Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles

This exhibition, in the sumptuous surroundings of Two Temple Place, features highlights from the eclectic collections of seven female textile collectors from the 19th century to the present day. It’s a splendid mix of beautiful embroidery and costume, elegant homeware, and art textiles.

Edith Durham (1863-1944)

Edith Durham was an artist who travelled extensively throughout the Balkans, especially Albania, in the period before the First World War. Journeying on horseback with a local guide, she collected many examples of traditional dress, textiles, and jewellery, making detailed notes and sketches on their cultural significance and local customs. After she died her collections were donated to the Bankfield Museum in Halifax.

Serbian glove
Man’s glove from Montenegro
Albanian waistcoat
Albanian waistcoat (jelek) with elaborate braiding

Louisa Pesel (1870-1947)

If you’ve read A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier, you’ll instantly recognise the name. Louisa Pesel was a distinguished embroidery artist and historian, teacher and writer. After studying at the Royal College of Art she went on to become director of the Royal Hellenic School of Needlework and Lace in Athens. When she moved back to Britain, firstly to Bradford and then to Hampshire, she started teaching people to stitch, whether for employment, therapy or pleasure. Her students included shell-shocked soldiers, refugees, and volunteers at Winchester Cathedral – the subject of Chevalier’s novel.

Winchester Cathedral design sample
Winchester Cathedral design sample by Louisa Pesel

Cover by Louisa Pesel

Olive Matthews (1887-1979)

London resident Olive Matthews started collecting as a child, saving her pocket money to buy costumes from Caledonian Road market. Such items were not regarded as particularly collectable at the time, so she prided herself on getting a bargain, not paying more than £5 for anything. At the beginning of the Second World War she moved with her family to Virginia Water in Surrey, and her collection formed a key part of the Chertsey Museum when it was set up in 1965.

Spencer
Silk spencer (1817-1819) from Olive Matthews collection
Blackwork cap
Linen cap with blackwork embroidery (1700-1720)

Enid Marx (1902-1998)

Enid Marx was a leading designer probably best known for her industrial textile designs, such as the seat fabric for London Transport. Before that, she was an apprentice with block printers Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher, which led her to explore the process of printing fabric with wood blocks and natural dyes. She was also a great collector, along with historian Margaret Lambert, of folk art and popular ephemera, some of which are included in the exhibition. The Marx-Lambert collection is now at Compton Verney.

Enid Marx designsenid marx folk art collection

Muriel Rose (1897-1986)

Muriel Rose was a leading advocate for 20th-century British craft, determined to put craft on the same footing as painting and sculpture. She set up the Little Gallery near Sloane Square in London in 1928, where she exhibited the work of textile artists such as Enid Marx, Barron and Larcher, and weaver Ethel Mairet, as well as potters such as Bernard Leach. She travelled and collected extensively, both abroad and closer to home – for example, she sold high-quality handmade quilts by Durham miners’ wives alongside work from Japan and Mexico. She went on to become Director of Craft and Industrial Design at the British Council and a founder trustee of the Crafts Study Centre (now in Farnham).

muriel rose quilted tea cosies

Dr Jennifer Harris

Jennifer Harris was responsible for building up Britain’s foremost collection of contemporary textile art at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. From 1982 to 2016 she was the deputy director and curator of textiles, collecting “statement acquisitions” and more speculative pieces made with traditional craft techniques but more conceptual and sculptural in form. Examples of pieces she collected included some stunning indigo work from an exhibition she curated in 2007 and large-scale machine-embroidered “drawings” by Alice Kettle.

Shindigo Space by Hiroyuki Shindo
Shindigo Space by Hiroyuki Shindo
Shindigo Space by Hiroyuki Shindo
Shindigo Space by Hiroyuki Shindo
Shindigo Space by Hiroyuki Shindo
Shindigo Space by Hiroyuki Shindo
Guardian by Eduardo Portillo and Maria Eugenia Davila
Guardian by Eduardo Portillo and Maria Eugenia Davila
Three Caryatids by Alice Kettle
Three Caryatids by Alice Kettle

Nima Poovaya-Smith

As senior keeper of the International Collections at Cartwright Hall Art Gallery in Bradford from 1985 to 1998, Nima Poovaya-Smith made the collections more representative of Bradford’s diversity. Reflecting the big Pakistani community, the exhibition includes a lovely stitched kantha piece as well as phulkari embroidery.

Kantha from West Bengal
Kantha from West Bengal (detail)
Phulkari from Punjab
Phulkari from Punjab

Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles runs at Two Temple Place until 19 April 2020.

Equinox exhibition

After the intense physicality of the willow basketry module at City Lit just before Christmas, it was a relief to have a break and think about something else.

