Construct: Stitched Exhibition

Caryn Geffyn
Starter – Don’t make a Meal of it – Caren Garfen

I seldom feel that my work fits easily into contemporary textile exhibitions –  it often looks too colourful, or too decorative, or even too old fashioned in its simply stitched narratives…but recently I have work exhibited in a group exhibition that feels like I belong. “Construct – eight textile artists explore identity” is showing at the Ruthin Craft Centre in North Wales.  Much of the work is expressed in the form of stitched domestic textiles: tablecloths, curtains, quilts and some clothes, and so my own embroidered counterpanes, bolsters and pillow cases of dreams feel very much at home.

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Hand embroidered Dream Pillow from my ‘Make it Through the Night’ series

I was invited to submit work earlier this year by Dr. Melanie Miller whom I met when we both gave presentations at the Textile Society’s annual conference, Embroidering the Truth in 2013. Melanie’s presentation was an up to the minute resume of textiles by recent graduates from MA courses; mine was an overview of my embroidered narrative commissioned works over the past 40 years. Melanie worked with June Hill to quickly bring a  focused exhibition together and also developed with Lisa Rostron, at Lawn Creative, an excellent and beautifully produced catalogue – well worth buying for a stand alone document even if you don’t catch the exhibition.

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printed patchwork bed cover – Caren Garfen

Walking into the exhibition space the large and airy gallery looks fresh and the work on the walls looks clean and tidy  – it also looks resolved. I often feel that much modern art textiles look like work in progress, like they have just been snatched out of the hands of the maker – full of possibilities and open to suggestion…  but here is a varied range of  ideas on identity, simply expressed with a rare degree of intent.

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Don’t Make a Meal of It detail. Caren Garfen

The work of Caren Garfen has many overlapping concerns with my own; she uses popular phrases and she employs a sly humour to subvert. Caren meticulously hand stitches screen printed images with messages found in advertising aimed at women to conform as thin glamorous domestic goddesses

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Wafer Thin – a study on the role of fat – Caren Garfen

Several of her pieces depict ranges of domestic tasks that usually fall to women to manage; the relentless repetition of her imagery, whether patched, printed or embroidered, echoes the repetitious nature of all domestic work, after all – a woman’s work is never done. The roll of fabric  printed and hand embroidered for ‘Wafer Thin’ is 10 metres long!

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Sarah Puts her Lipstick on – detail Naomi Ryder

Repetition is also a device used by Naomi Ryder – she records a daily task for many women – putting on make-up; for some a chore (me), for others a delight. By repeating the same but slightly varied image over a length of fabric she shows the time and energy spent on getting our public ‘identity’ in order before we go outdoors.The continuous daily tasks that women are expected to devote their time to – cleaning, ironing, shopping – she depicts by machine embroidering acutely observed small-scale line drawings onto lengths of sheer fabrics that recall net curtains.

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detail of Katherine’s Day, Naomi Ryder

Women’s work undertaken to construct an acceptable public identity is a subject shared by these 2 makers – but what of the men? Interestingly Nigel Hurlstone, I know, takes extreme care over his own personal presentation but as yet has never chosen to reflect on this in his work.

Nigel’s powerful group of stitched photographic portraits of men who have been very carefully costumed, create an ambivalent atmosphere – half jolly japes and half menace. The 9 pieces of work shown are based on a set of portraits of young men, taken between 1918 and 1950, in what could be construed as ‘fancy dress’  but presumably dressed up , or down, for the sexual delight of the photographer.

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machine embroidered photographic imagery – What Pleasure by Nigel Hurlstone

The men were dressed either as street urchins or soldiers and they were apparently picked up on the streets and then posed to conform to a sexual identity desired by the photographer…to my mind they look to be highly amused by the proceedings…..

