Singer

I don’t know how you’d measure this, but I reckon that the most popular subject for sculpture over the years is the human form. As we all have one, the body seems a very natural starting point for exploration. So, if a sewing machine could sew what it liked, would it, too, turn its mind to its own form?

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Leeds Industrial Museum has, within its collection, a number of Singer sewing machines. To me, and to many visitors, they bring back memories. My mother’s sewing machine was a black and gold Singer. Hers was an electric version and I remember the post-war brown Bakelite foot pedal but lots of visitors remember treadle and hand versions too. On display are a clutch of industrial machines – longer in the body and sleeker than their domestic counterparts, with less decoration, it is easier to admire their stripped back form.

P1000206So, where to start?

First with the sketch book and a tape measure to take some vital statistics.

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To convert this into three dimensions, I would need first to construct a tailor’s dummy. Fun with papier mâché ensued.

sinb And then to calculate the intricacies of the balance wheel.

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Once I had the dummy I would work out how best to cut the pieces of felt. The first stage was to cut toile pieces out of old shirt cotton, then a version out of commercial felt to work out how the seams and darts would work. Eventually card pattern pieces emerged for the main machine body.

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I then needed to look at the details. Some of the more intricate parts like the needle and presser foot took me back to my sketchbook.

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And then to drawing more, smaller pattern pieces.

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But it paid off in the complexity of construction.

sinlBefore joining the seams, I needed to add as much of the free motion embroidery as possible while the pieces were flat and also add smaller parts as long as they didn’t get in the way of the seams. This was the fun bit.

The lettering on the top was a bit of a challenge, but I was pleased to revisit gothic script. As a child I had an old copy book and used to delight in practising different lettering forms.

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Gothic was my favourite, so when I came to sew it, it was very familiar.

Once all the details were done, it was time to sew up some of the seams – and things began to take shape. I had the option of stuffing or stiffening to add sufficient strength and decided on Paverpol fabric stiffener painted on the inside. A messy process!

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The tailor’s dummy came back into use to shape the machine while the stiffener dried.

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It only remained to make the base plate, assemble the machine and have fun with some accessories.

I can’t wait to see this one take its place in the museum alongside its black and gold siblings!

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Hand in hand

I love to watch hands at work and I know my own hands best, so they often crop up in my work. I practised the hand positions I needed – the piecers’ hands cupped and supporting of the delicate fibres they were tasked to mend and the harpists hands, thumbs bent, braced against the strings, sinuous and contorted. These differences were turned on their head in my perception of the nature of the work they did – piecing was hard, pressured, monotonous and dangerous…and harp playing evoked gentility, ethereal melody and the touch of angels.

I wanted to create a delicate cobweb felt effect which would contrast with the metal frame and suggest fleeting movement and a lack of permanence, visible, but translucent against the light from the window. I looked at various wools to use but settled on Wensleydale, mostly for its curl but also for the Yorkshire connection.

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Initially I thought of working around a 2-D resist but the position of the hands meant that this would have been difficult to achieve in such a delicate felt. So…back to the aluminium mesh I had used for the Doffer and the Fancy.

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And I needed a model, willing to be wrapped, at least partially, in aluminium mesh. Piecing was very largely women’s work, but I needed to upscale a little so the hands were to scale on the frame. So a male model would be better. Jon stepped up to the challenge!

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First to create the basic form:

Then to free the model:

And finally to reshape:

Cobweb felting around the mesh hands was a delicate business, needing little fibre and a lot of soap in the process. There was something very intimate, though, in this felting process – the gentle caressing of the fibres around the form, massaging the soft and delicate skin over the taught framework of metal – bone, muscle, tendon and ligaments – the holding of these fragile hands.

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I had initially intended the mesh to be a temporary mould. Then I would slit the felt along the inner arm, the wrist, flay the hands and then refelt to mend the raw edges. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Justification for not cutting came quickly to mind – leaving the frame in would mean I had fewer problems to overcome in fixing the hands in place, and would mean I didn’t have to stiffen them, and the aluminium form would catch reflected light through the fragile skin. If I’m honest though, these were just fortunate side-effects – I had just become too attached to the hands to be that brutal.

