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.