Textile Inspiration – Two Weeks Abroad

Nothing changes you like seeing the world. 

I’m just home from a couple of weeks in England and Ireland, and – if you’ll indulge me – I’d love to share a bit of inspiration in hopes that it might inspire you, as well.

I take pleasure in the strangest things when I travel. I don’t do the typical tourist things because what I care most about are the local foods, the grocery stores (if you want to get to know a foreign place, visit the grocery store or farmers’ market), the off-the-beaten-path exhibits, the floors, the walls, the ceilings… all the odd things. I don’t stand in lines to see famous places or go on travel tours; it’s just not my personality. Instead, you’ll find me wandering around the side roads looking for unexpected details. I want to see the parts of the city you won’t find in a travel book. I want to see it up close, form my own relationship with it.

The School of Art & Design at Nottingham Trent University showcased a small but inspiring collection of designs (final projects from the students). There were a handful of delightfully chunky knits, interesting textural concepts and modern, sporty layers. I loved the variety!

I had the opportunity to speak with the program director from the School of Art & Design and was delighted to hear that they take a special interest in slow fashion, sustainability and responsible sourcing, and that these virtues are an important part of the program they offer.

I loved this interesting display at the Nottingham Yarn Expo (above) by Moel-View Yarn. I apologize if you might have seen this in the Facebook group, but it’s still one of my favorite displays. I love it when vendors share the stories and/or the makings behind the product, don’t you?

Another worthwhile visit in London: The V&A Museum. This charming sweater vest was displayed as part of the Women’s Craft Hour finalists (2017) exhibit at the V&A Museum in London. I could to write a whole blog post (maybe a whole book) about this exhibit, or rather the thoughts this exhibit evoked. We live in such a throwaway society (especially in the United States) and this repaired vest was a poignant reminder to “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”. I was absolutely entranced by those mending stitches.

The V&A also happened to be hosting a textile exhibit in the main part of the museum and I must say – I could have stayed for days. Those of us who are makers have a unique perspective on pieces like these, I think because we understand the time and effort that goes into a handmade garment. Can you imagine adding some of these sorts of details to your work? (The embroidered dress, in the lower right corner, above, had me at hello.)

Imagine my luck when my friend Catrin told me she’d discovered a Kaffe Fassett exhibit at Mottisfont Abbey, just a short drive from her home. The Abbey itself was spectacular, but I was delighted to get to see some of Kaffe’s work in person. What I hadn’t realized is that he has been a prolific quilter and needlepoint artist, as well as a knitter. His work inspired me to think less about the colors that are “supposed to” work together and more about coordinating them bravely – something I’ve (unfortunately) not been very good with up to this point. (Incidentally, I also credit my friend Stasia Savasuk for teaching me this principle, and maybe now it will finally stick.)

These next pieces, below, were discovered on a whim. We’d driven into a little town called Winchester to have lunch at the River Cottage Canteen and I noticed several signs along the road that mentioned an Alice Kettle exhibit. Neither of us knew of Alice Kettle, but curiosity got the better of us and we ventured over to see it.

Alice’s medium is thread, and – what you can’t tell by looking at a distance – every single millimeter of fabric/canvas is covered with thread. Colorful thread. Metallic thread. Heavy thread. Fine thread.

Millions of threads.

The lighting made it difficult to capture some of the pieces up close (they were each so different), but take a look at this one (below):

What was perhaps the most profound moment of this exhibit (and worth the entire visit) was reading a quote from Alice about a transition point in her work. She said, “I do not have to cover the fabric with stitch; I can let each mark breathe. For the first time in 21 years I have liberated the fabric. Does that mean I am liberated too?”

Because I had not been familiar with her work, I had not realized that every single inch of these art pieces had been covered with thread until I saw that quote. I had to go back and take a second look because I had assumed some of the images were fabric appliqued onto the canvas, but no – each and every line, color, and image was made with thread. Whether or not her work was my “style” (it wasn’t), I still felt moved by it, and even more so after reading about her liberation from it; that she was able to let go of her own “rule” and let some of the fabric finally show throw, allowing the stitches to stand apart. It made me think about the rules I’ve made for myself and whether it’s time for any of them to shift. Is there anything in my life or in my work that is ready to be liberated? Art, even art we don’t particularly like, can inspire profound ideas. Perhaps that’s what I love about it. (I’m suddenly reminded of a piece of performance art I saw at the Chicago History Museum several years ago – I absolutely disliked it, and yet it still sticks with me.)

