We finish up our story of Bursledon Brickworks Museum volunteer Bob Palmer, with a quick…
2. Textile art part two – all stitched up
It’s art Jim, but not as we know it.
Last time, in part one, we heard how Jane’s book, The Great Bra Hunt’ was the inspiration for her textile pictures. This time, we finally get to see some the famous art that Jane creates.
Tell me about the ‘textile art’
I refer to it as textile pictures. I always hand quilt, following the more traditional methods, but the picture quilting is all done on the machine.
To me, this is simply playing. It’s the antithesis of the need to make anything accurate. It’s just, ‘I like that splurge there’. Basically, getting back to being a five-year old. Children don’t worry about the finished product. They just cover their fingers with paint and plonk it on whatever surface is in front of them, and they love it. The first textile pieces couldn’t really be considered as pictures; they were very, very abstract. It was a case of putting bits on the canvas and quilting around them. But it stirred up something inside me that triggered the desire to explore.
Do you suffer from ‘blank canvas’ syndrome’?
That’s the plague of every artist, isn’t it, whether you’re writing, painting, making music, whatever. Overcoming the fear of the cold, white, empty space. I tend to just grab the first bit of fabric that attracts me and slap it down on the canvas. That breaks the impasse and gives the imagination something to grab onto. Occasionally, I’ll start in one direction, then turn it upside down. Hmmm, that’s interesting. What I thought was going to be a vase of flowers ends up as being a row of houses, or whatever. That’s the beauty of being a textile artist, nothing is permanent, right up until the very end. It’s good not to have any pre-conceived ideas. That way, things flow more freely because you’re not worried about the end result. I don’t make a living doing this. I’m only doing this for my own pleasure, so if it’s not working. It just goes in the bin. I only ever use the bits that are left over from previous projects.
Any preference for your subject matter?
I did some scenery painting when I left college. As a consequence, I feel that most of my work looks better from about forty feet away. I love doing portraiture, landscapes, abstracts, pretty much anything that takes my fancy really. I do have an attraction to things to do with the seaside though.
Is there a starting point for the portraits?
I do love experimenting with creating faces for the textile pictures. I love the work of artists, such as Matisse and Picasso, specifically the idea of trying to get an expression with very few frills and tucks.
Do you remember the Holbein portrait of Henry VIII’s great big face? This one is called ‘Vivat Rex’, and I did a series where the hat, helmet or crown was part of the faces. I wanted the idea that once you were king, you could never take the crown off; it was an integral part of your head.
REF: Portrait of Henry VIII
What can you tell me about the ‘skeleton leaf’ picture?
I have become a lot more graphic. Skeleton Leaf was an exercise in creating a still life, like I used to do back in school. It’s quite heavily quilted because I wanted to get the texture that’s left behind when the leaf has started to erode.
Are you actively trying to sell your work?
I’ve designed a hell of a lot of quilts, but they’re all one-offs, usually with somebody specific in mind, friends or relatives. As soon as it’s made, it gets given away.
I quickly realised that there’s no mileage in hand making quilts to sell, because nobody could recompense you for the amount of effort that you’ve put into it. So I prefer to do them just for the enjoyment of it. If I ever felt that I had to produce anything to order, or a timetable, it would take all the fun out of it for me.
Do you get emotionally attached to your creations?
Yes, I’ve discovered that if I part with one too soon after I’ve finished it, I will spend ages trying to recreate it. So now I don’t let them go straight away. I have to live with them for a little while. I guess that I’m kind of in love with them, in a strange sort of way. Then, all of sudden, it’s a case of “OK, I’ve had enough of you now, get yourself out of my workshop.” Mind you, there are some I would find very hard to let go, if ever.
Anything that you’re holding onto at the moment?
There is one that is intriguing me. It’s not the best thing that I’ve done, but it’s got something in it that I want to explore further. So that will stay with me for a little while.
When I was working on it, I was remembering the beautiful embroideries that my mother used to do. She did this sequence, they must have been done from a pattern, based on the days of the week. Monday wash day, Tuesday ironing , etc. These rather sweet domestic themes, but they had this muted old fashioned colouring to them. I was thinking about that, and thinking about silk handkerchief sachets and things, which were part of her life, but not mine. So there were a fair amount of memories coming to the surface when I was doing that, which I why I don’t want to let go of it yet.
