Mrs Smith’s Cottage

MSC roundels

Getting on for a year ago I became the artist-in-residence at Mrs Smith’s Cottage in Navenby. This small worker’s redbrick house was home to Hilda Smith (on and off) for almost a century and although she was very much a social being and ‘of this world’ Mrs Smith determinedly kept to the old ways of household management. The Cottage doesn’t have a kitchen or a bathroom as you or I would imagine it, no fitted units for her. Instead, having finally capitulated to the requirements of the local council, Hilda admitted a cold tap into the house (in her 80s), under which she parked a plastic bowl. Mrs Smith’s bathing always took place in a tin bath in front of the range and she climbed a ladder to her bedroom, even in her 102nd year.

Under scaffolding

Mrs Smith kept a daily dairy, just short descriptive entries that provide a window into her world. This, and the fact that the building was an almost-untouched example of the way people lived in rural Lincolnshire, inspired North Kesteven District Council and the local community to retain this dwelling as a museum. It has recently been closed for a few years due to building safety concerns but is currently being renovated with major investment from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and due to open later this year.

Since my appointment I have been getting to know the local community, visiting art groups, coffee mornings, local historians, the primary school and a care home. I am working alongside the Interpretation Team to create site-specific artworks that will nestle into the restored domestic spaces of the Cottage. Our workshop plans have fallen over due to the need for Covid-19 social distancing, but we’re finding ways to deliver activities online. We know that members of the community are working on sections of a community hooked rug and even on paintings of the Cottage for eventual exhibition, so even this empty space is inspiring creativity.

I have only ever known the Cottage as a building site, so I’m excited to see it once the builders have left and the collections have been restored to the space. I’m already starting to work on ideas for a second series of site-specific works to develop during my second year at the Cottage but, meanwhile, I just wonder what Mrs Smith would think about all this fuss!

To keep up to speed with developments follow Mrs Smith’s Cottage on Twitter or Instagram

One Hundred Squares

100 fabric squares
100 fabric squares

One of the classic markers of a maker, is that they have lots of resources squirreled away. For anyone who dabbles in textiles, whether as a dressmaker or a textile artist (or anything in-between) this probably means a mountain of fabrics, squashed into boxes, squeezed into bags and poked into any available storage space. And it is ridiculously hard to let go of this stuff, even the random pieces which have found their way via other people’s clear-outs. Everything might come in useful one day.

I decided recently that this day had come, for some of my fabrics at least. I think that simple pieced-paper patchwork is a wonderfully meditative activity, and one that almost anyone can do. With this in mind I am testing out a project idea: One Hundred Squares, which creates blocks using A4 sheets of paper and random fabric, the only proviso being that they should be the same weight (so that one piece doesn’t pull on another) and that I should get ten of the same fabric. Ideally there will be tonal differences too (dark and light) so that patterns can be formed, but this won’t always be possible

100 paper pieced squares
100 pieced paper squares

Once formed into pieced-paper squares the blocks can be arranged into a pattern and then hand-stitched, in strips, to form a new piece of patchwork fabric. My plan is that, on this scale, a large and serviceable quilt can be produced quite simply. The backing could be made out of an old quilt cover or bed sheet and the soft middle layer (which creates the warmth) can be a pre-loved fleece blanket. Tied through with buttoning or knots, the resultant quilt will be a sturdy and cheering addition to a sofa or a bed.

I have lots more fabric that could be used in this way, and charity shops are laden with curtains, sheets and random fabrics which need a home. My next step, after finishing the test quilt, will be to explore the possibility of running regular sessions for other people to come and learn these simple skills and make their own patchwork quilt to keep.

Pieced squares lined up
Testing a simple layout for the paper squares

Making it big(ger)

Malka image 1Making larger work is a long-term aim of mine. I tend to work fairly small (50cm square is ‘big’), partly because my processes are very slow-speed and partly because the practical constraints on hand-stitching and applying buttons over a larger piece make it tricky.

