Friday, 13 April 2018

Porto Pattern

Pattern rhythms, both formal and informal, play a big part in both my academic and maker roles.  Understanding and exploring the mechanics of repeat structures opens up a world of possibilities for students, taking them beyond the 'plonk, plonk' of basic rhythms and into the world of 'generous' complex formations, built from multiple motifs and using a variety of structures as underlying scaffolding.  Meanwhile, in my own practice working with irregular fragments of fabric, I am often subverting these rhythms, altering the balance of patterns and abstracting their content.

There is a perception that patchwork is built from completely random fabric selections, and of course this can be true.  Whilst I thrive on the aspects of my working process that I can't control and am spontaneous with much of the decision making, I am aware that the designer in me is constantly assessing the relationships and impact that my choices are creating - mine is a very conscious enjoyment of serendipity.  At the same time I continue to challenge the idea of co-ordination, exploring how my western perspective (shaped by the visual indoctrination of countless styling shoots and retail visual merchandising concepts) influences my choices.  I am striving to free myself, to be open to pattern and colour combinations that express different perspectives.

I was lucky enough to wander the streets of Porto this Easter.  The tiled building frontages of many of its buildings would be appealing to most, but are especially so for those involved in pattern creation!  They represent an array of block repeat designs that nod to different eras and demonstrate brilliantly what a well-considered repeat unit can visually do.

Not surprisingly, given that my own work is involved with material journeys and the aesthetics of imperfection, the frontages I found most inspiring were those whose surfaces evidenced the passage of time, through chips, erosion and repair.  Differing production methods, nature and vandalism all contributed to irregularities, modified colour stories and interrupted visual rhythms.  Amongst these were also wonderfully cheeky pattern-patches!  They are evidence of a mind-set (or a moment in time) where the necessity for blending in, discretion, conformity and perfection was given short shrift - very refreshing!





Friday, 28 April 2017

Crossing paths

Travel is not just about the places you visit.

Morocco was providing plenty of visual treats this Easter and Warren and I were marveling at having some of the exquisite small museums in Marrakesh virtually to ourselves.  Museum Tiskiwin was a particular gem - an old traditional Riad home, now housing the personal collection of Burt Flint, a Dutch, ex-English teacher, turned collector of Berber cultural artifacts.  We had spent an enjoyable few hours tracing nomadic trade routes through the possessions of different tribal groups, before pausing in a beautiful shady courtyard to reflect on the craftsmanship we had seen.

A gentleman caught our eye who had entered with a Japanese lady.  Shortly, in the intimate setting, some aspect of photography provided the catalyst for conversation.  He was Italian, living between Milan, Tokyo and Marrakesh, first having visited Morocco in the 60s.  He was bringing his friend to Marrakesh for the first time.

I couldn't help myself - his jacket was completely stunning!!  He very willingly showed it to us, describing how it was an ongoing personal mending project of a much loved piece.  Judging from his friends reaction, she hadn't seen the beautifully patched inside before, or had ever asked him if she could photograph it.  For a few beautiful moments, she, and we, got to study it - he became the artifact.   "He's famous, you know" the lady said afterwards, eager to communicate despite a language barrier, "google him".

Our chance meeting had been with artist, designer and architect Sergio Calatroni.

This was just one of many instances during our stay in Morocco, where we met inspiring people living very different types of lives.  Being immersed in a culture that contrasts my own is always invigorating.  It helps me to challenge my thinking, approaches and decision-making generally, but also more specifically within my practice.

The years have been peppered with human moments such as this, that seem to come from nowhere - fleeting meetings that live long in the memory.  They remind me every time of why I love to travel and how important it is to the creative process.

I wasn't expecting to see a wonderful example of contemporary Japanese boro in Marrakesh, but thank you Sergio, for giving us that treat.

Sergio Maria Calatroni's biography can be found here.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Crazy Paving

Sometimes I walk to work.  It is a four mile (one and a quarter hour) meditation.  Virtually straight down a busy arterial road into the city centre, it is not the prettiest route.  I often keep pace with the cars that nudge along in the slow peak-time jam.  The rhythm of walking allows the knots of tension to loosen and the to-do lists that jostle for priority to shake down and temporarily settle. It allows my mind to healthily wander.

