Practising my scales

I quite often tell groups who want to create a masterpiece immediately that when we hear a talented musician play a beautiful piece of music, we often forget that most of the rest of their time they spend practising their scales.  Sometimes in our desire to constantly make something new we forget how important knowing and practising the basics are.

I’ve been particularly busy recently with the non hands on stuff (including The Basque children in Salford research), and I’ve also been avoiding using the sewing machine for my textiles.  Hand sewing fits perfectly into my life because I find it meditative and relaxing and I use it as an antidote to stress.  Using the machine for embroidery – messing with tensions and tangles – is a cause of stress even though I’m pretty capable and used it for my City and Guilds. Recognising that I haven’t got much time to sew at the moment, and that if I ever want to make anything remotely affordable I really must overcome this reluctance, I have set myself a little challenge.

Going back to basics I am following the exercises in Val Holmes excellent book “The Machine Embroiderer’s Work Book”. Having bought my niece “How to make books: Fold, Cut and Stitch Your Way to a One-of-a-kind book” by Esther K Smith, which included making zines from folded paper, I thought I’d try and make a fabric zine with my samples. On a piece of calico cut to A2 size and divided (by folding) into eight A5 sections, I made a start with straight stitch in straight lines last week and continued over the weekend with straight stitch in wavy lines. I added my own little twist by dividing each “page” into two manageable boxes and I’m using the many reels of thread that I inherited from my Aunt.

My work is usually quite complicated and I’m really enjoying the simplicity of these exercises combined with the plain calico and simple colour palette of blue, pink and grey. So although I’m going back to basics and “practising my scales”, I’m also exploring a very different aspect of my creativity.

A “can do” weekend

2B pencil drawing of matchbox (drawn to size) containing silver thimble, beach washed pottery fragment, yarn, and Ganesh lucky charm, with broken earring.
Finger knitting

After a hectic three days I’ve been thinking about the word “can” – not the one with beans in but the one in “I can do”.  I didn’t think it was a verb because it’s not exactly a doing word and neither is it an adjective as it doesn’t quite describe anything, yet it’s such an important little word that describes the anticipation (or expectation) of doing! Apparently it’s an auxiliary verb, a verb used to add functional or grammatical meaning to the clause in which it appears!  So without getting drawn further into semantics, I’ve had three uplifting days of “can”.

On Friday I went to a Craft Club training event at Manchester Art Gallery which I heard about through CAN (the Craft Action Network).  The Craft Action Network is a national participation and learning network for contemporary crafters to share their different approaches to teaching and learning in craft, with a view to pushing boundaries and challenging preconceptions. Craft Club* is all about championing craft in schools, galleries, libraries, community centres, and anywhere else you can bring people together to pass on craft skills to adults and children, so there’s an obvious cross over.

The training day involved the logistics of setting up a Craft Club, and then the fun began!  Under instruction from Amy Twigger Holroyd of “Keep and Share” we learned to finger knit (download instructions from here) in the morning and in the afternoon we learned about community knitting by participating in a knitting circle (knitting web would be a better name). This involved knitting very narrow strips then linking them onto a neighbour’s, so everyone in the room became joined together in a web of knitting.  There are images of some of Amy’s knitting circles on her blog post knitting circles.  What a good “can do” day!

On Saturday and Sunday John and I went to an activity at the Lowry called “Can Draw, Will Draw”. This was a follow up to a previous course we have been on called “Can’t Draw, Won’t Draw”. It was possibly a bit of a cheat for me to go on “Can’t Draw” because I do draw and am happy for people to see my drawings but I’ve never been formally taught.  We both enjoyed the first course so much that we decided to book on this follow up having realised that although we have different interests, it’s really nice to do something like this together.

Micro teeth to macro skull!

The course was taught by Julie Mosley, a textile artist and creative practitioner with an amazing ability to connect with people and draw out their confidence and abilities. After the first exercise she recognised that I engross myself in the patterns of what I see, concentrating on the minutiae rather than the whole. She very skilfully made suggestions that drew (no pun intended) me away from the micro into the macro!