Do you ever return to a piece to make changes?
No, and I never, ever, ever, have any of my pictures hanging up in the house, because I’ll always see something that I’m not happy with. OK, I can be quite besotted with them and all the rest of it, but there comes a time when I look at them and think, “I wish I’d done this, or that, differently”. That’s why they live in the portfolios. Other people can take them home and think they’re marvelous. That’s great. I don’t.
So you’re your own worst critic?
Oh yes, I think when you make anything yourself, you’re always painfully aware of what you consider to be the faults.
No changes at all?
I do sometimes cheat a bit. Occasionally, if I’m not happy with the final colour of an element, I’ll use fabric pastels on it. They’re essentially fabric paint in a stick. You can rub it over any fabric and then, when you iron it, very carefully, it sets permanently.
Release the dogs of war
What’s the final step to finish off a piece of work?
I lay sheer organza material on top, which is the textile equivalent of varnish. Without it, everything would just fall off. There are lots of different colours, which can add yet another layer of creativity. You can even add black to tone down an area, that you might decide is too bright. It’s a bit like adding a filter. You can apply small areas, to taste, but it always has one big piece as the final layer, to keep it all together. It’s very versatile.
So there’s only one technique with making these pictures then?
Pretty much. It’s laying bits of fabric on a base, liking what you see, carefully gluing organza over the top, and then getting on the sewing machine.
We do what is called ‘free motion machine quilting’. Generally speaking, when you use a sewing machine, the machine grabs the fabric as you feed it through, and you sew up and down etc. With free motion, you disengage the ‘feed dogs’ under the machine. The needle continues to go up and down, but you guide the material yourself instead of letting the machine do it. That gives us the freedom to go in any direction and, effectively, ‘draw’ using the sewing machine. That’s good fun.
Is this a specialist machine?
Most machines will drop the feed dogs, but you do need a special foot to do the free-motion machining. I have two machines, one is the workhorse, but this one is the one that I use for the pictures. You can see that the foot doesn’t quite come down to where the fabric is. It just sort of rides above it, so you don’t get any puckering on the fabric. This is again where we have the advantage over the wet paint artists. It doesn’t all have to be done in one go. Some pieces will be done and dusted in half an hour, others might evolve over days or weeks. One of the effects of quilting is that the more you do on a piece, the more it sinks into the background. So there is an element of three dimensionality that is created.
Inspiration with the perspiration
Where do you get your inspiration for the landscape pictures?
Every weekend we take the dog for a long walk on the Downs. I’m always looking at things, taking photographs. For me, it’s a question of remembering.
When I do workshops, I say to my ladies,( they tend to be ladies I’m afraid, which is a pity. I’d love to see some men take up the challenge). “Every image that you’ve ever seen in your life is in your head somewhere. The trick is to trust your memory.”
Many of my own pictures are completely fictitious though, more according to what I felt like at the time.
How do the workshop participants take to your style of teaching?
The ladies who turn up for the first time are often quietly terrified. Quilting is usually about accuracy and pre-planning. What I show them, with textile pictures, is that this has absolutely nothing to do with either of those things. It’s all about your relationship with a blank piece of canvas and colour. So that is very scary for them. I talk to them a lot about the ideas in their head. I do allow some of them to bring a picture with them for inspiration, because most of them need something to hang on to, visually.
Every image that you’ve ever seen in
your life is in your head somewhere.
How do you start , you’ve done your sketches …
No, I don’t do any sketches. I do have a ‘doodle diary,’ but that’s more for emptying out what’s in my head at the time. But I don’t plan. I can draw, but this is really to keep my imagination fluid.
A Moleskine notebook and a pencil, is just
about the most fun you can have by yourself
How do you approach the creative process?
When I’m creating the textile pictures, I start by plugging in my headphones and listening to a good audiobook, usually a murder mystery or something. Then I get a bunch of fabrics and I start to explore ideas, all very free form, whatever is in my head at the time, colours, shapes , etc. Usually something pops up, sometimes it doesn’t, but, more often than not, it does.
I start by plugging in my headphones
and listening to a good audiobook …
No pre-planning at all?
