On Venturing into the Third Dimension

Again I sing the praises of Stitch Club. This week I learnt how to sculpt with textiles through an online tutorial with Clarissa Callesen, sculptor, installation artist and instructor. After watching the video on the TextileArtist.org Stitch Club site, I took a deep breath, pulled out a bag of leftover bits of batting and the remains of some fabric from a tree quilt, and started stuffing shapes.

3D Tree. 35 cm high

To my delight and surprise I managed to create a 3D object that resembles a tree. Clarissa Callesen makes astounding abstract textile sculptures, but I decided to stick to my comfort zone and to try and follow the lines of a tree. First I rolled strips of batting into fabric covered ‘sausages’ and stitched them closed. Wrapping the thread around the cylinder is also an option. Then I made some ‘potato’ shapes by stitching around the edge of a round shape, stuffing it, and then gathering the stitching to close the shape. These round shapes ended up being useful as ballast in getting the tree trunk to stand upright. The tutorial was not only inspiring but also had practical demonstrations on how to manipulate the fabric and stuffing into usable shapes.

In progress photographs of the tree construction. (At last I have found a use for these fancy clips.)

The tree roots and trunk were stitched together and then the branches were added. I wound some thin copper wire around some of the branches and the base of the trunk, for a bit of interest and also stability. Finally I draped a chain of leaves over the branches for fun. I have not yet sewn them down and may remove them. Now I think I might try to make a forest!

Before making the tree I had had quite a bit of practice in stuffing shapes. Here are some pincushions, pieced from batik scraps and then stuffed.

I was inspired to make these after seeing gorgeous scrap pincushions on Wendy Tuma’s blog called piecefulthoughts. She often makes them as gifts and posts photographs. Then, when I read a recent post called Scrappy Batiks I took the inspiration to my sewing machine and started piecing a pile of batik scraps that had fallen into my lap, as it were.

This leads me to the final installment of my stuffing adventures. I have been making draught excluders for the TRADE at Home local virtual market. Because we have just been through the windy season in Grahamstown, I had sold out and needed to make more for this month’s market. I had run out of fabric scraps to stuff the draught excluders. My quilting friends kindly donated their offcuts and one of the bags contained a treasure trove of batik squares which I could not consign to the dark depths. Hence the pincushions.

The latest batch of draught excluders

The wind has died down (thanks be) and I have a set of draught excluders in stock if anyone in the area wants to purchase one.

On Going Online

This has been a challenging journey. About three years ago I took the idea of ‘establishing an online presence’ seriously after I tried to join a textile site and was asked about my said online presence. Huh? What’s that, I asked myself. What I really wanted to do was to work with textiles, to make quilts and to stitch. Then I realised that to do this I would need to sell some of the works to fund my preoccupation. And to do this I would need to advertise. And the best place to do this is online.

Tentatively I ventured beyond Facebook into Instagram, and then into WordPress where I wanted to set up a website. That was too daunting and I ended up writing a blog by mistake. A couple of years down the line and I am proud to announce that I have now managed to extend FABRICATIONS to more pages (that makes it a website) and have signed up for my own domain name.

Over the past weeks I have been working on the drafts of an About page. (I would call this a biography or a biographical note, but what’s in a name?.) Because I was working off the seat of my pants it took a while to construct the page. WordPress kindly kept a tally so I know that it took 30 revisions. WordPress also offers helpful templates and tutorials, which I did use. But then found myself changing the layout anyway, just because I discovered I could.

Those many revisions to the About page gave me confidence to make another page which contains the poems about quilts that I have published on the blog over the past years. This is thanks to one of my supportive readers who kept urging me to publish the poems. I am glad to have collected them onto one electronic page. (Odd to think that what would have been called a book if the poems had been published on paper is now called a page in the online world.)

After designing and then publishing these two pages I played a little silent game to see if anyone would notice. Another faithful and helpful reader not only noticed but took the trouble to email me about a mistake. I am grateful. This was also a reminder of how supportive and containing the friends I have made in the blogging world are.

