Posts tagged ‘fibre art’

Process art: creating a response piece

This post explains how I came to create my piece ‘Tangled Freedoms 3’ in response to the archive materials in the ‘Threads of Empire: rule and resistance in colonial India’ exhibition, opens April 12th 2017, Lakeside Arts Centre, University of Nottingham.

Singing Bird Artist:

Immersing myself in a subject [topic/ material/ dream] and finding out what my hands want to make as a result is my normal process – Sea Change [see videos] started from a dream but involved a chase through Greek mythology and the role of coral in climate change research, while Organic Process started with 3 particular yarns and went some unexpected places [painting vintage buttons with nail varnish?!]


As soon as Dr Onni Gust told me some details from the archive materials I was fascinated πŸ™‚ [not sure if I’m allowed to quote – but believe me, as an intersectional feminist and anti-racist, the items chosen are very interesting, and as a textile and fibre artist interested in clothing and costume as signifiers… ooh! Come see it!]


Onni recommended some background reading about the period, which was very useful, as though I know a certain amount of colonial history, I’ve always been a bit hazy on the details of the British East India Company. I wasn’t allowed to do History at high school as my godfather taught it and he thought I’d be cheeky [me?!] so I’ve been catching up ever since. I hadn’t realised how the first ‘traders’ were very likely to be merchants and middle class and self made business men, anxious to move up in society, but also staff landing their dream assignment, to be scholars, Islamophiles, loving the Iranian poets who shaped so much of Moghul cultural values, or fascinated by the beautiful sculptures and architecture of Hindu tradition. The more I read about those men’s adventures in crossing over into local culture, making political alignments but also romantic liasons and full marriages, bringing their wives and children into the British aristocracy…the more my impressions of that time had to be unpicked.


The French East India Company were rivals at every court for the favour of local Moghul or Hindu royalty, who were fantastically wealthy by European standards, a letter in the exhibition details the gifts a party of British visitors were given in 1742, hugely lavish, humbling the Company officials… The French were a new republic, offering a larger army of mercenaries to local sultans, and some of the trade wrangles were as much about Paris and London as the Indian courts…


Fabrics were an important part of the East India Companies’ wishlists… the Kashmiri shawl was a status symbol among the upper middle class in Britain, and the shameful history of how the boteh was renamed paisley after the Scottish textile mill town whose fortune was made on cheaper copycats of Indian skill should be taught on every textile course…


Muslim art is abstract – images of monkeys, dogs and humans are particularly offensive, something I bear in mind when making quilts for refugees and the geometric and arabesque flourishes of their textile designs far outshone the toiles de Jouy and chintz flowers, both in style but also vibrancy of colour and tone. Hindu dyeing and printing techniques were ahead of Europe at the time, though Britain was heading into the Industrial revolution of machination, measuring and metering, huge mills where children would lose fingers and hands in the threading machines for Jacquards and spinning Jennies.


With all the textual research bubbling away in my brain, I explored which cloth and fibres felt like they fitted… It’s difficult to convey quite how my process is different to straightforward design, but there’s more generosity towards intuition… While mulling over the way my third of the triptych would possibly have to accomodate being above standing head height, I made my usual assemblage elements, machine cords. These take a few hours, depending how many I make, but are very useful for simmering ideas about colour, watching what happens, what works, what doesn’t, what suddenly gifts you a significant piece of the puzzle.

After noodling around for a while, I remembered some sari ribbons I had and started playing with them:


Gradually it became clear to me what the feeling I was to convey in the piece is. We had discussed how the triptych would allow space for our individual reactions – while hopefully making a harmonious whole. We were each energised by different items from the archive, though equally full of anger and grief at the deaths and injustices of the times… it took some time to narrow down our concerns to generate a name for the triptych that would fit our separate responses, but finally Tangled Freedoms was the agreed title. Then everything opened up again as we discussed what techniques we were drawn to, what colour palettes spoke to us… I chose aqua blues and sand, from lemon through to topaz. Having spent a year making patchwork as part of pacing and managing anxiety, I decided to challenge myself and include it in my end piece, as a base layer, with fibre and thread layers above. These fibres are from the gauzey muslin I chose as my fabric to be dyed by P.Chezharb, and they’ve done a beautiful job, rippling tones within the core colours…


