Barkcloth workshop with Bobby Britnell

I’ve written previously about the barkcloth exhibition at the British Museum and the acquisition of our own unfeasibly large piece of Tongan barkcloth. So when I saw that Bobby Britnell was running a barkcloth workshop at the SIT Select Festival I just had to sign up. Ever Supportive Partner (ESP), having played an instrumental part in buying our barkcloth, came along too.

Bobby discovered barkcloth when she was visiting southern Uganda and has used it in much of her recent textile work. She and her husband also set up a charity, Hands Up for Uganda, drilling a borehole for water, helping establish a model working farm and developing and selling traditional local crafts.

Bobby explained that barkcloth comes from the mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis), is 100% organic fibre and the first non-woven textile. While we got on with the first exercise, practising running stitch on some printed barkcloth, she described how it was harvested and processed, passing round some grooved wooden mallets used for pounding the cloth – these were lighter than they looked!

We did further exercises, attaching strips and then squares of barkcloth to backing pieces, experimenting with different stitches and thread, including raffia.

On the piece with squares, above, I stitched the squares to the reverse side of the backing piece to provide a contrast of colour and texture.

But barkcloth doesn’t just come in terracotta. Black barkcloth is produced by burying the cloth for several days, while a different species of the mutuba tree produces a cream bark cloth. This can be successfully dyed – and Bobby had brought along some lovely examples to show us.

We also had a go at piecing two different coloured barkcloths together, using insertion stitch (which was new to me).

In the piece above you can see an extra row of stitching (not mine!) in the dark barkcloth. This is quite typical – the pounding process often results in small holes or openings in the cloth, which are patched using handmade sisal thread.

We also experimented with punching holes in the cloth and sanding the surface to create a different texture. This was rather more to ESP’s taste, having been horrified that the workshop was largely based on stitch! He also had a go at weaving thread through the barkcloth fibres, which produced a really interesting effect.

As usual, it was fascinating to see the variety of samples produced by different people from the same materials.

All in all, a great workshop with a fascinatingly tactile material.

Even better, now that ESP has learnt how to handle a needle and thread, he’ll be able to sew on his own buttons when they come off! 😉


Holiday sandwich

I’ve just returned from a week’s holiday in northern Spain, starting at the pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela and then driving along the coast and inland to Asturias. It was a great combination of fantastic seafood, wild landscape plus a smattering of culture.

Skip the gallery below if you hate looking at other people’s holiday snaps! 🙂

Before I went away I had a great weekend in Stroud, with a stall at the first Collectives Fair at the SIT Select Festival. It was the chance to stay with some old friends whom I hadn’t seen for about 20 years, and meet some lovely new makers and customers.

It was also a fantastic surprise when Janet, a felter from Washington State I met at the International Shibori Syposium in Oaxaca last November, showed up. Janet was visiting the UK with her great aunt and found out I was going to be at Stroud so came along to say hello. It was lovely to see you Janet – and I hope you enjoyed the rest of your trip!

As well as selling at the Collectives Fair I managed to squeeze in a bark cloth workshop with Bobby Britnell – I’ll write a separate post about this later.

Then yesterday after I got back from holiday I ran a workshop on making felt flowers as part of the Chelsea Fringe at Nine Elms on the South Bank. This area is undergoing huge redevelopment – the US Embassy will be moving here in September – but the venue was pleasant and spacious and the participants were keen and did amazingly well given that none of them had ever felted before!

Some of the happy felters with their flowers


Playing with plaster

As well as sculpting with stone, ESP has experimented with plaster moulding. But rather than carving his own moulds, he has unconventionally used things like discarded packaging.

This piece, which looks like a fragment of a Greek column, was made using some air-filled plastic packaging that protected bottles.

Over Easter we experimented with filling balloons with plaster. Because the plaster takes around 20 minutes to dry and we got bored of moving them around before that, the plaster settled and was thicker in some areas than others. So when we cut off the balloon the tension caused the very thin areas to break. They look uncannily like real eggs!

Then I thought I would try combining plaster and felt. I’ve worked before with the idea of the contrasting hard and soft textures by combining felt and stone here and here.

I started by dipping some felt offcuts into plaster – some just one layer, others more than once.

You can see above that the hairy texture of the wool is quite evident beneath the plaster in places.

I then made and dipped two spherical felt vessels. This one was merino.

This one was made with coarser cheviot wool.

I dipped each vessel four times but there is still a clear difference in texture. This may be more noticeable with fewer dips but then the plaster may be too delicate to withstand much pressure.