It's a journey I've made many times.  Yesterday I found myself noticing just how heavily patched the British urban pavement is.  Prompted by a mossy crazy-paved driveway to one side, that reminded me both of paths my dad constructed in our back garden in the seventies and also my ceramic patchwork, I began to really look at the evidence of countless repairs passing under my feet. 

The act of photographing enables you to see the mundane and overlooked in a far clearer way.  Documenting the abstract tarmac, slab and cobble compositions became my morning's creative mini brief - a lovely way to start a busy day.

Friday, 3 June 2016


Design integrity has been a much discussed topic within both my academic and practitioner networks of late.  In an environment where imagery is shared, posted, tweeted and liked, changing hands, spreading instantly, there is often scant care about the provenance of the content or accuracy of the narrative.  Whilst the basic premise of intellectual property rights is straightforward, defending them is often anything but.

Imagery swirls around us, inspiring and informing us constantly, shaping the landscape of our imagination.  It is vital for creativity.  But the extent that we have it at our fingertips now makes it both a blessing and a curse.  Conscientious practitioners, particularly within design, are constantly mindful not to stray (even by accident) onto others' toes as the commercial ramifications can be significant with the potential to damage multiple reputations.  The impact is no less significant in the contemporary craft world.  Exhibition, press and social media exposure leaves a trail these days that means the defense of 'I didn't know about your work' just doesn't hold up.

It is said that there is 'no such thing as an original idea' but fresh applications and new relevance is being established and developed by dedicated makers all the time - the result of in-depth research, lateral thinking, lengthy experimentation, critical reflection, risk-taking and hard work.  Establishing a distinctive artistic voice is vital and livelihoods become built on it.   Creativity also requires an emotional investment and it can be hugely frustrating and deeply upsetting if it is encroached.

In teaching textile design to undergraduates, 'A 5-step technique for producing ideas' from the brilliant Brain Pickings blog here provides a great framework for starting discussions into the roll of research, flexible thinking, reflection and persistence in the creative process.  I regularly refer to the 'Curious Octopus Stage' which illustrates so beautifully the need to established a rich, multi-faceted context from which a personal response can then grow.

Approaches often encouraged at school which heavily focus on 'artist research' as the basis of creative exploration send out all the wrong messages.  It encourages the literal thinker to believe it is alright to see something, adapt it slightly and claim it as theirs. 

For someone who back in 2010 developed an innovative process that is original, in the sense that it is a new application (the rebuilding of broken ceramics) of a traditional process (patchwork), it has been a great pleasure to exhibit the work and build a reputation for creating pieces with a highly distinctive aesthetic.  It has been wonderfully rewarding to hear people marvel 'how did you come up with that idea?"  "I've never seen that before'  'It's not often you see something that is truly original!"

There is a rich back story to my work which I love explaining, drawing on a mix of references, themes, interests, cultures, that can be traced way back in stages to my degree show over twenty years ago.  It is this long gestation time; the slow building through different career chapters, creative experiences and explorations, supported by an awareness of contemporary research and practice, that has helped me to discover my voice and have absolute belief in the integrity of what I put into the public realm.  This is also the life-blood that fuels new developments to that journey.

The wonderful musician poet Patti Smith in her Advice for the Young, quotes William Burroughs here and it has become a sort of mantra in our household.  "Build a good name.  Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises. Don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful. Be concerned about doing good work and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency."  It is a beautifully articulated lesson in the importance of creative integrity and in striving to live authentically in all areas of your life.
The image to this blog entry was a pleasing bit of improvised communication found recently on my travels.  As ever, I was drawn to the re-purposing of materials and it as an example of creative problem solving.  Written primarily as a warning, I feel it can also provide useful positives to help navigate the challenges of the creative landscape that exists today:

Keep clear head space
Keep clear distinctiveness
Keep clear communications
Keep clear focus

Sunday, 20 September 2015

An Anthology of British Craft at Decorex International 2015

Commissions are brilliant opportunities for stretching you and your practice.

