a travelling encyclopedia


I prepared a suitcase full of pattern and colour to take with me to Mexico. Coals to Newcastle you might think.

I was invited back to Guadalajara with the job of exploring textile design – the what, how, why of it – with the students at that special little college HardtoFind. The last item I squeezed into the case was my dear old Afghan dress.


afghan-dressIt’s a small encyclopedia of design in itself – with an ikat woven silk skirt and sleeves stitched together in narrow bands, the bodice has panels embellished with cotton and satin ribbons in tiny patchworks and appliqués and is lined inside with old Russian block-prints. The hem is bound with deep patches of velvets and jacquards, damasks, prints, embroideries and backstrap weaves. Each patch and fabric used tells its own history and journey. And in its completeness it embodies our human love of pattern and colour and our ingenuity and compulsion in making, gathering and wearing it – whatever the weather, whatever the circumstances, from nomad to courtier. This dress has been an inspiration to me, as written about hereand the start of many thoughts and paintings.


I think the students enjoyed the dress tour. They certainly worked very hard over the next five days as we explored pattern types, colour palettes, simple printing and design with more up-to-date applications – from a tiny hand-painted baby-gro to a painted denim jacket via floral panels, colour mood experiments, placed patterns, and scarf ideas.


marigoldsThe last day of my stay was the famous Mexican Dia de Muertos – the Day of the Dead. On the first day we’d been to a market held annually especially for the occasion, full of skeletons, sugar skulls, special sweet breads – pan de muertos – and tiny models and iterations of daily life. Pots and pans, trucks and cars, wads of minute money, guitars, foods of every sort, paper decorations, little altars – ofredas, tiny coffins, paper-cut garlands and marigolds, marigolds, marigolds.

market-stall-mexicoEverything the dead might need and the living could offer. The plan is to invite the spirits home for the day, to talk over past times, share memories and food and send them back for another year. Traditionally these gatherings are held in cemeteries, and personal altars are also set up in homes; others are in more public places – museums, squares and piazzas – and in every school.



In Tlaquepaque the whole town was given over to celebrations. Elaborate altars were erected in many of the tiny rooms of what used to be the hospital and is now the cultural centre. These were dedicated to all sorts of people, among them Edgar Allan Poe, Frida Kahlo, Diego, lost migrants, famous footballers, artists, musicians, heroes, teachers, anonymous victims of violence. The streets were strewn with fresh alfalfa leaves and decorated with marigolds. The air of festivity was emphasised by music and costume; everywhere were faces made up as skulls, calaveros, and skeletons – white make-up, black outlines, jewels liberally applied – with fantastic costumes on every corner and elaborate frocks sported by all, from babies to grandmas – and even a dog!


Finally as evening fell, we saw a parade of ‘dead’ brides with their grooms and attendants accompanied by mournful music and hooded chain-clankers.


This festival comes from pre-christian days and it seems a great idea to have a general celebration of and for those no longer above ground. Today, being the eleventh day of the eleventh month, there will be a public silence here for the war dead. I cheerfully and often speak to my own dead, even though sadness surrounded their departure, and Sophie has written a guest blog about the very positive experience of painting coffins for some of our family members.


Sorry if this blog seems to be harping on about death; we’ve woken this morning to the news that Leonard Cohen has gone – and who can blame him? He was important in our lives: years ago we used to listen to Susan’s treasured LP as we worked, especially and perhaps understandably, to her favourite track ‘Suzanne’. He worked till the last minute, releasing his latest album this past October.

What to say about the current position in the US? I was amazed to suddenly hear the American Airline pilot say on the tannoy the other day as we began our descent to Dallas that we needed to fill in the immigration forms on landing for the authorities there “to keep our borders safe”. I think I’ve always felt in a minority of one sort or another, and it’s been a pretty decent place to be; suddenly there’s a whiff of danger about it. Thank goodness we don’t have guns on the streets here as they do over the Atlantic.poppiesTo move on to more cheerful matters: our new website is now up and open – hurray! Have a visit, wander through and let us know what you think. calendarThe 2017 calendar is published: called ‘Hand Made’, this one takes a look at some of what goes on in the studio – brushes, paints, combs, dyes, inks, wire, pliers, needles, thread, yarn, paper, cloth, card, even a swimsuit are all pressed into service in the name of pattern! And there’s a new sheet of special day stickers bound in at the end. You can order your copy here. We also have a section for Christmas, with new tree fairies, some dressed in vintage Liberty, hand-painted baubles and decorations and some sparkly hand-glitterised cards on their way.


One of the new features is the way events are listed – and my next teaching date is at West Dean in January, as you’ll see. I’ll be at Morley College again in February for a weekend of silk painting; also, to coincide with the very exciting new show about the work of designer Josef Frank coming at The Fashion and Textile Museum early next year, I’ll be giving a talk and running some workshops. So watch out for those details – I very much hope to see you at some of these events. Later in the year I’ll be back at Bradness gallery, and later still I hope to return to Guadalajara for a special new project.


I love this new little Viva jug and bowl duo from Magpie – perfect with our majestic tea-pot..


Thanks to Molly, Steve, Paula and Oswaldo.

Ever had trouble drawing perspectives? Here’s a natty solution…


10 thoughts on “a travelling encyclopedia

  1. Dear Sarah,

    So sorry not to have replied .

    I’ve had a partial knee replacement operation, 5 days in hospital , then excersise and rest . Family and friends have been looking after me, but I felt quite ‘wiped’ out . I’ll be back working in the New Year .

    I love the new work .Congratulations

    Very best wishes


    VMPD CONSULTING LTD TRADING AS VANESSA DENZA _Founder and Managing Director_ Consultant to the fashion industry – Design Team Structuring, Retail and Designer Collaborations, Introductions for Company Acquisitions, Academic Consultant Drawing on more than 50 years of experience and acumen

    Windsor House, 40/41 Great Castle Street, London W1W 8LU Walbury Cottage, Upper Green, Inkpen, Berkshire, RG17 9QX

    Email: vanessa@vanessadenza.com +44(0)7771998437

  2. What terrific new images from the Day of the Dead — which, long ago, lured me to Mexico: well, along with papel picado, and bordado. Here’s where I very first met the idea — originally as a series of images from what turned out to be, once YouTube had been invented, this filmette by Charles and Ray Eames::

    Your suitcase art gallery: I have travelling embroideries for long-term journeys– almost finished, to explain; half-way, to finish, to achieve; un- or barely started, to back up. Plus of course local designs on market remnants that just throw themselves into the pack en route, to be worked back here to conjure up where they came from…

  3. as always, stunning! (and don’t forget about the beauty in Canada–fewer hassles, and just as majestic scenery…. 😉

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