More experiments needed! 🙂



Felt rooster swap

When I attended the Violette Amendola workshop in Belgium last year I met a lovely Dutch felter called Henny. We were working on adjacent tables so we got chatting and we had dinner together in the evenings.

Henny is a great lover of British culture – she’s an avid fan of Great British Bakeoff and Masterchef, and has been to felty events such as Wonderwool Wales. She also organises a twice yearly felt swap between a group of British felters and a group of Dutch/Belgian felters. Each person in the group makes something in felt that they send to someone in the other group – the pairings change for every swap.

So I was pleased to be asked to join at the end of last year. Each felt swap has a different theme, and I usually enjoy the challenge of trying to come up with something to fit the brief.

The theme of my first swap, in April, was “rooster”, the current year in the Chinese zodiac. This proved to be more of a challenge than I expected, as making cute felt animals is not really my thing. 🙂

But then at a vintage fair I saw a ceramic egg holder shaped like a chicken – my mother used to have one of these.

As the swap was scheduled for April, when Easter fell, I thought I would make one of these in felt and fill it with chocolate eggs.

Originally I thought I would make the base and the top in one piece, but then I remembered a previous experiment with Russian dolls, and decided to make the base separately, with more robust wool (a Steinschaf and merino blend). The main body of the rooster was all merino.

My swap partner, Françoise, who runs Vrouwolle (where I did the workshop with Violette) took a more abstract approach, which I love.

It also arrived beautifully packaged, in a suitably nest-like box.

Thank you Françoise!

Entangled: Threads & Making at Turner Contemporary

Yesterday I went on a bit of a nostalgia trip to Margate, a seaside resort on the north Kent coast. Somewhere in the loft is a photo of me aged 5, grinning into the camera without any top front teeth, waving a bucket and spade on a beach that apparently stretches for miles into the distance.

Childhood holidays apart, in recent history Margate’s main claim to fame was as the home of artist Tracey Emin. Then, in 2011, the Turner Contemporary gallery opened on the seafront, on the site where the eponymous artist stayed when visiting his mistress Mrs Booth.

The current exhibition, Entangled: Threads & Making, was finally enough to lure me out of my metropolitan bubble – and it was so worth it.

Intriguingly, the exhibition begins in the lift, where Samara Scott has covered the walls with old carpet decorated with yoghurt, plaster and food colouring. Sounds bizarre – but it makes for a wonderful riot of colour and texture.

But I did wonder how long the artist spent going up and down in the lift while installing it! 🙂

The colour continues with Anna Ray’s Margate Knot – 2,000 intertwining padded elements tied together, inspired by the colours of the cliffs, lichens and buildings around Margate.

The exhibition includes pieces by big names, such as Louise Bourgeois, Sonia Delaunay, Sheila Hicks and Anni Albers, but here I’m focusing on artists I hadn’t heard of whose work particularly appealed.

Christiane Löhr has two pieces in the exhibition. Her Horse Hair Column connects floor and ceiling and took four days to install. In another room, eight incredibly delicate structures made from grass stalks and seeds are displayed on a low stone plinth. Her close observation and knowledge of her materials means that she knows exactly the right time to pick the grass so that it has the right degree of flexibility and rigidity.

Paola Auziché’s Natural Fibres consisted of 37 pieces made from fibres such as chenille, hemp, raffia, cotton, jute and hemp, inspired by minarets in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Next door, Laura Ford’s Penguins looked on in bemusement.

More animals – ceramic sculptures of a lizard and a crab by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro – were covered with handmade cotton crochet by Joana Vasconcelos.

Ursula von Rydingsvard cut cedar beams to resemble thick thread or reams of fabric for her work Thread Tremor.

I also loved Aiko Tezuka’s Loosening Fabric #6 (Entangled). The photo doesn’t really do it justice, but she has unravelled the threads of the central part of this piece of fabric so that it seems to flow down the wall and onto the floor. It can take an hour to unpick just 10cm of fabric!

Entangled: Threads and Making runs until Sunday 7 May – sorry for the late review.

While I was in Margate I also visited the extraordinary Shell Grotto. Nobody knows who made it or when, or why – it was discovered in 1835 and opened to the public in 1838. The walls of the passages and rotunda are covered with mosaics of around 4.6 million shells, most of which are British, though not necessarily local – the main shell used in the backgrounds is not found in Kent but around Southampton.

I even made a start on my own shell collection with a hearty bowl of spaghetti al vongole at the wonderful Hantverk & Found! 🙂