Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Rebecca, Hugo and Tyler celebrate Chinese Moon Festival

This is my friend Rebecca (Ho Chi Wai) and her two beautiful sons Hugo and Tyler as they set off to celebrate the mid-Autumn festival or Moon festival. This is the traditional Chinese harvest festival and it is linked to the autumn equinox - the time when the moon is at it's fullest and roundest.
"We took paper lanterns to Norwood Park and floated them up into the night - but it was too windy and they blew into the only tree around. I was quite scared watching them burn there and the boys got scared too, so we came home."

"I love my boys in these clothes - they look so sweet, but I'm not such a traditional person. I've been raised more in a Western tradition and I married an English man."
"Personally, I feel that the price we have paid for Chinese culture is too high. In China, we have a saying - 'We're proud of our past, ashamed of our present and unsure about our future.'

Rebecca gave me a red silk purse to sew onto my map of patterns. It was given to her son, Tyler when he was born by his grandmother, Pak See. Inside was a tiny silver ankle bracelet with delicate silver bells on it.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The keffiyeh, Intifada and picking grapes in Piedmonte

This weekend, I met Sabrina and Michela. We were working together to harvest grapes, but spent more time eating, drinking and sharing stories. I got chatting to them because they were both wearing the keffiyeh, the traditional headress usually worn by Arab or Kurdish men. The distinctive woven checked pattern of the keffiyeh is very ancient and originally came from Mesopotamia, where it represented either fishing nets or grains of wheat.

Sabrina is wearing the classic black and white check kefffiyeh that became such a symbol of Palestinian resistance and national identity in the late 1980s, during the Intifada or 'shaking off'.
She told me: "Non sono revolutionaria ma simpatizzo," which probably sums up how a lot of people feel about wearing such a powerfully symbolic piece of clothing. Michela wears her scarf not for its 'radical chic' but for its colour, softness, warmth and the fact that it stops her from getting earache. She bought it two or three years ago from H&M children's clothing range.

Today, this symbol of Palestian identity is largely imported from China. The last producer of Palestian-made keffiyehs went out of business in 2006.

On my map, I've sewn a piece of keffiyeh (this one picked up in a New York street market) onto a piece of the Middle East. I'm still struggling with how to reconcile the immense power and significance of this cloth with the fact that it is so ubiquitous and almost meaningless in other ways. But maybe this is the fate of all great symbols.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Finland, munsala folkdrakt and Marimekko

Here is my beautiful friend Karin in the foldrakt of her village Munsala in Northern Finland.

Folkdraft means people's dress. The blue wool of Karin's skirt and waistcoat were handwoven by a neighbour in the village, Aira Mommo and the blouse and embroidery made by her mother Birgit.

Karin wore this costume to local dance competitions, where different villagers can be told apart by the colour of their weave or the embroidery on their shirt. These dances must be a wonderful sight - Karin says the costume is very hot to wear but makes you feel really special. People also wear their folkdraft to weddings and other special social occasions

On my map, I've embroidered some of Birgit's poppy flowers onto a piece of her open work and onto the deep blue Airo's cloth. The rest of Finland (and some of Denmark) is made from the famous and rather ubiquitous Marimekko pattern Unikko or poppy.

It was only as I was sewing that I realised how the flat colouring and bold outline of Maija Isola's design is so obviously inspired by the kind of folkdraft made by Birgit and Airo: they are not infact different patterns but part of one and the same design.

Many thanks to Mikki for giving me her Marimekko bag to cut up.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Spain, Northern Africa and Owen Jones

The pattern I have made for Spain and Northern Africa is based on the designs of Owen Jones, the eminent Victorian designer, who spent nine years studying the architecture and design of the Alhambra Palace at Granada.

I have also included part of the same thing for a tiny piece of London on the map, which marks both where I live and where the Crystal Palace stood.

