Make It Through the night

dream pillow detail – hand embroidered cotton thread on vintage linen pillow case

Make It Through The Night is the working title of a series of embroidered household textiles, sheets, pillowcases, curtains etc. that I made over a period of approx. 10 years. It is very personal work and it marked a return to my original practice of embroidery into cloth, which I had not done for several years as I have been developing stitched work on enamel – firing vitreous enamel on copper using textile patterns and techniques. Lately I had been trying to make enamel look and behave like fabric, by patterning it and even drilling and stitching it so that it will move and may even be folded.

The return to stitching onto cloth was prompted by the commission for a monkey pelt. I just realised how much I enjoyed the sensation of stitching a needle and silk thread  through fabric – how accepting the cloth was to this process, which sounds obvious, but I’ve spent several years having to drill every single hole in the metal prior to being stitched.

I have undergone such a change in my working practice that I seemed to have lost touch with something else, my confidence in my own work had disappeared – returning to stitching fabric was like stepping into a deep warm pool of knowing and being totally absorbed in the whole process of making. I instinctively understood the medium, I knew which yarn to use, what colours would work and how to get it to absorb or reflect the light. Stitching the commission gave me time to think deeply about what I was making, and why.

Now I needed to somehow get the two elements of my work to come together so that one did not compromise the other, and would also allow me to consider and choose the most telling material or technique in which work. Below I will hopefully explain and illustrate this process and it is shown in chronological order so that there is some sense of how it is evolving.

To begin I looked back through my research /work books and picked up on two seemingly disparate but connecting ideas around making safety curtains/security blankets and embroidering  my dreams…..


I use symbolism in my stitched work, the more traditional and well understood the better. Not for me the hidden personal allusions accessed by close attention to the current philosophical texts.I like hands and heart and eyes and flowers – lilies, pansies and red roses; easy reading for everyone interested to find the underlying ideas and inspirations within sumptuous surface decoration. I have a collection of talismans and milagros, amulets and charms and I make my own versions in a more enduring material than cloth, vitreous enamel, for people to wear for their own needs and protection.

collection of milagros bought in New Mexico after a visit to the Girard collection at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe.

My favourite symbols are hearts, specially the broken and mended heart – no doubt a testament to a bumpy but enduring marriage; hands, often found in friendship jewellry –  if they are holding a heart even better; and eyes – now these are something different, staring eyes are very unsettling. Traditionally the “Evil Eye” is used to deflect envy and malice, it is symbolised in many desert areas in the form of mirrors which also deflect the gaze. These eyes always appear to be the colour of the stranger; where brown eyes predominate they are blue, where blue predominates they are green, we still say “the green eyed god” to denote jealousy. But I use it as the inward eye – the imagination and if it deflects envy at the same time – that’s fine.

my heart brooches, which I made with vitreous enamel over copper and mended with wire.
my small collection of blue glass evil eye amulets, they are placed in various  windows around the house
some of my own heart jewellry mostly given to me by friends and some I have bought for myself, but I made the stone heart badge.

But these symbols signify something extra to me – they are all that I need to make my work. The eyes represents imagination, the hands symbolise my skills, and every idea developed by the intellect needs to resonate in the heart to connect with the viewer. To quote from “The Craftsman” by Richard Sennett, “built into the contractions of the human heart, the skilled craftsman has extended rhythm to the hand and the eye”.

I started to think about this set of work about 12 years ago. I have vivid colour-filled dreams and try to record the most visual ones with notes and sketches. I wanted to make a series of embroidered works about bedding, think security and/or comfort blankets, safety curtains and counterpanes, comforters and pillows for people to sleep soundly and safely. Just recently I have returned to this idea and these pages will illustrate the stages of the developing project that I want to share with you.

Leafing through a book on Paisley shawls I noticed that the end papers showed a map of the traditional “shawl routes of the Orient” I suddenly realised that I was looking at a current war zone – Afganistan,  Turkesten, Iran and Pakistan are all at the heart of this ancient trading route for textiles.

The origins of the paisley pattern now appears to be in the middle of a cultural desert in photographs published in the recent press reports…but this is a land of desert tribes who dressed their children in multi – coloured mirrored clothes to ward off the evil eye, and this is the land of the burka and niqab – the total body, head and eye covering chosen and worn by some Muslim women.

I looked at my own collection of enamelled eyes, previously I had made an enamelled badge collection for a research group to which I belong, and then one Sunday morning I found an image of a pair of eyes staring out of a photograph in the Observer newspaper, a niqab wearer, a woman who did not want to be recognised, she featured in a disturbing article about honour killing in Britain, more disturbing was the fact that all the girls who had been murdered were happy and relaxed, looking straight into the camera and wearing high street fashions.

sketch book with photograph of the Burka eyes with my own enamel eyes surrounding it.

I made this work to show what this garment means to me – it isn’t just about the hidden women but the hidden history of the whole culture. The sensuous and symbolic textiles that have been developed over centuries and now are a part of the whole world’s heritage are also being denied by this garment. The tiny pieces of patterned cloth you can glimpse behind the eyes range from original woven shawl textiles to embroidered versions from the more westerly edges of the route, to modern western fabrics woven for ties and the most accessible form of this pattern the “Liberty Print ” which has become a classic English textile design.

the “envelope” of  black surrounding material  protects the brittle enamel eyes, they are stitched onto padded paisley patterned grounds
construction of the safety curtain in my studio, January 2010