This is a rather text heavy post. If you need some pictorial relief, please click on my brand new gallery pages.

This lockdown time has generated other online opportunities. A technically proficient young woman in Grahamstown first established the TRADE virtual market, an online monthly market for local (to my world) crafters on Facebook. This has was worked nicely for me. Then she took a further, generous step to promote local traders and has opened the TRADE shop. I am proud to say that FABRICATIONS occupies a corner of that shop.

When I googled the word ‘online’ to check that I was using the accepted spelling I learnt that it should strictly speaking be written as on-line but that “[i]t’s now common to use ‘online’, whereas, at first, to say that you were ‘online’ was seen to be like saying that a tennis player is ‘oncourt’ or that a builder is ‘onsite’.” (www.future-perfect.co.uk) Language adapts, as do humans and my online adventure has been both challenging and exciting.

And now, for some light relief, let me return to my hand stitching.

On Kantha Stitching and Cultural Appropriation

For some time I have been pondering on the issue of cultural appropriation and whether the use of kantha stitching in my work makes me a thief. While I am more comfortable writing about the technicalities of the art of stitching, perhaps the time has come to say something about my unease at copying the patterns of this ancient craft.

Kantha style sampler for the month of August (22 x 35 cm). Strictly speaking this is the wrong orientation, but I wanted to show that a ‘sideways’ eight is a loose representation of the infinity sign

Two things have prompted me to explore the idea of cultural appropriation. The first was a question put to British textile artist, Cas Homes, during a Stitch Club question and answer session when she was asked what she thought about the use of Japanese borro and Bengali kantha stitch by Westerners. She gave a considered and measured answer in which she explained that both forms originated out of necessity, where worn cloth was mended and stitched in layers to save worn out clothes and cloth. She suggested that if one was respectful of the origins of the craft it is okay to copy the form.

The second thing that got me thinking was the hoo-haa on social media when the singer Adele was accused of committing cultural appropriation when she appeared at the Notting Hill Carnival wearing a bikini top fashioned from the Jamaican flag, and with her hair knotted into an African hairstyle. The reaction and debate that this evoked was astounding.

There is a rash of online definitions and articles on cultural appropriation so I decided to consult my trusted source, The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. While it has an entry for cultural relativism there is not one for cultural appropriation (too new a term and concept?). The OED defines appropriation as The making over (of a thing) into one’s own or another’s possession; the taking of a thing for one’s own use, esp. without permission. To put it bluntly, the stealing of something. One could argue that culture is not a ‘thing’ and that therefore it cannot strictly speaking be appropriated or stolen. Before I get myself into deep waters, perhaps I should define the term more closely. According to ‘Oxford Languages’ via Google, it is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

A while ago Melanie J. McNeil of Catbird Quilt Studio wrote a post about copyright and cultural appropriation. She gives its Wikipedia definition (in bold) followed by a clear explanation about how it works: “

 “Cultural appropriation, at times also phrased cultural misappropriation, is the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture.” It specifically refers to use of those cultural elements when there is a power imbalance between two groups. In other words, a white person in America using symbolism from Native Americans might be guilty of cultural appropriation, whereas if the reverse happened, it probably wouldn’t be considered inappropriate or disrespectful use. If someone from the US uses Nordic graphics or designs, that probably wouldn’t be inappropriate, but using elements from eastern Africa might be.

Melanie of Catbird Quilt Studio

To recap on my previous posts, I fell in love with kantha stitching after attending a course given by Dorothy Tucker at the South African National Quilt Festival in 2019 and have been experimenting with the stitch form by making samplers this year. I admit to knowing little about the Bengali culture and what I do know I owe to Dorothy Tucker’s explanations. What has caught my imagination is how the simple running stitch can be used to produce such varied patterns and effects. So, if a technique is part of a cultural legacy then I am guilty of appropriation.

