Ethnographic Embroidery

A film of the group by Bryony Stokes

Hannah Maughan heads up this exciting group of embroiderers.

CARE project–Hannah Maughan

Phase 2 project outline–Stitched Ethnography

In this 2nd stage of the CARE project I am proposing to focus on the “Small Stories” of making and to record this research through embroidery, engaging back with the creative process that will initiate and generate these stories. I intend to produce a series of stitched ethnographic pieces that visually captures the narrative of making, the shared conversations we have when engaged with craft, the incidental and subtle nuances that emerge when we are involved in a communal practice.

To work collaboratively in a positive and productive way means for me working with people I have a well-established relationship with and whom I have a similar approach to creativity and making.

The group I am proposing to work with will be formed of a small number of my mixed media graduates who are local and working part-time as self-employed practitioners. I am interested in bring together a group that I have known within the formal academic environment as their tutor, and explore our relationship now as professional designers. The group will not entirely be known to each other, as they were not on the course all at the same time, so they will not be an established group, though collectively they share a common background and experience. The transition from the supportive university community to the independence of being self-employed can be a difficult one, which I have experienced personally, and I am keen to explore this in relation to motivation, productivity and creativity.

We will arrange for a number of evening sessions at my home, to create an informal and relaxed environment, stitching and chatting over a glass of wine. What work we do will be decided on as a group, whether a collective or individual project, skill sharing, themed session etc. However the sessions will be steered to encourage certain topics of conversation, covering the points of interest such as

  • Why do we make. What do we make?
  • Sharing through making – How connecting can help makers /how making helps connecting
  • What makes a community and is community important? (University/Self-employment)
  • How do we fit into creative/making communities?

For my part, I will be recording the sessions visually through photographs, drawing, collage and stitch. This information, along with audio recordings, will be developed into a series of embroideries that I will design and make.

The Group Meetings

Hannah writes here about the experience of setting up and running (with) this group:

Initial meeting:

After establishing the project outline and intentions of the group, I contacted a number of my mixed media graduates who live locally to invite them to join me with this part of the CARE project. 6 of them responded positively, including Katie Cook, (2007), Becs Williams, (2008), Fliss Kemp (2010), Emma Harding, Rosie Drake-Knight and Lizzy Ferry (all 2013).

As with all group events, it became quite tricky to establish a date and time to meet that suited all, especially as Rosie lives in Plymouth. Weekday evenings looked the best and we set an initial date to meet up for a chat about the project.EE1

We met a few weeks ago on a Tuesday night in Dolly’s Bar and Tea Room in Falmouth. Becs, Katie and Emma joined myself and Fiona for a glass of wine, tapas and a chat, whilst Fliss sent her apologies. Fiona explained the outline of the CARE project and I introduced my idea for the Embroidery group. The girls seemed excited about the possibilities, especially about getting together to stitch. Katie and Emma had recently met through working freelance for a small childrenswear label in Truro through which they had quickly established a bond. They had individually felt creatively isolated and unstimulated so the chance meeting through work was fortuitous. Both have a similar outlook, interests and aesthetic style and on the bases of this have decided to set up their own business together. Becs has already set up her own business, Hilda Living, designing and making luxury embroidered home accessories, which she runs part time from her studio. Emma and Katie were pleased to meet Becs as they had already come across Hilda Living as part of their research and Becs was energised by a night out with like minded stitchers.

Conversation covered lots of ground, ranging from the pros and cons of being within creative communities during and after university, how to keep motivated in our creative practise, how we learn, the generational passing down of skills and the relevancy, perception and value of embroidery in contemporary life.

I had chosen Dolly’s as usually it is relatively quiet, which I thought would make for easy discussion, set against an eye catching decorative backdrop. However it was buzzing, with conversation and live music, which created a great atmosphere, (especially for mid week Falmouth). And we weren’t the only group there with craft as the connector, as a table of like-minded ladies sat knitting and nattering near by.

