Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Textile Tuesdays : #20 - Needlecraft in an Expo Hall

This Tuesday I am going to post another chapter out of my book on my adventures exploring fiber arts and textiles while living in London 10 years ago. It is a long chapter but I hope you will enjoy the humor and details about London. ...

When I first saw the posters hanging around town for the Creative Needlecraft and Home Decorating Show I was excited. However, I was also a little unsure of what it would actually amount to. The term “needlecraft” can be used to cover so many things. There are so many different categories and quite a range of creativity and skill in each one. I decided that regardless, I needed to go and at least have a look at what the term meant in this particular, English case.

My own experience with needlecrafts had been long and varied. My mother and favorite aunt had always sewn, out of necessity, knitted and crocheted for pleasure. When I was about seven years old, one of my brothers taught me how to use a sewing machine. We had my mom’s old electric as well as an antique kick machine in the basement and I used to practice making doll dresses in that dark, cool solitude. It was a good way to get away from hot, humid, Michigan summers and the commotion of my big family. My mother gave me scraps of fabric and yarn from projects that she had completed and I would use them in imaginative ways practicing sewing and embroidery.

My father’s mother was from Ireland where she had learned to knit and she taught it to me. Throughout my childhood, I would go with a sister or cousin and stay with my grandparents for a week twice a year. They lived in an old neighborhood in Detroit in the house in which my dad had been born. My Grandpa tended to his giant tomatoes and carrots and gave us pennies for each bug that we picked off a plant. My Grandma had old dresses and a fox stole that she let us use for dress up. They told us stories of leprechauns and fed us oatmeal with buttermilk. I always sat and knitted with my Grandma making little squares of different colors that she said she would sew into a blanket.

Over the years I got better and better at my various crafts and eventually made my own clothes and sweaters. I also did crewel and regular embroidery, needlepoint and doll making. I gave away pillows, pictures, or stuffed toys as gifts. I even sold three of my handmade rag dolls at a craft show in Pennsylvania when I was only eleven years old. I had been visiting my older sister who was living the hippie life on a farm there. That summer I learned about craft fairs, and many other things that I cannot mention. Ironically, or maybe not, I came back to making and selling rag dolls when I was in between college and graduate school. I had my own line of one of a kind art dolls that I sold and galleries and street fairs for three years.

While I was working on my own art, selling, keeping or giving it away, I was immersed in that world. I was inspired and influenced by artists and craftspeople all around me. I also read and learned about artist’s lives, about histories and techniques that I hoped to someday try. I had already scratched the surface of so much of needle arts and it was a twisted path that had led me to the exploration of it in England.

My experience with this show was suitably surreal. It was to be held at a huge new exhibition center on the River Thames. Slightly out of town, it required travel on the tube and light rail train – all together one hour from my door to the show. I left the girls at home with David and set out on an unusually sunny day. I had clear directions but I felt I was venturing into the unknown. In the first place, I was going completely on my own which I rarely did. Secondly, I had never been on the light rail and had never been in that part of London. One thing you soon realize about London and the people in London is that the neighborhoods are very separate from each other and long time Londoners are quick to admit that they rarely or never go beyond their well-worn path. In my short time there I had picked up this habit and I could understand its logic.

Having said that, I got out of the train amid impoverished looking blocks of flats and old warehouses, and was taken aback by the enormous, shining Excel Center. The pathways from the train to the entrance were clearly marked and the way in was also obvious from the flow of the crowd of people. I looked around noticing a funny thing about that crowd. There was an unusual amount of men and many of them were wearing leather. I thought that these women were lucky to have such agreeable partners that were willing to go to a needlecraft show. Inside, I soon realized my mistake. The vast space was large enough to host three or four shows at once and there was a motorcycle show underway in the hall across from the one I was going to. That hall was filled with metal, black leather and mostly men.

I went into the appropriate hall reminding myself of my mission: to survey the range of needlecraft offerings and to get information on fiber arts resources in Great Britain. I was also hoping to get inspiration from the best that the show had to offer. I had high expectations. I was looking for things that were high quality and artistic, involving skilled technique and, above all, for me, creative and original ideas. I love to get inspired by work that uses age-old craft infused with new ideas (or at least new life in an old idea).

As I squeezed through packs of mostly women, I was able to do an overview scan of the trends and variety of booths. By the end of the day, I was only able to find three or four things that were remarkable and valuable to me. This was at least something, but I saw when I walked in, that I was going to have to lower my hopes and do some searching.

There were loads of booths displaying and selling cross stitch and needlepoint kits and I was actually surprised at how crowded they all were. Obviously, these crafts were very popular. At a quick glance, one would have thought it was a big cross-stitch show. I didn’t like this disproportioned presentation since there are so many forms of needlework and the variety makes up the richness of the field. For my interests, I don’t find mass produced kits as inspiring as original work. However, some are quite beautiful and I do admire the work that goes into them. Unfortunately, all these kit booths took space away from exhibitions of knitting, weaving, or quilting. Two or three or six or seven of these booths would have been totally appropriate and worthwhile, but there were way too many.

