Sewing’s been a bit of a theme lately: I’m not a seamstress of any elegance but I do like to join things together. I decided to start with some bunting, hoping it might come in handy for a celebration of some sort. I know, I know – small triangles won’t make much impact on the many bolts of fabric which are currently a feature of my sitting room! Anyway, marked, cut and pinned I was ready for the moment; but then I couldn’t find the sewing machine lead. I’d tidied it away in one of my many space-making enterprises, probably just before a visit from an interviewer or photographer. I tried to conjure up where I was likely to have put the item. My habit of swooshing things of current importance into one box or basket paid off – I located a likely box under a pile of calico and there was the lead and the pedal! Heaven! But better than that – inside the box was the Merchant and Mills paper pattern for a coat I’ve been planning to make, a roll of invisible sellotape I needed, and a booklet of the Festival Pleasure Gardens – a wonderful hoard of treasure. Back to the machine I rushed, set it on the table only to discover that the cotton-reel-holding prong had snapped! Trying to maintain a belief in superglue I attempted to stick it back – no luck – I’d need to whizz the machine over to our wonderful Sewing Machine Centre (and museum) in Balham for a proper mend. I detached the little drawer, thinking to leave that at home; and what winked out at me from amongst the spare bobbins? A tiny gold oakleaf – one of a birthday pair of Alex Monroe earrings that I’d lost some months before. I was so happy – I’d found so much more than I was looking for! The machine was mended within a day – I made the bunting.
And I’ve cut out the coat too, from various pieces of hand-painted calico generated as samples at the workshops I run. I’m often asked what I’ll do with them…
Out of the blue I received an email enquiring whether I would paint a dress jacket for a young man to wear at a wedding – theme: jungle, timescale: critical, fabric: silk.
Of course I said yes, and as the time was short asked the jacketeer to bring the garment over and discuss the imagery. He arrived the next morning, with his bespoke cream silk jacket; made for him some years earlier he’d never worn it – something to do with the satin lapels. It needed to be ready for a wedding in L.A in less than a fortnight; we discussed imagery, agreed a price, and away he went on his motorbike. I was a little trepidacious – there wasn’t a plan B. Although I paint quickly, thinking time plays a big part in any project. In the 12 days I had before delivery I had a lot of other work to complete; I set aside the hours for the painting and let the imagery and method jostle about in my brain until the moment of application. On a ready-made garment the first mark is the hardest.
The Friday came, the commission was completed, the young man stopped by on his way to the airport; we exchanged jacket and payment, he packed the garment expertly and off they both went. He was surprised and delighted with the result, and I was too. But almost best of all was the confirmation of the trust that’s required in the fundamental nature of a commission.
I’m running a Painting on Calico course for Selvedge in London on Saturday July 1, and further courses on that subject, on silk-painting, and on the making and meaning of pattern are also in the pipeline – see my events page online.
I was asked by a Chinese client to design a small range of fabrics for her fashion label making reference to Aung San Suu Kyi, for whom she has great respect. We made several smallish patterns, and one huge portrait for a scarf. It’s printed on chiffon, fittingly delicate and transparent, but strong nonetheless. I love the double hem and fringing.
The Duke of Edinburgh award scheme requires participants to learn some new skills; I was asked would I contribute some practical opportunities in the ‘creative’ field for my eldest grandson and his friend.
Sewing is a useful skill for anyone to have; the mothers were sceptical that their sons would agree. But the boys arrived armed with some old jeans as I’d requested. We planned to recycle them into useful pockets to hang alongside their bunkbeds for all those little bits and pieces that go astray.
It was fun to cut up the jeans (thoughts of shorts dawned on them), choose the pockets and embellish them, plan and pin, teach the rudiments of machine sewing, line and finish. They did well and I think they were quite impressed with themselves too. I’m rather pleased with the whole idea as a project.
Enormous sewing skills are demonstrated and celebrated at the Festival of Quilts coming up in Birmingham in July. There are lots of different categories of competition in the festival and I was very honoured to be asked to be part of the preliminary judging panel for the Fine Art Quilt category. We needed to narrow down to about 20 finalists from the 90 or so entries, and spent a very interesting day peering at images and discussing the contenders. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the actual pieces at the exhibition when I join the panel for the final judgement.
Unlike those magnificent stitchers, I see myself as an imperfectionist; my energy is in developing the idea – the execution is made as well as I possibly can do, but not to the point of sacrificing the invention for the technique. I try to encourage students to work in this way – often lack of time and experience inhibit experiment. So it’s always a pleasure to see what the young people in my ‘super sketchbook’ workshops come up with. We have two hours to make books from scratch using all sorts of materials – papers, envelopes, boxes, fabrics, strings, magazines, etc and all sorts of methods – cutting, folding, sticking, stitching, stapling, painting, stamping, tying… From the first few shy minutes confidence grows and the momentum accelerates; it’s great to see all the different books emerging, and watch the fun of discovery and what-ifness taking over.
I myself was in a similar position this last weekend at The London Cloth Company. Daniel Harris, the owner, founder and chief weaver, is a collector of old industrial looms and a mechanical magician. At the mill’s Open Day he set out his latest loom under an awning in the front yard and extended the cotton warp on a frame for a couple of metres for me to paint on.
I was happily engrossed for a few hours brushing pattern and colour onto the yarns, letting them dry in the sun – bliss! Then we started the weaving; there were hiccups – the dye was too thick and needed wetting and combing out – but, that done, we saw the experiment emerge as cloth. Once I’ve heat-set the colour and washed the fabric I plan to make a simple jacket out of it. There are lots more improvements I’d like to make to my part of the process but I’m hoping we can make a small range from this partnership.
In Folkestone Library there are some magnificent upper rooms – the Sassoon Gallery. As a forerunner to the 2017 Folkestone Triennial, entitled double edge, Lisa Milroy and Stephenie Bergman have an exhibition there – ‘Tango’ (it takes two, doesn’t it). The light filling the room yesterday, the lucid blue sky outside, the space within, made their works sing together. I didn’t take any pictures – this is my memory of the experience.
These are such emotionally charged and disturbing times. But the other morning, on my way to run The Fashion Textile Museum workshops, I was bowling along, the car window wide open, sun pouring in, driving past the slopes of poppies and wild flowers in Burgess Park, listening to my favourite Brahms Hungarian Dance number 5 on BBCradio3 I felt happy and fortunate indeed and arrived smiling.
By the way – if you’re in London this august visit the Camden Fringe festival: my great-niece Rosa is set to make us laugh.