Sunday, 12 January 2020

Family words

I have been in communication with a delightful lady called Rosemary Roughter, an historian who is writing a piece about Louisa Coade, who was my great grandfather Howard's sister, known to me in family tales as "Aunt Louie". An enquiry by her regarding a novel written by Ganna's sister Rhona has lead me to reading Rhona's books, which I'm ashamed to say I have not done so far.

Rhona Katherine Rowe as a young girl
Rhona was the youngest of the three Rowe girls, and took after her mother Alice rather than Howard. This meant that she and her daughter Cecil were untainted by the genetic condition Osteogenesis Imperfecta, much to their benefit. She was, according to family tales, a very charming young woman who enjoyed the good things in life. You can see her here, in her youth, looking very sweet and pensive. She married Herbert Guy Dunning who ran a garage in St Leonards called Dunning Marriott and Smith. She and Guy lived a more extravagant lifestyle than her two sisters, and Guy was much disapproved of by Ganna and Mum, being rather too "hail fellow well met" in their view; prone to borrowing money and not paying it back. This was borne out after he died and Cecil took over his affairs; the business was deeply in debt. I remember her saying "I always wondered whether Daddy had another family somewhere - otherwise where on earth did all that money go?"

Rhona and Ethel published their novels at very similar times and I always pondered how much they were in competition  with one another. Rhona's first novel Stephen Sherrin came out in 1932, and the central character is a tender portrait of their father.

Stephen is a doctor in a small town in England, with a deep concern for the poverty in which some of his patients are living. His wife is dead and his two daughters, from whom he feels estranged, live with their smart young friends in London. The story moves between Stephen and his daughters, contrasting the rather shallow lives of these two London girls, all cleverness and appearances, with his own quiet but deeply felt devotion to helping those around him and appreciating their more human values.  It also focuses on a friend of Stephen's, an old man who is dying, and who is responsible for three young grandchildren whose adventures punctuate the comings and goings of the adults. Her writing is more sensual than her sister's; the books contain long passages describing the natural surroundings, often elaborately personified, which reflect and echo the thoughts of the characters. The novel also portrays a completely unconscious snobbery, which chimes with family comments about Rhona. There is an assumption of the superiority of the central characters and the ignorance and superstition amongst those poor with whom they come into contact. The house servant who cares for the old dying man is described as being "dirty shiftless and lazy, but her heart was in the right place", yet this woman does everything for the old man for no pay, just her board and lodging. Modern readers would balk at this, and also perhaps at the lack of action and excitement. I thought it a beautiful read; her attention to the motivations and feelings of the characters I found very engaging, and Stephen's heartfelt concern for his patients and his friends drew me to him as a character. At the end of the novel he makes the momentous decision to pass his practice over to his young assistant and fulfil a long held desire to travel "before it was too late. Before he got old and bitter". he takes himself off to Tilbury docks to "walk up the gangway to that great, magnificent boat and be carried smoothly over the seas - to what?" I wonder if Rhona here was releasing her lost father, who died when she was just fourteen, into a better place of freedom and fulfilment.

This is a short novel, I read it in the space of a day, and enjoyed it a great deal. Perhaps that reflects my sense of entering a very familiar space with a familiar cast of characters and attitudes - a family space in fact. I have since read her next publication, The Spring Begins; very risqué indeed for its time, but more of that later!

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Keeping up - just

When I was young and still lived with Mum, she was always in a panic by Christmas Eve, with cards still undelivered and preparations still to make. She regularly sent out 100+ cards to friends and family near and far, and all the cards she received in return would be carefully stuck to the back of the sitting room door with minute pieces of sellotape so the paint remained undamaged. The resulting mosaic of colours and imagery would flutter and rustle gently every time the door was opened. So, with local cards in hand, off we would go on Christmas Eve delivering to friends who lived in our town; she would drive, I would "just hop out and pop it through the letterbox", a task which frequently involved a flight of steps in our hilly locality. Being young of course, I knew that when I was grown and in charge of my own life, I'd not be so tardy, I would be far better organised, I would be on top of things.