John’s A3 drawing of a matchbox containing small personal items

I could feel my drawing progressing over the weekend, and was really pleased with my results on the Sunday.  We used a matchbox to arrange some tiny personal possessions, and then drew them enlarged on A3 with a graphite stick. We then drew the matchbox actual size with a 2B pencil. I quite often redraw to enlarge my drawings to develop pattern, but I’ve never drawn large first. I found I was much more relaxed going from big to small; my small drawing was nowhere near as tight as it usually is and was much better for it.

My A3 drawing of a matchbox containing small personal items




In the afternoon there was the opportunity to do two types of still life.  I spent so long trying to get the reflections right on a cheese grater that I only had 20 minutes to attack the traditional wine bottle, vase, lemons, oranges and flowers still life, so I concentrated on a rose and lemon.  I’m really pleased with my rose, but didn’t have time to develop the lemon.  This workshop has made me realise that I need less time to draw, rather than more!!!

My rose and unfinished lemon!

John thoroughly enjoyed the weekend too and let me show his drawing so I can demonstrate how Julie’s techniques bring out different aspects in different people.

*Craft Club is delivered by the Crafts Council in partnership with the UK Hand Knitting association (UKHKA) and the National Federation of Women’s institutes (NFWI).

Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair

This year I realised that the Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair has become one of those events that measure the passing of time – you know, the ones where you say “I can’t believe it’s a full year since I was here last. Doesn’t time fly?”.  It’s now in its fifth year and I have been to the last four, so, a bit like going to a small child’s birthday party, I have watched it grow up, learn to walk, develop a vocabulary and begin to define its personality.

Four years ago my visit was the result of a strange coincidence.  My mum, in Nottingham, met Debbie Bryan the knit and jewellery designer on a bus.  She struck up a conversation while giving her directions.  Mum mentioned that I was studying textiles and lived in Salford.  Debbie mentioned she was coming to GNCCF and invited me.  I offered to help her set up. What an amazing insight into “behind the scenes” activity, and of her professionalism; from setting up her stall through to how to talk to customers.  I met so many interesting artists and craftspeople that day, and was invited to the opening so I had chance to talk to them more in the evening.

My impressions of my first (their second) GNCCF are very subjective.  I loved it! I was like a star struck fan, not only meeting the cast of the show, but being allowed back stage too!  I was talking to the people who I had read about in the craft magazines, who I admired, who I wanted to be.  So, trying to be objective four years later is a bit unrealistic.

Close up detail of our Lara Aldridge Glass panel

The following year (2010) I went with my (now) husband.  The goods on display were beautiful but there was something not quite right about it.  The base of the marquee wobbled (and it was disconcerting to hear glassware chinking as we walked past), the cafe didn’t match up to the quality of goods on display, and there was a small add on marquee that we only found by accident.  Having said that, all the vendors were friendly, the goods on display were of a high standard and we did buy the most expensive piece of craft we have ever bought, a glass wall panel from Lara Aldridge. I tend to go to a lot of textile making and selling shows on my own or with textile loving friends, so  It was good to be at a show with my partner; it meant as we walked up to Lara Aldridge Glass we both went “Wow! I love that” and were able to sit down together in a cafe (outside the venue!) and discuss whether we could afford it between us…

By last year I knew some of the artists, had a better working knowledge of the craft world and had a small budget to spend.  This time the fair was in an office building and so didn’t wobble, but in my opinion that was all it had going for it.  Inside was cramped and crowded with low ceilings.  Browsing was difficult once people were standing in front of the stalls.  I had a chat with artists I knew, but otherwise had an overwhelming urge to get out, which I did, without spending any of my budget.  There were no “Wow! I love that” moments.

And now we come to this year. What a difference!  Just like a child growing up, GNCCF has found its feet.  It was confident and sophisticated, no more wobbles, just a spring in its step. What a delight.  The location was spot on, in a marquee but with far less wobble this time and the layout was great.  The cafe was by the entrance, out of the way and accessible and three of Louise Gardiner’s stunning textile pieces from her series “You Blow Me Away” were exhibited – If you get the opportunity to see these in the future you really must make the effort to go. They are fantastic.

Our wedding ring dishes by Claire Baker

We went as guests of Claire Baker a ceramicist who we bought two little dishes from last year to keep our wedding rings in. The selectors had chosen an interesting mix of beautiful contemporary crafts of an exceptional standard.  Their choice was sophisticated and stylish.  Most of the pieces could easily stand on their own in a gallery, exhibition or in a contemporary home.

