Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Oh joy

Isn't this just the most wonderful, powerful, exciting, heady feeling in the world? The fabrics are piled up in abandoned ecstasy, the idea is intact in the imagination, waiting for release. The joy of creating a particular quilt will never be this acute again. Ahead lies all the compromise, the hours of tedious stitching, the gradual erosion of the pure, shining mirage.

And if you don't have even a slight idea of what I'm talking about, why are you reading this blog?

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Unpick of the week: how to deconstruct a quilt in four hours

Among every quilter's top ten movies must surely be Witness, starring Harrison Ford, a detective who goes undercover in an Amish community where he takes part in a neighbours' barn-raising, while the womenfolk cook and serve a meal and engage in a quilting bee, gathering around a large wooden frame for the communal stitching of a quilt.

The Quilting Bee, Grandma  Moses, 1940                                           Wikiart

But wait: pause the DVD, then rewind it. In a few minutes the barn roof beams are lowered, the nails unhammered, the walls horizontal, the windows unframed, the piles of wood re-stacked on the ground. The lunch is unserved and the quilt unstitched.

Barn-raising in Lansing, c1900                                       City of Toronto Archives

Thus it was this week when I helped to unmake a friend's quilt.

A beautiful quilt top, meticulously pieced, but with a fatal flaw...

This particular king-size bed quilt had been many months in the making, and involved the sewing together of strips. Quilting wisdom dictates that you should sew each alternative strip in the opposite direction to avoid distortion - an instruction so very easily forgotten or overlooked in practice, so disastrous as a result. And it could have happened to any one of us. Advice had been sought, but the answer was inevitable: unpick it, or consign the unfinished skew-whiff quilt to twenty years in limbo at the back of a cupboard.

Unpickers at the ready, girls!

Enter the Quilting B Team, brandishing scissors and unpickers and roaringly ready to rip those seams.

Coffee. Gossip. Bitching and unstitching.
 "What would be  your Desert Island Discs?"
Cats shooed off the table. Getting into the rhythm of those plucked-apart threads, those fabric furrows.
 "Surely you can't like Rod Stewart?"
"It's so wonderfully BBC4, but probably only 300 people watch it."
"It was like kissing an over-ripe pear."

Soup and salad. More unstitching, The warp and weft, the snip and snag, the indigo fabric and navy thread, the slicing through knots and tangles.
"You did WHAT with Roy Hattersley?"
"They've sold out - they were playing at the O2 Arena."
"I know the book's a best-seller but I really didn't enjoy it."
Unpickers meeting in the middle of the final seam, a pile of loose threads on the floor...

After four hours the room felt like a pathology lab (I've never been in one, but I've seen the TV shows), a magnificent quilt dissected and lying eviscerated at our feet.

Time to catch the Tube or bus home, to reflect on the value of friendship and to congratulate ourselves on a job well undone.


Saturday, 7 November 2015

Quilts in the White Cube! Can this be for real?

I had a very surreal dream this week. I imagined I went into a contemporary art gallery in the heart of Central London's gallery-land, to discover a huge white-walled room devoted entirely to quilts. Amish, Mennonite, Gees Bend, hexagons and log cabins were strewn across the display stands and draped on the walls, while aesthetic young men engaged in earnest art-speak with their smartly dressed Mayfair clientele.

Leola Pettway, Gee's Bend quilt, 1970

But wait... No, surely not, could this have been REAL

Indeed yes. Having shaken my head in a  previous blog about the tokenism that underlies even those fine art galleries that admit textiles through their hallowed portals, here is the White Cube, no less, giving itself over to a serious examination of "the rich symbolism of textiles and their political, social and aesthetic significance through both art and craft practice".

Alighiero e Boetti, La Forza del Centro, embroidery, 1990.
William Morris Pimpernel wallpaper, 1876

And there's more. Downstairs, filling the lower ground floor, the exhibition continues with textile works - embroidery, knitting, applique, rugs and carpet - as well as textile-related paintings, by modern and contemporary artists including Mona Hatoum (I studied her evocative use of embroidery with human hair for my degree, and there is an example here) and Alighiero e Boetti, whose embroidered letter-blocks are colourful and jolly, even though described as "metaphorically charged conceptual work".

Stirling Ruby, BC, fabric, glue and bleached canvas, 2015

The gallery write-up ticks many of the boxes used when referring to textiles: anonymous; domestic; quotidian; useful; decorative; pattern - words so often used in the Modernist past and even into the Postmodern anything-goes present as terms of belittlement and dismissal.

Yet here I feel they are terms to be discussed and explored, celebrated and enjoyed.