Hmmmmm ... it's Christmas Day and I have only just finished the composite gift for Darling Daughter. Fortunately she isn't with us until Boxing Day, so, just in time! It comprises a rather nice origami folded project pouch, simple to create with just two squares of fabric, you can find patterns all over, the one I followed was here.

The square of fabric is magically transformed, with a little bit of machine and hand stitching, into this, in a rather gentle pattern of branches and berries

Two vintage buttons (from Mum's button box of course) make the closure

Open up and splash of colour comes from the inner fabric, a vibrant batik

fold that inner flap up and you begin to see the pockets, and another little flap, decorated with beads to give a little lift

in all there are six pockets of various sizes, made to enclose

a little scissor case from a Sue Hawkins kit, and a needlecase from Clothkits, designed by Corinne Lapierre. The colours for the pouch, as you can see, chosen to match those of the contents. Even the scissors, peeking out of the pocket, have toning colours. These were started up in the Lakes in October, but took a back seat to a small quilt for a new small person, and a couple of other Christmas creations that needed to be finished first. In fact, it has all been a bit of a scramble!!

I do hope she likes them.

Oh, and sorry Mum, I was wrong - I seem to have inherited your last minute tendencies!!

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Ambushed by events

I have had a small project on the go - a cot quilt for the first child of the next generation to be born in my husband's family. He nicknamed her Flopsy when she was on the way, so Flopsy she has become to us. She was due to be born on the 20th November, but snuck in two weeks early. Her quilt (Flopsy's quilt) had been designed, planned, all parts cut out and ready to go, but not quite assembled. So now I am hurrying to catch up with events.

The quilt is just about finished - with Mrs Rabbit and, of course, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter being tucked into their winter coats to go out and play. There are lovebirds to chat to along the way

And trees in the surrounding gardens and woods to run in and out and roundabout; they might frolic in fields of blue and yellow flowers and have busy chats with the bees.

Layered together with wadding and a snuggly brushed cotton backing, there is some hand quilting, but mostly machine. The binding is one where the backing is brought forward to the front, so the soft brushed cotton folds round the edges for little fingers to grasp.

There is just a little bit of hand quilting left to do (Flopsy must be highlighted of course), then the finished article can be tucked into a squishy parcel, along with a lovely soft blanket which darling daughter has crocheted for her, and a book from her great great uncle to amuse her as she grows. We hope she enjoys both snuggles and book for many years to come.

She does, of course, have her own name - in fact three of them and very lovely names they are too, but I won't be so indiscreet as to launch them into the ungoverned spaces of the internet.

In between times I have been doing other things too. I'm not sure you saw the finished "One Over the Eight" quilt that I have been making in our monthly patchwork class. We have, since then, moved on to several other things, all of which need finishing, some of which are not yet started

We had a lovely crewel work workshop at the Embroiderer's Guild with Fay Maxwell, a delightful and patient teacher - you can hear her talk about her crewel work in the linked video. She adds an extra element to the traditional crewel work by cutting out felt shapes for the basic design elements, which are tacked onto the backing cloth and then embroidered.  Freehand cutting of felt shapes was quite a challenge, especially as I was basing my design on fabric that once covered some cushions of my grandmother's; fabric that echoed crewel work designs itself. I think I managed OK. Now to finish the embroidery!

and finally, from last weekend, this little fox is gradually appearing, poking his nose through the bluebells, He was designed by one of our branch members for us to try out some bead embroidery during a half day workshop

So, quite a bit has been happening, just not in Mesopotamia!!

Friday, 1 November 2019

Helpmeets for stitching

Because my good friend and fellow Embroiderers' Guild member Steph and I are running some supported stitch sessions locally, I have been thinking more about how we use aids to stitching and why; I thought I'd share them with you here. 

First and foremost is comfort. Most of us have aches and pains of some sort or another, having reached the age where we have the privilege of doing our own thing, following our star to some extent, rather than being subsumed by the rest of the family's needs. Then of course there is light and the ability to see.