First Embroidery Meet: Wednesday 2nd April, 7.30pm

  • Present: Fiona, Hannah, Fliss, Emma and Katie
  • Apologies:Becs, Irene

Since the initial meeting I had extended the invitation to Irene Griffin (2005), who not only is one of my first graduates but also the Senior Technician for Mixed media at Falmouth and my right-hand woman. Unfortunately Irene was not able to make this meeting, nor was Becs, though she has scheduled a catch-up session with Fliss for next week.

The evening started by introducing Fliss to the group. Fiona recapped on the intentions of the project and everyone agreed to the session being audio recorded and photographed. I had prepped the kitchen table with numerous embroidery books spanning techniques, styles and the decades, (I love scouring 2nd hand book and charity shops for such inspiration), threads, fabrics, wine and nibbles and everyone dived in immediately as Fiona led out the conversation.

It had been agreed that due to the research project emphasising co-creating, we would work collectively and learEE2n a new technique together. Fliss had brought with her a large box of threads, (given to her by her Granny), whilst Katie has brought a lovely old embroidery book that she had recently picked up at a 2nd hand bookshop. What caught my eye though was that everyone had brought with them their own hand made needle case, very charming indeed, and that began a conversation in itself.

I noticed that Fliss had settled on an old Hardanger embroidery pamphlet that Deirdre from Craftspace had given me the last time we met, so proposed that we had a go with that as no one had tried it before. Hardanger is a counted and drawn thread technique, usually done in white thread and in a geometric design. Fliss had brought with her a large holed evenweave cloth which was ideal and she shared it with the group. I offered some wool that would work well for the size of the holes and we set to, each finding our own way into the stitching from the book. Katie also found the technique in her book and we compared examples. I was interested to observe that most of us found it easier to interpret the technique by visually responding to the pictorial diagrams rather than the written instructions. As previously agreed, each session was to have a discussion EE3topic and tonight’s was about creativity and community. We quickly established that we all found working in some form of community productive and motivating, especially when comparing it to times of forced isolation. However by sharing our experiences we learned how different this was for each of us. Although it was generally agreed that the peer community of the degree course was positive, it did have disadvantages too. Working within a female centric educational group would at times cause an unhealthy competitive and cliquey atmosphere which could be off putting and demotivating. All agreed that on graduating working alone had it’s own disadvantages, namely the sudden loss of structure and the support through like-minded engaged friends, access to facilities and teaching.

It is interesting however that of the graduates, none had since actively sought to find, join or create a group and instead either relied on ad hoc creative conversations with uni friends from afar, family or work colleagues, hence all being buoyed up by this new opportunity of working together.EE4

Conversation evolved away from the community issue and I soon realised that it was not important to stay “on topic” and decided to abandon the notion of each session being lead by theme. Everything is relevant and surely that is the point to the “small stories of making”, rather than trying to steer and direct conversation but letting it emerge naturally. We touched on the realities of making a living from embroidery and difficulties of the industry including the impact of society and economics, the frustrations of working for others in less creative jobs and our ambitions and aspirations.

At times there was a companionable and productive silence, as minds focused and hands searched around the physical technicalities of handanger. A pause in chatter, replaced by the soft rhythmic pull of thread through fabric, accompanied by the unconscious but audible mutterings of inner “making” dialogue. Then heads up and hands down to query process, share practise EE5and observe others’ interpretation, reinforcing the positives of group working and the unavoidable comparing of work, met here with a healthy banter, “look at Katie’s, her’s is much better than mine!”.

The evening sped by and growing tired I had to call time. We concluded the session by a quick reflection, writing our response to “what have I learnt” and “what have I shared” on the paper doilies. We parted on a collective high, full of energy and achievement and with the promise to meet again soon to continue where we left off.

Second Embroidery Meet: Tuesday 15th April, 7.30pm

Present: Hannah, Fiona, Becs, Irene, Katie, Fliss
Apologies: Emma

After having a random discussion about drink driving, (we noted the audio recphoto-8order vaguely resembled a breathalyser), the second session opened by welcoming Irene and Becs and looking at the “home work” some of the group had brought along. As Becs was unable to join us at the previous session, she and Fliss had met up for a catch-up session where Fliss introduced her to Hardanger embroidery. Becs had produced a small sample of vibrant yellow stitching on grey, whilst Fliss had tried the technique out again in a finer thread on a finer fabric. Katie had gone even further and finer, producing a near immaculate sample on white, which she had run up one evening whilst relaxing in front of the television.