The submission deadline for the next South London Women Artists exhibition was 6 January, so this provided the perfect opportunity. The theme for the exhibition is “Equinox”, and my original idea was to make some random weave eggs containing felt “yolks”, representing spring. However, an email then arrived saying that all works had to be 2D. So it was back to the drawing board.

An equinox occurs twice a year, around 21 March and 21 September. The March equinox is generally regarded as the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, while the September one is the beginning of autumn. It is so named because the length of the day and night are approximately equal on those dates.

I started thinking about the lengthening days and the warmth of the sun’s rays returning after the dark winter, and had the idea of making a stitched piece representing this. I found a piece of indigo shibori cotton that was roughly half dark, half light, to resemble the Earth, and pinned it to a piece of cream linen.

Then I started stitching.

equinox wip

I decided to use simple kantha (running stitch) to represent the sun’s rays, in differing shades ranging from cream to dark orange.

equinox wip

Kantha stitch also produces a slightly rippled effect, which evokes the oceans.

Kim Winter - And the World Turns detail 1

I left the edges raw, expecting (hoping) they would fray slightly, but in fact they frayed very little.

It was very restful, after wrestling with willow rods, to be able to sit and stitch quietly, even if it took rather a long time! ūüôā

Once it was finished, I had the tricky job of mounting it. I didn’t really want to put it behind glass, as I think it deadens it and I didn’t want to lose the texture. So I stitched it to a heavier piece of cotton before stretching it over some stretcher bars and adding backing. This successfully removed the wrinkles without flattening the ripples too much.

And the World Turns by Kim Winter
And the World Turns by Kim Winter

Equinox runs from 3 to 22 March at St Marylebone Parish Church, 17 Marylebone Road, London NW1 5LT. The private view is on 4 March, 6-8pm – everyone welcome.

 

The Fabric of India at the V&A

I’ve visited this exhibition twice – there’s so much to see and take in that a single visit is simply not enough. With more than 200 handmade pieces, mostly from the V&A’s own collection, it’s a feast of colour and texture.

fabric of india opener

After a fabulous opening printed summer carpet of poppies dating from 1650, the exhibition starts with the raw materials Рdyes and fibres. The main species of indigo native to India, Indigofera tinctoria, contains some of the strongest concentrations of the active compound indoxyl, so the Greeks named the plant Indikon, the same word they used for the Indian subcontinent.

Indigo Dyeing from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

But there are other blue dyes available in India, including Strobilanthes cusia, found in Assam, which gives lighter blues when grown in the sun and darker blues when grown in the shade.

Red was obtained from the lac insect (related to the cochineal beetle), Indian madder and chay root, yellow from pomegranate and turmeric.

Samples of dyed pieces included some impressive bandhani, ajrakh and block printing as well as these amazing lahariya turbans.

fabric of india turbans

After a brief diversion to show a bhitiya hanging of appliqu√© elephants and figures from Gujarat, found on a New York pavement in 1994, the exhibition moves on to fibres. Fascinating videos cover the cultivation of cotton and indigenous “wild”(tasar) silk – I love the way they casually walk around carrying branches of huge caterpillars!

Cultivating Tasar Silk from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

There’s another engrossing¬†video of ari embroidery in the next section on techniques, which includes block printing and weaving. Ari is a kind of chain stitch produced using something that looks like a mini crochet hook. The embroiderer pushes¬†the hook through¬†the cloth and winds the thread around it underneath, so he can’t see what he’s doing, yet works at incredible speed.

Ari Embroidery from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

There were several pieces in this section that I particularly liked. They included an early 20th-century kantha coverlet. (Interestingly, kantha is a more domestic pursuit done mostly by women, whereas professional embroiderers, such as the ari workers, were men.)

fabric of india kantha

And this border from a woman’s dress embroidered with green beetle wing cases and silver wire.

fabric of india green beetles

And this Kashmir shawl embroidered with a map of Srinagar, from about 1870.

Image: V&A
Image: V&A

The next section on textiles and religion features an impressive temple cloth of printed and dyed cotton showing tales from the Katamaraju epic. Cloths such as these were used in portable shrines (we tried to find someone painting one of these when we were in Ahmedabad but failed).

Image: V&A
Image: V&A

There was also an intriguing talismanic shirt made of starched cotton minutely inscribed with text from the Koran, which would be worn under battle dress for protection. This one was certainly worn, as you can see the sweat marks in the armpits!

Image: V&A
Image: V&A

The undoubted highlight of the section on court textiles is Tipu Sultan’s tent,¬†cotton block printed with stylised floral designs, now owned by Powis Castle in Wales.