Jones was absolutely inspired by the Alhambra. He spoke about it as the 'summit of perfection' and promoted Moorish design and architecture through his seminal work The Grammar of Ornament, as well as by actually building a replica copy of the Alhambra Court at the Crystal Palace, which opened in Sydenham in 1854.

One contemporary visitor described visting the Crystal Palace and seeing 'the Alhambra Court, copied from the ruined Moorish palace of this name at Granada in Spain... [the sight] must strike every eye by the gorgeousness of the colouring, the elaborateness of the ornamentation, and the quaint grace of the architectural style.'

At the heart of the Alhambra Court was a copy of the celebrated Fountain of Lions, a magnificent alabaster basin surrounding by 12 lions in white marble. At Granada, the twelve lions had functioned as a clock with water flowing from a different lion each hour, but the Christians who conquered the city took the clock apart to see how it worked and never managed to put it back together again.

The Alhambra Court at the Crystal Palace was burnt down twice - most disastrously in 1936. This second destruction sealed its fate and it never rose from the ashes again. In 1937, some of Jones mosaics were sold as souvenirs at a garden fete in aid of St Philip's Church at Sydenham and, in 2006, some more were discovered at the back of the Park Ranger's Office.

As for the Moors of Granada, who had created 'this summit of perfection,' and a culture which was as thoroughly Arab and Muslim as Cairo or Damascus, they surrendered to the armies of a Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. By the end of the 15th century, some 100,000 moriscos had died or been enslaved, 200,000 had emigrated, and 200,000 remained in Castile. Many of the Muslim elite, including Granada's former Emir Muhammad XII, found life under Christian rule intolerable and emigrated to Tlemcen in North Africa.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Genoa, jeans and the Tree of Life

A few weeks ago, I met Roberta Chioni, a weaver who lives in the hills above Genoa. From the garden of the old hunting lodge where she lives and works, you can see forest and sea and smell the pine trees.
Roberta showed me some of weavings and described her work like this:

“Dentro lo schema ortogonale, necessario e rassicurante, di trama e ordito, muovo i fili per sperimentare le infinite variabili di luce e colore offerte dall’intreccio, per intrappolare nella tela frammenti di storia, personale e collettiva. Compongo materiali lontani tra loro – fibre naturali e pellicola cinematografica, merletti e fotocopie, fili metallici e policarbonato – per ricucire legami e lacerazioni. Spesso la creazione esce dal telaio e ricerca dimensioni spaziali monumentali che dialogano con l’ambiente circostante”.

"Within the necessary and reassuring grid of weft and warp, I move the threads - endless fluctuations of light and colours are offered by the way they interlace; I catch fragments of individual and collective history and trap them in the fabric. I combine different materials – natural fibre and film, lace and photocopies, metal wire and polycarbonate sheets – in order to mend broken bonds and rips. The tapestry often spills out of the loom and goes in search of monumental dimensions which converse with the environment."
Roberta also told me how the most quintessential of Genovese patterns, the 'mezzaro' or Tree of Life, arrived in Italy. These hangings or palampores came originally from India in the 17th century, but were soon adapted to local fashion and tastes and were worn as exotic printed headresses by the best-dressed women in town. They wore the pattern growing up into their hair, sprouting wonderful fruit, birds and leaves. On the best mezzari, you can still see the marks from the hair grease of these incredible 18th century coiffures.

The other Genovese cloth story is that of 'gene' - the original denim which was manufactured here in the 15th century as a working men's fabric, as well as a canvas for painting. We were lucky enough to see some of these ghostly paintings in the Cathedral Museum, executed in white on rough blue canvas. They were recently discovered when an old monastery on the outskirts of town was being refurbished as a home for the mentally ill.
In those days, 'gene' was plain woven and dyed as finished cloth in indigo. It was only when production spread to Nimes, that the warp was pre-dyed - producing 'de-Nimes'. The final metamorphosis of denim came in the 19th century, when American mills began weaving the cloth on a drill or diagonal weave in order to make the fabric stronger.

