Monday, 21 May 2012

The finished article

Now I only need to stitch the framing statement and the bibliography to go in the pockets of the front and back inside cover, and On Being Soft will be ready to present.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

"Goodbye darling, goodbye".

Here for your viewing pleasure is the final completed page of On Being Soft.

In this page, I wanted to allude back to the Lily van der Stokker quotation which I used on the very first page of the book.

I decided to explore the theme of sentimentality listed in the van der Stokker quote.

I also wanted to reference the many handkerchiefs I have used throughout the book. This choice meant that this page would have a strong relationship with the first completed page, with its handkerchief about crying.

The text about handkerchiefs embroidered on to this final page reads "They absorb tears, mucus. They could be a white flag, a token of love, a flutter accompanied by "Goodbye darling, goodbye darling, goodbye"."

The significance of the image of a tunnel embroidered on to the page's pocket becomes apparent once the viewer reads the text and looks at the image embroidered on to the handkerchief folded inside it.

The text reads "The woman standing down the platform from me waved the train all the way out of the station. It was very beautiful and very sad."

This was once texted to me by my boyfriend after he waved me off at Paddington Station. The woman's actions clearly matched his sentimental mood!

The tunnel on the pocket is thus a train tunnel down which has disappeared the train the woman was waving to.

The text is accompanied by the silhouette of a woman in Victorian garb waving a handkerchief - making this a sort of meta-handkerchief!

Tomorrow I will post photographs of the completed book.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Skin and Silk

Here is page seven of On Being Soft, about sensuality (one of the qualities of women listed by Lily van der Stokker in the quotation of hers I stitched) and the feminine form. I stitched a sketchy nude from a life drawing I did at A Level (I seem to be recycling a lot of my Art and Photography A Level work!).

The life drawing
The life drawing translated to stitch

I chose orange/magenta two-tone rough silk for the curved pocket, for its sensual lustre. Inside the pocket is a departure from all the handkerchiefs I've been embroidering recently. To go with the themes of sensuality and sexuality, I wanted to explore "pillow talk" - through "talking pillows"!

The conversation is an exchange between a man and a woman - lovers. Whilst lying in bed together, the woman says "I like your lines", and the man replies "I like your curves".

The words are stitched on to speech bubbles blanket-stitched on to one side of the miniature pillows.

I was recently interviewed about my work by a journalism student, and when I mentioned to her that I was making On Being Soft, she mentioned that the word "soft" made her think of the female body.

One final page to go and then it's time to put the book together!

The Return of the Repressed

Last Thursday evening I went to the talk How Does Textile Work? at the Freud Museum. The talk centred on the current Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the museum, The Return of the Repressed.

In my previous post on Bourgeois, I mentioned that "The return of the repressed" is one of only two segments of text printed on to pages of Bourgeois' fabric book, Ode à l’Oubli.

The talk was by art historian Claire Pajaczkowska, whose essay Tension, Time and Tenderness: Indexical Traces of Touch in Textiles I am currently reading for research.

Pajaczkowska began her talk by saying that Bourgeois came to textiles at the beginning and end of her life; she grew up in a family tapestry-restoring business, and created works from a lifetime's archive (or hoard) of clothes and domestic textiles in her final years. Bourgeois was interested in different types of threads; fibre threads, threads of drawing, threads of writing. Threads were woven into the search for her own identity. She was fascinated by the alchemy of tapestry and the repairing process; she once said that she "always had a fascination with the needle, the magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair the damage."

The name "Louis" (or Louise) was a narrative thread running through the Bourgeois family; her grandfather and father were both named Louis, and her son Jean-Louis. Pajaczkowska remarked that the "e" which turns "Louis" into "Louise" is like a thread going back on itself, going back on a memory.

Pajaczkowska spoke of how the textile is an agent of boundaries which delineates; for example the boundary between clothes and naked skin, between the public and the private. She sees thread as a metaphor for filial relations, as in the threads of a family tree. She spoke of webs and networks as being the privilege of textiles.

Kristeva's theory of the abject, which I have recently been struggling with, came up in the conversation. Bourgeois would go to the meat market and buy huge haunches of meat which she would cast in plaster and then in latex. Rotting flesh is considered abject - it was once alive and now isn't, reminding us of our own mortality. Pajackowska argued that an untitled piece in the exhibition, a hanging slab of meat with genitalia and breast-like protusions, was more challenging than Bourgeois' latex pieces, due to the familiarity and domesticity of the pink towelling it is made from. In fact, the domestic materials Bourgeois used, constructed using child-like techniques, could be considered the opposite of the "serious" art world. Bourgeois operated beyond "taste", and there is a horror (or abjection) of this for the art world. The domestic materials, combined with the crude finish/stitching may horrify "fine" artists. Pajackowska spoke about the "seemingness" of the seams of Bourgeois' work.

The other major theme of Pajaczkowska's talk was that of "holding", both with the hands, and that of immaterial, conceptual containers. All textiles have a tactile quality, but many of the pieces in the exhibition had a particularly touchable quality; I wanted to hold them but couldn't due to the ettiquette of the gallery visit.