Making this piece of work caused me a great deal of soul searching, it was so difficult to produce; making dozens of pairs of vitreous enamel eyes -first cutting them from copper sheets then firing each one several times. Making the oblong niqab holders from my precious collection of Paisley pieces only to have to hide hide half of the beautifully patterned fabrics with these solid black materials -as simple woven fabric is only allowed for the manufacture or the burka. I was relieved to finished the work, which took several months, but it did give me a way forward for  developing a new set of work. I realised I had made a “safety curtain”, the embroidered netting holding the envelopes together is reminiscent of the open weave fabrics inserted to hide even the eyes of the strictest Muslims women. Conversely it also refers to the net curtains we use for the windows in the West, to avert the gaze of the curious and the stranger.

finished hanging on my studio wall, it is made to fit my studio window, size approx. 100X130 cms

The next piece of work needed to be more personal to lead to the dream ideas, I felt that using the bedding as the link to embroidering the dreams would work and this is where I decided to use the title of “Make it Through the Night” for the whole collection. And I  like the idea of using the enamels as the amulets or protective symbols that the fabrics are holding. But first I just need to get back to freshness, lightness colour and embroidery –  but this is taking rather longer than I had envisaged………


After making “Burka Eyes Safety Curtain” I decided to make a series of work incorporating more symbols from my Milagros collection, and realising it would have to get deep down and personal, I returned to my ideas of protective textiles. Usually I steer clear of anything personal in my work, I prefer to look outward for my inspiration, but having a working title for this series with the theme of “Make It Through The Night” which – let’s face it – is just too good a title to resist,  and knowing it had to lead somehow to the dreams I had drawn (see Burka eyes) I had to commit to some introspection.

I made a list of all the fabrics used in the home which carried double meanings and Bolsters seemed perfect – they are not large, the size of 2 pillows side by side and I had inherited some from my mother and best of all they were made in traditional black and white striped ticking; what a gift for someone looking for inspiration…..but what did I need to bolster myself against?

first drawing for bolster, traces are from my own hands, the layered messages are very different from my usual clear compositions,
samples for bolster writing.

For over a year, I have been taking Yoga classes and trying to build a daily practice which incorporates a meditation session – very short but very powerful. This practice lead me to work on a programme of meditation and self hypnosis, within this I was given a some basic “tools” to counter my tendency towards procrastination, negativity and consequently sleeplessness. Some of the tools I was given take the form of “mantras” or short  sentences to be repeated to help concentrate and re-boot the mind. I was being given these words to bolster my confidence and free my energy, but when I first heard them I could not bring myself to say them, the initial sentence got stuck in my throat. Eventually I did manage to say something but the words came out differently – a Freudian slip – but making perfect if unnerving sense to me. It was my intuition speaking, I could hear myself loud and clear.

the mantra I could not say and how it eventually was spoken

The resulting textile piece is hard to “read” as the words are difficult to distinguish from the interference of the striped ground, but it is stitched onto fabric used to  feather- proof the inside bag and therefore would never be seen on a made – up bed. I am being true to the use of this fabric and my own references; I also thought how powerful it would be to sleep on a hidden pillow of affirmative words.

hidden pillow of affirmative words

The powerful stripe obscures the messages to such an extent that the viewer needs to read and re-read the words – repetition is part of the discipline of yoga practice. The scattered images and overlaid messages are unlike anything I have ever made before, and in complete contrast to the regimented order of the Burka Eyes Safety Curtain that I had made prior to this. Again I feel uneasy about the new work, even though it makes a strong statement of both my own experience and my skill – I did feel very comfortable making this work holding it easily in my hands – I always feel that fabric just wants to be handled. But I am still un-nerved by the presence of this work, several months after finishing it.

detail of different types of stitched writing to try to give different “atmospheres” or meaning to the messages


14th century woodcut -“Frau Minna’s Power Over Mens’ Hearts”

Above is a print that has had a great influence on my work – it was placed as inspiration inside a work book when I first started to learn to enamel. I admire and am amused by the inventiveness which Frau Minna employs for breaking  hearts, but what interested me in this woodcut was the opportunity to find ways of mending them. I embarked on a series of small drawings which gave information for making the wound and the mend, I imagined that fairly specialised techniques may need to be employed.

drawing for mending wounded hearts

Over the last 8 years I have made many wounded and mended hearts in enamel and embroidered the mends often complete with glass beaded blood drops,and I also embroidered a mending sampler with stitched enamel hearts when I first attempted to make work which incorporated enamel and fabric.

embroidered linen and vellum mending sampler with stitched enamel hearts

Recently when researching for a new piece of work for “Make it Through the Night” I looked again at this work, and started drawing out some ideas which would take the idea in a more personal direction. I  felt I would like to make some enamel hearts again and sew them onto a large sheet as a wounds and mending “counterpane as counterpain” but when researching the ideas just wanted to stitch it . I made some drawings after looking at’ The Book of the Heart’ by Louisa Young, one of my favourite research resources, full of all sorts of information both factual and fanciful, a really great tool for generating and developing ideas for me. I had looked an image of the ‘seven wounds of the virgin’ and made seven personal wounds with their individual mending methods.

seven wounds drawing

I started to make drawings of hands holding and sewing the hearts, l needed a hand to copy and had a small Buddha Hand cast in metal and fetched it to draw, it lives in our bedroom and I see it everyday but as picked it up I realised this was a stitching hand. – you know when something just shifts into place? it is like a message from the gods or the universe is telling you are on the right track. I felt this, very strongly. I made whole series of studies of Buddha hands in all their manifestations, (this is where Google Images is so fantastic as a research tool). I had also just started to develop a meditation session at the end of my yoga practice, so maybe this is why I suddenly saw the connection, but this gave the imagery extra depth of meaning and validity for me.

drawing of Buddha Hands in many different attitudes, all of which have meanings attached to them.
stitching sample for hands

I needed to make some samples of how I would stitch these life size drawings onto a vintage counterpane, a top sheet on a bed. The 7 recent personal wounds I chose ranged from the frivolous everyday niggles which grieve me, like having my hair cut – it always ends up too short, or tha fact that  I cannot now wear my glamorous strappy stiletto heel shoes – to the difficult and hurtful wounds; I embroidered a  copy of one of the many rejection letters I received last year, fashioning it into a dart and even to  the saddest, deepest wound of all……

losing our old wire fox terrier dog Burtie, who went down a badger set and never came out even after 2 weeks of us using every method to search the site – visits from the local Badger societies, the fire brigade with heat detectors and even taking a recording of our front door bell and playing it at every entrance to the set – it was the only sound that made him bark spontaneously and the rescue societies said that  if we could definitely hear him barking they would dig him out of the large cliff top set – but we failed to find the proof and gut feelings don’t count at DEFRA. Moving on…. but more importantly I show the mending strategies I have contrived to deal with all these wounds.