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machine embroidered phot0graphic print – Nigel Hurlstone

However – the tight rows of machine stitching make the fabrics look like moire or water-marked and obscure the almost life-sized photographic images. I think this makes them initially more easily accessible to the viewer as we aren’t exactly sure of what we are seeing. The actual fabric is compelling, you can’t ‘read’ it easily and this allows the viewer an excuse for deeper scrutiny – close up and personal. The original subject matter was never meant to be for the public gaze,  at first glance the men look happy though not exactly innocent, but somehow when we are closer we are aware of an undertow of  sleaze or is it menace?

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Curtains to Independence – Women’s Auxiliary Service uniform made from vintage curtain material – Val Jackson

War and its effect on women’s change of identity is clearly a personal issue for Val Jackson. Her work deals with reflections upon her mother’s life – the uneasy transition from performing vital and fascinating war work in contrast to the traditional role of  wife and mother. Inheriting her mother’s effects, including her correspondence during the war, made it clear to Val that this transition had been difficult. The arresting burnt -orange curtain fabric uniform very neatly combines the 2, opposing? halves of a woman’s working life – the professional and the private.

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fabric figures ready for stop motion animation by Linda Barlow

From my own observations of friends and colleagues, the pull between motherhood and making your own work as an artist is a major modern predicament. Linda Barlow uses humour and cartoon representations to depict the complexities of managing this situation. Based on interviews with 8 such women she has made a short animated film – ‘Artist Mothers: a series of observations regarding the frustrations of being an artist and a mother”. It does what it says on the tin – refreshing not to have a punning title – I am guilty of the over use of puns myself…note for later.

Women artists often choose to who work within a community – I always think that this is half way between being a social worker and an artist and a really decent thing to pursue. Two such people have this type of work exhibited; Deidre Nelson,who has chosen to work around the world, using textiles as a means of defining the social history of an area, often working with local groups of people, and Lyn Setterington – who makes quilts based on the Kantha technique.

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Signature quilt – Lynn Setterington

Lyn also works on textile based projects within communities; quilt making is historically a community based production, so her own interest in the history of her chosen medium makes a natural lead to this activity. She has recently become fascinated by Signature Quilts and I share this interest – Crazy Quilts – which fascinate me, often contain signatures and messages and they do make the mind start the journey to who exactly made this. There is at present, in artists’ textiles, a fascination with writing as evidenced here – and as part of the education programme at Ruthin Craft Centre I have undertaken to teach 2 workshops for different styles of hand stitched writing while the exhibition is still showing in July.

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family names quilt detail- Lyn Setterington

Lynn sees the signature quilts as a form of social networking, as she brings groups of people together to make to celebrate their local community. A richly embroidered quilt stood out in the exhibition, the Streepur Quilt

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I enjoyed the wealth of embroidery that was evident on the quilts. Rich in many different stitches they are a testament that decorative embroidery is alive and well somewhere in the world. I can see pattern darning, running stitch, chain stitch, back stitch and coral knot just in these 4 samples as well as crochet and Broidery Anglaise even if machine made. I also like the change in “taste” that this quilt brought to the exhibition, they had so much energy and joyfulness – but maybe that is just a reflection of my identity as an embroiderer at heart.

Crazy Fan Class

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My Crazy Patchwork fan design on the cover of this season’s events catalogue at the American Museum.

I have been getting out and about recently and have been taking a workshop at the American Museum in Britain, which is situated just outside Bath. I have been asked to deliver 2 day long workshops by their education officer, Zoe Dennington (who found me via this blog). Zoe asked me to use Crazy Patchwork techniques for classes to run at the same time as the current vibrant Kaffe Fassett exhibition being held at the museum for several months.The second class is in October to make a crazy patched and beaded heart.

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the range of fabrics that I took for use in the workshop

Luckily I was given a batch of cotton samples of fabrics  designed by Kaffe Fassett to use in my workshop by a friend, Susan Berry ( who produces his very popular patchwork and knitting books) and they certainly livened up my Heart Space Studios fabric stash….I had designed a special project for this session, a simple design of a fan and one of the most popular motifs used in traditional of Crazy Patchworks.

