Monday, 6 October 2014

International Blog Hop!

Hello and welcome! I was asked to take part in this blog hop by Hilary. I hope you find my blog interesting and maybe a little different, and I'll try and share something about my creativity and why I do this. 

I live in the south east of England, in a small and largely insignificant town, whose only fame was being spectacularly flooded in 2000. Luckily we live on a hill! We are surrounded by the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and Ashdown Forest (the setting and inspiration for Winnie the Pooh) and the South Downs are a stone's throw away. So while the town is not pretty, the surrounding countryside is!

I work with textiles - mostly with machine embroidery, but I love a bit of felt-making too. So let's make a start!

What am I working on?

At the moment, despite overflowing bags and boxes of other half-started projects, I am working on my Breton seascapes, and Celtic knots.

(no knots yet, still working out how I'm going to do that bit!)

I have been asked to teach a special workshop next year, and so I am getting my ideas together. I have loved Celtic knots for years, I fell in love with Scotland when I was 9 years old, my ancestry is Scots, my step-family home is in West Wales, and I holiday in Celtic Brittany every year. I also have dark hair, blue eyes and very pale skin - classic Celt! In fact, I'm only just realising as I start this project, just how important this part of my heritage is to me.

However, it is unusual for me to have such a clear focus, as at any given time I am working or thinking about numerous projects. For example, last week I spent a lot of time dyeing thread and fabric, even though I didn't need it for anything: I found the cotton threads in a charity shop, so I bought them just because they could be dyed.

Yesterday afternoon, I wrapped some homemade soaps

but I was actually supposed to be looking for my beading thread, to add beads to the Celtic landscapes. I had to look in these boxes

and this bag (love my Indian bag) 

and this basket (love baskets...) 

and in each place, I had to search through various different projects in different stages of incompleteness but still didn't find my thread so I had to improvise.

I do this all the time - I start things, then I move on to something else. One reason is because I have a butterfly mind - I am interested in so many different things, and I like to try (almost) everything, and straight away. Another reason is that I have to change what I'm doing, all the time. For example, my workspace is a foldaway cupboard.

My supplies are in the desk cupboard, on top of the cupboard, and in three or four other cupboards around the house, and in the summer house and the loft - no wonder I can't find anything!

Sometimes (a lot of the time) my desk stays open, and I spread out onto the dining room table. At the moment I'm trying to achieve some sort of work-life balance (!!) and so I'm attempting to put my desk away at the end of each day. The upside is that I start each day uncluttered, the down side is that
I have to start from scratch each day - opening the table, getting out my bits and pieces and the sewing machine - or laptop. So I tend to forget where I'd got to the previous day and usually start something else.

Another reason for starting and not finishing so many things is because I teach two classes, and I perhaps prepare more than I need to. I like to stitch everything I'm going to teach, and I also like to have work half-finished so that I can demonstrate in class. I then forget what is MY work and what is my WORK i.e. my teaching work. Confused? I am, constantly...

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I asked my students about this recently, to try and glean some ideas for the workshop next year. The answers were many and various, but quite a lot of them said they would recognise my work because it is blue and green, and features leaves and nature, but no houses or people! They also said that my work was very well executed - the attention to detail, and in particular, the quality of the stitch. And they are probably right. I don't like to just slap things down, I take care. I worry if my thread ends may come loose. I pay attention to the details - in the work but also in how it is displayed. If I use a canvas to display work, I will paint it first. I may even re-do the staples on the back or neatly stretch the fabric all around and finish it carefully. I will never just glue work down, I will stitch it as well. I want what I make to last, so I put in the extra effort to make sure it does. If I cut paper or a card mount, I will cut it well - if I bodge something I will start over again. If I make a mistake in stitching I will unpick, cover over, do something to make it better. That probably says something about my obsessive and perfectionist personality as well as my work!

My tool of choice is the sewing machine. I learnt to use one when I was 12 and have not looked back. I love the speed that I can work and create with it. I can honestly say that taking that first machine embroidery summer school at Missenden Abbey changed my life. It is what I now teach to others and I am very lucky to have found such a creative and interesting way to spend my time.

Why do I create what I do?

I have felt the urge to create all my life, since I can remember. I seem to have an ability to work with materials - whether it is cooking a meal, icing a cake, mucking about with clay, stitching with thread, sewing fabric, splashing about the emulsion paint when decorating the house, or creating a commemorative block for our holiday campsite, using coloured cement, shells and stones:

If something needs doing and it needs some manual dexterity and a bit of creativity, people always ask me to do it. Like this cake for my sister's wedding - baked and iced by my mother, constructed and decorated by me - with no prior notice or experience of working with flowers, and having to follow directions from a magazine!

I choose to create mainly with threads and fabric because I love the tactile nature and the ease of use. But I also love the challenge of making beautiful things out of unusual materials - for example, I see something in a DIY shop and find myself thinking through how to construct things with it. I absolutely love ethnic textiles, from all over the world - traditional embroidery, the colours, dyes such as indigo, shisha, beading. My favourite museum is the Glenbow in Calgary, and I am determined to go to India and take a textile tour one day. 