This last piece (above) was from a separate part of the exhibit and was created by an artist named Vanessa Rolf using patched, dyed, repaired cotton and linen that she’d inherited; it’s part of a series called “Poems to the Sea” (I encourage you to read more about this collection – it’s a beautiful and haunting homage). Once again I was reminded of the oft-forgotten value of tattered things, and how meaningful the process of repair can be. I loved how imperfectly perfect this piece was.

Dublin, too, was home to a wealth of textile inspiration. Just look!

And this one (below), well, I couldn’t help it. Sheep are represented frequently around the city and this one (with his pig friend in the window) was too interesting not to share.

No trip is complete without a visit to a few yarn shops (right?), and while I went to a total of three (one in London, two in Dublin) I’m only going to tell you about this one. Why? Because the other two were blatantly unfriendly and I’ve decided they’re not worth mentioning. But This is Knit in Dublin was one of the most absolutely charming shops I’ve ever visited. Lovely selection, charming location and one of the friendliest I’ve been in anywhere. If you are ever in Dublin, you should stop in.

While in Dublin I also had the chance to visit the Trinity College Library (I have no words for this), and had a chance to view The Book of Kells on exhibit there. I wish I could have taken photos of The Book of Kells (they weren’t allowed), but I will tell you I got a very very close look at the scrawl marks on the pages and they were magnificent. What struck me most was the incredible amount of detail and work that went into each page. It was so much more than a way to relay a story; each page was a stand-alone work of art. I walked away thinking about the opportunities we have to make things just a little prettier in our own lives: what we make for lunch, our flower beds, an embroidered throw pillow on the sofa. I find myself putting just a little more time and thought into everything I do.

And lest I forget to show my face in anything, this sums up my general activities: drinking things, eating things, browsing and commuting. (I was so tickled to have lunch at Ottolenghi in London. If you’re a fellow foodie, especially of the vegetarian variety, it’s worth the visit. I can’t stop thinking about the grilled halloumi…)I must also give special thanks to my darling friends Paul & Catrin, whom I first met in Paris nearly ten years ago and who hosted me and acted as tour guides throughout my stay. It’s said that sometimes the family we choose is as important to us as the family we’re from, and I couldn’t agree more.

My takeaways from this adventure are these:

Simplicity doesn’t have to be plain. In fact, sometimes the simplest things are the loveliest.

For God’s sake, slow down a little. The pace in Europe reminds me that my own pace is much, much too quick. Take time to savor things.

… like afternoon tea, which I’m adopting to my routine as a way to pause and check-in with myself each day.

I also found this magazine (local to Dublin) by sheer accident and I’m currently obsessed with it.

Another revelation from this trip, albeit a strange and somewhat delayed one: I came home and stepped into my kitchen to prepare a meal and, like always, drew out a boring plastic cutting board. I stopped and looked at it and wondered why I always use the generic plastic one instead of the beautiful handmade wooden one I bought at the local farmer’s market a few years ago (and why do I even have two? do I need two?). I had a revelation, right there in my kitchen, with a cutting board in my hand. I realized that I’d been afraid to use the “good” one for fear of ruining it. How silly is that? I can’t tell you exactly what it was about this trip that inspired me to make this shift, but I’m happy for it. The plastic cutting board will have to find a new use because it’s been retired from the kitchen, effective immediately.

Last but not least, I’m thinking more than ever about reuse, repair and revitalizing old things rather than replacing them. This is a topic I’ve always been interested in and have tried to incorporate into my life and home, but I’ve realized I could do so much better. It makes you see everything around you differently when you think about its longevity: you’re more careful about what you purchase (choosing quality over quantity) and you’re more creative with what you already have. Sustainability can be sexy, can’t it? (Or at least that’s what I’ll tell myself.)

Are you inspired, too? I hope so!


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