Fingers and arms lasered for translucent vellum

I have become fascinated by skin as a material to work with. This has come about, no doubt, by my recent project to develop a piece of work for Pairings II for the Stroud International Textile exhibition. I used a huge skin that had been prepared as vellum – or parchment –  a hide, possibly reindeer in this case, treated in such a way as to make a smooth, hard, fine grained surface after removing the pelt, either  fur or  hair – don’t let’s forget that all animal leather and suede is simply skin with the fur or hair shaved off.

coloured drawing, dyed, stitched and lasered onto vellum

What is really exciting me about working with vellum is that I can draw onto it as well as stitch into it. There are other things to do with it as well but drawing and stitching really are the backbone of my textile practice, and here is a new material redolent with all sorts of symbolism that I can start to mine. So maybe this will lead to more drawn imagery with stitch to enhance the drawing – not sure yet – but hand stitching this material needs long and slow preparation.

drilling the vellum to stitch it together

Recently I have been working with all types of other skins, mostly calf skins, some with the hair still on…

shaded mottled calf skins

I have done quite a lot of work with fine leather and suede, most recently at a workshop in Finland at the University of Ostrobothnia, at the faculty of Applied Sciences, where I first experienced the large scale sheets of vellum as an option to work with. However I chose metallic leathers, cow hides and farmed fur to create an embroidered seascape, embellished with silver leaf. But I had remembered the large vellum skin and how beautiful it was and so used it for the Daphne Tree metamorphosis piece.

hand stitching fine metallic skins to hide
sample of stitched leather and calf skin

The company who farmed and manufactured the vellum, were generous in sending me a whole skin to work with; it has caused much interest in the exhibition, most people seem to think that vellum is just some esoteric writing-paper and keep asking me where is the animal?

But what is really exciting is that the leader of the Finnish workshop, Basil Kardasis, is conducting another workshop at Heart Space Studios, but  this time using one of the most unusual and beautiful of skins –  fish.

He is introducing this material for a master class for experienced makers, called Surf, Turf and Sky, using fish skins, leathers and feathers – all of which are by-products of the food industry, so think eel….

dyed and stitched eel skins

water snake (they eat these in Scandinavia)……

un-dyed stitched water snake skins

and smaller whole dyed fish skins….like salmon, trout, pike….

dyed salmon and trout skins

and also some specially hand – tanned skins from Sweden, perch, cat fish, and plaice.

a variety of tanned fish skins

the individual skins are small but call out to be combined with other materials to enable us to make fabrics out of them..

tanned catfish
tanned perch

but my favourite fish sample is a tiny single side of Knot, it already appears to be embroidered.

beautiful preserved Knot skin – about the size of a sardine

Plan B for the Daphne Tree.

I have been too busy to blog – or rather too tired after working a succession of 12 hour days to get to the deadline, today, for putting this work on the wall of  the Pairings exhibition. I have been making the Daphne Tree  with Rachel Kelly, designer of Interactive Wallpaper,  and Daphne is a truly metamorphic development. She morphs from a laser etched drawing in animal skin – (I suspect reindeer as this is a gift from the manufacturers in Finland,who produce and sell these large sheets of vellum or parchment for  making into drum skins) through paper hand made petal infused and shoji screen papers which are vegetable eventually becoming cotton damask with a man made surface skin of printed decals…..But to start we have burnt a drawing of a figure using modern technology onto of the oldest drawing materials known to mankind – and the result is very very beautiful.

The quality of the skin changes over the surface of the animal, thin and white on the sides nearest to the spine – which is dark; then translucent on the edges where it has been stretched and where, I presume, the skin is thinner. The results of the lasered marks are startlingly different, in places hardly discernible in others a beautiful burnt golden brown.

The appearance of the drawing fluctuated over the entire surface of the body – sadly it needed to be drawn into to make it look stronger and bring out the intricate patterning of Rachel’s original leafy drawing. and the hair had to be coloured as well as it turns to leaves

So far – so good, all going to plan…then we hit a series of snags, first the fabric chosen for  printing the flowers of the canopy was not is stock and then Easter holidays meant that the staff in charge of the printing machine were away and suddenly everything looked to be very tight for getting it organised in time….