My Crazy Fan design
the original crazy fan design used for the programme cover

I reasoned that if I provided patterns for the patches then things might go quickly and everyone would finish – well that was the idea! We started off by choosing the fabrics for each fan – there are 7 sections in the design that I had created for the class, which means less embroidery than my sample.

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this range was chosen from the fabrics brought by me to the workshop

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subtle and softly coloured fabrics brought by a student to the class

I had also asked people to bring whatever they liked of their own materials as well. The fabrics chosen were quickly organised into many different striped bands – I explained about balance of pattern to plain fabrics and crucially for a small colour scheme, to separate a few colours from the patterned fabrics and use them as plains or solids to show up the patterns. And not to worry too much about getting the colours perfect at this point as later the coloured stitching over the seams would help with the colour co-ordination of the whole piece.

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vibrant fabrics for chosen for the fan design

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Red white and blue – always a good clean colour combination

organising the fan sections is much easier and quicker than for usual odd shapes of crazy patches. The sections were laid over one another and then pinned and using running stitches held section by section till the fan was complete. The complete arrangement was then pressed onto the special heat activated fabric backing

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Brilliant colour for the start of stitching the fan into its finished position

.GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA                 Once the fan had been pressed and trimmed the next task was to  find the coloured ground to applique it onto…I find that this is quite a good way to get people to appreciate the difference that different coloured grounds can make to the overall piece.

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a rare shot of me teaching – explaining how to deal with coloured ground fabrics using a soft and subtle piece of patchwork.

Sometimes soft colours can be made bolder if placed on very dark grounds and brilliant colours more muted if placed on a toning ground. It is also a chance to reassess the colours prior to embroidering the seams which also fix the fan to the background

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the fan shape against a black ground

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same fan against a brilliant blue ground – note a new patch on the left hand side to make a more balanced fan

Now to start embroidering – I had chosen to demonstrate 1 basic row of herringbone stitch and then show how to add extra stitches or I should say decorations…it is my favourite decorative embroidery stitch as it can be developed  so that it looks almost like a braid. But to begin just a couple of well spaced rows…and then the extra colours can be added.

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this vibrant fan design is made even more brilliant by contrasting colours

I like to use contrasting coloured stitches on the seams – they are very obvious but then I do not think it worth doing any decorative hand embroidery if it isn’t to be noticed!

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the brighter the contrasts the richer the decoration here the colours sing out

although up close and personal the colours are very vibrant the more colours added to each row of stitching the softer the colours will appear more subtle

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the addition of yellow running stitch to the bright pink herringbone stitch makes it less vibrant

when soft colours are used to not much affect then the herringbone variations allow for extra emphasis – this is why I really like this particular stitch – it gives a lot of opportunity for invention

herirngbone and added stitches
the addition of French knots and detached chain stitches enliven this row of muted herringbone

At the end of the session we put all the unfinished patchworks together on a table to assess them for further additions…. you can now see the affect that the Kaffe Fassett fabrics had on the works – but you would not think by looking at this picture of some of the group around the table that they actually liked what they are looking at !

Crazy critical assessment
Crazy critical assessment!

. Everyone faithfully promised me that they would finish the fans and send me photographed results – watch this space…….

Embroidering a Child’s Drawing

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Rainbow painting by Lola aged 4 years

Everyone loves children’s art – either drawings or paintings; the pictures always have such energy and capture the spirit of the thing depicted – real or imagined. So when a visitor, Nadia Lanman, came to Heart Space Studios,  to view my exhibition of  ‘Mending Mottoes’ and asked if I would be interested in a commission to stitch one of her daughter’s drawings, I accepted at once – thinking “this is a challenge”

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAI asked to see several paintings and drawings so that we could make a decision which to depict, and really to see howGEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA difficult a challenge it would be. The price was also considered at this initial point as this was a thank-you and leaving present for the nursery school that 4-year-old Lola was leaving to go onto her primary school. Nadia brought in several, some simple line drawings and some full-on paintings. It became clear that Nadia really liked the rainbow painting (at the top of the post), water-colour paint on sugar paper…so typical of all children’s art – this was going to be a real challenge! It is one thing to stitch drawings but poster paint loaded on with energy ?