As to the problem of the glamorous shoes, well I just have to wear flatties now or very low heels so my beautiful strappy gold leather heels wound is  mended with a large suede heel patch.

stilletto shoes detail

The seven wounds are all seen below on the finished counterpane:- first at the top is the broken heart from lost dog – mended by the inevitable replacement. After 3 years we bought a retired 7 year old stud dog called Bertie, spooky, and we renamed him Boysie; his tartan collar is being fastened round my heart. Clockwise, 2.  The hairdressing scissor cut is being mended with a darn made of real hair (Janet Stoyel donated her own hair, thanks Janet) 3. A direct quote from an apoplectic dog owner who questioned my right to own a dog when I was totally unable to control me and it – Boysie had the temerity to sniff his dog’s bum ( the dog didn’t mind) but the owner was obviously angry with the whole world and I was the only available and safe person to howl at – this is mended with a surgeons knot, a small, secure and safe mend for a tiny but vicious, violent wound.

More seriously, 4. the piercing by breast cancer ribbon -I have had many too friends die of this disease, but the hearts is mended by a darned heart. 5. the stiletto shoes and sensible suede patch, 6 the rejection letter dart and a really intricate darning mend to show I am still worthy of working even if they don’t want me and lastly the tools of my trade which have elicited much grief one way and another,  mended with the mirrored eye of  imagination.

This is the third embroidery in the series and I feel it is much too personal –  but it does  lead straight to my dream drawings where the imagery is personal but also recognisably universal in their symbolism.


a dream drawing December 1998

Time to start incorporating the dream drawings; if I can remember a dream when I wake up, I make very quick drawings and notes but even if I don’t the most vivid will come back to haunt me throughout the day. This dream was both vivid and disturbing but also somehow amusing or at least ironic…all my favourite shoes scattered about my bedroom and when I looked down my feet had been cut off, and I could see the bloody stumps just looking like cut beetroot rings of various reds. The shoes were multi-coloured, but even worse than the loss of the feet was a man’s hairy hand cutting the flowers off my embroidery, this was either in the same room or I had a dream within a dream and this was when I woke up.

Tulipomania embroiery detail
Flora, embroidery and applique 1996

The dream hand was cutting off the flowers from the arrangement in Flora,  but the image of the cut heads was more in keeping with another piece from the series, Tulipomania, where in the centrepiece I had depicted a sleeve appliqued with the cut heads of tulips. Apparently this was a fashion in Holland in the 17th century when striped tulips were so expensive that the wives of growers were said to wear them as jewels.

I am more than aware of the significance of shoes in dreams, and as to the the hairy hand…………..

Moving on – I now wanted to return to the dream and incorporate it into the present work, Make It Through the Night. I did not want to remake these embroideries but to reinvent the dream in the sympathy with my new work. I have been collecting printed mid 20th century embroidery pattern papers and printed linens; I just love those simple outline all ready for filling in with satin stitch on table cloths, tray cloths and antimacassars. I have found many patterns in charity and vintage shops and am using them in other work.

I really like the bland blue or the printed line on linen, it is much more elegant than the finished embroidery illustrated. I also liked the wonderful flowing writing on the magazine page, I am still considering whether to extend and embellish the writing on my embroidery with these leaves.

sketch book research for embroidered flowers

So I was looking though my stash of printed linens for information for the Stitched Ceramics, which feature in the blog, and found this printed bowl of anemonies with one cut off – what  a gift –  I simply traced most of the design onto a large square linen pillow, deciding to embroider the drawing in a simple blue running stitch. I changed the leaves into anemone leaves as they filled the space better and then got down to the business of embroidering the flower heads in encroaching satin stitch.

The more observant of you will have recognised that this is the embroidery that I used for the first header on this blog, I had just completed it when I started the blog in May 2010.

wind flowers a rare – for me -machine embroidered silk applique
enamelled windflower copied from drawing for machine embroidery

But this also relates to other pieces of my work; a machine embroidered panel of wind flowers which I made some years ago, when I was developing the book “The Embroiderer’s Floral” (Collins and Browne 2002 ISBN 1 85585 975 0) and that I translated in enamel onto  a large copper dish. If you spend a lot of time and effort researching and drawing for work it pays to use the references as much as possible. I find that I constantly refer to my old drawings and technical research, which is kept in a series of work books dating from my late 1960’s art college sketch books.  I am often either embarrassed or bored by my old work but I always find the work books stimulating and refer to them constantly. I suppose because they are full of  ideas in the making – finished pieces have arrived and never have that sense of potential that the first studies always contain.

the finished dream pillow

The embroidered pillow is really just the adjunct to the main shoe dream, which is my next embroidery. I aim to stitch it on a sheet to make a set of bedding, but it is a daunting prospect  -not just the physicality of stitching such a large hand embroidery but the dragging up of all those old ideas that gave rise to that particular dream.


the finished dream pillow

This embroidery has been a real struggle to  make, which is so strange as I have had the drawing of this particular dream for over 10 years; have often looked at it and thought “one day”……I have written about the struggle to make it in the post Slow Progress. But I have now finished it so this is by way of a celebration – but I will give an overview of the whole process and then must consider where I go next with this long drawn out project.