Plan B. I decided to ask Rachel to send me her designs on print transfer papers that can be ironed into position – I had seen this done before at Heart Space Studios by Teresa Searle and I knew it was a possibility to get things printed fast …so I bought some T shirt printing transfer papers from the local high street, and taking my courage on both hands started sampling.

Meanwhile I stared to dye the shoji screen papers for the leaves which transitions the animal to the vegetable.

Then I started to cut and apply the leaves onto the paper and the fabric..a beautiful vintage damask I had dyed in tea to blend in with the petal paper…

By this stage the transfer designs had arrived from Rachel – and they were really something else -brighter colours on new flowers…daffodils, tulips and big bouquets in brilliant colours – I loved them BUT they didn’t go with my first row of lovingly pressed transfers….I had to think on my feet – but hey I am a designer and this is what designers’ do…isn’t it? I definitely needed more leaves and many more flower transfers..the space looked massive that I had to fill up – about 1 x 1 1/2 metres wide….but eventually Rachel and I got there.

OK I hear the more attentive of you say, ” you missed a bit – the body is now attached to the head which is attached to the arms…HOW did that happen”?  Well it was all stitched together.

To be more precise it was drilled and stitched together, the vellum and petal papers being too tough for me to get a decent spaced stitched line – here I am hard at work

But eventually Rachel arrived yesterday to complete the flowery appliques..

All we have to do now is starch and press it, get it fixed to a cardboard tube as if it is a roll of fabric and take it to the exhibition… can get the latest update and the other side of the process by visiting our Pairings blog, which is by way of a conversation between us Rachel and myself.

Panic Early – Design and Sample

“Panic Early ” has been my making motto for many years and the advice I always handed to students at the beginning of any project with a set deadline….now it is my turn to heed my own advice. As a hand embroiderer the idea of stitching in a hurry is a total nightmare.  So I tend to give myself a few days ‘wriggle room’ on any given deadline, I hate last minute making. So as my partner Rachel Kelly and I have about 3 more weeks to the deadline for a piece of work, I have decided to step up my input and get to grips with the rest of the tree design and sampling (with a plan B as well – watch this space) so that as soon as the Easter vacation is over we can just roll into the manufacture of the fabrics. The actual piece of work has been in the making for about 2 months now (see the last 2 posts) and the idea to make the Daphne Tree is at least 15 years old and I am about to see it come to fruition in the next 2 weeks, when it is due to be exhibited at a group exhibition called ‘Pairings’ the Museum in the Park in Sroud

The design drawing above, although sketchy, is looking fairly comprehensive, although to anyone who hasn’t seen the full scale pattern on the tables at Heart Space Studios will have their doubts about my progress.

As a hand embroiderer I am used to developing my original design ideas as I make them. Working from a fairly comprehensive design drawing with stitched/dyed/fabricated samples, hand stitching then affords time to contemplate the work in progress, so subtle shifts of colour or even whole areas can be re-assessed –  sometimes a piece of work can take several months of steady work to complete. The initial research is a  fairly rapid process compared to the execution of the finished piece. Now I have to plot the whole piece in advance of starting the work so that I can calculate just how much stitching time will allow…we have hit on the idea of working with paper computer print-outs that Rachel send to me as she designs them -so that I can develop the design and get the scale sorted out, while we wait for the fabric to arrive to be printed and the departments to open up after Easter

 My pairing partner, Rachel, works in a completely different  way – she is a digital printer, so everything she makes has to be mapped out first on a computer and programmed so that she can manipulate everything she needs at the final printing stage. She gives herself a range of options to choose from – making her work spontaneous in a totally different way than mine… fact my way of working isn’t spontaneous at all, it could be said to be organic or even vegetative in its development. She takes a long time to prepare; I take a long time to make; she can print metres of  piece of cloth in a day; I can take months to cover half a metre.

