Archives for December 2013

New Year’s intentions

Over the holidays I’ve been thinking about my intentions for 2014. I don’t want to call them resolutions, as this seems too firm and fixed a phrase. If you make a resolution, then don’t follow it through, you might end up feeling a bit of a failure. Resolutions imply change, and any kind of big, permanent, change is very difficult. But an intention seems less focused and so it’s less of an issue if you don’t actually achieve it. Maybe, paradoxically, an intention is more achievable than a resolution, just because it’s a bit more fuzzy round the edges.Happy New Year 2014

So, what are my intentions? They are relatively few, and relatively achievable, because I don’t want to be faced with a lurking sense of failure come February. As regards this blog, my intention is to publish a blog post at least twice a week on average. This is the intention I started off with and it’s been just about do-able so far. I won’t saddle myself with this intention for the whole of 2014, though. It may prove too unrewarding, or too difficult, life may get in the way, or I may run out of things to say. So I’ll keep on reviewing this one.

A second intention is to do something creative every day, even if it’s just five minutes stitching or a photograph or a quick drawing. I really don’t know to what extent I already do this. I’ve done something creative every day during the Christmas break, but that’s easy because there’s been a fair amount of spare time. I’ll try to keep some kind of tally of my success with this one.

An important intention is to cut back on work. I’m self-employed which makes controlling the workload simultaneously easier and more difficult. I can, and do, turn down work and can arrange to have quiet periods or even days off in a way that’s not easily achievable if you’re in a job working for someone else. But, on the other hand, it’s often tempting to accept work if it’s offered. This year just ending has contained far too much work, and I want to get it under control.

A fourth intention should be a breeze as it’s continuing something I’ve already established as a habit. In June I started eating a low-carb diet and have continued with this ever since. I have cut out sugar, bread, rice etc. and my intention for 2014 is to carry on eating like this indefinitely. I have lost a modest amount of weight, but the benefits are mainly to do with increased good health and energy. If I can continue like, this the extra energy should easily take care of intentions 1 to 3 above. The festive season is a challenge, but I’ve come through this with only a few minor deviations (e.g. the sugar in the wassail that I posted about last time).

So it’s onward and upward rushing towards 2014. I’ll be back here soon, with another post before the end of the week.


Apparently, the word wassail is derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘waes hael’ meaning good health. Wassailing is an ancient British custom involving the consumption of a hot spiced drink based on cider or ale. A couple of years ago my husband, who doesn’t much like mulled wine, decided to start a new family tradition of wassailing, an excellent and very popular plan. Last night was wassail night here, involving husband’s own idiosyncratic interpretation of the wassail cup. I’m a bit hazy on the details, but his version of the drink comprises a base of scrumpy cider with the addition of sloe gin and Spanish brandy (don’t ask me how much; you just sort of fling it all together in a pan). Add some spices, as for mulled wine, and a bit of sugar, heat it up then pour into a bowl. You ladle it into sturdy glasses, all cry ‘wassail’ and then drink.

The weekend just gone was the weekend of  the winter solstice and it’s been very cheering to have a bit of seasonal wassailing. Here in northern England the days are very short and the nights very long at the tail end of the year. Now that we’ve got past the shortest day I’m looking forward to seeing a little more light each day.

I’m now two months into my blog, and it’s becoming part of my routine. I’m going to take a break for the next week or so, but I have several blog posts planned and ready to go in the New Year.

If you’ve been reading this and/or other blog posts , thank you and a seasonal ‘waes hael’ to all.

Favourite textile and stitching books: Drawn to Stitch

I’ve bought quite a few books on textiles and stitch in recent years, because of doing the City & Guilds courses. There are a few that I keep going back to because I like them so much, and one of my favourites is Gwen Hedley’s ‘Drawn to Stitch’. This is a  Batsford publication, although at 144 pages, it’s a little bit longer than the more usual Batsford book. Drawn to Stitch - Gwen HedleyIt’s perhaps these extra pages (I think Batsfords are more usually 128 pp) that gives the book its feeling of substance and solidity. Sometimes, with this format of book, even if I like the author’s work and the photographs I feel slightly disappointed because there just doesn’t seem to be enough….well… content. Not so with this one; it’s a bit of a Tardis in that there’s even more once you get into it than you thought there would be.

As the title implies, the book aims to demonstrate how you can use observational drawing as a basis for the creative process. The first couple of chapters discuss tools and methods of mark making, including suggestions for some more unusual materials, altering backgrounds, dyeing, printing, paper weaving and so on. The largest section of the book is in the third chapter which includes many demonstrations of Gwen Hedley’s own creative process, working from a source of inspiration, through drawings and samples, to a finished stitched piece of work. These are mostly pieces abstracted from a natural or man-made source, such as weathered wood, crumbling masonry and even graffiti. You don’t often get to see an artist’s creative process illustrated so comprehensively.

At intervals there are inserts of a page or two on other artists, some of whom were new to me, often illustrating their use of drawing in their work. This feature makes the book even richer as it provides a contrast with Gwen Hedley’s own work and helps to illustrate the vast potential of drawing in creativity.