So I have set myself a challenge. A new art space has been created, at the extraordinary North Sea Observatory at Chapel Point, Chapel St. Leonards on the Lincolnshire coast. I am hiring this space for a week at the end of October, where I will make a larger piece of work, approximately 1m square. I will suspend the work from a frame and I’m looking forward to seeing whether this method of being able to work on two sides at once will make a difference.

The Observatory is intended to work like a bird hide. Situated right on the beach with clear views across the sand and the sea, people will be able to watch migrating birds year round, whilst hugging a cup of coffee (or a good lunch) from the Seascape Cafe. This function of the Observatory has inspired me to think about other types of migration, which of course is a highly political topic.

Through the Greater Lincolnshire Area of Sanctuary (GLAoS), which offers respite breaks to refugees, I have come to know Malka al-Haddad. An Iraqi asylum seeker, Malka is an intelligent and thoughtful woman who is seeking leave to remain in the UK as she believes her life is under threat in her home country. As an asylum seeker, Malka is not allowed to work but, amongst many activities, she has been writing poems about her experiences over the past few years. These poems have been turned into a book ‘Birds without Sky,’ which is a fundraiser for the GLAoS project.

I am using screen-printed images of Malka and English and Arabic versions of her poem Homeland (which contains the reference to birds without sky) to make this large piece at the North Sea Observatory. As an ‘artist in residence’ my hope is that people will come to see what I am doing and some interesting (possibly uncomfortable) conversations will ensue. However, my main challenge is a simple one. Can I complete this piece in just a week!

I would love to see you there. I will be ‘in residence’ between Monday 22 – Sunday 28 October, 9am – 4pm each day. 

Update: Work in progress pics.



IMG_0043As someone who prefers to thriftily mend things rather than buy new, I celebrate the fact that all my furniture is secondhand or gifted (although I do aspire to having my first ‘new’ sofa by the time I’m 50, 24 months and ticking…). Yet I spend my days making stuff. Buttons by the hundred, flat textiles that accumulate in layers like a hopeful trousseau.

This paradox is one which nags at me often. There is so much stuff in the world, what am I thinking of by adding to it? A quick half hour on Instagram shows that countless others are busy making stuff too.

We all know the adage that one needs to apply 10,000 hours to become really skilled. If you’re focusing on mastering tennis then this means you (mostly) smack a ball around and, apart from wearing out tennis balls, don’t really impact world resources. The same isn’t true for a potter or a jeweller, one needs to produce piece after piece to hone technique, and of course for all the accomplished pieces there are all the fragments, tests and failures along the way.

I love cooking. Making bread and cakes for my family, knocking up decent midweek dinners from beans, tinned tomatoes and veg. The great thing about food is you make it, you eat it, it’s gone. I’ve still got textiles lying around from over 20 years ago, which at least documents my progress, in a way that my Sticky Top Ginger Cake failure c.1997 will never do. Luckily for everyone.

So, how do I assuage this stuff-guilt? Firstly, back to my Instagram hour (you surely didn’t believe…) where I skimmed over scores of brilliant, inventive, subtle and creative examples of ceramics and textiles, wood-carving and illustration. Rather than feel overburdened I felt inspired by the ways in which people everywhere are applying effort and skill to making beautiful things. These things will hopefully add value to the lives of new owners and have a teensy beneficial impact on the economy along the way.

IMG_0044Although I want to make really large scale, impactful, textiles that line walls and transform spaces, working on a small scale for now means that I don’t overuse resources and I don’t really take up too much space. Seeking out and recycling domestic linens from my local secondhand shops means that the energy invested in making the original sheet or pillowcase is celebrated in a second life. And, although my button-factory is gaining pace (me and a piece of clay, very low tech) the fact is that my buttons are teensy, weighing less than a gram. Yes they do need to be fired twice in a kiln, but I fit them round the edges of other people’s work, in the places that otherwise would be wasted space.

I think I will alway feel a bit of guilt about being a producer, but perhaps this is just a healthy way of ensuring that I keep raising my expectations about the work I make and also lets me feel that my very slow production methods are actually a force for good.