I’ll be attaching the hands to the frame nearer to installation so watch this space for photos of the finished piece.

For now though, here’s a lovely film, courtesy of Leeds Industrial Museum, showing the spinning mule and the headstock in glorious action. Watch carefully and you’ll see some piecing too!

The Harpist and the Piecer

A long vista of vibrating cords extends, lengthening then shortening as the spinning mule works its magic, and twists the wisps of carded wool into a strong yarn. For me, watching the machine in action, always conjures the image of a stringed instrument – a piano or harp maybe.

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Watching the demonstration of the job of the ‘piecers’,  I couldn’t help but admire the dexterity of their hands and shiver at the danger – the risk of accident and loss. It was the piecer’s job to watch for broken threads and to dip their hands between the moving carriage and the spindles, to retrieve the broken ends and to hold them between fingers and thumb in a cupped palm until the twist caught and bound the ends together again.

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The same dexterity as a harpist….but with the dark threat for those who were not quick or skilled enough.

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How to capture this impression?

Thinking how to unite the two, I linked the shared skill of the women’s hands…and they were usually women in both cases. Could I portray them both in the same piece? How to unite the horizontal strings of the mule, with the verticality of the harp?

I started to sketch…

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And then to model…

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And then to realise that I had designed something beyond my skillset…

I couldn’t make all of this out of felt…

the hands, yes,

the frame, no.

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I went back to the museum. Standing any piece anything near the mule would be tricky as it is a working machine. I looked around…and then up. There was a dark corner, back lit. I had found a site

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I’d need to ask to move a few things, and  the piece would need to be large enough to hold its own, and need to hang, not stand. What is more, I would need help!

I’d never looked to collaborate like this before and the thought of taking my rather odd idea and my little Blue Peter-esque maquette to anyone and saying, ’I need one of these, can you make it?’ seemed utterly bizarre. But it’s amazing how connections are made and things happen and soon I was on my way to see Nigel Tyas in Penistone who works in metal and also happens to be married to Elizabeth who donated the wool for Creel. Small and very creative world!

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Nigel was great, didn’t flinch at my scrappy model, asked a few questions about measurements and requirements, explained a few options, did the thinking he needed to do and agreed to take it on.

Nigel and his team set to work,

A couple of months later, and well before my deadline, I went to collect.

The frame, lying still shrouded in pallet wrap and filling the sitting room, was better than I had dared to hope.

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Now, my part… to make the hands!

Caged in

Amassing components for my Headstock I realized that I had two conflicting ideas for this piece. On the one hand I wanted to expand the mechanism and free it from its compression, on the other I wanted to keep it contained. After much research into support options and regret that I don’t have welding skills, I came across the gabion – a flat-packed, steel mesh cage designed to be put together and filled with rocks for landscaping purposes. The mesh was strong enough to support the reclamation yard finds, but thin enough not to dominate.

 

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I started playing with positioning the three main axles so that there was interest from each side.

And then adding felt elements to them and considering the space as a whole. There were various configurations and it felt like moving furniture into a new house and then deciding which spaces were cluttered and which looked bare and needed more interest.

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Complex plans began to emerge, and not for the first time, did I feel that CAD skills might have been helpful!

head sketchbook

A friend popped in and asked me if it was going to ‘work’ as a machine. I was flattered by his ambition for the piece – it wasn’t possible..welll…not in the time scale for this exhibition…but it made me look at ways to link some of the elements and I returned to an earlier idea of felting drive belts.

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I knew where this piece was to be positioned in the museum, and was keen for people to move around it in a way they cannot move around the actual headstock. That brought other considerations. Firstly that there should be elements which lead the viewer round from one face of the cage to the next.

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And secondly that there should be holes in the cage to draw the viewer in to the internal life of the machine and also to allow the ‘machine’ to burst out in places. Holes needed to be positioned carefully so as not to compromise strength where it was needed. Thus far, the cage had only been held together with twisted metal foodbag ties, so dismantling was easy. Four hours in the sunshine with a hacksaw gave me the alterations I needed…and a few blisters.