What is interesting though is how close the finished piece is to the original quickly scribbled drawing done the morning after the dream. I know that first drawings are full of energy and although often ill proportioned or scrappy they hold a truthfulness that will always tell itself later. I have come to respect my first idea drawings as the most immediate access to my own vision. and this drawing has stood the test of time, and is why I am happy to keep showing it in all its rushed scribbled state. The hairy hand section gave ride to the last pillow embroidery – “and then I woke up”

Originally I decided to embroider all my dreams onto bed sheets and bought several single vintage linen sheets to work on so that everything was life size. I liked the idea of “A sheet of dreams” – still do actually – of making large simple dream drawings in the traditional fabrics and techniques used for bed linen. When you consider it there is a lot to be worked with here, white work in the form of  padded lettering from the grand sheets of stately homes…through to patchwork, quilting (above) and candlewicking (right) – a rich set techniques which really deserve an entire project to themselves; but this is personal work and has to tell my story as well as delight me – and hopefully my audience – in developing my practice as a textile artist – sometimes technique  just gets in the way…………..

original sheet – abandoned after printing on linear design

I started to make the samples for the large scale sheet, it was all very interesting and I was veering off into other ideas, like using the blue line from the printed linen embroidery patterns as in the previous pillow, I wanted to keep these as a pair – a matching set – suddenly all my homemaking “mix and match” attitudes came to the fore…… But I really got bogged down in this process, it was difficult to control the iron on transfers, and ultimately I didn’t think the overall effect was strong enough when after a month of drawing and transferring I looked long and hard at the results.

I am ashamed to say that this is the result below – I have just hauled this out of the fabric stash for the project, where I first abandoned it months ago, in order to make my point – sad isn’t it? Still I may be able to cannibalise it (re-cycle) for something else one day.

abandoned sheet of transfer designs

I eventually reasoned that the decorative delights of the trompe loeil ‘ patchwork’ section which I was happily playing with was really supposed to reveal the contours of my body in the bed using the stitched lines of the ‘ quilting’ as seen clearly in the original working drawing below. But they just were not strong enough and i was really trying to be too clever by half.

original working drawing squared for sizing up onto cloth

Meanwhile I made other works – and so generally let the problem lie at a low level, to be absorbed knowing that eventually it would re-emerge…this is how work often resolves itself; you just have to be patient and let it suggest its own way forward…..then I made some handkerchieves for the Stitching and Thinking project leading on from the imagery in the Stitching Ceramics and realising how good it was to work small and quickly again – I thought I could maybe make the work smaller and embroider a” pillow of dreams” – after all, I reasoned, this is where you lay your head and where all the action stems from.

working the pillowcase

So I set to work again restitching the whole image onto a vintage linen Oxford pillowcase. The drawings remained exactly the same, but now I used running stitches to describe the quilt then padded it in a trapunto technique to emphasise the body shape that emerges from the distorted “patchwork”. This was all really interesting to work, I was now on the right track and gone were the misgivings of “copping out” for a smaller scale.

I am particularly pleased with the effect of the body in the bed – trapunto quilting also works for the white work stitched body, seen above the sheet  – I look a bit wrinkled, but not as much as in real life!

me dreaming of me

Now the observant will have noticed that a checked pattern has been applied to the dreamer’s pillow, this is when decoration is really functional, the white worked face just disappeared into the ground and the whole piece looked unbalanced, rather vague in fact.  It was difficult to make much out at all so I embroidered the patterned pillow to make the body and hair clearly apparent suddenly the piece has a whole focus but in fact the face – the usual focus of any attention still recedes into the background. I had always looked forward to stitching the shoes though, the drawings were taken from many old sketches and my own collection -some shoes I cannot bear to throw away…….

my old shoes ready to be transformed into the stuff of dreams.

And I do love drawing shoes, they appeal to me for many reasons and I have kept a small battered collection. Shoes are such a give away to a person’s idea of themselves – even if you can’t wear them. In fact I have just  heard a sad story of an old friend of mine who has teeny tiny feet (you know who you are Irene Bohan) and she always wears the most vertiginous and exquisite shoes she can afford. Now she has been told she can’t wear her teetering heels anymore – due to some rare medical development (probably due to the shoes in the first place but I feel she would think it a fair swap all those years and years of shoe pleasure) – but I dare not yet contact her – it is too sad – but I wonder if she has any shoe dreams?

so here are a few tiny hand embroidered shoes to look at

there’s always an odd shoe in a bedroom

I have written at length in Slow Progress about the stitching of the shoes and the effect it had on me regarding hand v computer driven machine stitching but now that I have finished this work I just want to have the shoes seen as precious objects in themsleves, and this is something that traditional hand embroidery does confer on its subjects – preciousness – well that is carefully crafted hand embroidery. I am interested that this piece now reflects the atmosphere of the dream, not in its detail but in the curious jewel like quality of the shoes and my disbelief – well horror really – at looking down and seeing those bloody but not bleeding stumps.

I also like very much the fact that the fabric of the old pillow has been pulled out of shape by the stitching process and undulates now instead of lying nice and flat and starched as it did when I bought it. This is a departure for my work – I always used to stretch my embroideries and fasten them on frames to keep them tight. Now I like this fluidity of the fabric, the fact that it has responded to being handled in many ways – but also I feel that this preference has to do with the flatness and firmness of the metal grounds which I used for many years when I was enamelling my imagery.

PS So many years later, in an overview of the work shown here, I decided to make some changes to this particular piece of work – a rare thing for me to do, (unpicking fine stitching is a nightmare) I had never been happy with the trapunto version of my head and arms so I decided to re-embroider them – and the feet had then to be changed and I made extra patterns on the bed sheet… Here is the result .