Making buttons

When working for my Ceramics degree at Bristol my days were spent with clay and glazes and my evenings and weekends with fabric. A large silk patchwork travelled with me to my babysitting engagements, the rest of the time was spent making proggy rugs (I’d seen an inspirational exhibition at the Shipley Art Gallery years before) or multilayered fabric ‘tartan’ fragments made with fabric and paper. My textiles and ceramics were interrelated in that I explored design ideas in one medium (textiles) and then transferred this to the other. However, combining the two didn’t occur to me as an option and making stitched textiles became my creativity of choice once I left college.

Button prep
Clay buttons for bisque firing

Becoming involved with Oxcombe Pottery in recent years has meant that I have the freedom to play with ceramics once again. As a tutor my pleasure is in helping other people develop their interests and many of our regular attendees discover a niche on which to focus and develop their skill. For me, working around the edges of class-time, this was a slow process as I experimented with ideas but failed to find my feet. Until I made some buttons! Aware of the ‘button tie’ as a traditional technique for tying quilt layers together in place of quilt stitching, I decided to try this out as a means of connecting my new-found access to clay to my still-continuing textile practice. In the past couple of years I have been exploring scale and colour in earthenware and stoneware glazes, whilst also dealing with the technical challenges of applying relatively heavy clay objects to a vertical fabric surface.

Stoneware buttons – glazes with copper and rutile additions

My experiments have ranged from decorative white slip on large terracotta buttons and tin glaze with cobalt oxide (inspired by traditional delft) to current explorations in stoneware, making tiny buttons with mottled glazes reminiscent of lichens. The practice of making buttons is painstaking, with batch size restricted by the speed at which clay dries (too dry and piercing the button holes will crack it in two) and then the need to make sure that glaze is cleaned from the holes prior to second firing, otherwise the button will be fit for nothing. However, as a lover of repetitive tasks, my button-making days are amongst my favourites and my failed buttons are few.

Large buttons seeking more space…

I’m finding that difference in button-scale matters a lot. Large buttons need a larger surface in order to unite effectively across the piece. I have downsized my buttons to suit the work I am currently making (up to 50cm square) but I aspire to make much larger pieces, at which point my buttons can grow to match. My daily practice, either in the textile studio or pottery, consists of a series of experiments. Each piece of work is inching forward on new ground. Will this adjustment to button-making speed me up a bit (for such tiny objects they take a huge amount of time)? Can I find a way to tie buttons through a piece which is larger than my arms will reach? Learning through making is such an energising experience, although spending a week working on a new piece with no certainty about the finished result is also fairly teeth-gritting at times. One learns humility and to value very small glimmers of hope or realisation, “Hold on a minute, if I do X won’t Y then be possible? Ah, no…”

Working in two very different media has a feeling of syncopation, of working in counterpoint where one set of practices (wedging clay, setting a kiln) disrupts the habits of another (cutting fabric, pulling a needle and thread). I enjoy the headspace that this creates and the challenge of making work that combines the two. The bigger challenge is with staying the course and trusting that the work will develop some confident rhythms of its own. For now I just need to dig in, keep making and appreciate that this is how I spend my days.


Making do

The quilt-making tradition, where fabrics are recycled and reused to make something new, has always informed my work. Starting off with multicoloured silks gleaned from charity shops or worn out vintage clothing, over time my palette has become more muted. These days my pieces are made from calico or recycled domestic linen and cotton, together with coarse hessian and with ceramic buttons that were originally inspired by the little fabric-covered ones that are commonly found on Victorian/Edwardian undergarments and designed not to be seen.

IMG_0002These are unassuming materials. Cheap, hardwearing, ubiquitous. This seems to fit with the underpinning ethos of my work which is associated with ‘making do,’ of husbanding (wifeing?) scarce resources and keeping things together in times of poverty and crisis. That begins to sound a bit overblown for a bit of stitching, maybe, but I do believe that embracing frugality is a political act and learning to appreciate the handmade and homemade has the capacity to build resilience.

