Dragon hide no 1


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:


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:


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:


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.


I wanted a really folkartsy feel to this piece.


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.


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:


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.

The Evil Eye Collar


This piece is based on a very common amulet.  Amulets to ward off the Evil Eye are found all over the world, and the eyes are often blue, as seen on the cover of Desmond Morris’s book containing glorious photographs of his personal collection:


Inside there is a montage of this sort of amulet:


The idea behind these amulets is to meet like with like, so the evil eye will be deflected by another evil eye looking right back at it.

My eye is very stylised.  It is a big square glass bead which I bought in the extraordinary bead shop on Derby Road in Nottingham.  The shop is exciting because it sells a good range of really flashy or big or unusual beads.  I couldn’t resist the blue of this one.  Then I surrounded it with all sorts of blue beads which I bought as a collection in the Covent Garden Bead Shop, which I have already mentioned:


Once again this is influenced by tribal beadwork:


I have no idea why I love serried ranks of beads so much, but I love these incrusted beads and particularly when they are in rows.  This image taken from Sheila Paine’s book on amulets gives a brilliant example in the headdress above.

The strap is a cheap necklace from Sainsbury’s half-price sale.

Vikings Life and Legend at The British Museum


The Medieval Historian and I have just had a couple of days in London. We went to see the Viking exhibition at the British Museum. I had been really looking forward to this. It’s a bit of a family joke that I am 99% Viking, coming from that bit of England that was settled under the Danelaw. These feel like my people, and I did come over a bit peculiar at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde just at the sight of those magnificent prows coming towards me. In the end, though, this exhibition fell a bit flat for me. Our first mistake was to go during the school holidays, There were many very bored children slumped about the place, and they grew more plentiful as the exhibition went on. It wasn’t their fault. There really wasn’t that much to hold their attention. The exhibits were really very small for the most part and difficult to see as the exhibition was so crowded. They were also really badly labelled. I know that labelling is a big area of contention in contemporary museology, and that curators often think that people spend more time reading the rubrics than looking at the objects, but in this case there was no indication what some things actually were. This was frustrating if you wanted more than just a casual glance. I felt it was one of those exhibitions, which you usually get at the Royal Academy where you get a better view from the catalogue back home on your sofa with a cup of tea.

A major problem, though, was that the whole exhibition was built around a newly discovered Viking ship, found under the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum, surely the last place you would think to look for one. The problem was that although the steel armature built to hold it is spectacular and has that extraordinarily moving (for me) shape, there was only 20% of the original ship left. Which isn’t that enthralling if you are an eight-year-old boy.

Another problem for me is that the central message of the show was that contrary to popular belief, the Vikings might have started out as marauding raiders, but they morphed into farmers, traders, settlers, decent sorts of chaps who intermarried with local women and became family guys and patrons of the arts. All this is fine, but not that new. The Medieval Historian had already pointed this out to me every time that the stereotypical Viking turned up in films like The Vikings with Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas, and I wonder how many people likely to turn up to the BM also knew this. So two big reveals fell a bit flat.

Finally, I suppose I have been very spoiled by visits to Roskilde and the wonderful Swedish and Danish National Museums, which have such fantastic galleries. This made this show look a bit tame.

That aside, I did love the artefacts on show, and they did make me think of zentangles. The page from my sketchbook below shows things I picked out for having zentangle elements. I made a zentangle from the lovely writhing, interwoven snakes that were on so many pieces and tried to use good Viking colours such as red, blue, yellow, white and black, which suggest that when the Viking pieces were new and painted they were easier to decode than they are now. This is at the top of the post.


This is a detail of the snake drawing:


and this is a zentangle based on designs I saw in the exhibition:



So, a bit of a mixed bag, even for a quasi Viking like me!