The Red Thread


When I wrote about the panel shown above, I mentioned the red thread.  I thought it might be worth describing it in a bit more detail.

It is a red thread which in other cultures binds us all together in one-life sustaining network or ‘entanglement’ or ‘enmeshment’ to use vocabulary of Tim Ingold (2007); it is a  red thread which binds us to all those we will meet and who will be significant to us in our lifetimes.  In the Eastern tradition we are bound to our life partners by a red thread tied around our ankles or fingers.  There is no escaping the tie.  In one Japanese story a young man encounters a wise old elder out on the road.  The old man tells the boy that he will show him his future wife in the next village.  When they reach the village they see a young girl.  Our hero has no interest in marriage, being far too young, and interested in anything but girls.  Instead of making his courtship dance, he throws a stone at the girl and goes on his way.  Several years later his parents arrange his marriage which is done according to all the rites.  The bride is veiled.  The two have never met.  Fearing the worst, he is led into the bedchamber where his bride sits turned away from him.  He lifts her veil and discovers she is, of course, beautiful except for a strange decorated patch over her eyebrow.  When, as is his right on his wedding night he peels this back, it reveals a small scar, put there, years before, she says, by a wild boy throwing a stone at her.

I really like this idea, and use it quite a lot in my work.  I love to use red so it isn’t that difficult to work in.



Ingold, Tim (2007) Lines: a brief history. London: Routledge.


Public engagement – Thinking Futures Workshop and Glamorgan Quilters


It has been one of the busiest two weeks of my life, which is why I haven’t posted anything recently.  First my lovely PhD student, Zara, had her viva.  Although this is her oral exam on her thesis, I was quietly nervous as there is no way of predicting what questions will come up.  I had prepared her as well as I could with my colleague, Mary, but there is still unpredictability involved.  In the event she sailed through it and the examiners loved her work.  I am delighted for her.

Then, the following day, I went and gave a talk to the Glamorgan Quilters.  They are a lovely group and a delight to talk to.  One of them gave me some tiny scraps of Laura Ashley fabric which I don’t have in my collection and which I intend to do something with.  Another member brought this lovely bag to show me:

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I love everything about this bag.  The piece is like a time capsule of what we were doing in the 70s and 80s and the handles are just delightful as is the quilter who brought it along.

After the talk I went into Cowbridge with one of my colleagues, Sheena, who had come along to support me.  She took me to a sort of indoor antiques/vintage market with a tea room on the side.  I got a packet of Laura Ashley prints, and somehow managed to spend £17 without blinking.  We had a great time.  Cowbridge is the place to go for swanky dress and shoe shops, by the way.  I got off lightly in retrospect with my £17.

Wednesday was my Thinking Futures Day.  This is part of a ten-day-long programme of events put on by the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law in which we try to reach people who wouldn’t normally come into the University to hear about our research.  I did a workshop on patchwork and quilting and the contribution that quilters make to the fabric of our culture and society.  I held it at the Friends Meeting House where Bristol Quilters meets, and we had two wonderful speakers, Harriet Shortt from UWE, and Jenny Hall from Bournemouth University.  They were both great, speaking very passionately about their work.  I talked a bit about the academic study of patchwork and quilting, and gave an update on my Laura Ashley research.  I notice there are a lot of ‘I’s and ‘me’s’ in that paragraph, but really it was a communal day.

I really wanted it to be a bit of a party for Bristol Quilters, to celebrate their contribution to society, as well as to my research.  So, we, my Grate Frend Ceri, and I tried to add some little touches to make it feel like a series of small treats as well as an educational day.  Ceri made these wonderful biscuits:


The stamp set comes from Lakeland.  These were a great hit.  I made parkin, which I always associate with Bonfire Night which is when we held the workshop.  Alison, Stephanie and Ceri contributed homemade cakes and biscuits and traybakes for afternoon tea.   Ceri and I had already had an afternoon making posies for the table, and in the process realising that a second career as florists was probably not for us:

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This is the pile of things I had to take in for the day:


We were aiming for amplitude and generosity:


As well as cake and sandwiches, there were notebooks for taking notes in the morning, and cards with vintage fabric and needles ready-threaded in the afternoon.  I’ll post some pictures of those separately.  There was also fabric very kindly donated by Flo-Jo in Bristol in the afternoon for our sewing bee:


People worked on a variety of things, but the most popular were the little coverlets for the premature babies unit in Southmead Hospital in Bristol.  These are 16″x20″ unwadded patchworks which we donate to the unit.  The mothers get to keep the quilts no matter what the outcome, and there is always a demand for a steady stream of replacement quilts.  They are exactly the right size for a group project like this.  Although I think only one top was finished completely, Ruth Case, one of the Bristol Quilters, very generously volunteered for finishing duty.