By preference my favourite spot is here, in my grandmother's chair ("that's the Bergere Chair Kath" I was always told, though I suspect it isn't!). I have cushions and a quilt for comfort, south facing natural light, a warm radiator nearby and Cecil's tables to my right and left. I have the magnifier with it's ring of light, and my "giraffe" - the floor stand which holds my embroidery frame, I love this, though it can be a bit picky about whether it stays put in terms of its neck and knees! When you look at the frame, you can see it is one of those with clip over half tubes of plastic on a tubular plastic frame.

On the fabric held within the frame I have a needle park, held on by a magnet on the back of the cloth,  and a thread card (excuse the unintentional advert), recycled biscuit packaging. On the back the number and brand of thread is noted on each hole. This way the skeins can stay at home, or in the basket - less likely to become a tangle then.

If you were looking over my shoulder this is what you'd see, Mesopotamia under magnification, though not quite at satellite image detail. You can see here the way the frame can be used to hold fabric that is wider than the capacity of the frame. Not RSN tight by any means, but I'm not working to RSN standards.

And close up we have Sippar, the twin cities each with it's own temple, tucked in by the Euphrates to the left, downriver from Khafajah and Tell Asmar (Eshnunna). The Tigris is there too, coming in from the right. We are coming down from the rain fed alluvial plains of Upper Mesopotamia, where to a large extent there was enough rain each year to support agriculture. Now we are nearing the southern plains where no agriculture was possible without extensive canal systems for irrigation,

Monday, 28 October 2019


My darling girl is going through a difficult time at the moment, so needing lots of support and help with life while she is signed off work. This of course means that creative pursuits tend to take a back seat, though we do sit and stitch/crochet together in the evenings. We've spent the past week cleaning her flat, which she and her husband haven't really lived in for the past three years for reasons that would take far too long to explain. Her Dad has been living there however (again for reasons that …..), and so the place is reminiscent of student digs crossed with an ageing hippy bachelor pad. Much floor sweeping, several packs of anti bacterial wipes and liberal amounts of hot soapy water have helped bring the flat back to a habitable (by normal humans) state, along with an entire afternoon (and almost a whole can of oven cleaner) just to make the oven useable again. The plan is that, once she feels on a more even keel, she will move back into the flat and, hopefully, her Dad will learn a bit more domesticity. Her husband should be able to rejoin her in December, but at least she will be there to get things back to normal again for them before he arrives, and negotiate the domestic routines with her Dad who will remain there for the time being.

All this activity meant that I missed two sessions with Christine at Studio 11. However, I had forgotten I'd put my name down for a catch up session yesterday. As Jen is feeling a bit better, I toddled off to Eastbourne with a box of "stuff" in my boot to have my first session in the Poetry of Decay class that Christine is running this year. She has taught this several times before as a stand alone workshop over several days, and will be doing so again in Italy this October, but she is also teaching it as a one day a month class at Studio 11.

So, having gathered together mark making tools, tissue and other papers, and the aforementioned stuff, along with 100 6x4 pieces of weighty cartridge paper and six photos for inspiration, I spent the day yesterday working on 50 of the cards with:

white primer manipulated with mark making tools to add texture;

matte medium (similar to PVA glue) with various things scrumpled, crumpled and otherwise stuck onto the card;

distorting the card itself by folding, scrumpling and distressing or embossing in various different ways.

I came home with a stack of 50, 50 more to go.

The next stage is to add layers of colour with various media; walnut ink, rust powder, oil pastel, dyes, to evoke aspects of decay, using our photos as starting points. As with the Eszter course, I am rather outside my comfort zone, I've not done a great deal of mixed media work in the past, being rather a "cloth and thread purist", but I really enjoyed just messing about with sqidgy, scrumply, sploodgy stuff yesterday and am really looking forward to the next stage. Another student who is on the same course was also doing a catch up, but of day two, so I know what to expect - it looks like great fun.

