Sunday, 25 January 2015

Emergency Glitter Potion

This week I celebrated my twenty fourth birthday. This meant two things: cocktails (oh so many cocktails) and extreme levels of glittery fabulousness. I've come to realise that even when I don't have a special event such as a birthday to look forward to, the smallest of gestures can really alter the way I feel about myself. Such as painting my nails iridescent twinkling shades. It's a small treat and act of self care that makes it that little bit easier to get through the week.

And so, my potion this week reads "Persevere and apply glitter liberally". The phrase is accompanied by a tiny vial of emergency glitter, and I've taken the liberty of bedazzling the potion tag.

I must say I feel a good deal better than I did this time last week; I seem to have taken my mantra, "It will be ok" to heart. I'm sure it really will be.

Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Cadbury Purple Mantra Potion

This week, as a reward for getting through a particularly dreaded day, I promised myself a small reward; a bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk. 

It was my childhood favourite chocolate bar, and hence there is something deeply comforting about that familiar sweet, rich and creamy flavour and texture. And the colour; Willy Wonka purple;  could anything be more nostalgic?

So (small amounts of) chocolate (like glitter) are a coping mechanism. My visual diary has been a help, too; every day this week I have been scribbling the mantra "It will be ok" in it in a hypnotising array of colours, behind which the ghost of a potion sketch from the previous page looms. However bad I feel when I start writing this phrase, by the time I have finished I invariably feel better. The simple act of choosing which colour to use next is calming and gently stimulating. The phrase itself, like Dairy Milk, is deeply comforting. It may not be wonderful; it may not be spectacular; but it will be ok.

 I combined the two in this week's Apotheké #secretsofselfpreservation potion. Cadbury purple ribbon is the backdrop to a ragged, battered, yet cheerfully coloured cross stitched "It will be ok" and accompanied in its equally bright bottle by two tiny bars of Dairy Milk, in case of emergencies.

Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

ROAR don't mewl

During this second week of Apotheké I have certainly been in need of self care. Anxiety can creep up on you very suddenly, without reason or warning, and throw your life into temporary disarray. Making the simplest decisions becomes a mammoth task. You have no energy or desire to face the world. Which makes taking care of yourself imperative, and being brave a necessity, in order to get through your days as painlessly and "normally" as possible.

Perhaps this is why I make so much art about being brave. A phrase that has been helping me as I prepare for the following week is "Courage, dear heart". It is spoken by Aslan to Lucy in the Chronicles of Narnia - and being a lion, of course, Aslan is the symbol of bravery, a symbol I have employed in my work before (particularly in On Being Soft). The phrase comforts and calms me, and reminds me that it is courageous to even go about my daily life when I feel like this. It is brave to persevere when you are afraid, even if what you are afraid of is illogical and inconsequential. 

I embroidered "Courage, dear heart" on to an orange floral ribbon; orange, because artist Judy Chicago wrote in her Autobiography of a Year that orange is the colour of anxiety. I agree with her; the colour is hot and acidic, and captures something of the sheer panic of anxiety. And so the potion's label, "Roar don't mewl potion", is orange, too. Autobiography of a Year must have been working its way around my subconscious for a few years, because Apotheké too is an autobiography of a year.

What else could I accompany the potion with than a miniature big cat; perfect for a lion in training.

Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

Courage, Dear Heart

I've been filling the pages of my visual diary, yet neglecting to post them here. I've also been collecting a ream of photographs over the past few months, so the pages of the diary are in no way chronological.

They feature Hanecdote stickers and a little letter from the woman behind Ghoul Guides herself, witchy jam making, a narrow boat named after my favourite liqueur, snaps from mine and Pip's visit to God's Own Junkyard, a page dedicated to our anniversary, receipt mementos from Mother's Ruin, the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel afternoon tea and mulled wine sipped whilst waiting to see Owen Pallett play, and finally is brought up to date with sketches and phrases for potions for my project Apotheké. Which brings me to my next blog post...

