Its own direction

This is the year of the big think for me.  I’m using my completion of  three score years and ten to start seriously putting my house in order – both literally and metaphorically.  I have accumulated so much possibly useful but probably never used stuff that it has begun to oppress me, and it is an ongoing liberation to find useful outlets for its disposal.

In order to make decisions about what should go of course, I have to decide what must stay.  And for that I have to think about what I want to make and do.  I rather fell into quilt making through serendipitous encounters, not through conscious purpose.  I enjoyed the making of the work, and have been successful when I’ve applied to enter prestigious quilt exhibitions.  Of late, however, I feel out of step with current trends – and as it is the subject matter of the work which drives me I have not applied to compete any more.

I have been fortunate this year in having been asked to judge the SAQA Europe and Middle East Wide Horizons VI exhibition, and as such will have a piece in that show.  Also I was delighted to be asked to contribute three quilts to the upcoming exhibition at Wisconsin Museum of Quilt and Fiber Art: Fiber Arts in the Digital Age.  But although I do and doubtless will continue to use the quilt form, I do not feel or think myself to be a quilt artist.

At the end of Spring I finished my most recent quilt form piece: Soliloquy (seen below).  This piece grew out of thinking about old age – not necessarily my own, but maybe also.  There has been so much on the news these days about how little adequate care there is in the community for older people, how they are neglected, how lonely they can be etc.  The ideas for Soliloquy developed around the commonly held to be traits of the older person: fading into the background so that they are almost part of the wallpaper, repetition, going on about their youth, talking when no-one is listening – or when no-one is there, ….  I wanted to portray these elements, but with a strong, humorous character who emerged from the background trying to engulf her, despite being fixed in her armchair – and with the repetition being a dynamic pattern rather than a monotonous drone.


I have satisfied myself with the result.  And this work has reinforced for me the direction I want to take.  I want to be driven by the work which speaks insistently to be made – the work must make its own direction.  I do not want to be guided by technique to follow subjects.  This decision was finally clarifying after I attended the excellent workshop on 3D fibre work taught by Debbie Lyddon early this year.  (As I described in Threading thoughts.)  I very much enjoyed the experience, and perhaps one day I shall be impelled to make a work which needs to use a technique covered then.  But I do not want to try to fit a subject to the technique.

Of course there are core techniques which I use, and will continue to use.  Digital collage from ingredients including photography, drawing, and printmaking, and other scans.  Digital printing onto cloth – because cloth is the basis of the things I make.  And of course stitching – the vital meditative ingredient.  Although I took up fabric as my medium because it fitted practically with my life – an activity with which I could be absent and present at the same time; it was also even then a perfect fit for how I wanted to express myself.

So I am getting rid of all the stuff which I have just accumulated over the years through temptation to acquire, or accepting gifts of what might possibly be useful one day, or just somehow arrived I can’t remember how.   The local hospice charity shop’s craft corner has suddenly burgeoned into a craft department as my cupboards empty!

One big stumbling block I found in my journey to this point was my anxiety about not having gone to art college – about not being able adequately to judge my work, and thus not knowing where I/it might fit.  I realise now that this does not matter, and that realisation has been reinforced in my recent reading of a book about postwar London artists: Modernists and Mavericks by Martin Gayford.  In it I encountered the perfect quote from Howard Hodgkin:

‘What is important,…is that what I feel, think and see turns into something.  I mean, ideally, it starts off in my head, and ends up a thing.’


It is a while since I wrote last, but contrary to possible speculation I have not been doing nothing.  At the very least I have been thinking.  Thinking, unfortunately, does not necessarily offer evidence of the activity, nor does it necessarily yield results!

detail-SolThinking has not stopped me actually doing things.  I continue to have at least one stitching project constantly on the go.  My mind still throws up various ideas for ‘doodles’ which please me more or less, … but I feel somewhat limbo-ish nonetheless.  I don’t think that the new images that I’m currently developing are actually moving my work forward – whatever that means.  And I guess that’s what is bothering me: I cannot fathom at present what direction to look towards.

detail3Meanwhile, a bit of organisation always helps.  I am on a general life project to downsize possessions, partly so that as we become more decrepit and literally downsize to a smaller dwelling, we will not suddenly have to cope with a mountainous task.  Today I decided to sort my threads.

basket threadsred drawersHappy conjunctions present themselves when taking time over the sorting of stuff.  One problem is that I have lived through several eras of need.  For instance when I was working freelance in publishing, teaching abroad, and writing a publishing manual I needed filing drawers – not only for files (remember paper files anyone?), but for paper, flimsy, carbon paper, tippex (!), and other stationery.  One cherished piece of filing furniture is my bright red Habitat set of drawers.  Just right to accommodate threads.

Chaos control

Bit by bit nearer to some kind of Chaos control even if I’m not much nearer finding any coherent direction for my work.


