destined for landfill.  The beautiful machine embroidered silk, for example is a tiny scrap from a sample book:

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I couldn’t bear to throw that away even though it is just a scrap.

These panels are supposed to evoke these ‘simple’ muslin gowns of the Regency period – seen here with the fashionable paisley shawl accessory, necessary because the dresses were pretty flimsy in the un-central-heated mansions seen in the background here:

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All these panels have some Laura Ashley fabric, although the further I get into the project the more I am using silk scraps.  The Laura Ashley piece here is some very tightly woven, fine grade furnishing fabric printed with olives.  I decided that the ladies in these panels would at the very least have heard about olives from their dissolute brothers on the Grand Tour, even if they didn’t eat them.  I couldn’t be bothered to do the food historian bit to find out if olives were commonly eaten in the eighteenth century.  I apologise!

IMG_1047The scraps for these two panels were attached to the thin cotton wadding with decorative machine stitching which I did with the tank-like Singer machine that my mother gave me because she could no longer lift it.  Some of the stitches are perfect for doing a sort of pseudo-crazy quilt.

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I’m afraid I use spray glue to keep everything in place and then do as much construction stitching as I can on the machine before doing the embellishments by hand.  I have no idea what the long-term effects of the spray glue will be, but I expect to be past caring in the nursing home when I find out.

I used some beads I bought on a weekend away in Brighton to finish off the quilts like the three little flower charms in the above panel which were exactly what I needed, and the key here:

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Again, you can see a little bit of the luscious embroidered silk, also from a discarded sample book.

These beads are from a broken necklace, and I love the way they look like little walnuts or even brains:

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Finally, I don’t really like the craze for buttons as jewellery.  Buttons are utilitarian things, unless they are the really special ones, and no amount of stringing them seems to me to create art from plain plastic in primary colours.  But, I do like mother of pearl and I like it, like all my embellishments, massed, so here are some ordinary round buttons, sewn on with pearl beads:

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I really like the difference in tone of the mother of pearl.

 

The Brighton Bead shop the beads came from was KerrieBerrie