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Tangled Yarns: Alke Schmidt at the William Morris Gallery (Part 2)

Earlier I explained that, through Tangled Yarns, Alke Schmidt reminds us of the obscure and murky chain of supply in the textile industry. But it was ever thus; Tangled Yarns explores the (dirty) politics and morality of the textiles industry from the 1700s to the present day. And seemingly, little has changed. Though the chain of supply today may often be a mystery, in her work Stained Alke traces the mid-1800s supply chain from cotton plant to dress. She illustrates how a garment's origins, even then, could leave an invisible smear unbeknownst to the wearer. 

A wealthy woman in an elegant, delicate ball-gown peers through a barrier of columns of an 1840s cotton print which separate her from the women who clothed her. As with many of the works in the exhibition, cloth, stitch and paint weave in and out of each other, and composition says just as much as content.

The women the elegant lady peers at are a plantation slave, a Lancashire mill worker and a cottage industry dressmaker. Each category of exploited worker became the focus of a moral outrage in the 1800s, just as the treatment of Bengali textile workers is now, and rightly so. Even the self-employed dressmaker working from home lived a meagre and often starving existence; there are accounts of cottage industry stitchers losing their eyesight by candlelight in the seminal text The Subversive Stitch.

Alke's dressmaker has dark circles under her eyes and stitches by a guttering candle; perhaps her eyesight, too, will soon falter.

As Alke’s exhibition demonstrates, structural violence towards women permeates and has always permeated the textile industry. In around 1719, this violence become more overt, when, as Alke rather brilliantly puts it, some women became literal "fashion victims". British weavers were feeling increasingly threatened by the popularity of patterned Indian and Indian-imitation cottons. Rather than directing their resentment at the producers of such cottons, wool and worsted weavers took to the streets and began attacking women wearing garments made from the printed cottons. The attacks included ripping and cutting the cloth, setting it on fire, and throwing acid at the women to burn their skin. It quickly became a witch-hunt in which the recipient of the violence was not the clothes but the women wearing them. They were branded Calico Madams, the title of the piece in which Alke brings all these rich and subtle threads of research (or tangled yarns, if you like) together.

As her base Alke has chosen a calico in the style of early 18th century Indian designs. The next layer is a reproduction of an illustration from the period celebrating the passing of the ban on Indian cottons. Finally she has painted the "calico madams" themselves, fighting off their attackers and lying defeated on the floor, where the rump of a woman becomes the site of the cottons being "burnt at the stake", with flames flickering around and leaping up to assault the fleeing women. Of course, the phrase "calico madams" was a way of attacking women for their sexuality, and conflating this sexuality with the way they were dressed. Therefore the flaming pyre appears on one of the most sexualised parts of a woman's anatomy.

Calico Madams is one of the most technically accomplished and conceptually rich works in the exhibition. It is multi-layered both literally, with pattern, print and paint interlacing seamlessly in and out of each other, and figuratively, with countless threads of research woven together without over-burdening the whole.

It gives me courage as an artist who sometimes worries that there's "too much going on" in her own work. 

Tangled Yarns is an eminently apt title for this exhibition; it would be impossible to separate out the strands of race and gender, exploitation and violence with which the textiles industry is intertwined, and Alke doesn't attempt to. Instead, she explores how these strands relate to one another, in a triumph of intersectionality.

I have written about a handful of the works in the exhibition, and have spent almost two thousand words doing so. I hope this is some indication of how thought-provoking, conscience-pricking, and technically astute Tangled Yarns is. As a result of visiting the exhibition, I have chosen to make a real commitment to being an ethical fashion consumer. How many exhibitions cause us to transform our lives (and the lives of others) for the better? I would hazard a guess that it's not that many.

Tangled Yarns is exhibited at the William Morris Gallery until the 25th January 2015.