Putting it back together needed a more permanent solution than foodbag ties! I wanted strength without too much bulk. In terms of appearance also some textural interest would be good and I needed to lose the incongruous shiny silver colour. After much thought, experimentation and a high dose of inspiration from one of my sculptural heroes, Phyllida Barlow, I gathered ammunition.

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So I bound the edges with gardening wire, bound them with plasterers’ jointing mesh and added bonding plaster.

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Once that was dry, time to undercoat, spray and hand paint to distress.

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Process heavy, but worth the result!

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Time to reassemble now, to balance felt with metal, reconsider flow, work on the finer details and consider how to make it safe and durable for inquisitive little visitors’ fingers.

Still some way to go…but it’s coming together!

Danger: moving parts!

Today I’d like to introduce you to another favourite machine. Where the carding machine is huge and imposing, the headstock of the spinning mule is relatively compact, but packs a punch!

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Intricate and somehow compressed, it is one of the densest agglomerations of working parts in the textile mill. Its complexity draws me it. What do all these parts do?

The spinning mule has a complicated action, the carriage moves back and forward extending the slivers of wool in a rippling surface of vibrating fibres, the bobbins spin and the fallers drop down alarmingly. All this, and more, is governed by the headstock.

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In action the noise is phenomenal.

I find it fascinating to watch both working and at rest. It is dark and oily and difficult to make out one element from the rest. My eyes wander from one component to the next trying to follow the transfer of movement from vertical to horizontal back to vertical, from cog to cog to bevel gear to wheel to chain.

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There are beautiful forms here and fascinating interactions. I’ve lived in Wakefield, home of both Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, long enough now to have been infused with the joy of the ‘pierced form’ – of catching sight of more distant elements framed by those nearer to you.

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Wise safety precautions at the museum frustrate the desire to be able to walk around the headstock and see the perspective change.

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How wonderful it would be to be able to expand this… in the manner of Cornelia Parker’s exploded shed (Cold Dark Matter 1991) and see the components in isolation, displaced yet together.

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My plan for my headstock piece was to isolate some of my favourite elements and re-imagine them in felt. Visibility is an issue with the machine because all the parts are black and oily and only seen through the safety grille.

Initially I had thought of an explosion of colour for this piece,

hs red cog

but then decided that this would result in more confusion, so I pared it back to natural, white wools, mostly merino with some silk blends to add sheen and some subtle stitching and the contrast of rust coloured dyeing.

hs rust dyeing

I wanted to set the felt against metal to bring in one of the pervasive contrasts of the mill between hard and soft. Rummaging around at the amazing Dragon Bridge Reclamation  in Leeds, I found some enticing rusty metal parts– function unknown to me, but ideas began to form. What  I couldn’t work out was how to hold it all together – I didn’t want the rusty metal to act just as a support structure.

hs rusty parts

One thing I’ve learnt with this project is that the answers do not come all at once.

Sometimes you just have get on with the ideas you have and trust that a master plan will emerge.

So I tried not to think of the whole piece and just got on with the fun of exploring ways of felting components.

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Next time: fitting it all together!

Welcome to the House of Art!

It’s almost exactly one year since I moved into my studio at The Art House, Wakefield, and what a year it’s been! I thought I’d show you around a bit, and introduce you to a few people, as this wonderfully creative place has been hugely important in lots of different ways in helping me to put my exhibition together.

We’d better start with my studio.

The Studio Here’s what it looked like on the first day when all I had was a couple of plants and a concrete floor. I worried that the cheese plant and I would need more light!

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Then I acquired some furniture – a table for felting, a desk for sewing and some shelves for storage.

studio day b12 months on and I seem to be filling the place…despite initial concerns both I and the cheese plant are thriving! Things are likely to get a bit more congested as the exhibition approaches and the sculptures come together…but then they’ll all move to the museum…and there will be space to breathe!

studio panoramaIt’s wonderful to be able to leave projects out and come back to them the next day. My exceedingly tolerant family would say I do that at home anyway! But I can’t avoid the feeling that it shouldn’t be that way, that we shouldn’t have to eat our meals sharing the kitchen table with my latest half-finished creation. In the studio, space and function are streamlined.