As previously mentioned, Irene is currently the Senior Technician for Mixed media at Falmouth and so we capitalised on her work role to lead the session. At work Irene and I have been discussing the repetitive nature of basic hand embroidery that the students seem to be favouring and in response to this we have decided to set a number of Advanced Hand stitch workshops for our 2nd year students this term to introduce them to and encourage them to work with more complex stitching. With this in mind Irene has leapt on the chance of further her own stitch repertoire which has consequently opened up a new obsession of researching hand embroidery from around the world. Irene brought along a beautiful sampler that she is working on, which she has produced to test out a range of ideas and to use as a visual aid for the workshops. Naturally we were all lphoto-5ike bees around a honey pot and spent quite some time looking at and discussing Irene’s work.

This lead to a discussion about how we research and about learning and sharing. Irene has recently discovered Pinterest and spent a dedicated amount of time scouring the internet for images of hand embroidery globally, which she has begun to capture and categorise country by country on her iPad through the virtual on-line pin board. Irene took us through her Pinterest boards which made for impressive viewing of an incredibly rich source of information, which have the added benefits of being both portable and immediate, (as long as you have an internet connection). Most of the group are already avid fans of Pinterest but I have struggled tophoto-6 get on with it, purely because I am loath to spend much time in front of a screen and get lost in the internet which I find to be a rabbit warren. However seeing what a fantastic resource Irene is producing has convinced me to re engage with it in order that I can “follow” Irene and the others, plus share with them what I find inspiring – it’s a no-brainer!

We agreed to try out the Oyster stitch which is a slightly more complex version of a basic loop stitch. Irene had to remind herself of the technical process and did so by watching a YouTube video on an iPhone. I was interested in this as a means of learning, it being remarkably different from our Hardanger session when we learnt that particular technique from a 1930s book. The internet has surely opened up the possibilities of how we learn and engage, which we began to debate, both pros and cons. We collectively agreed that nothing beat learning from being shown person to person and Irene proceeded to work her way around the group individually to demonstrate and photo-7guide us through our response to her teaching. As always we were taken with the various ways we each tackle the technicalities of stitching physically in our method of making and also our own creative interpretation of the stitch, resulting in differing outcomes from simple repetitive marks to floral and geometric pattern making, although Fliss noted that we all worked in a similar scale.

Whilst stitching the conversation returned to the topic of learning and how the digital age is effecting this and embroidery in general. Falmouth University library has recently received a wondrous gift from Hazel Simms, a life long embroiderer who at the age of 92 has bequeathed her substantial collection of embroidery books and magazines to the university. Along with this I had been sent some personal letters and photographs fromphoto-9 her family giving a personal insight into Hazel as an embroiderer, which I had brought with me to share with the group. A short handwritten autobiography referred to Hazel’s retirement relocation from London to Cornwall as entering an “embroidery desert”, which made us smile, though luckily this would not be her fate, for Hazel quickly established as a member to a number of local West Country embroidery groups. There was also a letter from Beryl Dean who was a renowned British embroiderer and teacher whom Hazel had studied under in London and remained friends with. The letter discusses the impact of old age and declining health on being able to embroider and the frustrations that came with it which made for quiet reflection as our still nimble fingers worked around the oyster stitch.

This in turn led to me sharing my recent experience of attending the Embroiderers’ Guild prize ceremony of the inaugural Beryl Dean Award for Teaching Excellence, which I had been shortlisted for, pitched against my own tutor from the Royal College, the very Excellent Karen Nicol, who deservedly won this year’s prize. The Guild is aware that education across the board is changing and that embroidery is declining in both skill and popularity and in response the Award has been established to investigate this fully over a period of 10 years. I was struck that I was still regarded as “young” within the Embroiderers’ Guild, and was referred to as “the future, the one to watch” yet question the appeal of such a seemly ageing and traditional Guild for myself, those like minded and the much younger generations. This sparked and animated conversation as we questioned this within the group, the relevancy of embroidery in today’s society and what the future holds. Watch this space!