Sunday, 4 January 2015


 Apothéké (n.) - the place where things are laid down

I believe cure at its root means care - D.W. Winnicott

The first of my New Year's Resolutions is to produce one self care potion a week for the entire year. What do I mean by self care? Simply, the ways we take good care of ourselves - mind, body, and soul. By potion, I mean a bottle filled with hand embroidered "ingredients", such as those that have been stitched at a number of workshops I've led.

This time, as I will be stitching one potion a week, I've decided to include the essence of the week as well as elements of self care, so that the potion is both a place where the week is "laid down" or stored, and a bank of self care tips - a bank of cure/care. Indeed, the final syllable of "Apotheké" is pronounced just like "care".

 Apotheké will be an old medicine cabinet with a potent potion for each week of the year, exploring the essence of that week and elements of self care; a recipe for keeping well. It will be a diary, a testament, a confession, and a wellness tool. The potions are hand stitched, a meditative action which has its own therapeutic qualities. The Apotheké will hopefully be a travelling medicine cabinet which facilitates conversations about positive mental and holistic health, and gets people stitching. Hopefully it will engage a wide range of people, including people struggling with mental health problems, perhaps in embroidery workshops which meld craft and conversations about wellbeing.

You can get involved right now, and you needn't even pick up a needle and thread if you don't want to. You can tweet, tumble or Instagram using the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, and write about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take good care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper, I'm not fussy!) potion; I'd love to see some pictures of your potions popping up in the #secretsofselfpreservation tag.

Here is mine for the first week of 2015. This week, I've been battling chicken pox, at times impatiently; I seem to forget that illnesses of all kinds take it out of you, and that it's important to recuperate. I just want to stitch around the clock and see friends, just as I would if I were well.

So my stitch-written record of this week reads "Physical illnesses take time, too; don't fight sleep". I'm not too troubled by how perfect (or indeed not) the stitching is, as this is a personal project and is as much for my own wellbeing as artistic endeavour, if not more so. So if you want to join me, don't worry about making your stitches perfect! The message is the important thing, and it's difficult enough to embroider on ribbon or a scrap of fabric which is small enough to fit in a tiny bottle without worrying too much about how it looks. I have a stock of spice jars, lab bottles, and cocktail beakers to use in this project over the duration of the year - any small bottle with a lid of some sort will do.

For the diaristic element, I have holepunched some silvery card I used to back Pip's hand embroidered birthday present, and cut up a dotty piece of wrapping paper from another of his presents; when I uncork the bottle, I will be reminded that this week I watched Pip open his presents from the safety of Skype due to the aforementioned chicken pox, and the dozens of spots will remind me of just how itchy that chicken pox was!

Each potion needs a name; in a tribute to the protagonist of the film Waitress, who creates otherworldly pies with inventive titles inspired by her life, I have named this one Week 1: Pox Potion, scribbled on a gingham medical cross. Now I have a whole week to dream up another potion...



Saturday, 3 January 2015

"Let the poets write about that there, Byron!"

Happy New Year! I had to count down to New Year with my loved ones via Skype rather than in person as I went down with chicken pox on Christmas Eve. My festive period has thus been spent in loose cotton pyjamas, stitching in front of box sets, more often than not The West Wing.

Which leads quite nicely on to the traditional stitchery for Pip's birthday on New Year's Day. A month or so ago we were doing what we tend to when we don't have plans, namely marathoning The West Wing, when Pip exclaimed "Stitch me that!"

He was referring to the witticism President Josiah Bartlet shoots at Toby after beating him at basketball through the slightly shady practice of having a former NBA star on his team; "Let the poets right about that there, Byron".

I made a mental note to stitch it up, accompanied by a Byronic quill. I very fortuitously found the dinkiest little ring frame to stitch it in via a Small Business Saturday lucky dip at Craft Guerilla.

I'd stitched Pip a West Wing quote for his birthday once before, so this made a good accompaniment. I will have to have the first one framed, and then they can go up side by side on his wall.

I may not have been able to spend NYE or Pip's birthday with him, but I did get to see him open his presents, and that was almost as good.

Now, back to the stitching and the box sets!