I don’t start with anything in mind, and that’s important. As soon as you visualise something, you put a top, bottom and sides on it. You impose constraints. If you don’t visualise it, and just let your imagination go wherever it fancies, then you can get something really interesting. I could never have done that face (lost in memory?YES), if I’d been visualising it. I had no idea it was going to be a face at the time, but I’ve become quite attached to that one. So I don’t make any plan. Because, the whole idea of doing these pictures, is that it’s about entering a process, and not about a finished product.
If I sat down and said I was going to do a seascape, it would all turn to dust and ashes. There would be nothing in there that I personally could relate to or would have any connection to me. I don’t know if other people have the same emotional connection with the pictures that I do. After all, why should they, they’re not me, but I know that it has to mean something to me, otherwise it doesn’t leave this room [laughs].
So you have a blank canvas, and the idea pops into your head. How do you physically start?
It’s a bit like a fuzzy felt picture. I take the scraps of fabric and I just start placing them. I have discovered one trick that does work. It’s a little technique to engage the other side of your brain. If you’re right handed the left hand side of the brain deals with decision making. I don’t want my left brain to make the decisions on where and how I place the fabric. So, what I tend to do is put the fabrics where my left hand has to pick them.
It’s a little technique to engage
the other side of your brain.
If I’m really in the zone and creating something that I think is worthwhile, the left hand is selecting and the right hand is just adjusting. And that works really well. I don’t think about the subject matter, I think about colours harmonizing and shapes connecting. I also think about being able to move into the picture and walk around in it, in my head.
For example, this picture [on the threshold] is from a series called ‘The Adventures of the Calico People’. When I started doing this quite big, very foreboding structure, I thought, “I need a way into this building”. So I put these little orange bits along the bottom, which just kind of steps you in. The addition of the two figures gives it a sense of scale, and draws the viewer in.
Designed into submission
You said that you design as well?
Yes, my claim to fame is having a quilt serialized as a “block of the month” in the British Patchwork and Quilting magazine.
A lot of my pictures have a seaside theme, which I’ve had a thing about for as long as I can remember. So I decided to submit a ‘sampler’ quilt following that theme.
I was actually cover girl for once in my life
What’s a ‘Sampler’ quilt?
When someone is first starting to do patchwork, there are all sorts of techniques that you can use. Quite often, the first quilt that you will make will be a Sampler, because it provides the opportunity to try out the various patchwork methods. Each section of the quilt uses a different technique, so it’s a good way to learn your craft. The biggest problem with that, is that you end up with different sections (known as “blocks”), that don’t necessarily go together as a cohesive whole. So what I wanted to do was design something that would provide the opportunity to learn the various skills, but give it a theme.
As a bonus, if you didn’t want to create a whole quilt from it, you could have each section as a wall hanging, cushion cover or, with a couple of strips around it, a cot quilt or something. So it was a bit more versatile than your standard sampler quilt.
How often is the magazine published?
The article was serialized as block of the month, for nine months. It was rather nice, because I used some of what I learned from picture making to feed back into traditional patchwork. The girls at the quilt group were amazing, because they actually test drove the blocks for me, and they were fantastic.
What do you mean by ‘test driving,’ in this context?
I would make a block, measure out the fabric that was needed, and write out the instructions to replicate what I had done. There were four or five ladies at the group that actually took on the challenge of working through my drafts. They would take home the instructions and work their way through, and feedback on where things could be better explained, where the measurements might have been slightly off, or where some refinement was necessary. Really, really useful tips. So, with their help, I was able to massage it into shape, to the point that I was able to submit it to the magazine. I was really chuffed when it was accepted.
Do you have any more designs planned for the magazine?
Actually, yes. In August  “Popular Patchwork” magazine will be publishing my design for a child’s quilt with removable fabric dolls on it. It’s called the Paper Dolls quilt and that, again, will be given to my poor, long-suffering, great-niece. The idea is that you tuck your child up in bed and, on the quilt, are sixteen little dolls. They look a little bit like gingerbread men, with little frocks on, pairs of knickers and fabric hair.
No, they’re too young for bras!
The first thing with any child’s quilt is practicality. Will it go through the washing machine? The second thing is how to make it fun. All these little 3D dolls will be velcroed on, which means that they can be removed for playing with, and then replaced on the matching shapes afterwards.
Do you use any software on the computer for the final design?