And as we are playing a game of consequences to make this work, in that we each react to the others new idea or  image, I have to play by the rules and just make  new ways to to do my stitched work within the time span. But what wonderful choices I am given, beautiful bouquets of exquisite flowers, some with hidden birds that I can cut out and embellish, but at the moment just working with paper makes the stitched results rather crude, but gives me ample opportunity to play with the colour and composition.

Eventually we will have the cloth to print on and cut out and sew beautifully – and the vellum will be laser etched hopefully later this week ready for me to start sewing it all together. Meanwhile I have to carry on sampling all the ways I can make a piece of vellum transform into a sheet of paper which then becomes a printed chintz design on cotton. I have started to sample dyeing the shoji paper leaves to applique onto the cotton fabric – hand stitching is the answer   as all of this is too big to go under a sewing machine – did I mention that this work is 3 metres from the toes to the top?

Drawing Consequences

I have often said that drawing is my first language, English my second and Stitching my third, and I can’t now remember a time when I did not draw. So it is a real pleasure that my latest work (working title – the Daphne Tree)  that I am making for an exhibition Pairings, with my partner Rachel Kelly has involved all types of drawing, from scribbled notes on the scrap paper made on trains to laser etched vellum.

Rachel and I are making a single piece of work using the idea of the game of consequences; we are reacting to each others work, developing a figure turning into a tree. I drew the figure, Rachel drew the “bark on shoji paper, then I sent the collaged bark drawing back to her and so we go on…but before this second step I had to make several large drawings to establish the figure – she needs to look like she is being stretched and frightened and also looking sort of tree shaped….I had problems with the legs – getting the stretch in the calves was crucial – the first drawings were useless they looked like she was floating. I always use cheap rolls of lining paper used for decorating for any large scale rough drawings

I had to work on her feet, they were supposed to be burrowing into the ground taking root, the drawings look really nasty like she has been burned, but they are starting to look forceful and like they could penetrate the earth. in fact they look like they have been dug out of the earth….But it is the head that has to be looking as if it is in shock at the moment that it is turned into tree bark and the hair to leaves.

The final drawing for this transition or metamorphosis, has to be exact for it to be then transferred and later translated into other materials and different types of drawing – and this re-drawing with a tracing wheel is just as crucial as all the drawings that have gone before.

So eventually Rachel and I have met up to develop the drawings, I have taken my large sheet of vellum, that I have been kindly given to work this project with, by Kemin Nahkatarvike oy the Finnish Leather and Fur manufacturing company. We are now sampling all sorts of other material that we may use in the final piece – we need to sample all the stuff to see how we can laser these drawings onto the various surfaces…but first more drawings are  developed by Rachel – on a computer.

The results were not exactly what we wanted – well not for this project ….

The drawing into hand – made paper was more successful even though we lost some of the surface petals  – but we had to hand-draw and cut the stencil that acted as a shield for the burnt area of laser etching

laser drawing on hand made paper with embedded petals

But meanwhile Rachel and I were busy thinking and drawing out the next stage of the work – this is only the trunk of the tree – now we had to imagine the canopy. I had scribbled some ideas down on the train to Manchester, I don’t know what it is about trains but they always make me very imaginative, I get lots of ideas on train journeys.

I drew this in Biro – I really like Biro to draw with as it can make a very elegant mark; but actually it was all I could find in my handbag to work with. It shows how I envisaged the next stage of the work – the canopy. But when I got to Manchester we had to really start to consider the various stages for the design drawings, so we stretched out our combined drawing along side the samples we created with the laser

Then while Rachel dealt with the computer drawings – did I mention that she is a technological wonder woman? I dealt with the tracings of the original figure.

I had to make quite a few different typed of marks to translate into the separate systems that we needed to translate the original drawings into  computer aided drawings

When we met up between tasks or at lunch, we talked of the next stage – how will we develop the canopy? I thought we could applique some printed versions of old flower bird or leaf designs  from our separate practices,  as used in old American chintz patchworks and quilts. And chintz seems to be where we are going next…but the during her morning train journey into work Rachel drew this( below)  in her note book.