When we discussed pricing the piece I advised Nadia to go and buy a frame to keep the costs down; framing is really important but can be extremely costly, so I suggested choosing an A4 size as this was roughly the scale of the drawing papers that she had shown me – and an A size frame is easy to access; I promised her I would customise the frame if necessary.

Meanwhile I set about sampling the way to achieve the full-on colour.

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first colour samples on shot pink silk

The first thing to research was the background colour, I found a  yellow and pink shot silk fabric, that was about the same colour but slightly brighter than the sugar paper, this would save me having to dye the fabric – but how to get some background colour onto it first before I stitched it? i tried fabric paints but when dry it was like stitching hard leather. I needed the rainbow coloured in so I would not have to completely cover the ground with hand stitches – too time consuming, too expensive.

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iron-on fabric dyes in pastel form

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selecting thread colours to match paint

The next thing was to choose the threads. I had decided to stitch the whole piece in running stitches, this is the first stitch everyone ever learns to sew and it always looks both simple and innocent, so is a fitting choice for embroidering  children’s art. Also I have used it a lot in my recent work, particularly when embroidering writing. I did think at this stage that machine embroidery would have been quicker to achieve the impression of saturated colour, but I am not a happy machine stitcher and  felt that the mechanical aspect wasn’t in keeping with the subject; simple hand stitching was really the perfect technique to choose

I tried several yarns, silk and cotton and cottons and eventually chose a mixture of both, whatever would suit the paint colours.

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directional stitching sample for rainbow and writing

I had photocopied the drawing and reduced the scale, to fit the frame, and to keep my fee as low as possible. I then drew onto this the direction of the paint brush, actually showing how Lola had swept the paint onto the paper, the lines would become running stitches, but first I had to sort out the message that Nadia wanted to send to the teachers on Lola’s behalf.  “thankyou for my wings love Lola xx”

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cut out photocopy and writing placement for the working drawing.

I had asked Nadia to get Lola to write it on a separate sheet of paper and then I traced it into position onto the photocopy – previously I had cut out the photocopy to gauge where to put the writing – a copy of this became my working drawing…..I have my own arcane ways of getting there!

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dye stick coloured ground running stitched to copy brush stroke directions

I found this stitching really interesting, it had to be kept simple but needed to show the rhythm of the painted bands. Sadly the pastel once that it had been ironed to fix it was a bit too dull – but hey ho – it helped things go smoothly and quickly. What also helped was to draw the directional lines straight onto the dyed areas with a water-soluble pen to keep a track of the flow, they can be seen on the yellow band above. The last thing to do was to stitch the message again in running stitches, then wash and stretch the work and mount it in the frame.

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I so enjoyed this relatively simple stitched commission ( in comparison to the recent Thangka) that I thought it would be a good idea to run a class and now that I have sorted out how to express the rhythms and colours of paintings I think that I can show other people how to embroider their own children’s drawings – they would make great presents for anyone in the family. And when I told Nadia how her commission had inspired me to develop a new class, she immediately signed up for it!

Embroidering a Thangka

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the last stitching on the inner halo of textile Tangka

I enjoy working to commission, there are several pluses: someone actually wants my work and is willing to pay for it, I get a clear idea of the task ahead during discussions into the personal likes/wants/needs of the commissioner and I also get a time limit. The designer side of me likes working to deadlines as I can choose the type of techniques best suited to that limit and to the fee charged for the work.  But best of all – I work with a sense of purpose – not my own purpose as usual – so this lets me off the hook of why am I doing this? where will I place it? Is it a worthwhile use of my time and energy?