   6: Patch Grief With Proverbs


Eventually I have completed another piece of this ongoing project …..well more of a set of work, 23 vintage linen handkerchiefs, hand embroidered with  mending mottoes and pieces of heart- felt advice….. ready to get anyone anywhere, through the night.


This set of work was made specifically for a mixed exhibition called “Mending at the Museum” that I organised with colleague, Dawn Mason, to be shown at The Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery for 6 months in 2012 – 2013. It was developed from a real catastrophe, that caused me some grief.


I had intended to make a series of paper porcelain plates with mending mottoes stamped into them for the exhibition, but it proved to be really difficult to organise my time for making them, mainly due to my work commitment developing Heart Space Studios as a place for learning, loving and buying textiles. I needed something I could make on my own alone, and in my own time, whenever and wherever I could find any. So I decided on Handkerchiefs – lots of handkerchiefs to make a wall of work.


Working from the mended heart on the Counterpane  (check out other posts above) I continued with the motif of the Buddhist Mudra hands to be performing the stitching and mending. I realised that I could pull 2 separate strands of my work together, the Stitching and Thinking project with my Make It Through the Night series. However this is was not what I had originally anticipated; I had wanted to make a mixed media piece next, but that would take a lot of  in- depth research and when work has to be developed quickly for a deadline – ‘stick to what you know’ seemed the best strategy.


So I started to make lists and scribbled various ideas down in my work book – I just had to find as many proverbs about mending, patching, broken hearts, any hearts really, so that I could to start the series. I spent hours and hours on the web searching for literary quotes and trawling and through old  proverb books, but could only find about 25. However some of the newer mottoes or ‘Inspirational Sayings” I found on the web, were really apt for me.


Never mind I had to make a start, or rather re-start, I had already made 4 handkerchiefs which all matched in size and quality, but now I had to find as many linen handkerchiefs as possible – have you seen the price of  good new linen handkerchiefs? I decided to go vintage – hunting around stall and fairs for several months to track down 25…in the event this made me start to develop other ways of stitching them; the different qualities of the linen and the range of sizes made for more variable choices.


The really fine linens made me develop running stitch writing, the back or whipped back stitches I used before this where too heavy for the fabric, they looked clumsy. And quite often the meaning of the mottoes made me choose a particular letter style. the lettering below is tent stitch over waste canvas, really tricky to handle on such fine linen – the free hand numerals on the tape measure were easier, but slower, to stitch.


I also started to look at other graphics than the mudra hands. I have had 2 St John’s Ambulance bandage slings for several years, one pinned to my studio wall, I really like the fact that it is an instruction manual that is used for it’s own purpose ( there is a good idea here to be made much of one day – meanwhile) the early 19th century drawings of men getting mended really appeals to me –


so I took one of the bandage illustrations and put it with an appropriate motto…a motto I think is apt for many and varied situations


other mottoes called for other drawing or is it printing techniques?


The embroidered handkerchief is tiny but says a lot – specially to me……..


The subjects of the mottoes also made for different and difficult material patches to be inserted,

woollen checked fabric is inserted as a patch for this coat mending motto.

Checked fabric also made an easier way to weave a patch into a ground – the striped threads when they have been pulled out  are a good guide for even stitching.

gingham pulled threads for weaving a patch evenly.

However I made most of the pieces by just writing the motto straight onto the handkerchief in my own handwriting and traced the appropriate hand shape using a water soluble pen, then placed the fabric in an embroidery hoop and stitched away to my heart’s content.


From the inception of this large set of work, I decided to make as many different darns and mends as possible, depending on the meaning of the motto but also to pay my respects to the original darning samplers. So sometimes I chose really difficult darns –  like this below – the cloth is stitched and then the background of the darn is cut away to leave a woven red cotton zig zag shape… well it does say “expert” doesn’t it?


Eventually after almost 7 months working, I was running out of time – and steam. There comes a moment in any long term project when you think “I have done enough”, this either means that you have managed to fill the space you need to, or more likely that you have got your idea across in a manner you feel is forceful enough. Time to stop, but when I eventually measured out a wall space, on the floor, and after many attempts to get a balanced composition had placed all the handkerchiefs in their allotted position – I realised that I needed either 2 more for it to look really full, or one more big one!

So one really big one it was then. I had 2 options: 4 lines of a poem by WH Auden about broken hearts  that is a real inspiration to this whole set of ongoing work ….or a Greek quotation given to me by Basil Kardasis,  who was also working on the project –  Basil’s quote was shorter and so got chosen…


I do feel that this is exactly what we all need to have in your possession in times of grief –  sympathy and protection from a trusted friend. I got Basil to hand-write his message for me and send it through the post in time for me to complete the embroidery.

Reflecting on this work: these stitched handkerchiefs are deceptively simple in their appearance. They are not the most intricate or beautifully worked embroideries I have ever made and they are certainly the least colourful. The stitching techniques employed are simple and available to anyone with access to a few old embroidery manuals – I copied most of the darns and patches out of pages from books that I have had for years.

What has been of real interest and has kept me focused on what could have been a fraught and tedious time spent stitching, is the constant research and referencing to find the most telling choice of materials and techniques for each piece. I feel that this body of work illustrates the idea underpinning the project ‘Stitching and Thinking’ – that when involved in the slow process of hand making, there is time to reflect on each decision required in the process, whether it is technical, material or philosophical. This results in the whole of the work melding together in a unified whole that feels inevitable when complete.

Meanwhile, it has been several months since I finished this set of work – or thought I had – but that other poem kept nagging me to be embroidered on a large scale cotton lawn handkerchief. So here it is – the last 4 lines of “The Song of the Captain and the Boatswain” by W.H.Auden, and yes I have copyright permission to exhibit it.