 

Third Embroidery Meet: Tuesday 29th April

Present: Hannah, Fiona, Becs, Irene, Fliss                                                                        Apologies: Emma, Katie

The third session, I noted, started in a more fluid, relaxed and chatty manner. Perhaps it is because we are settling in to the routine and rhythm of the group, we are more familiar with the setting, the context and each other.photo-12

It was quickly decided that we would have a “freestyle” evening with each of us doing what we wanted, individually but together. Irene was in a quiet reflective mood, needing to practise long and short stitching for a workshop later in the week with the 2nd year students, Becs was a little tired so wanted to go at her own pace, Fliss was happy to continue working on the sample from the week before and I took the opportunity to catch up with some of my freelance design samples that I stitch and sell via my agent in London.

This got us talking about the industry and freelance design. As Fiona is not familiar with that way of working I explained about the process and showed the group images of my photo-11designs that I catalogue on my iPad. It was good to get positive and constructive feedback about my work, some of which have already sold and others which are yet to. I rarely show this work to anyone, often keeping it separate to my research or more personal creative work as I see it purely as an economical and commercial output, designing in response to middle market fashion and interior trends and adapting design layout and processes accordingly to what I know is more likely to sell. We discussed the pros, (hands on designing, flexibility of work), and cons, (no guarantee of selling work, lack of guidance and motivation). Fliss has similar experience of freelancing in this way but had becomes jaded, (due to cons, plus juggling a full time job), and had stopped producing work. However she was contacted recently by her agent with new ideas and deadline dates. Fliss remarked that she was keen to re engage and work on a new Hildacollection as her motivation and creativity levels have increased since our group stitch-togethers. This was really encouraging and inspiring to hear and the others agreed enthusiastically about the benefits of the group in relation to their work and mindset.

The conversation progressed on to other forms of freelancing such as working to commission which is what Becs does mainly, through her bespoke embroidered textile business, Hilda Living, designing and making products for high end interiors and working for numerous different types of clients. This led to us having a look online at the Hilda Living website which we were all impressed with. Becs found the positive affirmation from the group supportive, in the same way that I had earlier, and we spoke about how this group is becoming a valuable space for sharing our individual practise with like minded professionals. The encouragement and opportunity to gain insightful feedback from those we respect raises confidence, photo-13(something we all recognised we struggle with at times), and allows for personal and creative growth. It is often easy to lose sight of ones own strengths, especially when working alone or in a less creative environment, and having others point out our positive attributes and talents helps us all to review and reconnect to ourselves, giving us an incentive to continue.

Leading on, we started talking about work to pay the bills versus the ideal, what the future held and what we would ultimately like to do creatively. This varied from relocating to the South of France to run bespoke textile classes, opening new businesses, to making a name as a textile artist. Individually we saw these personal goals more as dreams but collectively and with the support andphoto-14 encouragement of the group, these ambitions started to seem achievable and the risk taking, the need to break the mould and to act on opportunities seemed more possible.

As neither Emma nor Katie were able to make the session, in the spirit of the group we kept them in the loop throughout the evening via email, sharing a number of interesting, inspiring and useful websites. This included a link to mastered.com, a new website that seeks to deliver an alternative route of learning through a series of online specialist courses delivered by industry experts, which includes embellishment and embroidery. A program of free webinairs start this month, called “Meet the Masters”, with live interviews from highly regarded professionals such as Jamie “X Stitch” Chalmers, Karen Nicol and Diana Sprignall. This once again highlights the pivotal role of digital technologies in advancing, (within this context), embroidery, education, and in connecting communities. The importance of the web as a tool to create a digital presence to professional and socially connect was then highlighted by Becs and her experience of starting up Hilda Living. From that the story behind the name unfolded and entertained us, resonating personally with each of us, as it was her Granny Hilda, a talented, highly skilled and prolific embroiderer, who inspired Becs as a young child to stitch. Others followed with stories behind first creative encounters and embroidery, revealing we all had a pivotal moment or person we could attribute to the opening up of our eyes, hearts and hands to the passion that now threads our little group together.