Here are some more images from the day:

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And here is my friend Beatriz talking to Eva, the organiser:


I didn’t take as many photos as I would have liked of the speakers because I was too busy listening, but here is the marvellous Jenny  and her quilt:


And I didn’t have my camera when Harriet was speaking so this is a photograph of a doll that her mother made of her in her wedding dress that she brought to show us:


Finally, I spend a lot of time trying to find writers who have something sensible and useful to say about leadership.  There isn’t much out there, I think, that isn’t about people desperate to justify wanting to be in charge.  They should hang their heads in shame and come and look at the self-managing teams which effortlessly formed, performed and disbanded throughout the day, without my having to ask, to make sure that everything went smoothly.  Not least of these were the tea and coffee makers and the washers-up, real unsung heroic examples of distributed leadership.  Thanks to all of them:



Latest additions to my Laura Ashley project


First of all, I am very sorry about the long gap between this post and the last one.  I know a high proportion of people like to read the blog on Sunday afternoons, and I haven’t been providing you with your reading lately.  This has been due to the pressures of the day job – the start of term is always a lot of hard work, and various everyday life things which have required a lot of time and energy.  But I am back.

One of the things that I have been working on is the Laura Ashley project, particularly the gift element, which I will post on later.  I have also been working on ideas about taking the idea of art as research seriously.  What would it mean if we did produce pieces of art rather than written academic papers?  What would happen to the field of study, and to our careers?  John Dewey, one of the great authorities on education, said that communities which do not produce art are deficient.  But what happens if we try to address this?  And, on the other hand, what happens if we reduce the art to mere decoration or illustration?

Well, a small element of my Laura Ashley project has been to produce some illustrations for some of the stories I have collected while doing my research – often when speaking to quilting groups.  These are pictures taken with my swanky new camera, which are great, but could have done with better light.  I am still experimenting with it, so please bear with me.



This was my trial piece.  I often make a dry run sample to get my self sorted out if there is machine stitching to be done.  That’s why this one has no legs – she was just made with an offcut which suggested the shape of the dress.  It is a really bright piece of probably 80s fabric so I reversed it to give a more vintage look.  Her hair is another of my beloved furnishing fabric samples.  The are probably about 2×3 inches:


The faces are all made of curtain lining, and once again, just about everything here is made from fabric which would have gone into landfill.

So here are the illustrations.


I wore a dark Laura Ashley dress for a family New Year’s Eve party and it was the only time my brother-in-law ever told me I looked beautiful.


Every time we have a big family party for a birthday or an event I add another flag to the bunting and it’s almost always Laura Ashley fabric.


I went on a really romantic walk on the Downs with a new boyfriend.  I was wearing a really full Laura Ashley skirt and a bee flew up it.




I made a Laura Ashley dress to go to college dance, and I made a matching tie for my then boyfriend who is now my husband.


I made tablecloths and napkins for all the big family events and celebrations.


My daughter wanted a very simple wedding.  The bridesmaids wore purple Laura Ashley dresses.  Years later we discovered the marriage had not been legal.


I got married in a Laura Ashley sailor dress.

One of the things I really like about this technique is that as Janet Clare, whose workshop gave me the idea, says, you just don’t know who will turn up.  When you start to stitch the faces all sorts of people appear:


This one has a slight look of Lady Diana.


This one looks like someone in my office who is on maternity leave.


The woman in this one looks like a local historian of note.  And I am pleased that I got just a hint of smugness.


This one doesn’t look like anyone, but does look like she is in danger of growing a moustache.


This one has a look of those 70s folk singers like Grace Slick.


I really liked the tie story.  It reminded me of an old American practice I read about somewhere in which the women going to a dance would make a tie in the fabric of their ballgowns and the men would pull out a tie blindfolded.  They then had to partner the woman who matched their tie, as it were:


So, I had lots of fun making these, and I think the illustrations suit the subject very well.  I am thinking of putting together a self-published picture book with longer versions of the stories.  I will be interested to see if they are accepted as legitimate research.  I think I know the answer.


A post as much for me as you



Today is a momentous day.  I have finally started work towards my book.  I have sat down and written out plans before for a book which all came to nothing, because I think books have to be ‘ready’ to come, but I actually believe that I am going to write this one.  I suppose that this is a bit of a public declaration that I am going to write it, a bit like getting married in the face of the congregation, and if I tell enough people I am going to do it I will have to see it through – that is my theory at least.

People do like to be dramatic about writing books.  All these quotations are taken from the internet so I don’t have references, but some are worth sharing, particularly the dramatic ones.  So Annie Dillard tells us:

The sensation of writing a book is the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring. It is the sensation of a stunt pilot’s turning barrel rolls, or an inchworm’s blind rearing from a stem in search of a route. At its worst, it feels like alligator wrestling, at the level of the sentence.