No. I write all the instructions, itemising the fabric that is needed. As I sew, I take photographs and label them all up. They won’t use a fraction of the photographs, but every single stage is captured for reference. The templates are cut out using a special plastic and sent off with everything else. They will be included with the magazine as part of the purchase.
I send the actual quilt, the real templates with the written instructions and a CD of the photos. If they want to re-photograph the quilt, they can do, because they have everything that they need.
Exhibition to the stars
Are there any national events for quilters?
There’s the exhibition in Malvern in May, which is like the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ where everyone who is anyone attends, because it’s such a wonderful show. The International Festival of Quilts is an annual event show held in Birmingham. There are various big events that go on throughout the year, which are organised partly by the Quilters Guilds and partly by Grosvenor Exhibitions. These are Mecca to the quilting fraternity. They put on demonstrations, and there are loads of trade stands, of course. There are also competitions for quilting, which anyone can enter, but it tends to be the big names that win.
The trade stands are heaven, it’s all non-fattening.
We come back with carrier bags overflowing
You say the big names win the competitions, does that mean that there are stars in quilting?
Of course there are! There’s a pantheon of quilting stars, there really is. We even have a Dame, (Lynn Edwards MBE). There’s a lady who goes by the name of ‘Ferret,’ a former rocket scientist, who does some amazing work. Yes, we definitely have our own royalty!
REF: Lynn Edwards MBE
Lynn Edwards received a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to Arts and Crafts in 2008
Lynn Edwards received a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to Arts and Crafts in 2008
Anything on, what is probably, a very long To Do list, that you’d like to try your hand at?
I’d like to get better at drawing. Obviously, I’d like to create the ultimate picture that is all about man, the universe, life and 21st century angst, but that ain’t ever gonna happen! I would like to see my pictures, or a textile artist’s pictures, hung up in a gallery with the oil and watercolour boys. To be seen as a valid art form, and not merely as a kind of craftswoman gone crazy.
On paper I, or any other textile artist, should have equal standing within the fine art field. But, in practice, we tend to be pushed to the margins somewhat. There are bad textile artists, just the same as there are bad painters. Not everyone who makes a quilt can make a textile picture, because different skills are needed. Just like not everyone who can draw a spanner is able to paint the Sistine Chapel. I think artistic talent should be celebrated and recognized, no matter what medium the artist chooses to use.
It’s actually bloody difficult to do portraiture in fabric!
How about more quilt designing?
Yes. The pictures are very free form, but it’s rather fun to be able to look at them and think, “if I was going to make this into a workable quilt, how would it translate?” I really enjoyed designing that seaside sampler quilt for the magazine. I did a lot of research and preparation, lots of sketching and photography. That was great.
One of the ideas that I have in my head at the moment is a baby quilt for a friend of mine who is pregnant. The ‘bump’ has been nicknamed ‘bean,’ so the quilt will feature a runner bean plant. Part of the process of gathering ideas is that I’ve been watching my runner beans growing in the garden. I have one of the blossom heads being pressed at the moment, because I want to create a template from it. That’s the kind of preparation that I make.
Would you like to go any further with the workshops or talks?
I do them on an ad hoc basis, which suits me. Simply put, if I’m asked, I’ll do it. They are great fun, very tiring, but enjoyable. The only difficulty with doing workshops is that they are often booked a long time in advance. It means that, when I get to finally do one, the participants will want to discuss a piece of work that I might have been doing a year ago. That kind of keeps you standing in the same place.
Part of me would like to sell, or give
everything away, and start all over again..
Part of me would like to sell, or give everything away and start all over again, to see what happens. Maybe keep the last two pieces of artwork and let myself evolve again. As opposed to thinking that I really should do some more pictures, because I’ve got a talk or a workshop coming up. Whenever I do a workshop, I always need to have a couple of half-finished pieces to show the students how to back and frame them. Which is kind of producing to order; the one thing that I want to avoid. It would be quite nice to shut myself away in an ivory tower and just see what comes up [laughs].
And finally, if you did throw it all away, what would you choose as a starting point?
If I had nothing at all, it would be pencil and paper; back to basics. And some yellow and blue fabric, since you can do all four seasons with those two colours.
Click here to read the first part of Jane’s story, featuring her book The Great Bra Hunt and where it all began.
Web Links and References of interest
Jane’s web site
Caroline Hounsell’s blog (for further information about the Denmead quilting group)