7:my butterfly dream

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Peacock butterfly

It is almost 20 years since I had this disturbingly beautiful dream but I have NEVER forgotten it. Re-visiting my sketch books archive, I found the original drawing that was hastily scribbled down when I thankfully I woke up.

Now, I have decided to complete my long standing/stitching on going work project “Make it Through the Night“, after not working on it for more than 5 years. I have determined to complete the project to a degree where I can hopefully resolve it but so as not have it in my brain as frustrating “unfinished business”. I just can’t ignore it any more…. too much of me resides in it; and as the composer Gustav Holtz puts it ” Compose nothing unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance”

The initial drawing , above left, is dated 28th July 03; the second drawing is another later version when I was trying to make a composition for a stand-alone embroidery….. now I have decided to add it to the ‘dream pillows‘ and I need a different composition. Recently looking very carefully at the 2 drawings I realised I had completely forgotten that the butterfly had a face – YIKES!

In the actual dream it was a giant butterfly several yards/metres wide, dying and lying on some grass underneath a tree, the remnants of wings scattered round it. People were picking up the large technicoloured pieces of shattered wing and I really wanted some as well – but I thought I would get it something to drink first, then decided to pick it up and take it to a nearby puddle, the result was my butterfly covered hands…I abruptly woke up.

I started to research the ways on which I could have held the massive butterfly. I looked at many different British butterflies and chose the Peacock mainly because it was so colourful but it has eyes as well – one of the major symbols I use in my work. Every year we get smaller butterflies over-wintering in the house but these beauties are rare here.

I had my own hand prints on silk, from an earlier area of research and I liked the way the lines of the palm were voided. I now transferred the palm lines to the outlines of my hands so that they would interrupt the wing pattern.
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moving around with the photocopied cut out hand shapes to find interesting enlarged wing patterns to embroider.

I enlarged the first peacock butterfly image and cut out my hand shapes…next I had to add the patterns to enable me to stitch the whole hands……the original working drawings below with a a technical sample that I would use for the very complicated patterned hands. I decided to paint dye onto the ground first to give me guidance for the colour blending and to assess the amount of work I would have to manage.

the separate hand drawings with a very crude but vital painted dye and stitching sample.

Next I had to imagine the shattered butterfly – I tried many variations; the shape had to show a degree of violence and some direct connection in the shapes left after my hands had devastated it, because it shows the terrible result for the insect…

3 of many versions of the lay-outs for the pillow, the hand writing is in water soluble pen

I drew the hand outlines and running stitched them, then drew my palmistry lines on each hand and painted dye within the lines and fixed it securely – all of this before I could start stitching, which I was itching to do …..

first day stitching hands
last day stitching hands

2 images above show the first and last day’s stitching of the hands. I started this project in early August and now it was late September – I needed to move onto the butterfly now…

working from my research drawings, I drew and embroidered the main area of the butterfly and then placed paper shapes to act as the shattered wings to make some connection to my hands.

research materials and dyed butterfly with the embroidered version with paper shapes in place for the broken wings.

It was at this point that something strange started to happen….I found a trapped Peacock butterfly in the window of my studio, I was delighted, I had never seen one of these in the house; the weather was still warm, so I let him go….

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But then more and more Peacocks came into the studio, and in different areas of the house… in all we had 11 different Peacocks visit us. SPOOKY WOOKY……

the 3 photographs are of just some of the 11 different butterflies that came into the house over the last 3 months while finishing the embroidery. The image of the butterfly lying in my palm was taken on 25th December – amazingly it died with it’s wings folded back to show the eyes, I take this as a rare and wonderful Christmas present.

Sadly some of them died indoors and I keep them in m studio – they are all in different conditions; some very tattered wings and faded colour but others still beautiful.

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my small collection of some of the autumn visitors I think there is another embroidery here……

so I eventually finished the pillow, completed the writing in running stitch and it is ready to join the Make it Through the Night project.

8:My Comfort Blanket

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the finished Butterfly Dream Pillow.

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Affirmative sayings seem to be the philosophy of our times, the be-in-the-here-and-now mindfulness movement. But I have been collecting and pasting all sorts of sayings and mottoes in my work books and on my studio walls for years. Quotations, overheard remarks or messages and even poems from friends sometimes develop into pieces of work, but most often they just serve to enable me to grin and bear with it – see above!

A current favourite was heard when I was mid-way through making the ‘Butterfly Dream Pillow’ – “I am proud of it and I am ashamed of it” immediately struck me as the perfect expression for how I feel about the work I do. I wrote it down on my work-top with the first thing that came to hand – an indelible pink marker! I have read it out to other artists and makers, and they smile and nod in recognition.

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A quote from an interview heard on Radio 4 by a musician having just heard his own work played, my heart goes out to him.

It almost made it onto my own Comfort Blanket, which is part of my ongoing work project, Make it Through the Night..and I did write it out along with the ones that have stood the test of time. I wrote all of them onto large scale graph paper so that my own handwriting could be resized, with the idea of stitching them easily. I have had this ‘affirmative sayings’ idea for several years, and for several different media, even as a vitreous enamel patchwork, but never had the time or energy to face making it. In between some commercial projects, late last year I started to make it – piece-meal.

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the first attempt at designing the blanket as a strippy quilt with inspiration from an American quilt

Above show the first attempts to design the ‘blanket’ idea as a quilt; the inspirational Strippy Quilt above right is an American design, I love the wobbly lively stripes, like a flying flag. Initially I had considered stitching a vintage wooden blanket, then I realised that heaving around such a large piece of fabric would not be easy for a lot of hand embroidery. I remembered a Strippy Quilt in Unconventional & Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar” by Roderick Kiracoffe, it inspired me to change tack, this way I could stitch the sayings piece-meal and patch them all together at the end; it also meant I didn’t have to decide the order of the quotations immediately.