A wall panel from Tipu Sultan's tent. Cotton chintz with a white ground, patterned with acanthus cusped niches, each enclosing a central vase with symmetrical flower arrangement, predominantly in reds and greens, the green achieved by over-painting dyed indigo with yellow (a fugative pigment which has partially disappeared). An enlarged version of the flower-head motif appears in the main horizontal borders on a green ground, and scaled down on a yellow ground in the spandrels of the arch. Triple vertical borders separate the panels, at each end of which is a metal eyelet that has been whipped with thick cotton thread. A black and white merlon and rosette band runs along the top of the qanats. The outside of the tent is a seperate layer of coarse white cotton. Later Mughal, c.1725-50.

I also loved the 17th-century Mughal riding coat, densely patterned with ari embroidery of wide-ranging flora and fauna, from lions, gazelles and cranes to daffodils, poppies and irises.

Image: V&A
Image: V&A

In Britain we are familiar with the popularity of Indian chintz and muslin in the 18th and 19th centuries, giving poorer people who could not afford woven silk the chance to wear colourful patterned fabrics. But Indian fabric fragments from the early centuries AD have been found in China and Egypt, showing that India’s export market was established much earlier.

What is interesting is how the designs were adapted for different markets. Examples in the exhibition include tiny intricate block prints for Thailand, patola (double ikat) for Indonesia and an extraordinary Portuguese 17th-century kantha coverlet embroidered with coats of arms, hunters on horseback and fleets of sailing ships. The photo does not do it justice Рit has to be seen to appreciate the detail.

Image: V&A
Image: V&A

It seems that Britain¬†took a leaf out of India’s book, for after¬†protests by British textile workers in the early 18th century about Indian textile imports,¬†industrialisation in Britain led to the export of cheap machine-made cotton fabric to India, undercutting Indian manufacturers. Fabric samples collected in India were¬†held up as examples of good design, and British manufacturers were encouraged to copy these to sell back to the Indian market.

This led to hybrid products such as a traditional Indian garment, a choli (woman’s bodice),¬†made from fabric printed in England using synthetic dyes in colours like mauve and violet, which are not exactly characteristic Indian colours.

Image: V&A
Image: V&A

Already unhappy with British rule, Indian mill owners and businesses started calling on people to buy local handmade products and boycott foreign goods. In the 1920s, Gandhi elevated khadi, fabric woven by hand from handspun yarn, into a symbol of defiance and freedom, spinning in public. Hence the spinning wheel on the Indian flag after independence.

After independence, there was a move towards industrialisation and modernisation of the handloom. The exhibition finishes with examples of how modern designers have adapted and developed traditional techniques and materials, using the skills of local artisans.

Bandhani scarf by Aziz and Suleman Khatri Image: V&A
Bandhani scarf by Aziz and Suleman Khatri
Image: V&A

The Fabric of India runs at the V&A until 10 January.

A bit of stitching and smocking

I suspect many people reading this will, like me, feel the need to be doing something with their hands during dead time, such as sitting on a bus, or when apparently otherwise engaged, such as watching TV.

For me this is usually shibori stitching on scarves before dyeing them, but I’m having a short break from indigo dyeing after the pre-Christmas production line. Call it an indigo detox if you will. ūüėȬ†So I’ve had to find something else to do while watching the second series of¬†The Bridge on Saturday nights.

As wet felting is not really an option (ESP objects to soapy splashes from wet bubble wrap), the alternatives are usually knitting or crochet. However,¬†I’ve been looking at a lot of Japanese boro recently, especially this board on Pinterest. And I suddenly remembered that I have a large stash of shibori samples that I made at Morley College when just starting out. So I thought I would try patching some of these together, but using the kantha technique for stitching through several layers to create a 3D effect.

kantha boro1kantha boro2

I’m not quite sure where this is going yet, but if anything comes of it I’ll let you know!

colette wolfI was also inspired by a post on Stitch in Science about American smocking (among other things). American smocking differs from English smocking in that it’s not done on pleated fabric – the fabric is manipulated directly by the stitching. It’s explained in Colette Wolff’s comprehensive ¬†The Art of Manipulating Fabric, which I bought a couple of years ago but as usual got sidetracked onto other things.

Seeing the photos in Avril’s post brought to mind the origami tessellations I’d looked at when I was experimenting with pleating – and I had a eureka moment about how the fabric could be directly manipulated rather than relying on paper moulds and steaming. It seems I’m not the first to make the connection between smocking and origami – I just don’t know why it took me so long. ūüė¶

Here, for example, is a piece of lattice smocking I did which, when held up to the light, could be an origami paper tessellation.

lattice smocklattice smock light

I’m not sure where this is going either, to be honest, but I would love to work out how to use this in shibori dyeing in some way, and also experiment with using felt as the medium.