I was excited to be one of eighteen makers approached by The New Craftsmen Gallery, to create a bowl to feature as part of their  'An Anthology of British Craft' to be showcased at Decorex 2015. They will transform the VIP lounge into an  immersive space that celebrates luxury British craft, providing a creative platform for our skills , materials and process.  It is an amazing showcase for my ceramic patchwork and an opportunity to work with a gallery that I have long admired.

The brief was for a bowl, 45cm in diameter by 25cm deep.  Whilst my pieces tend to revive discarded ready-made ceramics, my search for such a proportion subsequently proved fruitless - serving platters were too shallow, whilst planters were too deep.

It has been my intention for quite a while to explore the creation of my own forms to break and re-build.  I'm thankful for the nudge this commission has given me in taking this next step.  The valuable advice and encouragement given by my academic colleague, the ceramicist, Sue Dawes, is gratefully acknowledged!

Considering the array of clay options gave me a strangely familiar thrill, similar to that of sourcing yarns when I was previously a knitwear designer.  It is the thrill of raw materials and the excitement at their potential.

With shrinkage discussed, clay composition decided, a suitable mold sourced and a plan of action in place, I found myself rolling out clay and engaged in piecing together, for a change using fingertips and slip, rather than fabric and stitch.  As the piece grew, so did my appreciation for the skill of ceramicists.

With the drying process, started the shrinkage process.  When it had reached 'leather state' I was able to lift the bowl out of its mold and could appreciate how the protective calico cotton liner had left interesting imprints in its surface (a quality that has planted seeds in my imagination for future exploration).

It wasn't until I had scraped and smoothed the form that I began to get a sense of the vessel's personality, a key aspect in being able to make a good selection regarding fabric.

It took two firings for the bowl to shrink to the desired diameter.  It emerged from the kiln with an endearingly warped top edge and plenty of signs of it's amateur creator's hand, but, for my first ever bowl (and a big one at that) I thought, not bad!

Having slaved over its creation, how did it feel to then take a hammer to it?  I had been being regularly asked about this and it was an interesting unknown.  Usually the breakage of a vessel marks the start of my process, but I was a significant way through and with emotional, financial and creative investment.

The bowl was big and it was heavy.  With my process relying on the strength of stitch and textile alone to provide structural integrity, I knew heavier fabrics than my normal fashion silks would be required.  The concept of the installation was to showcase innovation and craftsmanship in the use of materials and processes.  With my piece sitting alongside bowls made of wood, ceramic, glass and jesmonite, I sourced fine weight contemporary furnishing fabrics, deciding upon a neutral colour palette and concentrating on textural and surface qualities.  The bowl incorporates fabrics from the collections of Sacho, Zoffany, Sandersons Brentano and Mark Alexander.  Thanks go especially to Casamance Group who sent me two rolls of the most exquisite material, which were a joy to work with.

In the end my excitement in starting the ceramic patchwork process using these materials overcame any sentimentality I felt in relation to breaking the bowl.  I felt confident my ceramic patchwork craftsmanship was going to be infinitely better than my ceramic skill!

Before starting to break it and with it positioned on a large piece of bubble-wrap, I did indulge in the sensation of holding it as a solid piece and enjoying the beautiful ringing sound it gave off when lightly struck.

Over the years, I have developed experience of the force needed for a controlled breakage of domestic ceramic forms, taking account for different material properties, thicknesses and scales.  This was a very different prospect.  As I began, the hammer strike rang out with a pure sound multiple times before a change in pitch alerted me to the development of a crack.  I was relieved to see clean edged fragments rather than crumbling remains.

And so my familiar ceramic patchwork process began, but this time with marked differences; heavier fabrics, thicker thread, textural design decisions and building much larger sections.  New variants of familiar technical challenges materialised and were overcome.  For the first time, I needed another pair of hands for the the tricky joins as I neared completion.