I started by using some scraps of vintage striped deckchair fabrics, but they were too hard to hand stitch into. I turned to my stash of scrap fabrics, Kaffe Fassett Studio’s lovely subtle shot cottons and woven stripes left over from various quilts that my team have made for his Patchwork and Quilting books were perfect. Very colourful and here very RED, and “the purest and most noble minds are those that love colour”. But not having enough of any one fabric for the background I cut my stripes into strips and joined the clashing shot cotton colours together as a background.

I have a saying that lives with me – a mantra that I recite during my sleepless hours of most nights; it has subtly changed over the years I have used it to still my thoughts, and I can chart my state of mind by what I have decided.

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My subtly changed mantra is stitched onto the same set of fabrics, ready to be cut up and placed in the telling positions….
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slowly the ‘blanket’ collects more words and becomes unnervingly personal for me; The Reverend Sydney Smith’s sublime epithet for not judging a book by its cover is really barbed, and oooh how many times have I wanted to say this out loud!!!!!

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The finalised order pinned together on the quilt wall, tells a story about my working life over the last decade and more……hard to display – but here I am.

Eventually I got them all into order, some sayings were dropped or the blanket would be enormously long I would need to re-design, others were added as they described more succinctly what I wanted to express about how I feel about the work I do. The quotations are all by individuals who have used their life to express themselves, teachers and critics, a bon vivant, a dancer – and me. They are in order from the top, The Rev. Sydney Smith, John Ruskin, Richard Sennett and the last 2 (heavily edited) are by the American dancer Martha Graham. The succinct “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. sums up my husband’s philosophy for living…

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Now to the ‘quilting’ or just a system of large straight stitches ‘in the ditch’ of the seams, to hold the the layers together. The finished piece is a tad wobbly, due to my inexpert ‘quilting’. Hey Ho, you can’t do it all!
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Each quotation has its owner’s name and dates stitched onto the back of the quilt to be in line with the quotation

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The finished piece pinned to my studio wall, waiting to be blocked and pressed;

And ” I am proud of it and I am ashamed of it” – go figure!

9 my

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          don’t look down!

These rapid drawings below are early attempts to express one of my most vivid dreams lest I ever forget it…. But the dream was not ready to be forgotten, it has reoccured often in one form or another – evidently I have not learned its message; the loosening ladder rungs and the tiny impossible blue window never change

the earliest drawing above has some written comments that I was interested in using for the embroidery; the next version below is scaled up for embroidering on a sheet! What was I thinking?

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Here I am again some years later, climbing out of the chaos of my scribbled designs of darning designs for a book that never actually got published!!!!! with a burning heart and no way back down that ladder . Circa 1998.

I recently decided to embroider it as one of my pillows for my ongoing project Make it Through the Night . It is a simple idea and everyone who sees the drawings is amused by me in my nightdress losing my shoes…but I started this piece just before the lockdown and now I see it in a very different light.

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The most recent drawing I made using a photograph of me in my nightshirt climbing on a chair.
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my drawing now traced straight onto the pillowcase in water soluble pen – the originals alongside

In interpretations of dreams there are many meanings to ladders for either climbing up or down, a broken rung ( just the one) means ” you will never achieve your greatest ambitions” and “to lose a shoe is indicative that you have forgotten something important ” or “finding your direction in life difficult”

And as to the lack of underclothes whilst climbing a very high wall!!!!!

I found stitching the ladder the most challenging piece of work, a vintage pillow has only a limited space for inserting embroidery hoops and working straight onto fine linen needs stretching i wanted to use some natural linen yarns and to whip them into position to make more fluid line… finding knots and drawing them became a fascination

above are the various ways I managed to stitch the ladder into position.

Now to the window, in some dreams it is teeny tiny, in some dreams I get to go through it – only to find a steep and shaky descent on the other side into nothingness: the one thing always in common is that it is always a brilliant and shining blue

the background of the sky is painted with cotton dye prior to finishing the ladder stitching then embroidered in silk threads it is high up in the farthest corner of the pillow case

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and here it is finished – washed, starched and pressed as a proper piece of Household linen

I think it makes its own statement with out the words – and why should it balance, I mean, what am I describing?

However, it was well into the current lockdown before I had found the impetus to finish this work. I realised that I just wanted to call a halt on this project using my very personal ideas, dreams, mottoes, and observations onto bed linen – all organised to assist the maker to make it through the night…I did have other ideas that I planned to stitch but now I no longer want to make. It has taken me over 10 years to get to this dream and I have done enough.

And besides where will get to show it now? at the back of my mind it would make a small neat show in a gallery and possibly I could sell it off piece by piece…BUT I have done with it, all the introspection and personal imagery and the lack of colour that conforms with traditional bedding textiles are making me just want to stop.

Now I aim to celebrate….

12 thoughts on “Make It Through the night

  1. Dear Janet, You embroidered me a brooch rather a long time ago – of one eye – an eye belonging to my husband, your brother-in-law. I think it must have been longer than 12 years ago? Anyway I loved it, you for making it, our trip to an antique shop perhaps in Bristol to get a circle of gold (with a golden bow as its pin) to contain the eye portrait – all such sensations of having the work made for me I recall with much feeling.

    I wore it often. The act of pinning your gift to my breast filled me with pride.

    Though I never investigated the strong emotions at the time, I suspect it had something to do with the delight of having a ‘family’ made up of so many gifted individuals, this being not only you but your husband/my brother-in-law – as well as my husband. But there was something else, not thought through – the wearing of an eye looking back at those looking at it – was it some kind of shield? It felt so. I did feel protected. Is this why some creatures have eyes on their backs and wing tips? And is this defensive marking coded memory in our species?