And Mary Higgins Clark writes in the same vein:

The first four months of writing the book, my mental image is scratching with my hands through granite. My other image is pushing a train up the mountain, and it’s icy, and I’m in bare feet.

I always want to reply to the hell of writing brigade that it could be a lot worse: they could be sunning themselves in Helmand.   Onwards.

E.A. Bucchianeri pursues a slightly different route and one which textile artists may well recognise:

The Book is more important than your plans for it. You have to go with what works for The Book ~ if your ideas appear hollow or forced when they are put on paper, chop them, erase them, pulverise them and start again. Don’t whine when things are not going your way, because they are going the right way for The Book, which is more important. The show must go on, and so must The Book.

 I always think that my best work happens when I let the piece take over and stop trying to impose my will on it.  I suspect however I plan the book it will turn out to have a shape all of its own.

I need to write a book for professional reasons.  If I am going to get promoted, I need to have written the book on something.  This, of course, is a terrible reason to write a book.  Making work for money is always soul-destroying and I think that work that I make, just to make, is always dead and flat and hollow.  So, I have always put off starting a book.  Plus, I don’t really know what I want to write about.  As Jo Lindsell says, “Every writer or wanna-be writer has ideas for books. The problem isn’t finding an idea, it’s choosing one”.  I have been in this position for a long time.  It was only after a discussion with Marybeth Stalp and Theresa Winge at a conference last month that I realised that I should probably just write a book about being an academic quilter: what it means, what it teaches me, what it is worthwhile.  I want to write the book, really to try to sort out what I think about art as a research method.  Flaubert wrote, ‘The art of writing is discovering what you believe.’  The trouble is I am still not sure where to start.  Nadine Gordimer wrote, ‘Writing is making sense of life.  You work your whole life and perhaps you’ve made sense of one small area.’  My problem is, of course, that I am not sure I can ever make sense of this small area as there is so much to read and so many perspectives to take into account, and I dread the reviewers’ comments that you get as part of the publication process.  I shall have to take comfort from the great writing teaching, Natalie Goldberg, ‘Whether you’re keeping a journal or writing as meditation, it’s the same thing.  What’s important is you’re having a relationship with your mind.’  I have had a battering over the summer with people either telling me or demonstrating to me that my mind is not of first-rate quality.  Maybe the slower pace of writing a book, rather than turning out learned articles at speed, will do me good, and help me to develop things more fully before dashing into print.

Before I move on to what my book is going to be about, I can’t help including Kanye West’s modest comment: ‘I feel like I’m too busy writing history to read it.’  Inspiration for us all.

So.  My book is going to be about my work using art as a research method.  I am going to use mainly my Body Shop and Laura Ashley projects as case study examples.  It might look a bit like this:

Part One – Rationale, theory, applications etc

  1. Introduction – What art as research is.   The relevance of art research to Business and Management Studies – or social sciences in general.
  2. A review of qualitative methods – what do people who don’t do big survey data and randomised control trials do and why alternative approaches are valid.  How do we judge this kind of work?
  3. The theoretical background.  This is a method which is entirely consonant with the Material turn in social sciences (that is, the reaction against the idea that the world is entirely shaped by language, to considering the importance of things in the world).
  4. The sociology of cloth – why is cloth so important and so significant?
  5. My method – based on the work of Barrett and Bolt.  Also the importance of sketchbooks and drawing in research – drawing heavily on the work of Michael Taussig.
  6. The so-what question.  People who do this kind of research always make big claims that it produces different knowledge or a different way of knowing.  They seldom produce hard evidence.  I would like to trace exactly what contribution this sort of work does produce.
  7. A note on teaching, including using this sort of work in the classroom.

Part Two – examples

  1. Quilts and quilt making – Nike and Gender, M&S and Leadership, The Body Shop pieces, and Laura Ashley quilt.
  2. Dolls – Nike Doll, Laura Ashley Ghost Dolls, Red Thread dolls.
  3. Artists’ books – 13 Notebooks for Walter Benjamin
  4. Artefacts – Iconic Body Shop product shrines, War Collars for women in organisations
  5. Narratives and storytelling – tracing dominant narratives through textiles, or using narrative from interviews as jumping off points.
  6. Writing as performance – the performativity of words, feminine writing, writing from the heart.
  7. Failures?  What can we learn from the work going wrong?



This is a photo of my mind map for the book on my fairly clear desk.  Plenty of paper on the left to continue my thoughts!