My bracelets by Jane Dzisiewski made to match a vintage necklace. Jane is now working in a lovely grey pallette

Claire was in the Hot House Alumni area, as was Jane Dzisiewski who I have commissioned a pair of bracelets from in the past. The joy of this year’s show was how much space there was. It didn’t feel overcrowded and cramped.  I could walk along and see from afar without feeling jostled and also approach a stand to browse without having to push past people. Consequently there were a few “Wow! I love that” moments including a ceramic triptych wall piece by Jill Ford, a beautiful porcelain and steel vessel by Joanne Bowles, Catherine Chester’s Adelinda choker and Claire Baker’s most adorable little coffee cup with teaspoon handle decorated with tiny little thrushes.

Joanne Bowles porcelain and ceramic vessel.

In a way GNCCF has become a measure of my own creative growth. I can measure my own development by the changing conversations I have with the artists there. To stretch the child growing up metaphor just a little bit further, this year I realised it is time for me to take the stabilisers off my bike and get on with the task of riding it, even if it means I have to fall off!

Destruction, doldrums and devoré

Detail: Whitby Abbey  Claire Hignett 1998

I went to the opening of the Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival on Friday night and was very impressed. There were so many friendly people and Warrington Museum and Art Gallery is such a lovely venue. You have to walk through the museum to get to the gallery, and the museum is a real treasure trove. The Exhibition was over three venues, and my piece was in the main gallery, attached to the museum. If you read my earlier post about my disappointment over where the piece was displayed at the Chapel Gallery, then this was just the opposite. It was on a white wall, surrounded by space and lit by its own spotlight.  It looked so beautiful, all the metallic threads sparkling and twinkling, just as I knew they would. Lots of people stood looking at it, so although I didn’t win I was just so happy.

Copyright Dionne Swift

In previous posts I have mentioned that I use techniques taught to me on workshops with Dionne Swift, and on Friday night I mentioned her name so many times while explaining how I had made the quilt that I thought I would introduce her to you in this post and explain how meeting her and learning from her proved to be very fortuitous for me and the progression of my work.

Dionne is an artist who uses dyeing, printing and devoré to create her own subtle interpretation of the Yorkshire Moors and Valleys. Over the years she has studied and experimented with these techniques and made them her own.  She uses them to create sensitive, nuanced and compelling contemporary textile art.  I first met her in 2010 at a time when I was in the creative doldrums. My friend Claire spotted her workshops advertised in Huddersfield and suggested we use them as an opportunity to meet up. Dionne was running a monthly creative workshop at the time called “Workshop Wednesdays”.  These turned out to be the perfect remedy to my doldrums, consisting of a return to basic techniques for unlocking creativity, plus learning new fabric printing and dyeing techniques and an introduction to devoré. The devoré turned out to be the catalyst (or even catapult) my work needed to progress.

Using destructive processes: Whitby Abbey: Claire Hignett 1998

Going right back to my Embroidery City and Guilds in the late nineties, my work has included ripples and erosion, which I have tried to embed into my pieces using the destructive processes of ripping, burning, melting, cutting and any other way I could think of to create the effect of erosion. My Final Collection at Bradford College in 2009 “Cherished Lost, Broken and Found” was the start of my ongoing exploration into fragmenting memories. To me memory is not a constant; it flows and erodes through time, symbolised by my attempts to create the effect of ripples and erosion. My creative doldrums came about because I couldn’t find a way to pull all this together creatively.

And that is when Dionne Swift’s devoré techniques and workshops exploded my creative malaise and led me to experiment, applying techniques learnt in her workshops to my extensively worked and layered embroidery.  The combining of devoré and thermofax printing has enabled me to continue to be destructive, but in a much more controlled and subtle way and most importantly has enabled me to create repeat patterns.

Copyright: Dionne Swift

In addition to sharing her many years of learning with her students, Dionne also freely shares her knowledge of running a creative business, and as a relative newcomer, just listening to her experiences and talking to her has opened my eyes to the realities and possibilities that are open to me.  The most important thing I have learned from her is that absolute hard work and persistence are as essential as self belief and talent!

All images of Dionne’s work reproduced with her permission. Please respect her copyright. Thanks Dionne.