    Anyway, I wear the brooch still. It carries much cargo. I think maybe I should send it to you for your collection. But not yet. I’m glad to recall that your work so expertly stirs the deepest of feelings, clearly as a result of your skill intelligence and percipience.


  2. Hi Ros, well yes I do remember stitching this eye and I have found the research pages from my old workbook with the drawings and a hand written card from you pinned to it….and I also remember we were all very exercised by whether the right eye or the left eye was to be chosen to be embroidered as each eye held different meanings.

    I have found an old slide of the finished piece, complete with velvet ribbon, but at present am having some difficulty obtaining a copy from my scanner.. but I will persevere with this and hopefully get the sketches and research onto the blog a.s.a.p.

    But thanks for the message, I like the idea of the defensive markings/imagery/symbols being hard – wired into our subconcious and eyes on wings are said to be warnings or even subterfuge……I feel some more ideas emerging here,

    Thanks as always for your insightful thinking. Janet

  3. Dear Janet,

    I “know” you from Thomasina Beck’s “Gardening with silk and gold”. I’m very glad that I found your blog – that’s a great place, your ideas and works are simply beautiful.
    Would you mind if I ask for the source of “Frau Minna’s power..” illustration? I’m interested in Medieval art as one of my inspirations and this picture is really something.

    Wishing you all the best,
    Bozena Wojtaszek

    1. Dear Bozena,
      I am so glad that you found my blog as well, you are the first unsolicited comment maker for the blog, by which I mean that you weren’t directed to me via anyone I know but somehow found me out there!

      Yes she is quite a lady isn’t she – Frau Minne? I fist found the illustration in a book you will definitely want to get hold of – ” The Medieval Art of Love – Objects and Subjects of Desire” by Michael Camille,published in 1998 by Laurence King Publishing at Calman & KIng Ltd. The British Library number – IBSN 1 85669 142 x the title and text are as follows:-
      “Frau Minne’s Power over Men’s Hearts/1479. Woodcut Berlin, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz. Kopferstchkabinet. and the author says of the image, “…displays brutal torures of the lover’s unfortunate organ. No fewer than eighteen hearts are pummeled, squeezed, sawn in half, pressed by thumbscrews, and speared like so many kebabs by Frau Minne. The inscriptions in German refer to the power of women over men’s hearts. No image better represents the fantasy of pain and fragmentation that men constructed and enjoyed and which served to reverse the real situation and make women the rulers not only of men’s bodies but of their souls as well” – which for me somehow fails to capture the look of smiling indifference on her sweet face, which speaks to me of a whole other form of equality or inequality; the power of the loved over the lover, which has nothing to do with gender or social issues. I also have found the image, uncoloured, in “The Book of the Heart” by Louisa Young,published by Flamingo in hardback and paperback, ISBN 00 00 710910 5. which I think I mention in the blog, but she has little to say about it, but the book is really fascinating – if you like heart imagery.

      This image has given me so many ideas and, I have to say, amusement for many years – it is pinned on my studio wall as well as stuck in my workbook and I come back to it again and again. Isn’t is strange when something ‘speaks’ to you so strongly from so long ago? Anyway I see by your details that you have a textile blog as well, which I will find as soon as I have posted this. Hope you find the book on medieval love, it is full of wonderful things, heart shaped books, illuminated manuscripts jewellry and accessories- you are sure to be inspired by it.
      Thanks again for your interest in my work, Janet

  4. Thank you, dear Janet, for your fulfilling reply (and yes, “The Medieval Art of Love” is on my wish list now).
    I like the surprises the Medieval illustrations bring to us – it is enough just to look at them closely and it turns out that we, the human beings are still the same.
    Some years ago I discovered Castle of Love – I couldn’t believe to my eyes that the women were throwing real flowers to the fighting knights. (V&A museum has one of these cases
    And now your Frau Minne with her cruelty 🙂

    And I guess that in your Tulipomania that is where the pigs and other surrounding creatures which catched my eye 🙂

    And thanks a lot for your kind words about my blog!

  5. Hi Janet
    I dont know whether you will remember me, iwas a student of yours at UWE i graduated in 2000.Fashion textiles i was a mature student!!. You have been a great inspiration to me, you might remember helping me with a wallhanging based on Wells Cathedral my first intro to textile?,You guided me and helped me make the decision to change from illustration ,and i am still working in textiles which has really changed my life. ,i have just become a member of swtg and i understand you are coming to talk with us at the next meeting.I hope to get to it but will be working(teaching watercolours) at Bridgwater Art Centre where i have worked for the last 10 years since graduating.Meanwhile opening my studio for Somerset arts weeks and selling my work, scarves, hats,bags, machine and hand stitched pictures.Just wanted to let you know that i have enjoyed reading your blog and looking at your work. Hope to see you again and to have a chat.
    Very best regards
    Carole Watson

    1. Hi Carole, I do remember the Cathedral hanging and so pleased that you made the transition to textiles and stayed with it, it is such a broad media to work within.
      I have just left my research post at UWE, to concentrate on my new business teaching drawing and stitching in Bristol at the Heart Space Studios…quite a life style change and I do miss doing my own work, but need to get things established.

      I still keep in touch with lots of my old colleagues, not sure who you will remember, Chris Drew, who moved to France or Sonja Andrew who now works at Manchester Uni, all well and thriving in their own ways.

      good luck and keep reading….Janet

      1. Hi again Janet
        I would be interested if you ever do the Kimono workshop with ombre dying etc, will you keep me informed please?
        I did know Sonia- so she is in Manchester, wish her well if you speak to her please.
        best regards

  6. Your work is exquisite! I love that union jack corset. I am a huge british fan and that is so amazing. I would love to have one made . Is this possible? Can you please let me know how I can order? Thank you!

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