Rudolf Stingel, Untitled, oil and enamel on canvas, 2007

Boetti, the gallery claims, is "contesting traditional notions of authorship" by employing Afghan women embroiderers to execute his designs, while Hatoum's Rugs were made by Egyptian rug-makers, and an installation by Danh Vo is a "collaboration" with weavers in Mexico.

Sergej Jensen - and his mum - Untitled, handknitted wool on canvas, 2003

Sergej Jensen "commissions" his mum to do hand-knitting to his specification, but does not think to give us her name. (Mrs Jensen?) If one had the energy to embark on the well-worn debate of what distinguishes art from craft, that would be a fruitful place to start. 

Is it the case, then, in this exhibition of "This way for the craft, downstairs for the art"? Even here it's not so simple. The Gees Bend quilts makers are named, while others are labelled as "Unknown artist".  Artist! 

The quilts are amazing. They're in an art gallery. Losing the Compass is on until January 9, 2016. Go and enjoy them.

 Amish and Mennonite quilts, 19th and 20th century

Friday, 16 October 2015

Postcards from the Fortunate Isles

My Scilly sketchbook, with postcard collages

Writing postcards, as I have opined elsewhere, is a dying art. Not so the postcards.

I remember in Greece, perhaps a couple of decades ago, that suddenly pictures of little white houses, jaunty fishing boats, cats basking in the sun, terracotta pots and bright geraniums burst on to the scene as welcome alternatives to the tired cliches. (But now of course cliches themselves.)

Postcards can influence how we view a country 

On the Isles of Scilly, I have been delighted to come across a whole new range of postcards at St Mary's only newsagent - daily newspapers on sale after the boat comes in, Sunday newspapers available on Monday - that add an individual twist to the beautiful cliches of blue skies, turquoise seas and amethyst amaryllis, which I wrote about a few days ago. The cards, by the local Barefoot Photographer, have a freshness that I suspect could only be captured by someone who loves where they live and is intimately in tune with the spirit of Scilly: high and low horizons showing almost nothing but sky or sea; natural landmarks photographed by starlight; rock pools and thunderclouds; a single gull landing splashily on the water. Her constantly changing gallery of photographs on Facebook makes me want to stay on the islands for ever.

Barefoot Photographer postcards, lightly customised before sending

Collage using postcards of Scilly by the Barefoot Photographer and others

Her lovely images have inspired me to embark on a series of collages. (The people at the newsagents must think I have lots of friends.) I am grateful to her for allowing me to reproduce them here.

Sky collage, inspired by Joseph Cornell

The first of these (also using other image sources), was a response to a work by Joseph Cornell at the Royal Academy this summer, which consisted of discs of sky cut from magazines. And it feeds into my ongoing cloud obsession.

Bed quilt design, so I can wrap myself in clouds

This led, by way of the door-in-the-sky-and-sea images above, to a design for a bed-size quilt. It will not, alas, look as striking as this when it is made up from the selection of small-scale sky fabrics available, but I can perhaps add to them with cloud-like hand-dyed fabrics and batiks.

Every sketchbook needs a cover, and here is mine, starring the extraordinary red bromeliad that grows wild in large bushes.

Back home tomorrow...


Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Painting in paradise: artists and mavericks on Scilly

Artist at work: Porthloo, St Mary's.
Sign outside Porthloo Studios

Anonymous beach installation, Bryher

How do you create art when you are surrounded by picture-perfect blue skies, turquoise seas, silver beaches, and drifts of running-wild agapanthus and other semi-tropical flora?

The Isles of Scilly, just 28 miles off  the westernmost tip of Cornwall, have a thriving community of artists, so much so that they can claim to be a tourist attraction in their own right, with maps, leaflets and web pages guiding visitors to their studios and galleries throughout the islands.

Studio in a converted boat shed, Great Par, Bryher
After all, every visitor to these Fortunate Isles must surely long to tear off a piece of luminous blue sky and bottle some limpid water to take home in their suitcase, and what better way to do so than by buying a work of art made on those very beaches? For the artists, the temptation must be to churn out variations on the theme of blue skies, turquoise seas, silver sand and amethyst amarylis. And who can really blame them; making a living on the islands is notoriously difficult.

Some of the pictures are perfectly pleasing, and I would gladly take home a few - a colourful Tresco piece by John Dyer would have pride of place - given enough holiday pocket money and wall space. But in my numerous visits over the years, I have gleefully detected a rather subversive artistic counter-force. I like to think of the resident painters cleaning their brushes at the end of the summer season, flinging aside their uniform smocks, berets and jaunty scarves, and running amok, creating anonymous land art from rocks and pebbles and installations from flotsam, fishing nets and recycled household items. (Rubbish disposal is a big problem on Scilly; so let's make art.)