On my map, I've printed a very small mezzaro onto one of my last remaining pieces of indigo cloth and grown it out of the top of Italy.

I also now have my very own Tree of Life, which my friend Silvia bought for me at a very ancient Genovese cloth emporium. I think I will hang my mezzaro in the house so that we can sew life directly onto it. Thank you Silvia xxxx

Many weeks later, I was cycling rather fast down Gipsy Hill when I spotted this 'mezzaro' hanging upside down in a downstairs window.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Map of patterns - Llamas, Alpaca and Lily Schlaen

This is Lily Schlaen. Her grandparents were Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe but she was born in Rosario, Argentina, the birthplace of Che Guevera.

When I asked her if she could help with my map of patterns, she told me about the sweet smell of alpaca wool, it's silkiness, the earthy colours which remind her of home and most of all its warmth.

"The poncho reminds me of feeling the bitter sweet cold of Cordoba's winter....my family had a little house in the mountains....a place between the Earth and the Heavens....nights of starred skies, the smell of orange peels burnt by my father at the open fire.....galloping wild on the neighbours horse, getting lost and given a fright by the mountains bulls...., visiting my Ukrainian violin teacher, who danced Russian style while playing franticallly the czardas on top of the kitchen table, high on the sharp vodka..."

Lily is a musician and has begun, 'Orquestra Sin Fronteras,' an orchestra without any barriers where people of all ages, abilities and nationalities come together to create beautiful sounds and a common purpose - a bit like the musical version of this map of patterns. Her orchestra is already booked to play at the Olympics in 2012! You can watch them perform on YouTube.

Although Lily has lived in England for a long time, whenever she feels homesick, her mother sends her a poncho or a jersey so that she can wrap herself in the warmth and smells and of home.
I've sewed a piece of Lily's precious alpaca jersey onto South America.

Amazingly it carries the same pattern as a picture I found of an ancient Peruvian embroidery - a procession of llamas and steps.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Map of patterns - Kangas, Shirley Ming and Barak Obama

Here is Shirley Ming wearing a beautiful kanga, bearing the motto:


"On the mountain path, stay true to your meaning/path"

Kanga cloths are all about sending messages - they are the equivalent of greeting cards but their message goes a little bit beyond the normal meaning because they incorporate visual imagery and symbols and come alive when they are worn on the body.

I think you can see in Shirleys kanga that the soft, harmonious colours and the blossoming flowers offer happiness to those who follow the message and stay true to their own path in life.

Shirley is very attached to her kanga and I could never have cut it up to use on my map, so I found another on the internet. It commemorates the election of Barak Obama and celebrates this new bond between Africa and America. It's motto reads:


"God has blessed us with peace and love"


"Good Luck Barak Obama"

Kangas originated on the coast of East Africa in the mid 19th century and on my map I have used my kanga to make the island of Madagascar - you can just see Barak Obamas face peeping out surrounded by black spots.

The spots on the kanga give a clue to its origin: in the beginning kangas were made from
a bolt of spotty handerchief cloth from which single handerkerchiefs were cut off and sold:
ingenious women bought the cloth in lengths of 6 handkerchiefs, then cut the six into two lengths of three, and sewed these together along one side to make 3-by-2 sheet; or bought different kinds of kerchiefs and sewed them back together to make their own unique designs.

The new design was called "leso" after the kerchief squares that had originally been brought to Africa by Portuguese traders. The leso quickly became popular than the other kind of patterned cloth available. Before long, enterprising coastal shopkeepers sent away for special designs, printed like the six-together leso pieces, but as a single unit of cloth.

They are named "Kanga" after the noisy, spotty guinea-fowl bird. Although the kanga design might differ slightly, a typical kanga in East Africa consists of a wider border (Swahili: pindo), the central motif (Swahili: mji), and the writing (Swahili: ujumbe or jina).