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A Tibetan Buddhist Thangkha

I was shown a painted Thangka by a friend,  who practices the strict discipline of Tibetan Buddhism; he also showed me an image of the Primordial Buddha ( the Buddha with his female partner Samantabadri, signifying the union of wisdom and compassion) that his partner found particularly resonant, she has a small postcard pinned up of it in her study. He wanted it translating into a fully formed Thangka……and asked me if I would like to attempt it – as her birthday present.

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first fabric search for making the embroidery

Looking at the wealth of fabrics surrounding the Tibetan paper image that he brought, I was enthralled. I suddenly  knew why I kept all my old fabrics, silver woven saris, Japanese and Chinese silk brocades – to use for this glorious commission. I showed him several of the fabrics I had that I thought would work as the frame, I precisely measured the large Thangka and gleaned as much information as I could about the meaning and purpose of the image chosen and Thangkas in general. I made a “worst scenario” price and it was accepted….

To calculate a real price and make an estimate of my time to fulfill the deadline – some 6 weeks ahead – I first made a tracing of the art work

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traced and squared-up photocopied image

and then a full-scale working drawing, the sampling for this would decide how I would work the piece: the techniques, the fabrics and the overall time it could possibly take.

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scaled up working drawing

Basically the smallest detail will decide the quality of the work, how and with what can I stitch this to look its best. within the budget and the time limit?  I now knew the work ahead of me, I emailed with the news and the price, roughly half the original cost –  happily it was  accepted and extra thrown in for the use of my beautiful metal woven antique fabrics….how good is that?

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real gold leaf for the “halo”

I must say that the fabrics materials I used for this work were really sumptuous,real gold leaf for the 2 bands of light surrounding the figures. by some alchemy I had every piece of material needed in my own stash; the gold leaf and threads, the heavy silk brocades were in the perfect colours. Later in the project a few would have to be hand painted and dyed.

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gilded silk bands of light pinned to studios wall.

The colours were kept brilliant by my own choice as I knew the taste of the person I was making this for  – she really loves strong colours,  so I did not soften them to look old, which is how the original image  appeared. The gold really shone threatening to dominate the entire piece – but it would become more worn as I made the work.

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machine applique for the silk halos prior to stitching on the figures

Each element had to be made and slotted in the whole composition – like a jigsaw puzzle.

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Samantabadri cut from pure silk satin with hand stitched silk hair

The simplicity of the figures lent themselves to machine applique, not my forte, but quicker by far than hand embroidering them –  and I can manage quite accurate  applique by machine.

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the appliqued figures embrace one another

On the original post card the outer edge of the flower garland surrounding the figures  had been cut off – I had to invent a large area of the embroidery based on just a few flower buds at the top of the picture I set about dyeing raw silk for appliqueing the petals of the white lotus flowers

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hand dyed raw silk for petals of the lotus flower garland

The lotus flowers were bonded into position, petal by petal with leaves underpinning them into a garland which were then machine stitched in a gold flecked thread.

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petal of lotus flowers bonded into position

the whole halo area was hand stitched in a dull gold thread to illustrate the rays emanating from the Buddha and his partner.

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the inner image is complete

now the s of the thangka had to be made – I had all sorts of different ideas for using my wonderful silver woven fabrics …but they had other ideas – traditionally the first 2 bands are gold and red – with a dreaded bias seam at the corners I sewed this by hand so that I get perfect alignment. also I had noticed of several fabric surrounds that the fabrics were pieced to make the lengths necessary – a common practice where fabrics are appreciated for their own beauty and worth.

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bias cut joined woven silver silk fabrics for frame.

The remaining strips of the frame just came together very simply, I found that I had just about enough of each material I wanted to use – and where I didn’t I researched the traditional Thangkas for ideas of how to make them work together.

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machine stitching the seams of the frame together.

There was one area that really gave me some problems though – the area below the image has often an apron or square of fabric but whatever i chose just dominated the whole piece. I tried several colours and systems, but eventually after dyeing an old silver brocade a dull turquoise green, I found the perfect solution to the surround.

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For a more in-depth, behind the scenes, version of this post, please  go to the Commissions pages of the site.