Stone sculptures, Bryher and Old Town Bay, St Mary's

On each visit, I seek out these artworks, seeing what's new, what has been added to, and sometimes what has disappeared entirely. This year I couldn't find my favourite - a "shack" made from all manner of discarded items blown in from the sea and perhaps salvaged from the rubbish dump too: nets, buoys, shells and driftwood, of course, plus an old TV, rubber gloves, plastic chair and lavatory. Perhaps I just went to the wrong Bryher beach - there are so many. Fortunately I have pictures from last time.

New this year were some garden sculptures at Porthlow Farm, St Mary's. Girls Dancing, said the sign, was made "just for fun" out of unwanted chicken wire, and it was suggested that if the passer-by had enjoyed looking at them they might wish to put a donation in the Cornwall Air Ambulance tin nearby.

Girls Dancing, Pauline Mawer, Porthlow Farm, St Mary's

Rusty Henry,  in a private garden in Old Town Lane, St Mary's, must surely be just for fun too.

Footnote: I was enormously saddened to find that my friend and favourite maverick artist, who grew up and had spent all her life on St Mary's, suddenly had to leave the islands a month ago for health reasons. It was she who described Scilly as Paradise and said that she never wanted to leave.

After her late father refused to let her study art on the mainland, she taught herself. She could have painted landscapes for tourists but would have none of it ("I would have to stamp them on the front 'A present from Scilly'," she said scathingly). She painted the local hedgerow flowers for postcards (below) and to commission and, with a wicked sense of humour, intricate fantasies of fairies, sorcerers and more sinister creatures. A painting of motorbikes, vampires and gravestones was considered too controversial for the church hall craft fair, but she put it on her stall anyway. She knitted, quilted and embroidered with skill and enormous flair.

Her seafront granite cottage, now being cleared, was a living artwork. Not for her bleached wood, white walls, distressed pale blue and carefully arranged shells. Heavy red velvet curtains, theatrically swagged and braided, hung across the small windows in her tiny living room, with rich red carpet underfoot. The dresser that filled one wall, the numerous small tables, the fireplace and window sills were crammed with an eccentric and eclectic collection of artifacts: table runners, gift shop gewgaws, tourist trinkets, fine coloured glass, "good" china, red silk roses in antique vases, jumble sale finds, and a large stone griffon. The dark red armchairs were draped in velvets, silks, glittery Indian textiles and her own patchwork and applique cushions. On the dark wood paneled walls  hung mirrors, her own paintings, her heavily encrusted embroidered flower pictures, and more mirrors. Beads, crystals,glitter balls, Christmas decorations and tassels were strung from the ceiling and looped over door and cupboard handles.

Once she was about to order an ornate chandelier from a catalogue - no small undertaking given that everything has to be brought over from the mainland by boat - when it was pointed out that it was so large it would skim the floor by only a foot and would block her view of the television. To which she responded: "Who needs to watch TV?"

It should have been incredibly kitsch. I suppose it was. But her artist's eye and confidence in her own taste made walking through the door a glorious, jaw-dropping, mind-expanding experience. I always left feeling that anything was possible.

This year I had determined, finally, to ask her if she would allow me to take some photographs. Now it is too late. Scilly will be a sadder and less colourful place without her, but I hope her artistic spirit thrives elsewhere.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Patchwork stained glass / stained glass patchwork

"Patchwork" stained glass window in the
Abbaye de Fontfroide near Narbonne

I never liked writing postcards, but now that almost no one sends them they are missed (especially the ones with a Biro cross indicating one's guest house - yes, that's the one, five streets back from the beach almost hidden by the gasometer). My friend Susan not only still sends real postcards from her holidays, but often emails pictures as well. Two literally smashing ones arrived last week while she was in France. The subject line was "Patchwork in stained glass" and the email contained the information that they were "a collection of windows made from random scraps of stained glass salvaged from churches destroyed in the First World War. Charming." Which indeed they are. 

Anyone lost a knee?

I particularly like this one in which, as she points out, there is a spare knee in the bottom left-hand corner. It is surprising little encounters and juxtapositions that I treasure in patchwork quilts too, although misplayed knees do not usually feature. Which is a shame. 

As well as the patchwork connection, these windows fit very neatly into my current preoccupation with "Fractures", my love of collage and also my interest last year in a stained glass image of a saint that I wanted to reproduce in textiles, which meant the whole design had to be done in a similar style.