Every time I dip into this book I seem to find something new. If you haven’t seen it, do have a look. If you’re doing a course such as City & Guilds you may find it really useful in helping you develop your own work.

Wax printing block

I thought I’d share a photograph of this vintage was printing block that I bought recently from the African Fabric Shop.Wax printing block

This was a birthday present for my husband, given for two main reasons. First, it’s a lovely object in its own right. The photograph, taken with a flash, doesn’t really do it justice, although the light does show up the shiny base of the print block. Second reason is that he’s very interested in industrial history, and especially the history of the textile industry in Manchester. According to the African Fabric Shop website, these blocks (she still has several available for sale) date back to the 1980s and were used as recently as 2007 to overprint African wax print fabrics by hand in the Manchester factory of A Brunnschweiler & Co. The firm still produces these fabrics in Ghana under the name of ABC Wax, retaining only a small design office in Manchester.

The dimensions of the blocks are provided on the website (around 20 x 40cm, weighing around 1.6kg), but I don’t think I’d quite clocked what a chunky object it would be until the postman delivered it. It now hangs on our wall, looking beautiful in a low-key, abstract, way. Magie Relph of the African Fabric Shop points out on the website that these blocks could still be used. I’ll bear it in mind…..


Dyeing with cochineal

Cochineal is the Princess Barbie of natural dyeing. It’s an expensive dyestuff but a small amount, as with logwood, goes a very long way. I used the same dyepot, containing around 5gm of cochineal powder, and processed five different loads of fabric, comprising various cottons, silks and linen, together with several hanks of thread. The results are as shown in the photograph. To get some of these colours I used a dye modifier in the form of spirit vinegar. I’ll write more about modifiers in a future post; they’re very useful for extending the range of colours you can get from a particular dyestuff.

Cochineal is extracted from the bugs of that name, mostly in Peru and the Canary Islands. So I guess if you’re a strict vegan or vegetarian this particular dyestuff may not be for you. (However, it’s quite difficult to avoid as it is widely used as a dye in various food products).Dyeing with cochineal

Learning to draw

On my ‘about me’ page on this website I list four things I’m interested in, one of which is learning to draw. I’ve not said anything so far in this blog on the subject so I thought perhaps it was time I did. I was keen on drawing at school but not very good at it, and there was never the slightest indication that it was possible to learn to draw. The art teacher certainly never attempted to teach us how to draw, and I wonder now whether she could draw herself. Many years later I cottoned on to the existence of a book about drawing that took a radical approach: Betty Edwards’ ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ . Betty Edwards - Drawing on the Right Side of the BrainThe book was first published in 1979, but has been updated since and I see that the 4th edition has been published recently.

Betty Edwards’ view of drawing is that it is a ‘teachable, learnable skill’, which is excellent news for anyone who may have felt that it was a natural ability that you’re either born with.. or not. The book includes a lot about research on the workings of the brain (hence the title), but more significantly for anyone who wants to learn to draw it contains what is effectively a course in learning to see and to draw. There are plenty of accolades around for this book (have a look at the relevant pages on Amazon for some rave reviews), and I’m happy to confirm that it really is effective. I conscientiously worked my way through the book and by the end of it I could draw pretty much anything more or less accurately. Of course, I can’t draw like Picasso or David Hockney, and learning to draw doesn’t make you an artist (as Betty Edwards points out). However, learning to see is a pretty important skill in the visual arts, so this book could just help to set people on the road to becoming an artist.

I’ll write another post sometime about drawing and what I’ve done since I finished working through the Betty Edwards book.

Paul Klee at Tate Modern, London

Last Friday I went to see the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern, London. Well, it was outstanding – everything I’d hoped for – and I shall go again before it closes if I can possibly manage it. Paul Klee at Tate Modern

The first thing to say about this exhibition is that it requires a bit of stamina; it fills lots of rooms. My friend Laura and I went round slowly, and took a coffee break at about the halfway point, but it was still pretty tiring. I haven’t previously seen much of Klee’s work, except in reproduction in books and on the internet, and it was a real pleasure to have the opportunity to look at them thoroughly. He was clearly an experimental painter from the outset, and many of the really early works in the exhibition show that he was working on familiar themes (use of colour, squares, triangles and so on) from very early in his career. Some of the features we found especially striking:

  • The work sometimes looks very different from a distance. Where Klee has highlighted a particular colour by surrounding it with duller or contrasting hues, the highlighted colour stands out wonderfully well the further back you move from it.
  • The backgrounds are often very interesting with a lot of visual texture; this is an aspect that’s hard to appreciate when you see photos of the pictures in books.
  • Klee often explored quite simple concepts such as colour complementaries, but in a very complex way (see the example below)Paul Klee - Architecture

I’ve loved the Klee paintings of squares ever since I first became aware of them, but looking closely at this exhibition made me realise that the composition of the pictures is often very complex. For one thing, they’re not usually squares when you look closely.

In summary, it was fabulous and I shall do my best to go again.