Having the physical studio space has been very important but so has the headspace. When I come here, my mind is on my work and there is space to experiment. I thought for a long time that I liked running my business from home and that I didn’t want to go ‘out’ to work. But I realized early last year that I wanted to think a bit more about my work and that it was time for a change.

Focus comes more readily here.

It was a good decision.

A creative place Let me show you around a bit. Established in 1994 by a group of disabled and non-disabled artists, the original Art House, right in the heart of Wakefield, was custom built with fully accessible facilities.

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Then, when the old Drury Lane library closed next door, the Art House expanded into that building – my studio is in what used to be the basement book store.

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Things have continued to develop and over the last couple of years parts of the building have opened to the public much more.

So, we have a reception desk – here’s Lois who is one of the team ready to welcome visitors and the beautiful desk was created by two studio holders, Annie and Chris http://www.artistyoke.com

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We have exhibition spaces where visiting residency artists, and sometimes studio-holders have exhibitions. At the moment we have an exhibition by artist Tony Heaton http://www.tonyheaton.co.uk

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The exhibitions change regularly as do the residency artists and it’s lovely to meet them, to chat, exchange perspectives, learn from each other. Some are young, some are older, some experienced, some just starting out, some from the UK and some from overseas. They are a great part of the life here.

There’s also a wonderful Italian café – Laura’s at The Art House – delicious coffee and very tempting cakes and savoury bakes all handmade by the lovely Laura. @LaurasatTAHWakefield

And we have The Art Shop where studio holders and members sell their work.

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There’s also a print studio with printmaking equipment, presses, and space to get inky, knowing there is expert help on hand.

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There is also an amazing programme of courses, mostly for different printmaking techniques but other things too. I’m really excited to have booked onto an etching course in August – love learning new things! If you’d like to know more about courses, check out the website – http://www.the-arthouse.org.uk

art house workshops

Unlike some studio complexes which are artist led, The Art House is managed by the staff team – here they are hard at work in the office! From this room, exhibition programmes are planned, funding sought, residencies organised and supported, events and activities marketed, rooms booked out, finances kept in order, the Wakefield Artwalk is organised from here every other month,  Open Studios twice a year, alongside a whole programme of workshops and community activities. The Art House is also the first official UK ‘Studio of Sanctuary’ offering, space, support and a friendly welcome to artists who are refugees or asylum seekers.

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The staff have been invaluable to me with the exhibition in so many ways – firstly by giving me the kick up the backside to make an exhibition proposal and then in helping me through the other things you have to think about – funding bids, marketing, blog writing, when to do what, how to find a metalsmith and the myriad technical things which terrify me…how do I download a font/ what’s a png/ is rasterizing bad for my health/ why has my cursor changed into three pointy fingers/ how do I embed stuff/ why doesn’t this work? Where feltmaking is concerned, I’m on terra firma – but 10 minutes of poster design with Photoshop and I’m a gibbering mess. Yet, despite their heavy workload, the staff always treat my questions with patience, respect and good humour. Thanks guys!

The dog- friendly office – there are three dogs currently on the staff – has also been therapeutic for my life-long fear of all things canine. I’m not saying I’m cured…but let’s say the aversion therapy hasn’t been as traumatic as Photoshop!

Also this is Garry, the buildings supervisor, who knows the ins and outs of the Art House’s many nooks and crannies and keeps the idiosyncrasies of this quirky complex in working order. He’s also just cut me a base for my Headstock sculpture out of some unwanted MDF screens which were lurking in a darkened room, so I’m very happy!

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Creative People The Art House has nearly 50 studios and houses around 80 artists, makers, and creative businesses.