Fourth embroidery meet: Tuesday 13th May, 7.30pm

Present: Hannah, Fiona, Irene, Emma, Bryony
Apologies: Fliss, Katie

This evening we were joined by Bryony Stokes, filmmaker and photogB 1rapher, who is another research practitioner on the project. She was there to capture the session and the spirit of our group. Time spent working out the logistics of setting up equipment created a natural break out opportunity for the group. As this was Emma’s first session for a while she took advantage of catching up with Becs, whilst Fiona and Irene talked over some other research ideas.

After a busy day at work I took a moment to pause, step back and observe the conversations, and for the first time that day I felt relaxed. It struck me that the dynamics B 2of the group had shifted, that I didn’t need to officiate, nor assume responsibility for everyone’s well being as I have felt was my role previously, me being the initiator of the group and the host. That by now the group has found its own footing, falling into a natural rhythm with ease and familiarity. And in that moment I also observed that we didn’t necessarily need to or have to make anything tonight, we could just continue as we were, chatting and sharing ideas and small stories of making around a table. But the embroidery urge is never too far away, with hands instinctively inching towards the boxes of threads, fingering fabric and needing to stitch.

Once set up, Bryony got to work and so did we. I suggested a new challenge which I had been contemplating for a while. Reflecting on the previous sessions I am interested that each one has taken a slightly different turn in terms of what and how we make but I B3observed that mainly the emphasis has been on technique and the learning of specific types of stitch. Thinking about how to continue the diversity of the sessions, I decided that rather than focus of the technicalities of embroidery, that there were other ways to approach stitching. I proposed that we had a go at embroidery drawing, setting up a still life and using a needle and thread to draw what we see directly onto fabric. The initial reaction was surprised interest followed by a light hearted concern and a slight nervousness about how this would be as no one had done this before. Although the brief was open as to what to stitch, and considering the table was littered with all sorts of interesting objects, the small vases of garden flowers that were decorating the table seemed to be the natural subject matter of choice for everyone, unsurprising perhaps considering the affinity between textile designers and florals…

I suggested that for ease one could draw on the fabric first using a dissolvable pen and B4stitch over the marks made but was encouraged to see that everyone dived straight in to free styling and began to stitch straight into the fabric, embracing the challenge, “let’s just wing it” Emma enthusiastically suggested. There was a short supply of embroidery hoops tonight which I thought might hamper efforts as it is often easier to work within a frame but in the spirit of our adventure we decided to go “hoop less”, breaking free of any boundaries. A discussion around embroidery etiquette and whether it was proper to use a hoop or not prompted Irene to comment about her reluctance to use a thimble and getting berated by another professional for this seemingly bad practise. No one in our group uses a thimble, preferring instead to experience the physicality of the needle and the stitching process, agreeing that “nothing beats feeling what you’re doing”.

A lot has been going on recently for some of the group. Becs is in the middle of producing stock for her debut at The Contemporary Craft fair at Bovey Tracey early next month, B6(6th-8th June), where she will be showcasing the latest Hilda Living line. This has been a long held ambition and Becs shares with us her excitement and nerves in an honest mix of emotions. Acknowledging that for a long time fear of failure had been a stumbling block, getting accepted for the show is a big achievement and although it is a challenge, it is one that has reignited her ambition. Emma tells us that she and Katie have recently been accepted for a graduate business start up scheme to help them set up their own business, though as this coincided with Emma being offered a full time job, there will be a lot to juggle. Confidence issues FALMOUTH_EMBROIDERY_BSTOKES_MED03were brought up again as was the fear of not being “good enough” but how their partnership helped to encourage self belief, “we told ourselves we’re awesome, we can do it!”.