Always a seeker-out of interesting textures and patterns in old buildings, over the last few years I have become really interested in those houses, farm barns and sheds that have been left to decay. Along the way I developed a new joy in spotting pattress plates, the metal crosses, roundels, S-shapes and even fish-forms that mark the places where a building is held together by metal rods running through wall-to-wall. This large-scale metal stitching through brick and stone ensures that fragile built fabric can weather a few more decades or even centuries and of course I am inspired by its similarity to sewing. The cross form found its way into my work a while ago, for me a visual reinforcing of this principle of “a stitch in time…”

What does ‘work’ look like?

Some days I spend hours on end stitching repetitive marks across a piece. I’ll start at 9am and make the same small hand movements until 5pm. These are perfect days, when my mind wanders while I work and I don’t have to worry about making good decisions about what I’m doing, just ensure that my stitching follows the format I’ve set myself.

After a time it’s easy to start getting dozy and frankly a bit bored but, always a late-adopter, I have now discovered podcasts. Supplanting Radio 4 and 4 Extra (there’s only so much programme repetition even I can stand) I have discovered a fascination with listening to US podcasts featuring interviews with successful entrepreneurs. Although I tell myself that this new habit will teach me how to be effective and find success in my own life, mostly it goes in one ear and evaporates before it comes out of the other side.

However, one comment a couple of weeks ago, by interviewer Tom Bilyeu, has stuck with me. A man who is hugely focused on achieving his goals, Tom said: “Five days a week I’m either working or working out.”

My immediate response was to feel guilty. I could definitely not say the same about myself. My typical workday includes prepping packed lunches, teenager-chasing and bunny-sorting before work, then making dinner, clearing up, more bunny-sorting, teenager homework-nagging, going for a run (yay, the ‘working out’ bit) before hitting 9pm and forcing myself to deal with a handful of emails and then possibly watching a half-hour comedy DVD before heading to bed. I don’t class any of this stuff as work (except the emails maybe) and so it is arguable that around 7 hours per day are unproductive. Hmmm, not good.

This really got to me. I’ve been mulling it over for days, on and off. How can I become more productive? If I want to create success as a maker, does this mean I have to start buying ready meals rather than spending an hour cooking every day, or sending my son off with dinner money rather than home-made pizza and chocolate cake? That just feels wrong. I could work later, but getting up would be even harder. This is such a conundrum.

Or it was. I have decided that I want success on my own terms. I am already a high-achiever in the kitchen-goddess stakes. My 14 year old enjoys lentils and aubergine for goodness sake! Simplicity and frugality make me happy, I am a signed up member (is there such a thing?) of the Visible Mending movement and aim to reduce my impact on the Earth’s resources, and on my own, by making do and mending what I can. This may be slowing down my productivity as an artist and maker and my ambitions to make my creative mark in the world, but it is part of my narrative and is non-negotiable. Of course there is room for improvement and I’m grateful for the impetus to do better, but I have decided that I too spend my weekdays either working or working out, it’s just a different sort of work.

I might have to get tougher with the teenage bunny-owner though…

Starting out

The wind is blowing noisily down the chimney whilst Storm Ophelia rages across the west of the UK and, after the usual mad evening rush of dinner and other family stuff, I’m settling down to write my inaugural post on a blog which I set up a year ago. Which may be a record, but clearly not a positive one!

This autumn marks a big change in my life. Having spent many years making work around the edges of other professional obligations, I am now placing my practice centre-stage. This is Week 7 and I have decided that rather than just talk to myself and scribble thoughts in the various notebooks that litter my home and workshop, I am going to document my development journey in writing, here.

My plan is to gather images and ideas in one place, and already I’ve begun to see more clearly the visual connectivity between work I made a few years ago and the pieces I’m creating now.  Hopefully the process of writing out my thoughts will also help to form a more cohesive narrative, which in turn will influence the making of better work.

All ideas and commentary are my own (I think!) If you happen across this site I would be delighted to hear from you. All kindly-meant comments will be cheerily received.