What I did at the weekend part I



Apologies about the gap in blogging.  The end of term is always surprisingly busy with everyone trying to get things finished so that students can get ready for their examinations.  At the end of what we must now call teaching block 2, I decided that I had to spend some time with my textiles or I would go bang.  I started with the doll you can see in the photograph which came from a panel I bought at Flo-Jo‘s on Gloucester Road in Bristol.  I was moved to do this because of a seminar that I had  been to in Cardiff on Narrative and Storytelling

First something about the doll.  It comes in a panel with a pet dog.  It is a very easy pattern to make up and you just cut round it and don’t have to bother about seam allowances and those sorts of technical things.  The patterns match at the seams without much faffing which made it a delight to sew.  But, you would have to have some idea about how to make soft toys.  The dog has a gusset construction which might confuse you if you hadn’t done one before and the method given for assembling the doll is much easier if you stuff the head before you put the legs on rather than after.  That said, there is a good clear instructional video on the web, but I don’t think there is a reference to it on the panel.  The video is at:

I bought the panel because I love making dolls so much and this seemed like a nice do-able project, but I had put it away in the ‘I’ll get round to that at some point’ pile and left it.

Then I went to the storytelling event at the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling at the Cardiff School of Creative and Cultural Industries.   There was a bit of a lull in the proceedings at one point and someone shouted out, ‘Let’s have a story’.  Patrick Ryan, one of the convenors, decided to tell us a version of a well-known story from the Brothers Grimm.  It was an early version of the story which was contained in their manuscripts but did not make it into print.  It is about to be published in Jack Zipes’ new book and Zipes had told it at storytelling session last year.  This is how it goes:

In the very coldest depths of winter, a count and countess were out driving in their carriage.  The count pulled aside the curtain at the window and looked out at the snowy white landscape outside.

‘My dear,’ he said to the countess, ‘do you know what I would like?  I would like a little girl with skin as white as snow.’  The countess said nothing.

They drove on a little further and he looked out again.  He saw the huntsmen in the snow skinning their kill, and he saw the bright red blood staining the white snow.  ‘My dear,’ he said to the countess, ‘do you know what I would like?  I would like a little girl with lips as red as blood.’  The countess said nothing.

They drove a little further still, and the count looked out once more on the landscape and he saw a flight of ravens suddenly rise into the sky on their jet black wings.  ‘My dear,’ he said, ‘do you know what I would like?  I would like a little girl with hair as black as a raven’s wing.’  The countess said nothing.

He continued to look out of the window.  ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘my dear, that is exactly what I would like, a little girl with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as a raven’s wing.’  The countess still said nothing.  He was thinking about the little girl as they continued to drive through the countryside.  Suddenly he noticed a small figure standing at the side of the road.  It was a little girl with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as a raven’s wing.  The king banged on the roof of the carriage.  ‘Coachman,’ he said, ‘stop, stop now.’  And as the coach stopped the count opened the carriage door and said to the little girl, ‘My dear, you must be frozen standing there, come into the warm, come and sit by me.’  The little girl looked at him and smiled and allowed herself to be lifted into the carriage and to sit by the count and to snuggle up to him and get warm.

They drove on, and the count petted the little girl and tucked her up in his furs and called her his darling child, and she sank into the velvet seats and the soft furs and smiled contentedly.

The count continued to make a great fuss of the child and to talk about all the good things she should have at his palace.  Eventually the countess took off one of her gloves.  She banged on the roof of the coach and bade the driver to stop, then she opened the window and threw the glove out to where it landed in the soft snow.

She looked at the girl and said, ‘My dear, if we are to be friends you must obey me at all times and do as I command.  Go outside and fetch my glove.’  The child was reluctant to leave the warmth and safety of the carriage and refused to get the glove.  ‘My dear,’ repeated the countess, ‘if we are to be friends and live happily together you must do as I ask.  Go and fetch my glove.’  The child was reluctant and she wheedled and cried, but eventually she gave in and got down out of the carriage.  At this point, the countess slammed the door shut and banged on the roof of the carriage and said, ‘Driver, drive on now, drive as fast as you can and do not stop on any account, no matter what you hear.’

This is clearly a very early version of the Snow White story.  I understood it as the Evil Queen of the story getting rid of her rival to be the Fairest of Them All before she even got as far as the castle.  But Patrick Ryan rightly suggested that it is a very powerful version of the story because it is so ambiguous.  He saw the countess saving the innocent child from the evil count, and another participant unhesitating saw the child as demonic, summoned by the triple incantation of the white, red and black.

I suddenly thought back to the doll, which is interesting because it has two sides, the one at the top of this post which is quite sweet but has a rather haunted look in her eyes:


And the other side where she has, with Bones, the undead dog, become a zombie:


The doll is called Zoe the Zombie Doll, designed by Emily Taylor and available from Riley Blake designs.  I rather hope that the designer chose ‘Zoe’ because it means ‘life’ and not just because it alliterated with Zombie!