Talk of the realities of running a small business, the often mundane, repetitive tasks that have to be undertaken as well as the fundamental need to keep ideas developing in order to remain fresh and interesting, chimed well with my teaching experience which at times can feel like Groundhog Day. The creative drive that pushes one to challenge, refresh and renew is essential. That, and in my FALMOUTH_EMBROIDERY_BSTOKES_MED07case working directly with the students, stimulates and encourages me to constantly evolve my practise in how and what I teach. This seems to be appreciated by the students as the graduates recount tales of the impact of my drive on them whilst studying. At times seemingly harsh, the “tough love” pays off, “you had to be smashed to bits and put back together again..and for that I am forever grateful”, as the individual design persona emerges.

The final conversation of the evening comes back round to drawing, notions attached to FALMOUTH_EMBROIDERY_BSTOKES_MED11what drawing is and if one can or can’t draw. So often we hear the refrain, “I can’t draw, I was told I wasn’t any good”, usually connected to an experience at school, which creates barriers. Drawing to me seems a natural instinct and an core experience that we all engage with during infant hood but as we grow this shifts and there seems to be certain expectations attached to what drawing should or shouldn’t be. For some, hands are forced in the way we are taught and we conform to the rules which we are then judged by. We lose confidence and interest and our understanding is narrowed. On our course we work hard to redress this as for us FALMOUTH_EMBROIDERY_BSTOKES_MED14drawing in whatever sense is fundamental to creativity and the design process and acts as the springboard that stimulates and inspires our textiles. There is a strong connection between drawing and its relationship to needle and thread, the tools of which are similar as the choice of thread type echoes the visual language of pen, ink, charcoal whilst the stitching style suggests marks and lines made. Everyone has their own signature in stitch as they do in writing and drawing and tonight we see this quiet clearly, as in concluding the session we enthusiastically and supportively compare our embroidered drawings. Another great night, thank you everyone!

(Thanks to Bryony for the photos accompanying this post).

Fifth embroidery meet: Tuesday 27th June, 7.30pm

Present: Hannah, Irene, Emma, Katie
Apologies: Fiona, Becs, Fliss

Up until this point all sessions have been audio recorded as part of the research process but as Fiona, (chief recorder), was unable to make it tonight we went ahead “off the record”. Whether because of this or not, the fifth session had a calmer and quieter vibe to it. I certainly felt more relaxed as I am always conscious that the recorder is on though the others said it did not seem to intrude and they were less aware of it. We were also a fairly small group and as we all were feeling relatively tired from the day we took a more informal approach to the evening.

I updated everyone on my progress with the embroidery project that I am doing in 5-1response to our sessions and showed what I have produced so far, explaining other ideas that I am aiming to make. I had made the decision a while back to focus on capturing elements of the conversations through stitching text within the context of an embroidery work box, so putting the words we talk about stitching back into embroidery. I have nearly finished a tape measure that I have made based on some of the text from Hazel Sims autobiography, recording her timeline of pivotal embroidery moments throughout her life. I have carefully traced her handwriting onto a length of white bias binding and worked over the letters in a small back stitch in red cotton thread. As one can imagine the stitching has taken quiet a while but in doing so it has given me time to contemplate Hazel’s story, the great enjoyment that she gained from embroidery, the various groups she was part of and the positive impact they have been to her, acting at times as a creative and social lifeline.

With this in mind, I suggested that we spend the session embroidering text onto ribbon as I was keen to include the group’s work in my final sewing box. This idea was another first for Emma and Irene, though not for Katie who enjoys and often writes in stitch. The brief was open to interpretation and I was interested to see what each of us wrote, the style of the writing and the technique we chose to stitch the text in. Irene wanted to work on a piece of cloth and knew straight away what she wanted to stitch, “the soul of the cloth lives” in stem stitch. The rest of us chose one of the ribbons that I had bought for the project. Emma was suddenly in a dilemma about which colour ribbon to choose and then which colour threads to stitch with, making us laugh as we teased her about her dithering nature and exactness with colour. Not knowing either what to write, she decided to use this response to the task as the inspiration for her piece and set to stitching “I need to stop being anal about colour” in multi coloured threads. Independently of each other Katie and I had a similar idea which was to stitch a list of names onto our ribbons. Mine focused on the names of our group whilst Katie began to embroider the names of everyone she knows who stitches, beginning with “Kathleen, Vanessa, Natalie” who happen to be her Nan, mother and sister. I love the connection between the generations of one family all stitched together.

