Portfolio Surgery

Inspirational vintage embroidery

This vintage embroidered panel was brought to me by Caroline Doran who has requested a mentoring session recently at Heart Space Studios. Caroline was a member of our regular Knit and Stitch group who meet each week to talk, work and enjoy textiles together. The last time I had seen her she had brought a small hand embroidery she was working on, it was of her own neighbourhood with some enormous cranes from a local building site – she had asked me for some advice on windows . I remember discussing the work at length, which looked really very promising …then I didn’t see her for several months!

original neighbourhood embroidery – Caroline Doran

However she turned up again asking if I could review her work as she was a bit “stuck” : how well I know what that feels like…” is this piece worth going on with? What am I doing this work for?  Why can’t I seem to keep going with the same momentum I started off with? Have I any other better ideas? We all experience this doubt when we make work that is slow going, you just have to keep stitching but it helps if you have some record of the why as well as the way the work came to be made – research – for want of a better word.

a small selection of the inspirational objects

Before Caroline come to the tutorial I asked her to bring some inspirational objects or documents as well as evidence of her personal  research –  fabrics, photographs, books, drawings, scraps books, old work – whatever made her want to commit to actually making her ideas. She brought several telling things and as she unpacked them I started to make groups that showed how her own work connected to what she had brought along. Tilleke Schwarz ( on of my own great favourite embroiderers) had evidently been a real influence, in fact Caroline has attended on of Tilleke’s workshops in England. She had translated Tilleke’s acerbic but generally neutral stitched commentaries and slogans to make her own negative statements…

Tilleke Shwarz catalogue with an opposing down beat message

a sure reflection of how she was viewing her work ( and in complete contrast to my own rather more upbeat slogans)


She also brought in several books, by other embroiderers who use applique and patchwork, notably Janet Bolton, but also the catalogue from the London Foundling Hospital about the mementoes left by mothers with the children they had entrusted to the future to the care of the institution. There is a very strong set of images and ideas being laid out before me. I was very intrigued to see what other work she had brought in to show me. A few years ago Caroline had undertaken an arts  foundation course and she also brought along some of the work that she thought was still relevant to her now.

I find that the great breadth of foundation courses are brilliant for introducing students to a wide range of ideas and media but after a few years ‘at home alone’ the personal and, let’s face it, the available will re-assert itself. This situation can lead people to feel that they are not being adventurous, or the work doesn’t count as it is made of such mundane materials. But I think that this is the real strength of textile practice, for the most part it can be made using materials that are readily available, and these materials are the stuff of everyone’s lives and so are have many and varied associations with which to connect – for both makers and viewers. One thing that good foundation courses do give students is a sure sense of self-critical analysis, and this Caroline had acquired, if anything she was too critical, getting things ” too perfect” had rendered much of her latest work a bit lifeless, and she knew this – but how to remedy this is part of why she has come to me for help.

This set of work looked very different from the first work that had been brought out – a mixture of different media about all connected to her very strong family affinity to Ireland and her grandmother’s home. I was struck by several “necklaces” and embroidered images  that made me think of rosaries,

recycled ‘rosary’

so wasn’t surprised when her grandmother’s real rosary turned up stitched onto a piece of work.

grandmother’s rosary stitched into woven fabrics

and her grandmother’s image was printed onto another fabric applique

photographic print of onto fine voile

I was beginning to see the connection between the vintage embroidered verse – almost a prayer – that had come as  piece of inspiration, with this almost sacred treatment of her Irish heritage. I started to ask about this connection and heard how Caroline still felt deeply connected to her Irish roots,  still retained a religious faith and was now concerned with working with evidence of her family background, maybe using photographs, maps and other found objects. The most arresting piece that she showed me from this set of work was literally found – on a land fill site where she had made a necklace from shards of broken glass, pottery and stones – again a  sort of secular rosary ….regarding or touching the objects made the viewer consider other lives, other places, tiles, bottle caps, lichen, glass, bark…..

shard necklace from land-fill site

I was now considering how to help develop these disparate sets of materials and concerns into a more cohesive textile context, obviously some form of collage, applique or mixed media patchwork….when, as sometimes happens at the studios, we had 2 visitors from ‘Billie Jean’ which is a lively Bristol vintage clothes and fabric shop, they had been sent to us to show some things that we might be interested in seeing; and these were….. patchworks. Asking Caroline’s permission, I invited them in to see some absolutely lovely recycled tweed and knitted cashmere patch-worked blankets, that Billie Jean herself had made from their stash of old cashmere knitwear and woolen jackets, we were soon all chatting away about recycling, the beauty of old fabrics and how much we enjoyed the experience of just handling and making with textiles.


And as several of Caroline’s inspirational books had been about patchwork and applique, this seemed to be a good omen for the way to go…..as part of the mentoring session we now had to decide the way forward. I advise people how they might develop the next stage of their work, it is entirely up to them if they choose to take that advice. I see my mentoring role to be that of a person immersed in the same materials, techniques and often similar subjects as the people asking advice, and having been through similar making (or not making) experiences many times I have developed several strategies for looking at the work, getting some perspective on it – finding connections and as any tutor will do – suggesting new things to research to take the work forward.

group of half worked embroideries and drawings

We now had to look at what was in front of us, decide what was to be developed immediately, what could be parked for working on later when there had been more time for fresh research, and what could be safely consigned to a folder or file of  past experience. I had grouped several half – worked embroideries and drawings together, they seemed to relate to a celebration of the city and street life, I liked their vivacity and thought that they could be somehow ganged up together to make a larger patchwork piece. This means they have to be somehow made to work together, more of the simple line drawings can be assimilated worked as appliques or linear stitching and as made into a textile map of Caroline’s geographical space.