What I feel most strongly after my research is how tangled everything is – there is straightforward exploitation of the resources of India and the common people, but as soon as you look at individuals, layers and twistsΒ  and turns emerge. Everything revolves around the court protocols; the concerns of the East India Companies; but then there are the harem women dressed with freedom, behind their mashrabeya screens, the European women free to travel with an escort, but in their personal prison of stays and corsets, neither free from the threat of violence and death if they strayed too far from what pleased the men they were possessions of; the servants of the Companies, caught up in massacres caused by rank stupidity and bigotry; the scholars wanting to explore their long cherished dreams instead supposed to defraud and unsettle their hosts; the hugely wealthy rulers being threatened by the decline of their autonomy and the de-stabilising efforts of European governments… who here is free? The Europeans died in their hundreds, many in the first year. No one can act without consequences, most are walking tightropes under pressure from government or ruler or husband…meanwhile the saddhus sit naked by the rivers, dazzled by the shining, rippling waves and own nothing and are owned by no one. The only people free to do as they please have no power. Tangled indeed…


The feeling I most want my piece to convey is the dazzling betrayals, ever shifting meanings and deceits, that all that glittered was not gold, the death and the dirt below the gold. The role that water played, the huge lengths of time between query and response, at least a year, and that was if no ship foundered. Often an official would be answering someone who was now long buried, merchants would be fighting the French Company for the best deals, while they wondered if Britain had been invaded by Napoleon…


Pauline Edwards has used text and images to recreate the fiery pyres of massacred Indian soldiers at Vellore, and Pol Chezharb has used a background of vivid primaries to invoke the life and death nature of these economic and political choices, but I still feel most struck by the air and water, open skies and miasmic marshes the British edged in from at Calcutta, the terrible sea journeys they risked to make money that could not save them if illness came… foolsgold for many, the founding of a colony that stole immeasurable wealth and unsettled world politics for at least 2 centuries, imagining it could be possible to do that without creating anger and a backlash that is still unrolling today… foolsgold…




exciting news: Threads of Empire

The University of Nottingham Weston Gallery at Lakeside Arts Centre will be hosting an exhibition from April 12th called ‘Threads of Empire: rule and resistance in colonial India.’,


curated by Dr Onni Gust [who writes about gender and Empire and women travellers of the 17 and 1800s see footnote ^] with RA and Phd student, Ibtisam Ahmed, who writes interestingly about Utopia and Empire, including on gender [see+]. They have brought together some very interesting archive pieces, letters, lists, reports of revolt..all with a common link of clothing/ costume/ cultural markers that I find fascinating. When Onni suggested I put together a proposal for a response piece with fellow textile artists I was really excited and energised.Β  After some discussion with my friends Pauline Edwards and P. Chezharb, we decided to form an artist collective called Infinite Threads and submit our vision of a triptych responding individually and collectively to the archive materials. Yesterday we heard we had been accepted and won a small grant for materials and expenses and a stipend, totalling Β£1,500! Great news! To give you some context, my last joint exhibition cost Β£450 to install at a private gallery with NO support for materials… happy rollie* dance!!


Now here’s the thing about being an artist with chronic illness – a turnaround of Feb 1st to April 12th is very daunting nowadays… because once I’d read the archive materials shared with us, I had a design float into my mind that would be a personal challenge. Nothing like keeping it interesting πŸ˜‰ I’ve been working towards blending fabric collage into a form of painting for a while, and here is an opportunity to create a ‘jump’ piece where I do that πŸ™‚ I started making machine cords and then patchwork for different layers in my piece a few weeks ago, and was so eager to start, holding back has been very hard…


So I had a very strong commitment to making this piece for a few reasons – and I think you need that as an artist, because you certainly don’t do it for the money πŸ˜‰ We had some group discussions about how we felt individually, what material was most interesting to us and any initial visions of how we’d work – there has to be a lot of flex at this point, as one of the things we three share as mixed media artists specialising in textiles [we all have City and Guilds textile works training as well as art skills/ training] is that touching the fabric changes so much. The feel of muslin changes when it is dyed, the fold, the fall, the heft… so much art now ignores how what we touch, what we feel, influences our making. Art is not just cerebral, it has heart and guts, juice, energy… brainwork is one part, but to a textile or mixed media artist, or sculptor and many painters, only one..