Just to give you a taste, here are a few people who were in their studios when I went round with my camera earlier this week:

Nick Vaughan is my next door studio neighbour – he is a visual artist currently working in plaster on a piece that will be cast in concrete and on show at the Patchings Festival in Nottingham in May. http://www.nickvaughan.org

One very tasty advantage of meeting Nick is that his wife Alexandra Vaughan runs a micro-bakery near our home http://www.thecrowsrestbakehouse.co.uk. Possibly….no definitely… the best hot cross buns I’ve ever tasted (and I’ve tasted quite a few!!!!)

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Ellie Way is a freelance printmaker and display artist. As well as having a studio for her own printmaking, she helps other printmakers as a print technician and also runs the Art Shop helping the studio holders to present and sell their work. When I popped in she was making a card display rack for the shop. http://www.way-welivehere.co.uk

P1010080Jim Souper  is a photographer, who is often off on his travels with his camera and exhibits around the UK – you can see his amazing, atmospheric work on his website. http://www.jimsouper.co.uk

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Helen Thomas is a visual artist, working mostly in paint. I love her curiosity for plants which grow in neglected, marginal spaces. At the moment she’s exploring different surfaces for her work and preparing for exhibitions and projects this summer. Helen also teaches workshops and delivers community projects – busy lady! http://www.toastedorange.co.uk

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Mo Barrangi is an amazing printmaker and illustrator. He has developed a unique printmaking style and exhibits and wins prizes all over the world. http://www.mobarrangi.com

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Mary Duggan is a jeweller who sells her work in galleries all around the country. She’s just back from exhibiting at the British Craft Trade Fair and here she’s busy making a new range of memorial lockets. http://www.contrarymary.co.uk

This is just a little selection – there are other visual and graphic artists, printmakers, a historical costumier, a tailor, a clothes designer and more, young and old, straight from college, too-old-to-remember-college, early career of all ages, more experienced.

The great thing about being here with them is the sharing and the inspiration. Learning from other people, seeing new ways, developing understanding, listening, laughing, supporting, being supported. It’s a great place to be.

Happy 1st anniversary to me and my studio!

I wonder what the future will hold.

But for now, I have an exhibition to prepare!

Why put art in an industrial history museum?

Installing an artwork actually on a piece of equipment from the museum’s collection of machinery brought this question to the fore. I didn’t want to obscure the creel frame or distract from it. On the other hand, as an artist, my principal function wasn’t to educate – the museum does this well itself. I did want to celebrate this often-ignored piece of equipment and to encourage people to look at it closely, to enjoy it and maybe in so doing also to understand a little of what role it played. So my bobbins take the form of the functional bobbins, and the creel is rigged up as it would have been. Beyond that, in this piece, the joy of colour and texture is the driving force.

The wooden frame of the creel is a beautiful deep auburn.blog 4

The colours around the mill outside are constantly changing – greens, oranges, browns, blues, yellows.

blog 5It was time to get the dye pots out!

dye pots

I used acid dyes, so-called because they rely on a vinegar soak to facilitate the chemical bond with the dyes. So for a few days the house smelled like a pickling factory but I chose my days when the door was open and there were drying possibilities in the garden.

I soaked the bobbins six at a time, dyed each one individually, fixed them in the microwave, rinsed them until my fingers turned green

and then dried them, first in the garden,

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then they took over the airing cupboard,

airing cupboard

and then the radiators.

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After four days of this, I had multi-coloured hands…but also a 130 bobbin rainbow !

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Another day of dyeing saw the Blue faced Leicester roving ready to be bundled into 130 5m lengths.

Time then to unite the two elements, to see each bobbin again as an individual in the crowd, to hold it, reform it in part with the felting needle, reveal the colours of the core wool under the light felting of the Bergschaf and add stitch.

 

After the frenzy of the dyeing days, this is slow, careful, gentle work. A few each day in the evening and the hope that it will all be finished by June!

The need for photos for a copy deadline for a feature in Felt Matters, the journal of the International Feltmakers Association, meant I took some of the bobbins to the museum and installed them on the creel for a photoshoot. I was both nervous and excited to see whether it would look how I imagined…

One happy felter!