In my initial briefing with Catherine Lock (one of the three founders of The New Craftsmen), we had talked about the aesthetics of aerial rural photography and the beautiful striped patchwork of Louis Bourgeois.  I was interested in making a piece that was stripped bare of my normal pattern imagery and colour impact, closer to archaeological artifact restorations that are raw and unadorned.  I am really pleased how these influences have come together in the piece.

I am really looking forward to Decorex 2015 and seeing my pieces placed alongside those of; Edmond Byrne (glass), Eleanor Lakelin (wood), Pedro da Costa Felgueiras (gilded cork), Nicola Tassie (ceramic), Matthew Warner (ceramic), Stuart Carey (semi porcelain stonewear), Doug Fitch (earthenwear clay), Hannah McAndrew (slipware), Stephanie Tudor (Jesmonite), Grant McCaig (metal), Patrick Thomson (textiles), Nic Webb (wood), Akiko Hirai (ceramics) and Iva Polachov (ceramics). 

There are so many aspects about making this piece that are new departures for me that it is going to take a little time to digest.
 Next up is Made London at the end of October, so it will be interesting to see how this experience influences my next body of work.

Friday, 27 March 2015


Thinking about the things I make with and love.  Gathered slowly, given by friends, passed down and found along the way.  Used constantly and worth celebrating.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Boro on holiday

I have long admired the beauty and honesty of boro fabrics - the wonderful, much-mended surfaces of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Japanese workwear.  Often using indigo dyed cotton, these materials have taken on a life of its own, becoming distorted, fragmented and re-coloured over time through multi-layered patching and hand stitching.   Designs are the result of happenstance and necessity, the mending changing what were once utility fabrics into unique records of toil and endeavour. 

My patching of broken ceramics with fabric and stitch requires precision in terms of stitch and construction.  There is a degree of spontaneity in the way that colour and pattern plays out as I rebuild my pieces, but boro has been a lesson for me in letting go.  Letting go of planning, precision, control and neatness.  The more you let go, the better the piece is.  I still have some way to go.

It is also a meditation on materials.  Thread and fabric are worked through your fingers. Your touch affects their state; edges roll, sections fray and you begin to know their properties intimately.  A gentle, very satisfying transformation of the surface begins to happen through the repetition of stitch; individual fabric layers start to combine and weak sections regain strength.  As you stitch, time slows and you can tune into your heartbeat.  With no fear of going wrong, you can loose yourself, letting the mind wander in a wonderfully restorative way.

Courtesy of Mari and the Made on Holiday team, at a craft retreat in Tuscany later this summer, I will be sharing the joys of mending and reworking fabrics with a small group, helping to create functional and decorative textiles items based on boro.

Textiles can accrue meaning and significance, acting as triggers to people, places and times, but all to often they lie in limbo, unused, to precious to throw away but in need of a new purpose.  This week could be the opportunity to rediscover and celebrate these materials, reviving a worn-out favorite item or creating something completely new.

So to whet your appetite for all things aged and patched - a few photos of some recent boro explorations, urban inspiration and ceramic patchwork.  If you are interested in joining us in Italy, see


Monday, 24 March 2014

Unravelling Uppark

Just over a month to go....this is to whet your appetite for visiting Uppark House & Gardens this summer.

Agnes Jones, Io and Euthenia, Unravelling Uppark, photography by Jim Stephenson
Helen Felcey and Alice Kettle, Cityscape, Unravelling Uppark, photography by Jim Stephenson
Jini Rawlings, Amy, Emily, Emma and the Four Times of Day, Unravelling Uppark, photography by Jim Stephenson
Andrew Burton, Vessels, Unravelling Uppark, photography by Jim Stephenson
Steven Follen, Unravelling Uppark, photography by Jim Stephenson
Matt Smith, The Lost Buckets, Unravelling Uppark, photography by Jim Stephenson
Zoe Hillyard, In the Red Drawing Room, Unravelling Uppark, photography by Jim Stephenson
Uppark Hosue & Gardens, Unravelling Uppark, photography by Jim Stephenson