What bothered me even more than that was the presence of booths selling magic markers, stickers, fuzzy pens, and cheap clothing accessories. About one third of the space was taken up by junk that had nothing to do with needlecraft or home decorating. There were also several booths under the category of equipment, demonstrating and selling sewing machines, lights, frames, computer programs and scissors. These were useful, but uninteresting to me at that moment. I kept trying to filter all this out and look for inspiring things. A little voice in my head was saying, “blah, blah, blah, don’t waste your time on crap, find the good stuff”.

As I walked through the crowds looking for an open space to breath, I came to a clearing at the back of one row. There I saw a small booth displaying beautiful sweaters and a couple of quilts. The Rowan Yarn Company was there and I walked over to talk with the representative. “Finally, something worthwhile!” I thought to myself. The excitement and surprise of seeing the actual people and products behind the books that I had admired and used made me a little flustered. The woman was very nice and welcoming. There was no one else at her booth and I wondered if she thought as I did, that we were coming to a different sort of show. She showed me the sweaters and told me where I could find their products in London. She also told me about their new books and workshops on quilting. The quilts hanging up were from the books and designs of Kaffe Fassett. Kaffe Fassett is an amazing textile designer/fiber artist who I have idolized for years. He does embroidery, needlepoint, knitting, fabric design and quilting. His works were as stunning in real life as they are in the photos I had seen in books.

I wanted to ask her what she thought of the show, how she came to be a Rowan designer, what role she thought Rowan played in the fiber arts trends in Great Britain. Since her booth was the first thing I had seen that really grabbed my attention, I wanted to stand and chat. I felt like a little kid wanting to say, “will you be my friend?” The fact that we were both grown women and that the English are often more reserved with strangers than Americans tend to be, made me choose restraint and I decided to be friendly but formal and brief. I told her that I was currently working on a Rowan sweater, asked for a packet of information about their suppliers and their workshops (which were held regularly) thanked her, and went on my way.

The next great thing that I saw was the International Felt-makers Guild. They had a display of handmade felt done in three different and original techniques. One had been dyed and then bleached to create a pattern on it. Another was made of small pieces of felt quilted together. And one piece had flax, lace and other fibers felted into it. There was a felt making demonstration underway at the booth, and they had books and posters and information sheets about felt making and about the guild. The ideas were new, imaginative and beautiful. They were executed with simple and age-old techniques, using quality materials. The woman, with long curly gray hair (reminiscent of a clump of angora fleece) was very friendly and encouraged me to attend some of their workshops. She even offered to pick me up at the train station since they were being held in Surrey. I did not take her up on this as I felt I had too many kettles boiling already and this would have been a new endeavor for me. I put it on my list of things to do in the nebulous future.

Further down the rows, I got a good grin and giggle out of the British Millinery School booth. They had a display of gorgeous, wild hats – so British! They even had one that was made of white straw with little hats plopped all around the brim and one on top, presumably for display only. It was interesting to see their selection of basic molds and their lists of individual head and hat measurements. A friend told me that if you have a custom hat made, they save your measurements in a book then you can always have other hats made that will fit you just right. Even though this would solve, once and for all, my problem of hats being too small on me, I could not imagine having a personal hat maker. I did love the fact that a person could go to a special school and have a respectable career as a high-class hat maker, even though it may not be something that a high-school career counselor would recommend. The exhibit was also highlighting the trend in the wearing of tiaras for brides as well as other formal occasions. This booth had the combination of complete seriousness and all out flair. As I walked on, I began feeling a little more satisfied with my decision to go to this show.

I gradually noticed among the aisles that embroidery was a major theme. In addition to all the cross-stitch, there was quite a range of technique and expression at many other booths. Several women had done watercolor on fabric then stitched images over the color. Some were landscapes or florals while others were abstract designs. These were beautifully done and deserving of the category of art.

The whole range of individual expression in embroidery was very nicely represented in a project put together by various UK Embroidery Guild branches. It was called Rainbow Squares. Each branch chose a color and each member did whatever image and method of stitching they liked on a four by four square. There was smocking, crewel, appliqué and beadwork. Designs ranged from traditional to abstract. The pieces were all lined up in rows according to color like a rainbow. The overall effect did look unfortunately a bit like a group project. However, the individual artistic expressions, one after the other, were really impressive. I personally liked one with pink background covered in little pink flowers and the sea green fish appliquéd on sea green fabrics. I wished I had had my camera because there were lots of good ideas. In fact, I think they should photograph close ups of the squares and make an embroidery sampler book.

The Embroidery Guild’s booth did have loads of wonderful books on all subjects having to do with fiber art. Looking at them, I couldn’t decide which way to go: quilting, textile printing, or embroidery. So I made a list of titles and wrote down their website. One that I wanted was called Conversations With Constance about Constance Howard. In her photo on the cover she had long gray hair dyed turquoise! The embroidered images inside were whimsical and original. There were images of girls and flowers that had the look of the 1960’s about them. It was a style that I am particularly drawn to because it seems so free and fun loving. Who was this amazing woman, I wondered.

My head was full of images, thoughts, and ideas as I wound my way out of the exhibit hall. I added research on Constance Howard and embroidery to my list of things to do. I know that it is a long list that, because of my curiosity and love of all things fiber, continues to grow faster than I can get through it. However, needlework has taught me patience and I have faith that, little by little, I will get through my list and maybe even have some good finished products to show for it. Maybe I will even dye my hair turquoise when it turns gray.


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