 Untitled, 2001, fabric and aluminium. Similar to the fabric heads in the exhibition at The Freud Museum.
Stitches hold everything together (back to the reparative power of the needle again).

The child psychoanalyst DW Winnicott came up with a concept of holding, which he saw as an important component of a mother caring for her child. This "holding" is explored in Bourgeois' piece The Dangerous Obsession, which depicts a cloth woman holding an orb which could represent a new-born child. The pair are enclosed within a glass dome, perhaps demonstrating their all-absorbing relationship. The title of the piece could refer both to motherhood which overtakes a woman's life, and to the creative process.

The Dangerous Obsession, 2003
Interestingly, Winnicott wrote that the child moves on from being held by its mother to holding a "transitional object" made of textiles, such as a comfort blanket or soft toy.

Pajaczkowska explained that the making of objects "held" Bourgeois; she was wrapped up in it, as soon as she had finished making one she would move on to another.

Visitors to the exhibition are then "held" in investigating the work.

There is holding in my book; the book will hold the pages together, and the pockets handkerchiefs and the history and stories which go with them, as well as soft sculpture pieces.

I was pleased to learn at the talk that there is a playful aspect to Bourgeois' work. She enjoyed punning and language play, for example in her series of Femmes-Maisons; "femme-maison" means "housewife" in French. In this series, Bourgeois translated this into literal "house-woman" - women with houses for head.

Femme-Maison, 1945 - 1947

This appeals to me as a writer whose work often employs punning.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Sugar and spice, slugs and snails

The latest page of On Being Soft deals with "niceness", a much-maligned quality, as the handkerchief which lives in the page's pocket illustrates.

The text is an imagined conversation, hence I have used two different examples of handwriting, mine, and my dad's rather illegible scrawl!

The text reads: 

"There's nothing wrong with being a bit soft. It can be quite nice."

"I hate the word 'nice'. It's so insipid."

The text is illustrated by more photographs from the shoot I did for my A Levels. I've chosen a mouse and a lion due to their associations with bravery/ferociousness and timidity; perhaps the mouse could be paired with the first voice of the text and the lion with the second? One of Aesop's fables concerns a lowly mouse doing an act of kindness for a majestic lion. "Kind" can be a synonym for "nice".

The transferred black and white photographs were hand-tinted with satin stitch.

I was a bit stumped as to what to do for the page itself. I also had a completed embroidery which I wanted to integrate into the book in some way - a snail (which, fittingly, was completed at a snail's pace - a very performative embroidery!)

A nursery rhyme from my childhood came back to me; "What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice, that's what little girls are made of! What are little boys made of? Slugs and snails and puppy dogs' tails, that's what little boys are made of!"

Here was a way I could use my labour-of-love snail. The text on the handkerchief would "nicely" problematise the sappy, saccharine, reductive nursery rhyme. 

I embroidered the "sugar and spice" segment of the nursery rhyme as if it was the snail's trail of slime, to illustrate the nausea of sweetness.

On to the seventh page now; a page all about sensuality.

Thursday, 3 May 2012


If you follow my work on Flickr, you may remember this silly, play-on-words piece:

Well, the dreadful pun has resurfaced on the latest page of On Being Soft, albeit with an alternate spelling.

In this page, I am exploring "being soft" as perceived as a negative quality. "S/he's a bit soft" is a synonym for "wet", "drippy", ineffectual.

I'd been given a couple of linen scraps on which were stitched gorgeous studies of flowers by my ever-generous Granny, and began to think of how many flower-related idioms amount to meaning the same thing as "a bit soft".

I began listing these: delicate flower, pansy, shrinking violet, lily-livered, weed.

I decided to present a series of embroidered flowers on the page as if they were botanical studies, accompanied by these rather derogatory terms instead of their Latin names. And what could serve as a title for the page? "Melancholyflowers"!

(In a happy coincidence, I recently learnt from Andrew Solomon's book The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression that the ancient Greeks believed cauliflower to be a cure for melancholy;"Chrysippus of Cnidus believed that the answer to depression was the consumption of more cauliflower".)

For the "delicate flower", I chose one of the samplers completed by my Granny's friend. The remainder of the flowers are hand-embroidered by me.

This isn't the best photograph, but it's "pansy" (in simpering pink, of course) illustrated by, well, a pansy. Interestingly, as well as being homophobic, the term pansy can also mean a "weak, effeminate, and often cowardly man", similarly to "lily-livered". However, I've also heard it used to refer to women, for example, er, myself. Apparently a couple of years back a highstreet men's fashion chain was selling a t-shirt emblazoned with the word "pansy", reclaiming the word as a badge of honour!

In Why Do Violets Shrink?: Answers to 280 Thorny Questions on the World of Plants by Caroline Holmes, we learn that the Sweet Violet shrinks away from insects which try to access its pollen. A "shrinking violet" is of course an incredibly timid person.

In the Middle Ages, the liver was believed to be the seat of courage. A pale, "lily-coloured" liver would be one with no blood, and thus courage, in it; thus, lily-livered.

This is one of my favourite pages so far, and a little self-deprecating dig at myself for being all of the above!