In literature the line between copying and imitating is clearly drawn. If you copy without acknowledging your sources you commit the crime of plagiarism. If you imitate, you flatter the original creator. Until the eighteenth century writers were expected to imitate the forms and styles of the ancient masters. That famous quotation about imitation as a form of flattery is from Oscar Wilde : “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness”. I rest my case.

As we are two thirds of the way through 2020 (yes we are!) I felt justified in displaying the month by month samplers made so far this year

With acknowledgements to Carol of Letting Nature Back In for first alerting me to the possible links between cultural appropriation and textile works.

On Sewing Notions

I have been on a trip down memory lane, thanks to a tutorial by British textile artist Anne Kelly on how to make a textile book. She presented it on the Stitch Club platform last week. She suggested the theme of mapping a journey, using ephemera such as photos or postcards, old receipts, tickets, maps and brochures. Because I did not have any of these to hand I decided to use my mother’s old sewing bits and bobs. It has been gratifying to enfold these memories into a concertina book. (Footnote: with thanks to Asta for the word “enfold” and an acknowledgement to TextileArtist.org, the Stitch Club organisers).

The book of my mother’s sewing notions, in all its wonkiness

Given the ambiguity in the title of this little book I could also use it to store notes on stitching ideas (ha!). Should I confess that I recently had to be reminded that sewing notions refer to haberdashery? Now that I have looked it up I also know that the word in this context is only used in the plural and the full definition is “miscellaneous small wares, esp. cheap useful ingenious articles or haberdashery” (OED).

The method for making the book is also ingenious. The collected items of ephemera are sandwiched between a layer of cloth and a layer of tissue paper and held in place with a thinned solution of glue. As you may have noticed, I used old dress patterns instead of plain white tissue paper. The glueing part was scary, but I am pleased I screwed my courage to the sticking place and did it, because the result is a lovely surface which Anne Kelly likened to that of oil cloth. Once the glue dries the piece curls up on itself and needs to be ironed flat.

After this I could start on the machine and hand stitching. I am happy that my mother’s old sewing notions have been collected in one place. One of her tray cloths was used for the front and back covers. My enthusiasm got ahead of me and I made a very large book. The front and back pages are overstitched and the edges stablised with old fashioned boning wire.

Anne Kelly has a quietly refreshing approach. She encourages one to play and experiment; and not to strive for perfection but to be empowered through creating work. This is the second online workshop she has given through the good offices of TextileArtist.org. I wrote glancingly about her first challenge, where I practised on a piece of overdyed fabric instead of an old linen napkin as she had suggested. After this I did feel confident enough to appliqué and overstich on a pair a napkins.

Finishing line

At last the African Hoopoe tapestry cushion cover is finished. I know I have twice posted progress photographs of this work, but could not resist celebrating its completion as it’s been a long time in the making.

On Concertina Books

This year I have been to two classes (one real, one virtual) where I learnt to make a concertina book and next week I will be making yet another one under the guidance of Anne Kelly at a Stitch Club workshop. They say things come in threes and I am happy to have discovered this simple but effective way of making a book and to have three opportunities to learn from skilled artists who are also good teachers.

Concertina book made from card and embellished with fabric, paint and stitch

This paper concertina book was started at an art journaling class with Sally Scott at the beginning of the year, when the Corono virus was but a vague threat on a distant horizon. (One of the things I really miss in our new reality are the monthly Saturday morning classes with Sally. There’s a previous post about this.) Even though I had taken a big bag of art supplies to that art journaling class, I found I wanted to work with fabric (ha!). A kind classmate gave me free reign to rummage through the pile of scraps and yarns that she had brought along. I used one of her textile scraps to hinge the short strips of paper and to decorate the front cover (15 x 15 cm) of the concertina book.

Sally’s classes are always liberating and I filled the first first page with some notes and a bit of stitching of wool onto card. When I got home I filled the blank pages with fabrics and materials given to me by friends. (Laura take note.) It has thus become a memento amici.