Looks like a busy start to 2014! ūüôā

Morley Gallery Advanced Textiles Exhibition 2013

Despite all my grand plans to enter some pieces featuring my newly acquired felting techniques into the Morley Gallery exhibition, I ran out of time. I’m still experimenting and consolidating, and I didn’t want to show “work in progress” that I wasn’t really happy with.

So in the end I only put in two pieces, both made in the Easter term – the limpet scarf and the kantha embroidered tortoise shell. I included the real tortoise shell in the display for comparison, but you can’t see it in the photo.

limpet-scarftortoise-emb

 

There was only one other student from my course who was exhibiting – Jane Thistlewood, who makes beautifully light nuno-felted clothing in pale washed silk. But I did catch up with some of the tutors and other students who weren’t exhibiting.

No photos of other exhibits I’m afraid – the ones I took were terribly dark or full of reflections. The ones in this post were taken by ESP, who has a much better camera but didn’t take any other exhibits.

The show runs at Morley Gallery until 25 July.

Felt and kantha

I love the results of my kantha stitching experiments, but it’s quite hard on the fingers stitching through four layers of fabric. So I thought I’d see if I could produce similar results on something softer, like felt.

I stitched a couple of circles made out of prefelt, and then felted these onto a piece of flat felt along with two plain unstitched circles of prefelt. After felting, I stitched the two plain circles. This let me compare the results of stitching before and after felting.

kantha prefeltkantha felt sample

As you can see, the prefelt circles that were stitched before felting flattened out and distorted during the felting process, and the thread started to hang loose in places because the felt shrank. The circles that were stitched after felting were much more distinct.

Circle stitched before felting
Circle stitched before felting
Circle stitched after felting
Circle stitched after felting

So I felted some grey prefelt onto a piece of silk crinkle chiffon to make a sample nuno felt scarf. As I hope you can see, the ruched texture caused by the felt shrinking onto the silk is enhanced by the stitching afterwards. I call it my limpet scarf!

kantha felt scarfkantha felt scarf detail

It’s a lot of stitching, but at least it’s easier on the fingers. ūüôā

Inspired by kantha

I’m going through a bit of an embroidery phase. First there was the Threads of Silk and Gold exhibition at the Ashmolean, then there was all the stunning embroidery I saw while in India (which I have yet to blog about).

But today I thought I’d show you what I’ve been working on since I got back from Gujarat, inspired by a piece I bought there.

Ironically, given that Gujarat is famous for its embroidery, my favourite of the many pieces I bought was not from Gujarat but from Bangladesh. Mr Wazir, whol ives in Bhuj, is famous for his collection of around 3,500 textile pieces, mostly from Gujarat but also elsewhere in India. He’s remarkably hospitable to visitors who just turn up on his doorstep without appointment (like us), offering tea, showing them pieces of his collection, and selling at reasonable prices.

All his collection consists of older pieces of work, as he says the quality of modern textiles is not as good. Fifty or even 20 years ago, women were expected to start sewing pieces for their dowry from quite a young age, and the standard had to be good to impress their future mother-in-law, or they wouldn’t get a husband!

Today, thankfully, women have more opportunities for other work and education, so most do not choose to focus on embroidery skills, and the quality of pieces that are made for the tourist market is not as high (though I have to say I was still impressed with most of them!).

We bought several pieces from Mr Wazir, of which my favourite is a kantha from Bangladesh. I fell in love with this at first sight. Compared with all the colourful designs, fancy stitches and shiny mirrors in the other work around it, this shone out as a beacon of simplicity.

kantha

It feels, dare I say it, almost Japanese – certainly the texture of the diamond shapes reminds me of the patterns achieved through stitched shibori.

kantha close up

Close up shot of shibori circle

In Bangladesh and West Bengal, women make kanthas from old saris and dhotis, by folding them to create several layers and stitching through all of them. Traditionally they also used thread unravelled from the sari border – so a great form of recycling.

I just couldn’t work out how they achieved the textured effect, but of course Debby, my tutor at Morley College and fount of all knowledge when it comes to constructed textiles, knew. It’s simply parallel rows of running stitch.

So I had a go at a sampler of different motifs and tensions.

kantha sampler

Looking at the circular motifs, I noticed that if I kept the tension of the stitches very tight, the white ridges between the stitches would protrude more and the circles started to form little domes.

This reminded me of my turtle project from many moons ago, and I wondered whether I could use this stitch not only to create pattern and texture but also to create a 3D form – just like a curved turtle shell.

sunburst turtle

And it does! As you can imagine, it’s a bit slow, but here’s the work in progress.

kantha turtlekantha turtle close up