I like working with colour blending, creating volume by tearing cloth, putting thread and fibre to work create new fabrics, working with shadows and silhouettes. I tend to stay abstract and trust my process, absorbing lots of visual and a fair bit of textual research so that when my hands start making, there is something my brain/psyche wishes to ‘download’ into the materials in hand. Intensive contact and co-operation between hand, brain and fabric creates interesting work, better than if I actively designed in a more cerebral way, imposing a concept on the materials, subjugating them.


Pauline dreams her way in, working with text or an image that seizes her attention, allowing a lot of responses to arise and then working down into them as she applies dye or paint, tranfers chosen text, and finally storms the canvas with her machine loaded with threads galore… she once worked 18 hours straight round at my house when she was making a commissioned quilt to celebrate the 105+ minority communities of Nottingham… the piece stretched from my [empty!] fireplace to the back of the sofa, over 10′ square.


P. Chezharb creates wonderful painterly surfaces using Procion dyes, and then adds mixed media to them. They are creating some of the fabrics we are using, and then their own part of the triptych will focus on their response to the letter describing a British woman’s visit to the local dignitary’s harem from 1742, and the struggle to end sati [suttee, the burning of widows on a husband’s funeral pyre] which still occasionally occurred even at the end of the 20th Century.


I’m going to post more as our works emerge, and explain more of our backgrounds – between us, we have ancestors and recent relatives who were forced to move by slavery, pogrom, persecution by faith, the Highland Clearances, an Asian experience of leaving Tanzania for Britain, the Windrush migration from Jamaica… we are interested in where the intersections of freedom of choice and freedom within circumstance fall, what we can make as message, protest or affirmation for ourselves and our communities of choice and circumstance…when we can make beauty, and when ugly is part of a necessary truth.

*rollator, a seat on wheels I push to help to help me walk [33% less effort] and then sit on as frequently as necessary, which is pretty often.

^ Dr Onni Gust , current research : Home and Exile in the British Imperial Imagination focuses on ideas of “home” and “exile” in the published and unpublished writings of a network of European-imperial thinkers, looking at how their gendered performances of belonging reconfigured the meaning of nation and Europe.

+’Clothing the Other: The Use of Fashion in Pursuit of a British Imperial Utopia’ by IbtisamAhmed



Necessary Friction: Funky Felt Marbling for Spoonies and Chronic Pain Peeps

I loved the felting class Clare Brewer led, but needed to find a less energetic version. One way of avoiding the rolling and thumping is knitting to felt, but knitting is still hard for those of us with spoon [energy] and fork [pain] issues. So I was delighted when I came across photos of Carol Cypher’s felt rock [for a write up of her workshop and thought, hmmm, bet that can be done in the washing machine πŸ˜‰


The best bit of felting [to me] is the colour blending so this method makes the most of that.

Choose a prefelt [soft felt squares needlefelters use to embellish, about Β£3 per 50cm square] some fibres/tops, some rovings [wool that is untreated and will felt at a 40 degree wash AVOID Superwash] and prepare to have fun πŸ™‚


l cut slits in a 20cm square [feel free to change the size to suit you] and wove the wool/rovings through and then laid some loosely on the top of the prefelt too. The slits seemed to make no difference, so save your wrists!!


Then l laid pinches of tops/felt fibres over the sheet until it seemed well balanced and interesting – l wanted a rippled effect when the swiss roll was sliced open. lf you want it to be more even, keep your fibres blocky and separate by rolling the prefelt sheet fully round one ‘sausage’ of fibres before moving to the next colour πŸ™‚


Then I rolled the sheet and all its filling up, trying to roll quite tightly – so l went back and rolled tighter after this photo!


Next l tied the roll up as if l were tie-dying, so a lot of strings and knots to keep it all together. This was the bit that was most strain on my hands – l have damaged soft tissues from a bad fall and old bone breaks and fibromyalgia pain sneaking in where it can, and your pain will probably need you to pay attention throughout the first time.


After this you repeat as often as you can, and then the rolls get put in the washer. TO SAVE THE FILTERS please put them in a muslin or net bag, so they can bounce around to be felted, but not clog your machine or the neighbourhood drains!