Last month Mandy Pattullo, one of the tutors for the TextileArtist.org Stitch Club, showed us how to make a fabric concertina book using textile scraps with collage and stitch. The book was made from a 96 x 12 cm strip of fabric, which was then folded to make eight square pages. The designs were stitched across a double page spread.

She encouraged us to use cloth from worn-out favourite garments and it was just what I needed to hear because it meant I could do something with a much loved scarf that had fallen into holes. I also used bits from an old silk shirt that had become threadbare around the cuffs.

A peak into the folded pages of the fabric concertina book made in response to Mandy Pattullo’s workshop.

I enjoyed the gentle stitching through the layers of worn cloth and embellished the pages with some kantha style stitching in variegated silk thread. It is difficult to photograph the book and the above is to simply give an idea of the fun I had in the making of the piece.

At least three of the artists that have given Stitch Club workshops use vintage materials in their textile art and have encouraged us to do the same. Here follows Mandy Pattullo’s statement on why she favours this way of working:

I treasure the old and worn, refashioning vintage textiles into new collages
which are then embellished with stitch and appliqué. I am a great believer
in using what you already have or can source second-hand. I recycle and
reuse very old and often disintegrating materials into new patchworks. I
cut up old quilts, unpick them, darn, appliqué and construct new textile
collages, usually embellishing with simple embroidery and traditional
appliqué techniques.

My work relates to the thrift and ‘make-do and mend’ culture of past times,
in particular utility patchworks and quilts made by women in domestic
settings. My collages, fabric books, large wall quilts and garments bring
together precious fragments to form evocative compositions. The viewer
is forced to re-examine fabrics that have become flawed through wear and
tear, to find in them a new beauty

Mandy Pattullo

On Distractedness

Although the word distractedness is “long rare” (OED), it aptly describes my present state. The choice this week was between not writing a post at all or publishing a failed piece of stitching. The stitching of my latest kantha sampler didn’t go smoothly and I think it was partly because of my distractedness and partly because of its subject matter (the COVID curve).

Kantha sampler for the month of July 2020. (19 x 29 cm; 7.5 x 11.5″)

The lesson learnt is to keep a careful check on the placing of the stitches when working along the concave side of a curved line, and also not to absent-mindedly reverse the direction of the stitches. This is why the stitching in the centre of the piece is messy and does not echo the pattern established by the plum coloured stitching. As noted before, a sampler is a learning device and does not need to be perfect. But if there were not six samplers that preceded this one I might have been tempted to put it into my scrap basket.

I will not write about the distressing coronavirus statistics. But there is an uncanny coincidence. It was mid-July when I started stitching the sampler and at that time the number of new daily cases stopped increasing and started to see-saw up to and below the highest recorded number. I tell you this to explain the other messy bit of stitching in the top right hand corner of the piece.

On a frivolous, but more cheerful, note here is a photograph of my current stitching project.

These African Hoopoe birds were stitched from a cross stitch pattern. Now I am filling in the background with tapestry wool and intend to turn it into a cushion cover once it is square. The monotonous green stitching is a bit painstaking, but is also a nice mindless activity as a salve to my distractedness!

Today I learnt that the word distraught is a variant spelling of distract. I had not realised it was such a strong word. For the record, the meaning that I had in mind was “diversion of attention from a particular object or course” and not “extreme perturbation of mind or feelings”.

A delightful diversion this past weekend was signing onto the Beyond the Festival of Quilts website to binge-watch the online lectures, and workshops, and to visit the virtual galleries of solo exhibitions and to view the competition quilts that had been entered. What a feast! Apart from the masterclasses, all these were offered for free. The site is still active.

Poem #34


Hovering not in but on a threshold,
I ripped and sewed strips,
layer upon layer,
band after band, 
unashamedly imitating
Klee’s painted lines from
In the Sixth Threshold.
Mesmerised by the line, the colours, the mystery 
of what threshold he crossed
and whether it was possible
to follow his steps, I sewed
in bigger bolder sweeps,
suspended thought
as line and colour, thread and needle
became the focus of uncounted strips
running downward 
through the sixth threshold
into unnamed realms.