The conversation ambled around television and what we were currently watching which naturally led onto discussions about whether watching TV effects how and what we stitch. I find it really difficult to multitask, (watching and stitching and especially if it is a sub titled Nordic noir program that Irene and I found we both favoured). If I have to concentrate on the piece of work I am doing I find it a distraction and it slows me down, so I don’t often sit and sew in front of the television as most of what I make is “work” related. However when I am more mentally tired and can’t concentrate on work projects but feel too restless just to veg in front of the TV, I will pick up another type of stitching that requires less brain power, such as stitch-by-numbers cross stitch kit tha5-3t I am partial to, (this is the closest I ever get to the therapeutic sense of embroidery that so many rave about!). Sometimes I will do my freelance design work but it will be an easy or repetitive task such as cutting out fabric circles which is often rather boring so the television becomes a welcomed distraction. Stitching and watching seems to be a fairly common practice within the group though Irene prefers to listen to the radio when she works. We talked about how the digital age has certainly changed the dynamics of the uni studio with more students bringing in iPads and laptops to watch catch-up TV at their desks whilst they work. This vexes me because I know that the TV is a distraction and have always had to press the point that choosing mixed media was “not an excuse to stay at home and work from the sofa”, (which was often the perceived notion, mixed media being apparently the “easy” option because of it’s flexibility and portability), and instead stressing the importance of a focused attitude within the communal studio. Students have always been allowed to bring in mobile devices to listen to music with headphones and most now do but since the explosion of play back TV and the commonality and accessibility of tablets and laptops, I have noticed a rise in television watching within the studio. We did try to respond to this by updating the course Handbook and putting a clause in that prohibited the use of TV watching during teaching hours but it has proved difficult to police. And am I being too fussy? Perhaps the students growing up in the digital age have wired their brains differently to accommodate this, though I am yet to be convinced!

5-4A natural progression took the conversation on to where we work within our homes and again whether this effects what and how we stitch. Irene declared she favoured her bed, at anytime and with whatever she had to hand, “I am one of those spontaneous stitchers, I get the urge and I just have to pick up a needle and thread”. I was envious of this as I love the idea but being a poor sleeper for years I have worked hard to create the bedroom as a separate space to anything that activates the mind. Emma said she preferred working on her own when needing to focus on work, finding a place at home where she could do this and did not welcome company, especially interference from her husband but would be quite happy stitching alongside him in front of the television if the stitching she was doing was less pressured. I don’t mind company when I work or need to concentrate but that is maybe because I live in a small flat with a family and no studio space so have had to adapt to working whenever and wherever regardless of distractions.

As always the evening finished with a review of our handiwork. We were interested to see which stitch techniques had been employed and how this visually affected the aesthetics of the stitched text. Both Emma and Katie had opted for back stitch, Irene for stem stitch and I went for a couched line which was seen as an inspired choice by the others. “Mine is just really brutal” Emma laughed. On seeing our efforts with the ribbon Irene declared she wished she hadn’t used a piece of fabric and vowed to have a go on ribbon before next time, whilst I am looking forward to seeing how many more names Katie has added to her ribbon, and hearing the stories behind her fellow stitchers.5-5

 

Sixth Embroidery Meet – Tuesday 10th June, 7.30pm

Present: Hannah, Fliss, Irene, Becs, Katie
Apologies: Emma Fiona

The evenings are lighter now, and so is the general ambiance of the group. Irene arrived first and got out a beautiful length of silk ribbon that she had hand dyed early in the day with logwood, producing an elegant soft silver grey colour. She was keen to have a go at stitching text on to the ribbon as we had done in the session before, admitting that then she had initially been confronted by the task and had reacted against it though fear. Giving it a go this session, she was still somewhat daunted by the challenge of stitching on such thin ribbon and spent sometime working out the logistics, what to write the text on with photo 1-6and what stitch would work best. As the rest of the group began to arrive the conversation opened up about individual handwriting styles, how we are taught to write properly at school and stories about certain teachers who influenced us in our handwriting learning. Irene confessed that her reaction against the text on ribbon challenge had brought up old fears of writing at Primary School, hence her initial respond to it in default mode of stitching big simple text onto a large piece of fabric.