I use an organza bag from my Love Knitting orders, but a lingerie washing bag is good too: just tie the bow! Or you too will be chasing 30+ felted pebbles round the fitted sheet when you get the washing out!

I have a setting that is Mini30, a short wash and spin, and it works fine – l get the felting out and then give the rest of the washing an extra spin. l put the towel from a sheet felting session in the wash too, so there was a LOT of washing up liquid helping it all felt, but if you use the washer balls l think that would be enough friction to felt, definitely on a longer wash, as when l wash knitting to felt it has worked. To dry them l leave them on top of a gas fire or radiator – NOT a convector heater!

Meanwhile l hope you had your feet up or took a nap – pacing! Now for the big reveal:




You need strong wrists and sharp dressmaking shears to cut these rolls open, and if l was making a big batch l would get a friend to do the cutting. Carpet shears or electric scissors would be good – the density is like carpet and the open slice feels like the velvet of new laid wool carpet – all those fibres looking fresh and bright too, really lovely!

I hope this tempts you to have a go, perhaps invite some friends round so you can share costs for the fibres and prefelts, that’s a lot of fun for under Β£30 and some birthday present possibilities, necklaces, bracelets, embroidery supplies for embellishing cushions etc. Take care of yourselves and keep making!

The Vital Spark


There’s a point where the results of exploring ideas, even idle messing around with materials of any kind, suddenly come alive, ‘quicken’ as the work-to-be makes itself known the way a baby does with its first kick… before that there’s a glimpse of what could be, but this is the point where suddenly disparate elements reveal how they will mesh… after that vital [ having remarkable energy, liveliness, or force of personality ] moment, the work can follow its own rhythm. The ‘water waste’ piece I’ve been working on for a couple of years now is ‘content’ to be worked on intermittently, other pieces seem to seize the available energy and demand to be made immediately. Organic Process was like that and for the last month the ‘woodland DSC_0023palette’ piece I was making while moving has been evolving, making more demands…


With the construction of two huge braids it suddenly revealed its structure, a web strung between the braids with beads of many sizes [ some fabric ones larger than tangerines!] attached at web joins… these are the seeds, the nuggets of previous thought that have generated the piece, a mixture of life experiences, material and process questions and thiDSC_0006ngs my mind has snagged on… all gathering embellishments like barnacles on a rock!

So, ‘The Vital Spark’ is about that moment when the urge, the need, the life force of the piece is revealed… and when that moment happened for it, I felt very amused by the spirals and fractals of it all… it feels like there will be more in this series, and the ‘meta’ nature of it all tickles me… I talk a lot about making and thinking with my hands, being led by the materials… and here I am making pieces about that, making it cerebral/intellectual?Β  Am I trying to bridge build for the people cut off from that life enhancing response to what catches the eye and makes the hands twitch? [in a good way!]


I don’t like being too immediately symbolic, any designs I plan tend to feel hopelessly clunky, but when I just make, I can look at what now exists and see links for nearly all of it… and it’s fine that not all is ‘known’/recognized because that is part of the process too, for me, dealing with how my life and body have been very bent out of shape by random experiences…Being able to make some beauty from it all is more than enough.

Making is vital, a force for living, thriving, engaging and experiencing, living to the full.

Progress report


I have been having many small and irksome obstacles recently, against a background of settling in to the new meds – Gabapentin and then Lansaprazole again to manage the digestive system pain and gripes from the Gabapentin. The Gabapentin is worth persevering with because I am able to read non-fiction again! Even just reading a couple of books a week again has been great and my habit of small pleasures is boosted by new releases from favourite authors πŸ™‚ I feel we all need that, but the ones who need it most are now right against the wall, the Conservative Government is pushing as many welfare cuts as it can before it is before the European Court of Human Rights, for crimes against disabled people. People are dying because they cannot afford the Bedroom Tax on the spare bedroom for their carer, and now that the Independent Living Fund has closed, people will be found dead as people who need round the clock care won’t get it. Many more will die very slowly, each day increasingly painful as bedsores become ulcerated, wounds become infected and carers are allotted only a few minutes to shower and toilet with no extra time to change dressings and change beds… Hard Times in Old England, very hard times…


Against that, my own problems feel petty, but it is worrying that going out one day for a few hours means sleeping for nearly a week, that making one day means being too shaky to stand to heat a ready meal. At the same time, I often feel full of ideas! About politics, about making, about creativity as the core activity for humans, and maybe even what Earth is for..insects and birds and fish all make beauty, with species like the bower bird making aesthetic choices that might challenge an Art graduate, as whale music challenges musicians and mathematicians… who knows?