I love old fabrics and patterns, traditional patterns. I rescue things from charity shops - beautiful pieces of linen or lace, and old glass beads and broken necklaces. I have more materials than I could use in a lifetime, but at least I don't spend that much money on buying them! I do wish textile pieces could be more durable or permanent - I have always had a hankering to do things with clay and glazes, to create something truly functional and beautiful, but that would involve buying a kiln. (If I won the lottery I would probably do that!)

Back to the question (sorry) - why I create what I do. I start creating for the reasons given above, but my finished work is nearly always in response to an external challenge or deadline. I stitched this spring

this "waterfall"

and this fish

and these necklaces

and this piece

all for Embroiderers' Guild competitions. When I enter a competition I tend to show-off - which I suppose is the point of competitions. But it then commits me to stitching something in excruciating detail and/or with difficult materials! The waterfall piece is all stitched on the machine - beads and all. The spring took about 50 metres of stitched cord, and no joins or thread breaks could show. The necklaces are also stitched on the machine, beads and all, and the lace and wire edge and beads on the circular piece - all on the machine. It hurts my eyes, can break needles, takes forever, but I like to push myself and I take huge pleasure in surprising people - like when I put out an internet request for an old suspension coil from a truck, to use for the spring!

I also create daily with food - I resent the time spent in the kitchen as I'm always in the middle of three other projects when it's time to cook dinner, but I am very interested in eating good food. My interest in the traditional and authentic also applies to what I eat - the provenance and quality of ingredients, the effect of diet on health, the classic combinations of flavours. I collect recipes almost more obsessively than I collect fabrics, threads and beads. When I am in France I like to eat local food, prepared in the local traditions - and in Brittany this means seafood, crêpes and caramel - and also seaweed, but not all at the same time! This summer holiday I was very daring and took a soapmaking course using the local seaweeds. I hardly understood a word at the time, but I understood the process.

traditional methods of seaweed harvesting in Brittany

How does my creative process work?

Haphazardly, to be honest. I keep a sketchbook by the side of the bed, and sit up late scribbling designs and annotated drawings of things that have been rattling around in my head. When I'm in the shower, I work out how to construct things - the order of work. When I'm cooking I'm thinking about stitching, and when I'm stitching I'm thinking about cooking. As I explained earlier, I'm forever packing away and re-starting - and I find that very difficult. My dream is to have my own studio, with a door that can shut behind me, and a massive picture window. I would have a sink, a huge table, a dedicated place for painting, glueing, stitching and feltmaking. Oh, and that kiln!

When I am working to a deadline, I will work all hours - from early morning until the early hours of the next morning. I work hard, and I will never ever miss a deadline even if I have to miss sleep. I dream of creating steadily and fluidly all year round, but I've never managed it yet. Writing this blog keeps me on some sort of a schedule, particularly now I've started my Teaching Tuesdays and Five on Fridays - but I think I'll give them a miss this week, as this post is turning out to be so long (you still there?!)

The blog hop continues!

I now pass you on to two very different bloggers. Firstly, Alex at Under a Topaz Sky. Alex is like me in that she is a textile jack-of-all-trades, and a teacher. Unlike me, she still teaches small children and does seem to finish what she starts! I particularly love what she does with slate. It's probably just as well the Breton coastline is granite or I would be doing this to my holiday pebbles. 

My second blog offering is Ingrid Zobel. I met Ingrid in Brittany, and we have been camping next to Ingrid and her family for five years now. Our family have been going to the same place for ten years, and I'm sure Ingrid and her family have been going there for much longer! We first got talking to Ingrid when she confessed that she shared a name with our daughter - much to our embarrassment, after three weeks of nagging "Ingrid"! Unfortunately I don't speak German  - I learnt for two years when I was 12 and could order chocolate cake and ask directions, but I have forgotten almost everything. Luckily, Ingrid speaks very good English! She is a photographer, painter and a sculptor. Her blog is in German, but I find Google translate works very well in these instances.


PS Please also visit my husband's poetry blog. He isn't able to take part in the blog-hop, as he's snowed under with "paid" work, but his poetry is always worth reading.

I also recommend you take a look at my friend Emma's blog for some inspiration from the Isle of Skye, and Alison's wonderfully colourful and uplifting blog.


  1. Goodness, that was all really interesting! It's so interesting to hear your take on the how and why of creativity. I'm still wondering what on earth I'm going to say in answer to some of those questions!

  2. Lovely to read all about you and I can totally empathise with your butterfly mind!!

  3. Lovely post Isobel. We are frighteningly similar in so many ways!

  4. The 'butterfly mind' suits me too, that's why I love your work & laugh at your wonderful sense of humour. Out of creative chaos come beautiful things. You will have your studio one day, I'm sure of it. So delighted you mentioned me, thank you!

  5. That was such an interesting post, well worth the time taken to read it. Thank you for putting so much effort into it.


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