I am writing at some length about this because it links with something I have noticed when doing arts -based sessions with my students: objects are very good for showing two sides of a phenomenon.  Some examples are the two sides of an organisation: the shiny bright one facing the public and the reality behind the scenes, or the gaps between the espoused values of an organisation and the ones it really uses and so on.  Objects are able to capture this ambivalence and duality in a clear and direct way.  This doll contains the good child and the bad child, which as most of us know, real children also embody.


Flo-Jo’s boutique, by the way, is a great shop because the owner seems to stock only things that delight her, so there are no safe floral prints in tasteful colours.  Instead she stocks lots of interesting prints that are very strong graphically and particularly colourful.  It’s no good if you want to make an antique washed out looking piece but a treasure trove if you are looking for something unusual.  Highly recommended.

My visit to the Oxford Embroiderers

Iffley Church Hall, Oxford

As part of my academic work, I am committed to the idea of sharing my research beyond academic journals and conferences, which is known as ‘Public Engagement’ in the trade.  I ask for a donation to Medicins sans Frontières so that this represents a sort of pro bono element to my work portfolio, and given the recent weather in the Philippines they will need all the support they can get.

There are other benefits of course.  I was talking about Laura Ashley and telling stories from my research.  I am always surprised by how much stories call out other stories, and Wednesday was no exception.  I got at least three very usuable stories with the teller’s permission to use them.  And it was an interesting evening for me because it was the first time that I had done the talk using powerpoint slides rather than objects.  This meant that I saw my tiny embroidered pieces blown up to five feet high.  It really does give a different perspective on the work.


This is a close-up of one piece of my work with very strong lighting effects, but seeing it blown up is like putting another filter on it and making it seem like a piece of 2D art:


It could almost be a landscape painting.  Here’s another example:



They were a really lovely group and we had a lot of fun.  The event also allowed me to meet Ulrike, the programme secretary who showed me some of her lovely work.  That is another benefit of public engagement: you get to meet such delightful people.

Thinking about dolls – research in progress


Two posts today as this one is very much from the academic quilter.  I thought I should leaven the lump with some pictures on a second one.

This post is about the work I have been doing on dolls.  As part of this work I have been reading about puppets and trying to understand exactly what is ‘going on’ with dolls.  Why are they so loveable and so creepy simultaneously?


This post is a bit of work in progress which came about through reading Kenneth Gross’ Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life, which made me think about how far I have got in understanding my own relationship to my dolls as a maker.  So, this is how far I have got.

Gross writes in his introduction about:

…the hand’s power and pleasure in giving itself over to the demands of the object, our curious will to make the object into an actor, something capable of gesture and voice.  What strikes me here is the need for a made thing to tell a story, to become a vehicle for a voice, an impulse of character – something very old, and very early.  The thing acquires a voice. ( p. 1)

I like several things about it – the power and pleasure of the hand.  You would think from this that Gross is a maker as that knowledge of the two elements suggests someone who has experienced making at a deep reflective level.  There is something seductive about the power to bring something new into the world, particularly something as proxy-baby like as a doll through the work of your own hands.  There is also intense pleasure in making something and then having an object which you want, in my case something of beauty, in others’ ugliness, comedy, elegance or any of the other aesthetic categories discussed by Antonio Strati in his work on organisational aesthetics.  And the insight continues into thinking about what has been created, and this bit is specific to doll makers: the thing acquires a voice.  When I am making my dolls they have a back story and this emerges as I make their faces, choose their clothes and accessories and give them a name.  Many contemporary makers are interested in creating objects with stories and voices, assemblage boxes like the work of Joseph Cornell come to mind, and I have read books on mixed media work which insist that story is the starting place, real or imagined.  Dolls, however, have a special claim because they resemble us, and we all have stories, the myths we live by, to quote Mary Midgeley.  While I construct my dolls I hear the impulse of character – and I did this with my Threads of Identity pieces: the anthropologist’s piece, the missionary’s piece, the interior designer’s piece but these did not move beyond the impulse of character to the full working out of individual and specific character.  Those pieces remained generic for the viewer to construct imagined identities for themself, but the dolls have names and written stories.  And as Gross points out in his slightly sonorous tone, this is very old – people have always made dolls with characters for all sorts of reasons, and very early – from childhood my Barbie dolls had extensive back stories, and before that childhood toys formed friendships and wove relationships together.

He returns to the theme of narrative further on in the introduction:

Puppets do not have thoughts, they are more like our thoughts, as if our minds were populated with remnants of the older more cliched stories that we manipulate and manipulate us.  (p. 13, emphasis in original)

This seems to me to be a reference to the idea that we have stories which we live by, narratives of self that we tell and retell until they become fixed.