Anyway, I have been working on a piece in ‘woodland colours’ since before moving, chosen to be fun, freeform and easy to keep track of while moving. Suddenly it has a name: ‘The Vital Spark’! It feels like there is maybe a series unfolding, from Organic Process to a next one which I know will have crimson and lemon yellow in, and that’s all so far! The Vital Spark is about the happy point when a new idea flashes into being, lighting up the hearth of old ashes and mossy, greened-over bricks and logs… all those old ideas are the compost for the bright new shoot, which promises such hope, and makes sense of the dullness of winter, when life was creeping along in very quiet ways that were easy to be ignorant of while bigger events shook the tallest trees…


Cherise came round and we talked about what finishing her degree course means and how art is making-led for some [us] and prestige gaming for others, and what fun bright colours can be and how textures can change readings.. and meanwhile our hands worked away and I had great fun playing with beads to embellish some old work that lost its way [mistakes!] and has now become a feature to bridge between the freeform crochet, found wood and bought elements of raffia and willow [remaindered xmas baubles and mini fencing.]



Beauty is in the eye of the beholder


DSC_0012-002I have been going through more old photos to see what I can use for the blue/brown book. There’s one image of a fence panel I have used so many times πŸ™‚ It’s the one l use for my avatar, it looks like the sea far out on a wave rippled sandy beach…mmm, those lovely summer days when the light is silvery gilt across the wet sands…

somewhere else

I’m getting so many, I’m not sure whether to make a set of ‘inspiration cards’ as well as the books, a lot depends on how my battered old printer copes. Unpacking continues, and I now have

DSC_0014-002the money for a sofa, but that means moving the table through to the studio, which means unpacking the right things into the right places, so focus, and the right willing hands to help.

STA44357-001I have a trip to the sewing machine workshop tomorrow, a friend is taking me and poor maltreated JL300C who can cope with machine cords but runs away on paper or fabric given half a chance, so time for a timing repair. {did you clock the pun?!}

I feel a bit guilty sometimes that I am so hard on certain appliances [my iron is in fine fettle though!!] but part of owning being an artist is respecting which tools I need and then using them well, to the best of my abilities, to do what only I can… I also share access so others can keep their machines pristine, and use materials others would waste, so I hope it is all balancing in the great ledger…

STA43948-001Meanwhile I am working on a black and dark opalescent shot charcoal grey yarn piece, that will either be the petrol pollution for Wasting Waste or, more likely, the holding harness for Cradle for Stones, a piece that has been hovering between WIP [work in progress] and UFO [unfinished object] for a couple of years… one of the benefits of moving and looking at things with new eyes though, is feeling enthused again. Also my lovely local yarn shop, Knit Nottingham had the most amazing ruffle yarn on sale which fits perfectly! I was sitting knitting and having a break before the next stage of a day of chores and another customer asked what I was making… answering “Petrol” did not go well!! Luckily Eleanor was on hand to explain the poor deluded soul was an artist πŸ˜€

organic process

I have been trapped in a super low energy, super painful fibromyalgia flare, hanging on to my moods by my fingertips some days, and with white knuckles on others…Luckily, as the trigger episode fades, my energy is gradually trickling back, and I am beginning to be able to make again, and the piece I was calling Muse/d is now nearly finished. I’ve changed the name to Organic Process, because really, process is my muse…

Layering and clawing back for a raking light; layering and moulding shape and shadow by weighting with embellishments… I make painting and fibre art the same way, with attention to tiny details almost lost in a sea of colours and textures, with similar issues for resolution, finding the moment when the whole is in balance as the sum of its parts… I’m not there yet with this piece, but nearly, nearly…One problem is that the piece is nearly 2 metres tall so simply taking it all in at one glance is almost impossible – which is part of my message to the world! Everything deserves a second glance, a few moments of attention, an exploration before judgments are made…


These photos were taken by Keith Turner, and edited by me






























These are all mine, and need to be taken again using a tripod really, but they give some idea πŸ˜‰