These cloths play a very special role in people’s lives, both functional and symbolic, from birth, through courtship and marriage , to old age and death. There is a kanga for every occasion and to convey every shade of meaning.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Wrong side sewing

Here is some sewing I am doing at the moment, inspired by ragbooks and found embroidery.

I am very excited about sewing on one side and then being surprised by what is going on, on the other side when I turn it over.
Sewing simultaneously like this becomes quite an intricate and complex balancing act: the stitch has a prescence on both sides of the cloth - a bit like when a dream comes back vividly to you in the middle of your waking life and penetrates your world suddenly and without any warning - there are several realities existing at the same moment and you're not quite sure which one to follow....

The first two pieces I made for two young boys who died in Gaza during the fighting in 2008. I found this picture of them in the paper - their dead bodies were being carried away by mortuary workers. I studied the details of their clothes and shoes for clues about who they were, but I couldn't find out any more about them - not even their names. They were very beautiful and precious and reminded me of my own boys. I made this so that I wouldn't ever forget them. There is no wrong side or right side.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Map of patterns - Palestine and the impossibility of edges

Here is a picture of me in the West Bank town of Ramallah in 1993. I still have fond memories of my time there and the friends I made.

I've used a piece of indigo-dyed fabric to cover Palestine and Israel and I've embroidered it with a cross stitch pattern copied from a Palestian dress given to me for my 18th birthday.

Palestinian embroiders have a very illustrious history and culture: every region has it's own particular stitches and patterns. The women of Bethlehem area learned the couching stitch from the Crusaders while the women in Jaffa, working in the fields and orchards, used patterns inspired by nature, like the cypress tree. The 'Cypress Tree' occurs in many guises - with or without branches, with different shaped branches, even up side down. (I think you can see this upside down 'Cypress Tree' pattern on my dress)
The women of the villages that remain inside Israel tend to no longer embroider their costumes; but many of the women of the West Bank and Gaza living in refugee camps, especially those of village origin - still embroider their dresses, now as a way of earning an income more than for their own personal use.
The women in Ramallah use a remarkable stitch that is precisely the same when looked at from the front and from the back. You can see from my dress that the work looks very beautiful - even on the wrongside.

I have a great interest in wrongside sewing and am nearly always more interested in 'the back' than in 'the front.' This is because I feel the 'the back' or 'the wrongside' tells me so much more than 'the front' or 'the rightside.'

For example - how the makers fingers travelled, how her mind moved - consciously or unconsciously, where the hidden joins or mends were made...the wrongside gives me clues about how a whole piece of cloth has been divided and then fitted together again and most importantly for me - how the edges have been joined together and made sense of.

This special Ramallah stitch gives nothing away and that is its particular magic.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Map of patterns - Slavery and the price of cotton

The brown fabric is cloth I block printed to show the connections between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. These kinds of cloths are called Indiennes de Traite or 'trade' cloths and were printed in France towards the end of the 18th century. They were traded with African chiefs for slaves, who were then shipped to the New World, to work and die on sugar and cotton plantations.
The cotton was then shipped back to Europe where it was milled, some of it travelling back to Africa in exchange for more human lives.
Many of the motifs on this cloth were made explicitly to suit the tribal chiefs for whom they were intended - red and black was a particularly popular colour combination.

From Senegal, I discovered an indigo-dyed textile with a circular design still known as 'slave shackles.' I made the sample I have used on the map by tightly folding and stiching cotton cloth before putting it in the dye bath. It is not as vivid as the original, but I have used it to cover parts of West Africa. (You can see it in my first post 'Map of patterns - Wax print and Blaudruk).

The history of cotton and slavery is an open book: the greed for cotton in the 19th century was a bit like our obsessive need for oil. Cotton made fortunes, created empires and was bought at any price. In America itself, the price of a slave actually closely tracked the price of cotton - generally the price of a slave was thought to be 10,000 times the price of cotton.
By the second half of the 19th century slavery was illegal in England, but around 80% of the cotton being processed in British mills was produced by slaves. And the legacy of cotton and slavery lives on: much of the cotton we still wear is produced by impoverished share-croppers and child labourers.