First, look back

FreizeIn the early 2000s I made a few pieces which I described as brodages (collages, but stitched rather than stuck).  They were one-offs, and more a kind of exercise of using up bits and pieces.  Frieze above was made with vintage kimono fabric I’d bought on impulse in the USA, my experimental strip of painted silk, paper figures coloured with pastel, and a piece of wire mesh.

slate1I used paper again in the figures for Hard place and Waving.  They all arose from my thoughts after attending a workshop given by Clyde Olliver I’d attended at the Embroiderer’s Guild in the days when they used to have brilliant classes.  (Clyde Olliver gave me the pieces of drilled slate.)


I was moved to make Waving in response to conversations with a friend who was having a double mastectomy.


I then went on to experiment with a couple more pieces: Measured response above was the result of sending off a digital image to be printed on canvas.  An emotional turmoil brought about Sharper – the title comes from King Lear: ” how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have an ungrateful child”.  During the workshop I had had the idea of making a whole figure out of flint – our garden is full of pieces of flint, and had discussed this with Olliver.  The difficulty was how to attach the individual pieces.  In the end I used linen thread which had been covered in PVA, and wrapped and tied each stone to the wire mesh.


At that time I also found the acrylic frames which seem just right for the work.  All the ingredients of each piece could be seen without impediment, and yet they were tidy in a box.  Sharper has two layers of mesh, a finer one at the back onto which is stitched the patchwork of felted knitwear, then on that are cotton figures stiffened by accident – they were cut from the cotton used underneath silk which was being ironed with transfer paper.  Both the colour/pattern and the stiffening went through the silk to the cotton, thus providing me with a bonus!  Then the wider grid went on top of that and the flint head at the front.


After Sharper I concentrated on the quilt form, both large and small, until another one-off in 2013.  I had created the digital design for Acrobats electric long before I made the piece. But I could not work out a suitable means of realising exactly what I wanted.  Stitch distorts a surface, and yet I wanted the electric elements to be stiff and flat, and yet the bodies to be abstracted and stitched.  Finally what should have been obvious was suddenly clear:  the backgrounds are stitched printed silk, the pylons and wires are cut card, and the bodies are machine embroidered on soluble film.  Sorted.


I was beginning to work out how to make this piece when I was fortunate enough to be invited by Maggie Grey to take part in Approaches to Stitch – which shows, step by step how I made Acrobats electric.

As I look back in order to move forward I remember how much pleasure I had in constructing these brodages, and how I enjoyed the problem solving.  Perhaps I might think about dabbling in the process again as I review how I am to proceed.

2018 – the year of the big think

juggler3sI have reached a point at which I feel the need for an assessment of what I’m doing, why, and of what I want to do.  Amongst other things the work I’m making at present is too slow to keep up with my ideas, and that is having a dampening effect on the excitement of those ideas.  The stitching element is taking up time which I want to devote to print making.  And I still have vague ideas of trying out three dimensional work, somehow.

critics1I now think I want to eschew external influences which are constraining.  I’m giving up thinking that my work fails because it does not fit into a size category, for instance.  Indeed I don’t want to think of being in any category at all.

juggling1I think.  Well, I have quite a bit to think about.  I am certainly not thinking about giving up working in some way; it is an essential part of living as far as I’m concerned.  But I have vaguely thought about giving up this and the Threading thoughts blogs.  As I say, it is to be a Year of Big Thinking.

Jazz flute, and Ginkgo rider

The first of these two pieces started life as one of my not exactly series, but better described as a group of works based on players of musical instruments.  Most of the individuals are women, and one day a woman with red hair playing the flute came into my mind.

I like rendering my drawings as relief prints – showing the carving too.  There is something in this which seems to combine the flat image with movement and even three dimensionality, I find.  In any case, I like the effect, so have been using it a lot.  The digital graphics can also add to the layered look.

For Jazz flute I wanted her hair to be red, and the whole atmosphere to be a warm and sunny one.  The fact that I have a friend who plays the flute and who loves the sun may have influenced this desire.  So I tried out printing the lino block on yellow tissue paper which had been crushed once then flattened (adding more random elements with a batik-y feel).  I think she looks good even starkly thus in the initial image which was scanned.


The digital work gave her the red hair, the green dress, and the pastel scattered background from my ‘background’ digital files – much used many times before, and once I was happy with the image I printed this out onto a prepared A3 sheet of cotton lawn.

jazz flute

I am really happy with the effect of the yellow rather than white base, and I am now adding the final layer of stitching with fine silk threads.

In the case of Ginkgo rider the final image came about through trial and error.  When learning to print collagraphs one of my attempts used leaves.  The image of that attempt I thought might be worth chopping up digitally to use as elements in a future piece.


One of the great advantages of scanning at a high resolution, then cropping is that I’m not limited to the scale of the physical piece of paper.  The ginkgo leaf was its actual size on the print – as can be seen in relation to the stamps; but I am able to render its looks much more appropriately sculptural with a crop.