We will wait to see if she brings anything back to me in the month ahead. I am considering developing mentoring as part of Heart Space Studios activities…so I do hope that she has gained some benefit from this initial session.

How do you find the time?

Sue Pickering’s felt frustrations

“How do you find the time” ? I am often asked this when people question me about my stitched work. Depending on the frame of mind I’m in, I  answer “would you ask a man that”?  but most often I simply state “This is what I do, and not much else gets done”.

Lately I am having to really study other people’s ways of working as I have been requested to mentor 2 volunteers, “>Sue Pickering and Sarah Thorp, at Heart Space Studios, in return for 2 days work each a week, when they help with the day-to-day activities of the studios, organise the publicity and take part in the weekly planning meetings. I feel certain that if it wasn’t for our team of volunteers, headed by the first and foremost, Sophie Bristol, Heart Space would not be in business and still growing.

Sue Pickering – Art foundation work

The idea of personal mentoring for developing her own textile practice came from Sue, in return for sorting out my publicity and keeping the studio neat (did I say she is a neat- freak)? she asked if I would discuss her work with her and give her some special making classes. She had been to several of the Heart Space classes, and realised that she needed some different direction for developing her own ideas.  But crucially, after recently completing an Art Foundation year and as mother to 2 school age children (with a previous career as a university lecturer with a doctorate in psychology) she knew she had neither the funds nor the time to continue academic studies.

Sarah Thorp: first knitted scarves

 Likewise Sarah saw the same opportunity, she was willing to give her own time to “get the word out” about the Studios. Having been a knitter from her early years and completed the same Foundation year as Sue, she also has a young family to look after and is frustrated not to be able to develop her own designs to sell in the regular Bristol art trails in which she participates and helps organise. Sarah is now using Heart Space Studios as a base to develop her burgeoning PR practice – I have never met such an active advocate for the things she loves.

I first started working with Sarah, she wanted to develop new products to sell on her numerous stalls around the craft markets in the city. Design development is my home territory as I spent 25+ years as a design and drawing tutor for textiles in the Fashion and Textile BA degree course at UWE. Bristol. I feel confident I can help Sarah with her design ideas and technical control, the immediate problem was unearthing her goals – she was making and selling simple large knitted scarves and small stuffed toys …we soon ascertained that this was not what she hoped to be making in the future, she wanted to really develop the knitting and combine it with other materials.

Sarah’s inspirational image

I asked her to bring in an inspirational object, image or idea – anything at all that visually excited her and she felt she could explore; to my delight she brought a book of exotic interior designs and turned immediately to the page above, telling me in the process that she had designed and built 2 houses on Tobago several years ago….. This then became our starting point.

We discussed what we both saw in the image, what atmosphere did it evoke and what did the actual background shapes remind us of – it is useful to develop other associated research areas when first embarking on new ideas. I asked her to work carefully from the photograph, selecting out the major colours and winding yarns and fabrics to develop a colour palette and to look at several artists who I had been prompted to recall by the shapes in the background, Picasso and Braque had immediately come to mind. Other areas to research were African sculpture and musical instruments. I also asked for 6 small drawn ideas sheets combining both knitting and stitching – all in a week.

Sarah Thorp, 1st translation
Sarah Thorp 2nd translation
Sarah Thorp 3rd translation

It was obvious from what she brought the next week that Sarah was struggling to find the time ( and head space) to do the work – not surprisingly she had underestimated how long this form of research takes – even so she brought in enough varied, if muddled, work to develop into some really exciting colour exercises.

Up till now Sarah has worked tonally, blues with greens and turquoise, reds with pinks, using yarn straight from the packets of Collinette yarns with no extras…she needed extras to make this knitting start to reflect her vibrant and eclectic interior decoration ideas.

Meanwhile Sue took a different tack, she wanted to talk to me, at length, to explain her situation which is reflected in the work she had achieved at Art Foundation level….

Sue Pickering: printed dress from Art Foundation course

So her theme is a massive modern concern, for want of a better way of putting it, ‘what it is to be a woman with a demanding young family, who needs her own time to develop/rediscover her own sense of self”.  Sue tries to achieve this by working in “stolen moments” between the daily necessities of family life. She also stated that ” there is no good reason at present for my textile practice, it is self indulgent……..I have to invent reasons for doing my own things, and going to textile workshops, sort of sanctions this activity” I was learning a lot about why people are actually drawn to doing our workshops.

Sue Pickering; work book for dress project

What Sue has is a really big subject to work with but as yet a narrow visual language with which to do it – she has relied on her academic background and use of data collection of written and spoken language to make herself understood, she has an efficient strategy for recording her research – a bit too strict in my opinion….but my task is really to find a textile language for her to work with, because she responds emotionally to textiles. When asked about the textile discipline she feels most drawn to Sue answered  – Felt – how weird is that?  Felt is one of the least amenable of all the textile media to express precise imagery and writing….this was looking promising.

So I asked her how she manages to find time to make work at home, and she answered that when she was really frustrated or really too tired to do any work in the home, she promises herself an hour at the end of the day when she goes into her workroom and makes or prepares a felt bead (which she had learned at a class at Heart Space) or a small flower, meaning to do something with them all later – she is stealing time to make a store of things for later.

But I  just thought of wearing those beads made out of so much frustration – they would surely itch and scratch you – I asked her to bring these things in for me to see.

Sue Pickering: collection of frustration felt

They look so benign and cheerful don’t they? But really think of the determination that it takes to make each bead, and when you look at the collection above, take away the color and they do look like chrysalis …I thought maybe to make a collection of  them as  frustration made palpable – maybe a cabinet of curiosities?

So there are my 2 completely different mentees…each in search of their own personal goals and each with different strengths and weaknesses to bring to express them selves…I will continue to show the development of their work.