"Stained glass window" quilt, 2014

But in fact my curiosity about these broken and reassembled windows had already been piqued by an encounter at a craft fair last winter with the glass artist Sheenagh McKinlay, who makes beautiful examples with a contemporary twist, incorporating, for instance, glass lantern slides. She showed me photographs of such windows in churches and cathedrals, and since then I have looked for them, but in vain.

Stained glass "patchwork" by Sheenagh McKinlay

Stained glass is, of course, also a well established applique technique. I did the obligatory samples for City and Guilds many years ago - each piece pinned and then tacked in place before the bias strips were pinned and tacked and hand sewn into place - gratefully believing that I would never have to use the technique again. 

My "stained glass" applique samples for City and Guilds, mid-1990s

I was mightily relieved, therefore, almost 20 years on, that lightweight bonding materials (I use Mistyfuse for all my bonding these days) and fusible bias binding in narrow widths had made the whole caboodle a whole lot less fiddly. Which is not to say that I will be doing it again any time soon. 

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Well, it's good for the gardens...

Here, just for fun in the damp dog-end of summer, and following on from my "Floral Fabric Frenzy" post last month, are some pictures of Selfridge's in Oxford Street, its 24 windows taken over by thousands of flowers looking even more bright and sunshiny in the pouring rain. Click on the links above for more pictures - far better than mine.


Saturday, 5 September 2015

No, but cirrously: how I learnt to love cloud fabrics

Fracture: work in progress

There is love at first sight, then there is a passion that grows almost unnoticed over the years until something brings it into the sunlight.

A selection from my cloud fabric collection

Clouds: I've bought sky fabrics for years, first as a means to an end in a series of Greek Shrine quilts inspired by my love of Greece, with its turquoise sea and sky, then for their own sake. Plain blue or grey just don't cut it: I mean fluffy white clouds against shades of blue, or dark storm clouds in indigo and grey with perhaps some lightning flashes.

Greek Shrine 1, 1996, detail

Greek Shrine 2

Greek Shrine 3, detail, 2000

Greek Shrine 4, detail, 2001 - unfinished (permanently?)

My first sky fabric was stunning: a pale blue with sunny clouds shading into intense turquoise that seamlessly became an inky sea. The scraps have been cut smaller and smaller and I hoard them jealously. How I wish I had bought 20 metres when I had the chance.

Storm and rainbow fabrics, from

The sunset prints I've come across are mostly too vulgar to add to my growing collection, but I have recently bought some rainbows that teeter on the edge of twee and will be delightful if used with extreme caution, and also a violent storm scene that growls and flashes across the entire fabric width.

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining, c2002

Synapse, 2015, detail

Looking back, I can see for the first time that skies have been a theme running through my work for the past 20 years right up to my most recently completed piece. In my first sketchbook are page after page of sky references and experiments, done so long ago that I had forgotten many of them - but perhaps overdue for resurrection.

The Poisoned Heart 1, 2011, detail

The Poisoned Heart 2, 2011, detail

Indeed, one sky fabric was the unifying factor in the three pieces that made up the installation for my degree show, The Poisoned Heart, although the sky itself was not part of the "concept". (Sorry, I still feel the need to use inverted commas around this word, as with "practice" or "process". Does this mean I'm not a real artist?) I've even painted skies on walls and ceilings in my house.

Sky cot quilt

More recently, I have made a couple of cot quilts out of sky fabrics: how wonderful it must feel to be wrapped up and enclosed in the softest, fluffiest clouds. (Perhaps I should make a big version for my own bed.)

The space under my stairs, with painted sky and artificial flowers

My latest work in process, on the theme of "fracture", is a dark stormy sky - I found a wonderful hand-dyed fabric by Jo Lovelock that was perfect - shattered like glass to reveal sunnier skies beyond. It's far from complete, although I rather like it as it is. See picture, top.

Hmmm. Cumulus and cirrus with a touch of undulatus?   

So what has brought my passion into sudden focus? It was my search for something special, something frivolous and exciting, to mark a significant birthday. Advertised "day adventures" seem to consist of climbing up high places or jumping off high places, or being passively massaged and pampered at ground level. But when I came across a mention of the Cloud Appreciation Society's AGM on that very weekend, September 26, I felt such a frisson of excitement that it confirmed I had found the very thing.

I have since become a member and have been busily learning to distinguish between stratocumulus, cumulonimbus and nimbostratus. Now my only dilemma is whether I should run up a skirt out of my stash of cloud fabrics to wear on the day. It would, of course, be in a spirit of tongue-in-cheek irony. But I don't want to be mistaken for a cloud nerd.

Perhaps it is too late.

Sky fabrics available from