Dolls are not only mundane playthings for children.  Gross insists that doll/puppet making can be a metaphysical if not arcane activity:

 It is the closest thing we have in the ordinary human world to the transmigration of the soul from one body to another, or from one creature to another.  (p. 7)

I am always interested in why it is that I find it so difficult to sell work.  I can usually give it away, but I am reluctant to exchange money for it.  Part of this is not wanting to infringe copyright, but I usually come back to thinking that it is because what I make is part of myself which is hard to sell.  Gross’s suggestion is that it is part of our soul that we put into our dolls, and selling one’s soul is both difficult and risky.  Literature is full of the dangers of animating dolls, a fear which is also at the heart of science fiction stories about rogue automata and robots.  We want our animatronics squarely under our control, like our women in Ira Levine’s great Stepford Wives dystopia.

Further on there is a passage which chimes with my own developing  ideas about the ventriloquist’s dummy or the drag act: it is a permissive form which allows us to say things which might otherwise be subject to censure, self or otherwise:

Puppets also have often been asked to say things or show things otherwise not permitted; it is a theatrical mode whose words and actions are more able to slip under the radar of official censorship, something too trivial to be taken quite seriously by the authorities.  (pp. 17-18)

They become, ‘a mouthpiece for thoughts otherwise unspoken, or otherwise too dangerous to attach a name to’  (p. 17).  Puppets, dolls, dummies and drag acts ‘get away’ saying dangerous things because they are other, they are uncanny in the sense of being between two worlds and difficult to pin down.  Puppets, dolls and dummies are classic cases of the uncanny in the Freudian sense, disturbing because they cause us confusion.  We know that they are not alive, but we treat them as though they were.  We know that they are not alive and yet we cannot deny that they have some form of animation.  Drag acts are slightly different because the life force is not in question in the majority of cases, but the whole point of a drag act is to overcome uncertainty which is then frequently undermined.  David Bowie’s video for ‘Boys keep swinging’ which is freely accessible on the internet (, is a good example of this.  He sings as a heightened version of his masculine self, taking up a lot of space, absorbing all the energy of the spotlight.  He also drags up to play three backing singers, two of whom end the show with the classic wiping off of the lipstick, defiantly smearing it over their faces with the back of their hands, but the third walks off stage maintaining the act but staring down the camera in an unsettling way.  Is she Bowie in drag or is she a real backing singer?  We know the answer but we have an unsettling moment in which think she might be real because she refuses to work within the rubric of the typical self-revealing drag act.  Good as Bowie’s drag is, this is the subtlest part of the performance, and the most unsettling.

Gross ends his introduction with another telling observation.  As Mitchell asks ‘what do pictures want?’ Gross asks, what puppets want from us, and gets at another thing about them that makes them unnerving or uncanny: their patience:

the puppet’s staring eyes look at me with a candor, with a demand for attention, that I cannot forgo.  It is patiently waiting for something.  (p. 25)

This strikes me as the same impulse as our fascination with the idea of dolls coming to life when left on their own.  There is a potential in dolls: they might do something, they are waiting for something in the future with endless patience.  We suspect that they are sentient in some way even when we know that they are not.  They almost raise the question when does life begin?  I remember all the processes of making that went into the doll: finding the cloth and the pattern, cutting, stitching and stuffing.  I know the doll isn’t real, but I cannot deny the impetus to character, the urgency of the story, the latency of life.  As Gross says:

With puppets, one is always conscious of their closeness to made things, with their joints, stitches, hinges, and solid, insentient substance.  Yet these creatures take up this made-ness in a way that goes against the grain.  They are dead things that belong to a different kind of life.  (p. 28)

So, the dolls belong to human life because they mimic human form, but they have a different kind of life of their own, this potential, suspended, about to be life in another modality.  In the many worlds ontology of quantum mechanics, there is a world where the dolls are in charge and we are playthings, made-things, that are picked up and put down at will. All of which is another explanation of their uncanniness.

Gross moves on, ‘Puppets are the size of fetishes, saints’ relics, voodoo dolls, and talismans’.  (p. 39) so we have the link with ritual objects.  This is another source of uncanniness – dolls as thresholds or threshold companions to another world.  They are of this world and of another world, a frightening and dangerous world of the supernatural.  They can be used for apparently innocent child’s play, and for harm against the person, for religious veneration and for dangerous magical rites.  Dolls never yield their ambiguity.  He comes back to this in his conclusion:

I am always drawn to the idea of life in nonliving things, the sense of animation in what appears inanimate, voice emerging from the object without voice, the earless thing that seems to hear, the eyeless thing that looks back at us, or that simply thinks in silence its own thoughts.  There is a moment when this lifeless object seems not just moved but self-moving, a thing with a soul, a need, a desire, a power of sensation or intent of its own, variously comforting and frightening.  (p. 163)