As Irene had already set the precedent, everyone automatically got out their own pieces of embroidery to work on. Katie and I continued with our text ribbons, I picked up where I had left off previously, though Katie was further ahead as she had spent time on hers in between sessions. Fliss picked up a piece that she had started weeks before when Irene had taught us the oyster stitch and Becs chose to start something new and began intuitively exploring mark making with her needle and thread, “I’m being random, stitching weird little things. It’s nice to rebel and not be on the digital sewing machine”, a perfect antidote to the previous weeks working on her stock for Bovey Tracy.photo 1-7

As this was the last “official” meet as part of the research project it gave us the ideal opportunity to reflect on the group’s activities over the last 2 and 1/2 months. I asked everyone to comment on the experience, whether it was what they had expected, what they felt they had gained from the group meetings and if there were any particular highlights to what we had done. Unsurprisingly the overall positive response was unanimous.

Though not everyone, (bar myself), had been able to attend all sessions, each had their favourite one for various reasons. Irene found the needle and thread drawing session pivotal; she had never tried it before so it challenged her, “everything I do is usually mapped out and organised”, forcing her out of her comfort zone. However the results were a success in terms of her own practise and personal response, “sitting without pre meditated thought helped me to breakout and be a bit more relaxed”. For Katie the first session and learning Hardanger made an impression, “it just stuck with me. I’ve made a hankie for my Dad with it on”, whereas Fliss found Irene’s hand stitching-from-around-the-World workshop inspirational, “I am not good at learning on my own, I prefer to be shown”. This comment shifted the focus on from the practical making side of the sessions and instead began to flag up the positives of the photo 2-6shared experience, “It’s a nice combination of working within a group, some can use a book or you can look and learn from each other through demonstration” agreed Becs.

The group saw our gatherings as “a bit of therapy” and the opportunity to “air things that we might be struggling with”. Having missed the creative buzz and peer support of the uni environment most felt they had been in a stitch bubble and out of step with the wider creative world but coming together in this social environment, sewing and sharing the love of stitch, had reignited and revived passions. “It’s a real affirmation of your practice and what makes you tick” Becs stated.

Fliss entertained us with the story of her boyfriend’s family’s reaction to her stitching, “I can’t do supper on Tuesday night as I’ve got Sew Club” she said, to which they fell about laughing. “What are you, 80? Is that what you do, do you like it?” came the surprised reply. Perhaps a somewhat typical response from the uninitiated, especially the notion that you had to be elderly to enjoy embroidery. However for Fliss in particular this group has been invaluable to her, “to sew in a different context for the sheer pleasure is a celebration and gives me a sense of belonging. We’re like an exclusive club and I don’t care if they mock me!” This I feel really sums up the most powerful aspect of what we have achieved, confirmed by others who agreed that working together, sharing and making has “given me confidence in myself and my craft” and even though we are all busy with work and personal commitments, “it’s so nice to come here without expectations. It’s so enjoyable and you think of the evenings fondly. When I couldn’t make it the other week I was really annoyed”.

So it is clear and agreed upon that we all want the group to continue beyond the parameters of the research project, and as a legacy to what we have started here in this space we began to discuss meeting on a monthly basis and explored what the format would be. Ideas were banFALMOUTH_EMBROIDERY_BSTOKES29died about offering up suggestions of what else we would like to focus on, try out or achieve including revisiting stitch life drawing, the adventurous sounding “wild embroidery”, (stitching out on location), public stitching, (on similar lines to guerilla knitting), stitching on a massive scale, (we always play it too safe and work small), natural dyeing and stitch consequences, (stitch and pass it on) and that’s just the beginning. So all I can say for now is watch this space…. stitch on!

Thanks to Fliss, Becs, Irene, Katie and Emma, my stitching buddies who have been inspirational and to Fiona, our stitch spectator, for on-going support and intellectual contribution.
 

 

 

 

 

 

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