And the photos I took for inspiration? I couldn't decide on six so there are twelve - here they are

Rusty bolts hold sea defences together

The wall in Hastings underground car park. Built by Sidney Little and completed in 1931 it was the worlds first large scale underground car park

 Rusting structures at the end of Eastbourne Pier

Lichen on wood

Patterns of rust on Hastings seafront

ancient decay in Istanbul

barnacles clinging to sea defences

more sea derived rust

some Lake District mushrooms

a Venetian door

and Bhutanese rooves

Sunday, 20 October 2019

A real treat

For four days last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by Eszter Bornmisza, hosted by Studio 11 as part of Christine's programme of "re-treats". She always has inspiring textile artists, and I have been on several over the years. This one was called "Captured in Nets" and was a marvellous introduction to the techniques Eszter uses to craft her beautiful artworks. If you've not seen them, pop over to her website to have a look. If you have seen them in person you will understand how evocative they are; ethereal, yet firmly grounded in the townscapes that are her primary theme. Eszter was a generous, patient and supportive tutor and we learnt a great deal. In addition to nurturing and broadening my textile skills, the four days gave me an even deeper appreciation of her art, and of the time, skill and meticulous planning involved in each creation.

Our first day was an introduction to net making with soluble fabric, machine stitching into it to create a web that, once the fabric has been dissolved, will hold itself together. This is harder than it sounds as you have to make sure that wherever your stitching goes, it is tied in with what has been before, otherwise bits will fall apart. I found the first day challenging. In part this was because my Janome was misbehaving. Once I'd  popped home and returned with the Bernina; my preferred machine for embroidery (but heavy to move about), the rest of my time was undisturbed by machine failure. Having not done much machine embroidery for a long while; my shoulders and upper back were tense and intensely painful, my stitching unruly. However, I managed a couple of samples, and began to understand more about its creative potential.

Here, my various samples at the end of the sessions in the studio

And the thought processes that brought it all about - with retrospective notes

A preparatory drawing inspired by Eridu, exploring the pattern of temple spaces and how continuous line might all hold together

stitch and imagery,

lace and thread, boundaries and mounds

The second day also had its difficulties; I stitched my forefinger - breaking the machine needle as I snatched it away. A loud bang, a sharp pain and a few minutes of feeling rather peculiar followed, but the studio had plasters and there was more stitching to be done. I still felt I wasn't sure what I was supposed to be doing but, following instructions, managed to produce a couple more samples and felt happier by the end of the day.

Inspired by Nirvana; a different sort of layer, that of family myth, nestled at the edge of the Rother, home to childhood dreams

and what to do with the spaces removed?

Then Babylon, drawing on an ancient map; imagery printed out several days before the workshop and pondered on

the reverse of the embroidery makes a more powerful statement - lesson learnt

By day three things were looking up, the accumulation of techniques was beginning to make sense, and I was starting to see where they might apply to the projects I am working on at my regular Studio 11 sessions. More samples were made, more stitching was done, more bobbins were cleared of thread and at end of play, a very enjoyable meal out, organised for us by Christine at a local hostelry. We began with making voids, mending them, bridging gaps. Organza carved out with a soldering iron, mended with Islamic pierced window grilles in mind, same region, later culture, more layers of history. The cutout pieces were also captured in a net with additions

Here, working with painted clingfilm and very pink organza. As I stitched I was thinking about the growth enabled by Abzu, the life giving water; marshlands, foliage, ripples, grasses waving

Flowers and leaves strewn across gaps in the fabric, supported by a web of stitching. The flowers were hand stitched into a piece of soluble fabric with chain stitch, then pinned to the base fabric, the leaves simple knots in a piece of thread.

Finally there was the "bring it all together and make a larger piece" day. So we put all we had learnt into practice on our chosen design. In my case this was based around a satellite view of Nineveh - drawn from my Mesopotamia ruminations. Here a portion of Nineveh, the hill of Kuyunjik nestled in a bend of the Khosr River, on the outskirts of Mosul

Not anywhere near finished yet, there is still much stitching of nets to be done, suggestions of cultivated land at the top, soluble fabric to be washed away, but an encouraging start. I managed to do enough to know how to complete it, and will make time to do this, which will be a huge pleasure.

So, a marvellous and inspiring few days amongst friends old and new exploring thread, stitch, time and ideas to create something fresh. I feel I have learnt  techniques that chime with my thoughts about Mesopotamia; history, layers of time and layers of man made artefacts/marks on the earth. Techniques I can hopefully exploit in my own way to move forward with my explorations of what creating textile art is all about.

Thank you Eszter and Christine for a very inspiring retreat. Definitely a real treat.