This is a good encapsulation of why dolls are uncanny: they are always both of these things good and bad, comforting and disturbing, known and unknown.  I wonder if there is something about one of a kind (OOAK) dolls, dolls made for adults, dolls made to give adult pleasure, sometimes pornographic or erotic and sometimes not, which is not so true of dolls made for children. I might be idealising childhood, but it seems to me that children enter into relationships with their dolls for an extended period, whereas there is something voyeuristic in dolls made for adults. Barbie started out based on Bild Lillli, a pornographic German doll made for the adult male market, and in my research into OOAK dolls I learned how to put nipples onto Barbie dolls.  Power over has been transformed explicitly into pornographic power.

This, of course, brings us to issues of sexuality and therefore almost inevitably to gender.  Dolls are subject to the gaze.  Customised OOAK Barbies, and Silkstone Barbies for example, are exclusively made for staring at and never for playing with:


This is one of the more innocuous dolls, although there are other more extreme ones made for male and female consumption. There is, as anyone who has watched a child playing with dolls a clear gender imperative in such play: girls learn how to be little mothers, and boys learn how to be warriors, the two roles Western society still requires them to play for real in later life.

So, this is a bit of a snapshot of why I am with my thinking about my moustache dolls and drag dolls, a slice of research in progress.


Kenneth Gross (2011) Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

I’m still here

long lady quilt

I am aware that I have not posted much recently.  This is because of the hailstorm of deadlines for academic pieces of work that I have had to meet – some more successfully than others.  I have been doing some textile work but none of it is far enough along to appear on the blog, so I thought that I would post an old one which I haven’t talked about before.  I looked up the photograph for a piece I am writing about the metaphor of Silver Hands in organisations.   I use the metaphor to mean the way in which we give up the human touch in organisations and keep people at arm’s length using all sorts of systems and procedures which masquerade as good service or putting customers first.  So, my conversation with a man in the call centre about my credit card which was ultra courteous but totally frustrating would be a good example.  I use the Grimm fairy story, ‘The Handless Maiden’ as a point of departure for the analysis.  I looked up the fairy story and got the idea for the project when I showed the panel to a friend who commented on the silver hands.  So that was a nice example of the arts-based research leading into something I wouldn’t have thought of – the holy grail of people who care about this sort of methodology.

This is part of a group of five small wall pieces which I made about secrets and confession for a workshop which never took place.  This, I think, is probably the most successful of them.  It started with Kristeva’s fascinating essay ‘Stabat Mater’ in which she writes about the Virgin Mary and her role to hear our confessions and to intercede with her son for us.  She explores her relationship with her son in parallel.  This is probably the only piece I have ever made which caused controversy.  It was shown at one of the Bristol Quilters’ Exhibitions, and offended at least one person because of its portrayal of the Madonna.  I was surprised by this.  Having been brought up as a high Anglican, I still have a great deal of reverence for The Blessed Virgin Mary and my portrayal of her is very respectful.  She stands on top of a bank of flowers, as is often the case in Roman Catholic churches in the Netherlands, as a mark of reverence, and my piece was made in that spirit.  My hero, Benjamin, was right: there is no way you can control the Nachleben or afterlife of a work of art or a piece of appliqué.  You shouldn’t even try.

it was really good fun to make because a lot of it was recycled.  So the pillars on either side were a piece that hadn’t worked out and the pocket on the lower left hand corner was a small purse made at a workshop.  The flowers she is standing on are a paper bag print under organza.  Her head is printed on a coffee bag and the arch is an insert into a camisole or t-shirt.  The band of lace at the bottom was left over from another project.  I liked the idea of bringing all these bits and pieces together to form something nice.

It was good to re-meet an old friend in a different context, and to find such a good photo of her.

Telling Tales – Bath Textile Artists’ New Show at Bristol Guild

It’s an exciting day today – the Bath Textile Artists’ exhibition at Bristol Guild ‘goes up’.  I have to drop off my my work at 10.00 am.   This is our first big exhibition for a while, and features all sorts of beautiful textile work.  It will be a feast for the eyes and a temptation for the fingers.