Turned round the sweep of the stem and the fan of the leaf made me think of kites and windsurfers,… although a sail is usually above the sailor my thoughts took me to a rider – someone who would be swept off on top, holding the mast, so to speak.  The digital processing in this case simply added the red rider.  The rest of the image is a high resolution scan of the cropped print.  This will also be printed onto A3 prepared cotton lawn, and more colour will be added with thread when I start stitching.

ginko rider2


The development of Quiet work

quiet template

As with most pieces, Quiet work started as a doodle destined for lino cutting.  She was printed while I was experimenting with the use of handmade papers prepared for inkjet printing.  As she has such a large empty background – necessarily so – I used a photograph with faint texture and pale colour.  (A close-up snap of the Serpentine pavilion which is now at Hauser and Wirth Somerset.)

crafting back


The print came out well, and after I had scanned it I put it up in my print kitchen.  But in order to stitch the piece I thought that more colour was needed, so I played around for a bit before printing the image onto cotton.

quiet work

The balance of visual weight had to be at the base of the image, so I decided to use a different stitch with the leaves to try to achieve that.  Also important is her hair, so more pattern detail was stitched into that.  The background, however had to be kept separate and airy, so I used a seed stitch – and I’m still not completely happy with that.  But it’s done now, and overall I’m pleased.




The simple stitch


Plunge (2016)

All this pondering how or whether to use the felted knitwear I have has got me thinking through the ways I make work anyway.  I know that I always have to have work to think about – I always have done.  It is what motivates my living.  I have to have mental occupation almost all of the time – for instance, I cannot often watch television or listen to the radio without also doing, making, or thinking about something else.  Creative outcomes arise from all the input; the curiosity, the pursuit of threads tugged by the curiosity, thinking, and of course seeing – paying attention.

This was also true when I was occupied with publishing, but with a large and fundamental difference from what I do now.  When I was for instance orchestrating the creation of a book other people’s work, wishes, and money were concerned.  I worked with colleagues who had various expectations of and influences on the decisions I made.  I commissioned the work: writing (although I did write a few myself if I wanted to commission a particular artist who had no particular subject in mind), artwork, production, sales – and then of course the consumers also played a huge and vital part.  With books for children the parents, librarians, and teachers comprise the first level of consumers.

When I left publishing and was thinking about being creative for myself, it was with notional consumers in mind that I started.  I thought I saw a gap in the market for a kind of knitwear – but quickly it became obvious that that was not the right path for me.  I carried the thought of consumers with me when I then combined my hobbies of painting pictures and stitching, hoping perhaps to find galleries which would carry my work.  I had sold some paintings through a gallerist friend in the USA, and a couple of galleries did take my early stitchings – but over the years I have learned that my work is an acquired taste, galleries have to make consistent money, and besides, there are now just so many makers existing and emerging whose work is more appealing, instantly attractive, or fashionable.  Perhaps my work is just not good enough.

But it is more than good for me.  It is taking years to get out of the mindset that developed a successful publishing career, to adjust to a state that is neither paid employment nor hobby, but is a kind of manifestation of being.  But as such it does not seem to fit comfortably into any labelled box.  ‘Twas ever thus: many years ago even at Oxford University Press where I began my publishing career I was labelled an administrative anomaly, in this case because my responsibilities straddled both the schools and tertiary markets.

Although for convenience I have so far put myself in the textile artist box, I do not think that wholly appropriate, despite using cloth and stitching.  Printing is at the heart of what I do, but I am not really a conventional printmaker. Collage, the gathering of divers elements is also fundamental to what I do, but somehow does not wholly describe my practice.  Everything goes towards the way I want the work to look, and the simple stitch is at the heart of it in two ways.


First, and essential, it is my handling of the cloth.  It is a long slow process which has been with me since early childhood when I sat amongst older generations, making cross stitch cloths.  When I saw Kantha cloths I realised how powerful the simple running stich could be for me.  I have to be a-making with my hands.  It helps my mind to clarify, to digest, to make connections, ….


The stitching might be described as a kind of colouring in, but it is so much more than that, despite being simple.  When used with wadding (batting) it creates a bas relief.  It emphasises, it provides a flow, and it presents a kind of subtle catching of the eye with colour and shape.  On my Soliloquy project I have decided to keep it muted with the first top stitching before I join the panels and then quilt the whole.


Soliloquy (detail of work in progress)

With the couple of pieces I’ve explored with felt again the simple stitch I think works well – in Winter sun with the simple outline of the felt itself – and leaves room to appreciate the subtle pattern in that felt,

Winter sun

Winter sun (2017, detail)

and in Cathedral (below) the simple stitching will I hope calm the somewhat (deliberately off register) chaotic screenprinted fused collage.


Cathedral (detail of work in progress)

Regarding the use of the felt – you perhaps can see in the full photo of Plunge that I have used a scan of weaving (my first effort with a backstrap loom and knitting yarn!).  The actual weaving – or any felt would have been inappropriate there because of the importance of the relative flatness of the elements making up the image.