And now we are at last ready  to start to introduce the missing element for us both – colour, but that needs a new set of research drawings….

Live Pairings Project – Metamorphosis


Yet another first for me – I have been invited to make a piece of work for an exhibition in the Select programme for  Stroud International Textiles . I have often visited the Stroud textile festivals and even posted my observations last year and the year before. For about a month the whole of the town of Stroud in Somerset, England, is taken over by textiles to be viewed in exhibitions, talks, workshops or bought at specialist markets, generally a must-go-to see show every spring.

I have been invited to make a piece of work for an exhibition called Pairings, where several partnerships of makers have been put together to develop work. This is a result of the Stitch and Think project that was the major part of my research post at UWE. Bristol,  Alice Kettle, a Senior Researcher Fellow and applied artist using machine embroidery has been conducting a similar project at MMU ( Manchester metropolitan University) and she invited several members of the research group to join in this fascinating project. Over the past several months I have been preparing work to make a combined textile based on the idea of Metamorphosis. My partner, chosen by Alice, is Rachel Kelly, a textile designer specialising in Wallpaper and an associate lecturer at MMU. Rachel has been asked to incorporate new technology within her making processes – this should very interesting for a hand embroiderer.

Rachel interacting with wallpaper

When we first discussed the work I explained about my ideas around metamorphosis; we would have to change our ways of working to develop this work and as her work incorporates lots of motifs to make your own interchangeable wallpaper designs the idea seemed a perfect fit – Rachel agreed – luckily. We decided also to make a joint piece of work – not easy when we live and have our own studios more than 200 miles apart. We discussed what we had in common, she read the blog and I read her website. she thought we should concentrate on drawing and I recognised that she was an avid colourist – so we set to work. After some initial difficulty getting started, I suggested that we make work by the game of “consequences” one person draws something folds the paper down and the next person draws the next bit… can follow this interaction on our joint blog that starts this weekend.

So to begin – I sent Rachel 2 images of a tree I had seen in the local wood, it looks like an animal stretching upwards with a rump for a tail from one side and from the other, a side view of a voluptuous woman. I have been observing the tree for about 20 odd years now and I call it the Daphne tree, I take visitors to see it and I never pass it without an acknowledgement. I kept thinking I must do some work with this. I really feel that the Greek myths of metamorphosis, mainly observed by the poet Ovid,  are true parables of the human condition; how often do we wish to change ourselves in some way or another – it is the hardest thing to do – and as the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for

I started by drawing the tree from either side, quick pencil sketches just to make a start by recording what I could see and the camera couldn’t quite capture. The dogs got bored quite quickly and it was very damp, my paper was really limp and my drawings extremely scribbly, I sent them to Rachel via email.

They were enough to get me started though, I next asked Sophie, my administrator at Heart Space Studios to pose for me from the tree images that I showed her.

then I drew from the photographs as the pose was really difficult to hold for her.

I really did not like this drawing, too beautiful, too glamorous; she looks like a glamour model …yes Daphne was a nymph but this needed attention so I drew over a photocopy and got rid of the breasts…

but she is still too lovely, too refined, this won’t help the feeling I want to establish and what is that? –  Below is a Ted Hughes poem, from his  book ‘ Tales from Ovid’ published in 1997 this is another woman turns to tree story – Myrrha, from the poem ‘Venus and Adonis’ –  Myrrha calls to the gods to help her and her prayer was answered…

The earth gripped her ankles as she prayed.

Roots forced from beneath her toenails, they burrowed

Amongst deep stones to the bedrock. She swayed,

Living statuary on a tree’s foundations.

In that moment, her bones became grained wood,

Their marrow pith,

Her blood sap, her arms boughs, her fingers twigs,

Her skin rough bark……

I have never forgotten that passage of sheer terror when I first read the poem, and some of this somehow needs to be conveyed…so back to the drawing board. So if you wish to follow this developing project go to the joint blog that Rachel and I have set up, where we are posting our ongoing work and immediate reactions to one another..