One of my problems, though, is that there is a not unreasonable expectation that we will produce work for sale.  I very rarely sell anything, although I do give things away.  Up to now if I sell cards I give the proceeds to Medicins sans Frontieres.  But I agreed to produce some things for sale and decided to make some more of the Laura Ashley purses.  I used scraps of Laura Ashley fabric on a plain base and added bits of silk, brocade, and a lot of bits of Liberty fabric that I found in the great clear out.  Over the top I put a remnant of a polyester curtain which isn’t exactly a net but isn’t that sheer either.  It had tiny polka dots all over.  Then I went a bit mad with the machine embroidery on the sewing  machine my mother gave me, which is a fancy Singer.  She passed it on to me because it weighs roughly the same as a chieftain tank and she hasn’t got the strength to heave it about.  Compared with the tiny IKEA special I mentioned in a previous post it is like something you would weight down a washing machine with.  But I had a lot of fun trying out all the stitches, some in metallics, some in boring beige, some motifs, some repeat lines and so on.  Then I took the hot air gun to the top layer for the antique look.  The curtain fabric melted in a very interesting way, which got a bit lost when I did the hand sewing but is still visible in parts.  So, some hand embroidery and a fair smattering of beads later then were finished.  I really liked adding beads to traditional embroidery stitches like fly stitch:

I used a lot of old jewellery that I found in the great clear out as well, and once I had broken it up it came in very handy for the trims such as on the last piece I made:

This piece was made by patching together the leftovers from the other purses, so was particularly satisfying to make, and I think it has a Victorian crazy patchwork kind of feel.

Here are the other purses.  They are for sale – proceeds to charity – but I have put a whacking price on them so that no-one will buy them.  I never want to let new things go!

I have been reading a lot about Laura Ashley recently, and I think she would have loved this project – using up every scrap and keeping my hands busy would have appealed to her, I think.  Plus the nostalgic feel to the project is in-keeping with her approach to design.

The exhibition, ‘Telling Tales’ will also have my Threads of Identity pieces and the Ghost Dolls.

It is at Bristol Guild Gallery, 68/70 Park Street, Bristol, BS1 5NY from 6-27 October.  Monday – Saturday 10-5.00.  The private view is this Saturday and you don’t need a special ticket – mention my name on the door!

My fellow exhibitors are:

Yvonne Auld

Barbara Butler

Janet Clarke

Cheryl Cross

Nina Davis

Chris Harley

Margaret Heath

Liz Hewitt

Heather Martin

Gloria Pugh

Ghost dolls at Hawkwood

I have spent most of the week at Hawkwood College just outside Stroud, Gloucestershire, on a writing retreat.  I’ve been to Hawkwood before and I knew that it had a real shabby chic style in the main house, and a very beautiful garden, so I thought that I would bring the Laura Ashley dolls along to photograph them, possibly for a self-published blurb book as these are my latest guilty self-indulgence after the Quilts book I blogged about recently.

So, I took the girls into the garden and also posed them on the sofa in one of the rooms and by the bay window.

I had come to Hawkwood to do some work on Laura Ashley.  I have to do the grunt work of going through the biography and getting a timeline sorted out for the business.  I thought if I were captive that I would be obliged to do this, and I have got as far as the opening of the first factory in Carno in the 1970s.  But most of the people who were with me were doing much more creative writing, and somehow it slipped through the ether and I decided to work more with the dolls and find out their Laura Ashley stories.  I will set up a page with these stories at some point.  So far I have only done two, but what I found fascinating was the way that the stories just coalesced on the page.  Fully formed stories of love and betrayal, ambition and despair.  We did some reading aloud on our last evening, and after I had read my stories, my imaginary interviews with the girls, the completeness and detail of the stories was what surprised everyone.  I was making up the Laura Ashley stories that cannot be told, that are too painful or personal to tell, but which I know from my twenty plus lived ethnography with these women do exist.  I respect the fact that not everyone wants to tell them, and in a way I am grateful that I am not then obliged to bear witness in some way, but I cannot present an entirely rosy picture of women’s identities either.  So the dolls can have the painful stories.  I think this might make them cultic objects able to absorb unvoiced pain.  It’s strange territory.

But the reservoir of material I have astounded me.  Some of it is recycled from my contemporaries, and a lot of it is from my mother.  The story about marrying for security rang true in the room from our mother’s generation, although none of us had done that.  The feeling of writing was extraordinary.  It just rushed through me.  I had to stop to think about dates and chronologies, but basically it was like opening floodgates, and, importantly, it felt like further evidence that this is a project which has found me; a project whose time has come.  Interesting thoughts about creativity as well to take away.  I have read a lot of practical stuff about innovation and creative practice at work, which is fine, but the more art or even fine art end of it is fascinating to observe as well.  I needed time and space.  I needed to be relaxed.  I needed no interruptions.  I needed enough time to invite the muse – whatever that means – to come.  I needed space to be able to listen.  I doubt that I will get more dolls’ stories when I am home.

And, I am left thinking that dolls are extremely powerful objects.  My lifelong fascination with them is finally working itself out.  Because these dolls are such carriers of pain, here is a nice image to finish with of them taking in the sunshine on a lovely day in the Cotswolds: