Thursday, 28 July 2011

Visual Ancestry

"Searching for a change of vision
seeing with new eyes
adapting my usual way of working;
letting myself loose, and
not being afraid of failure.
That's what today gave me:
surprising the great leap forward - 
- and I did not fall into the water,
did not drown in indecision.
Just those few short hours
with a masterful tutor
is all it has taken;
and I will never be the same again.
Such joy. A day of wonders."

materials and photos ready for the workshop

Last Saturday (24th July) I attended an Embroiderers' Guild day workshop - the title was 'Stitch an Ancestor'. I think none of those attending were quite sure what to expect or what we would be doing, but we all took along copies of ancestral photos, calico and other fabrics. I had already decided (usually my downfall) that I would make a collage page showing the influences that some of my ancestors have had on my life. And as they were all childhood memories from the early 1940s, I decided that my colour palette would beige to reflect the mono prints. I thought to frame the photos in small checked fabric the same as my school dresses. That brown was too dark so I also bought a pale beige and white check which I knew would set off the words I wanted to include.

photos fused to gingham and roughly positioned on the calico background

Words? Now readers of my Book-Lover's Journey will know that my love of words and books was influenced by my immediate ancestors - the touch of bright colour to offset all that beige and the grey photos will be the same terracotta red that is used as the background to my BLJ blog posts. So that was what was in my mind as I drove to the class, and laid my equipment and materials out on the table. And what an eye-opener. We had a most excellent tutor in Alison Mercer, who explained that she was going to encourage us to think about the process of creating a piece of work, rather than technique.

students' work in progress mounted vertically
(mine, bottom left, is barely begun)
Contrary to my normal method of working she suggested that we first gathered together the photos we would use, and prepared them for inclusion in the piece of work we were creating, even cutting around an image so as to make them less 'blocky'. I had never thought of doing that. A small colour palette was the next step as a starting point (I was OK there), and that no matter what we were doing, the use of lines of hand-stitching could pull it all together. This will be interesting for I will finish with many little photo pieces and a number of word panels as well.

trimmed images fused to gingham, ready for cutting into panels
and framing with hand-stitching

Words could be stamped or machine stitched, or hand-lettered using a mixture of fabric, paints, papers. We should try 'anything and everything' and if we could not resolve something that did not look right, should leave it out. Ongoing layouts were photographed so we could record what we were doing. Next we thought of triggers that prompted us to create a piece, and then we wrote down a check-list of what we would do, and what we would try to achieve in the next hour. (I who initially work really slowly achieved my personal goal.)

one of my photos, fused
and hand-stitched, then
crumpled to add 'age'
Collage was uppermost in my mind, pasting and overprinting, cutting back, carving my own stamps ... hand and machine stitch, layering. What was so remarkable to me was how Alison gently cajoled me to forget layout initially (I am so used to laying out magazine pages that I find it really hard to think in any other way). My initial thoughts ceased to 'speak' to me; I removed half the images and began to work on the small pieces, fusing the photos with bondaweb and then hand-stitching around them with two rows of straight stitch using fine silk thread; that in itself had a child-like quality and reminded me of childhood. In a sense, the process we were encouraged to consider is exactly similar to the way I work when creating a new writing project; it was the 'go with the flow' attitude that was new to me, and very welcome.

this was my double-page layout at the end of the day
with notes top right about what I would try next
and the words I intended to stitch and use

We pinned our work at lunchtime onto the wall, the better to see it from a distance (mine, bottom left is barely begun though all the images are fused to a piece of gingham ready to cut out and stitch). Most people had taken a sewing machine but I travelled light and was glad I had done so, for I re-discovered the calming effect hand-stitching has on me, forgot my arthritis and persevered. All the photos are now stitched around ready for assembly into the pages, once I've created the lettering panels, which I spent time devising whilst in the class. (Hand-stitching has since been accomplished each day sitting in the garden over tea.) By the end of the day, my single collage had turned into two 'pages', each 12" x 12" which will form a part of an earlier in-progress 'Quilt Journey' project; I felt calm and collected and so grateful for the help I had been given by a good tutor. It was a day of memories and focussing on the people who have influenced my life. Afterwards, I sat on the wall outside the classroom and wrote the piece that opens this post.

P.S. I can't make the link to Alison's website work - server error; try googling her. I'll add the link when I post further progress on my 'Ancestral Influences' piece.


  1. What a wonderful and meaningful project. How lovely it must have been to work with the old photos and have the memories under your fingers. Your choice of the gingham was brilliant!

  2. Erin, thankyou so much - I'm afraid my explanation was somewhat incoherent - the pics did not run in order, which was stupid of me really. I;m glad you liked the gingham; that almost more than anything took me back to being five years old, even though the colour was darker than I used. I did some more hand-stitching this evening, and then will tackle the words.

  3. I quoted your poem in my blog. I hope you don't mind. (I gave credit.) It seemed to fit my situation. I am glad you found a new way to do something that intrigues you.
    Thank you,