My friend Erica Tate told me how once refused to pay to enter the Tate Gallery, because she considered that her and her slave ancestors were honorary Tates and had already contributed enough. Not far from where Erica lives in Clapham, I found this embroidered island of Jamaica. Although I've covered it with trade cloth, you can still look underneath and see the names and places reclaimed by Jamaicans and lovingly embroidered by this unknown hand.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Swatch books of the heart and soul

This is a picture of my cousin, Shayleen, and I in Johannesburg circa 1978. I am wearing a fantastic minstrel's outfit that she has made me out of paper. Although we grew up on different continents and still live at least a continent away from each other, my life is full of her beautiful creations - patchwork quilts, beaded cushions, sparkly lurex ball gowns, bright African print skirts, felted slippers and a soft, green velvet bag that has travelled the world with me.
Shayleen is now in Sydney en route for Bulungula, Transki, South Africa, where she is sewing shwe shwe designs with local women and helping them to earn a living. My memories of her have got me thinking how textile memories are like an immense swatch book of the heart and soul.

Above the picture of Shayleen is a picture of a nineteenth century swatch book. Swatch books developed as a way for textile manufacturers to market their fabrics by collecting samples together and mailing them to subscribers. I've also included a picture of fabrics from my personal swatch book, these include childhood furnishing fabrics, pyjamas I had wonderful sex in, summer dresses I loved and a pair of capri pants which I lived an unforgettable spring.

But most of the fabrics that really matter to me have disappeared and exist only in my mind - a thin cool blue cotton nightie that I ripped on a nail running around the back of our house and which another cousin mended with iron-on red hearts...the smooth pale cream flannel of my mothers’ dress...the smell of my father's cordorouy jacket ... the refuge of an ancient picnic blanket that held the warmth of the sun long after it had faded.... fabrics hold smells and touch in a way that only music can rival for the power and sensuality of the memories they evoke.

And I want my imaginary swatch book to keep on growing and extend way back in time to capture the fabric lives of people far away – like my South African grandmother sewing her wedding trousseau, along with the other office girls, rattling into town on the tram from the seaside bluff where she lived, and my London grandmother spraying fox furs silver in Oxford Street. I am busy imaging the textile lives of their mothers and fathers and aunties and uncles - and building them into a swatch book without end.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Map of patterns - why do dictators hate patterns?

It's been a good week for my map of patterns...a generous mum at my son's school gave me one of her veils or 'niqabs' (destined for the Middle East part of my map or maybe just Thornton Heath), my friend Deborah came back from Serbia and brought me some crochet...a beautiful kanga cloth arrived in the post from Kenya and I spent a wonderful evening with old family friends Sipareth and Nepal Sam hearing their stories about cloth in Cambodia.

Sipareth and Nepal came from Cambodia in the late 1970's, fleeing with their young son from the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. When the regime came to power in the 1975, they declared the return back to Year Zero - basically to a peasant society with no money, eduction, industry or western influence: colour and pattern were strictly forbidden.
Banished from Phnom Phnen to the countryside to work as a peasant, Sipareth described to me how she took her clothes into the fields to dye them black with the bitter berries of the 'macloouer' tree, stamping them underfoot in the mud and leaving them to bake in the sun. Once dry, she would repeat the process over and over again, until her clothes were as black as could be and there was no danger of standing out from the other peasant labourers or being picked out in a crowd.

In 1978, Sipareth and Nepal fled to a refugee camp in the Thai border, where their son Nemonique was born. When I went to see them last week in Croydon, they were preparing for a big family wedding in France, and Sipareth was putting together beautiful silks and woven costumes for all the family. She explained to me the difference between the different kinds of ikat patterns and silks and let me have some precious samples. I left that evening, re-assured that - in this case - colour and pattern had triumphed over evil, but only in the end and at a most terrible price.