Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Service Woollies

Hand knitting I'm told has come back into fashion, for many I have a sneaking suspicion it never went away... This morning I was with the Handicraft Group at New Mills & District Volunteer Centre, for the project Stitching the Wars.  The women here meet to knit, talk and drink tea. In the window are beautifully knitted and crocheted dolls outfits and colourful bobble hats and mittens, at Christmas time hang charming robins and puddings to adorn the tree. Some of the ladies explain with sadness that their own children and grandchildren don't want hand knits, instead prefer to buy ready made children's clothes, in those 'horrible stiff fabrics.' Personally I want to commission a whole new outfit...for myself, my daughter...

This is a generation who learnt knitting skills on their mothers laps as a matter of course. Jean recollected her mother had given up trying to teach her as Jean was left handed- so her grandmother taught her, she was aged 3.

From the Vintage Knitting

Jean, Nelly and Margaret reminisced:

We used to knit during the war, we were still at school. Knitting for soldiers, could make a pair of mittens in a weekend- fingerless mittens, fingers up to the knuckles, knitted on four needles. A man came round to distribute the wool, gave us girls the best wool, do and do it again. Mother and her sister used to knit for the Royal Airforce, blue and navy blue- to keep them warm. All hand knitted, worn under their flying suits. Balaclava's as well. 

I'm going back next week, they've promised their of to make a collection of knitted squares for the wool quilt and much more conversation and of course tea drinking.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

No room for sentiment, plenty of tears

Yesterday my afternoon was spent with the Bakewell Memory Cafe,  run by the Alzheimer's Society, with the project stitching the wars. We spent the afternoon reminiscing, tea drinking, embroidering and needle felting.

One startling conversation was with Mavis, my notes follow below:

"My father fought in the 1st and 2nd World War, won the military medal in the 1st World War, aged 18 years, he was gassed and wounded, 3 of them where in a bunker, both privates got the Military Medal, the Sergeant got the Victoria Cross. An enemy pill box was causing all sorts of problems, they put it out of action. Then he went on to fight in the 2nd World War.

He served in India between times. When the recession came between the wars in the 20s a lot of places laid of men. Rather than being out of work, he thought he had to provide for my wife and son, so joined up again. It was ‘matter of fact’, either you go on with it, or went under.

Mavis needle felting
He was injured in the 2nd World War as well. It was very worrying for my mother when she got a telegram saying he was missing in action. You had to get on, there was no room for sentiment, plenty of tears though.

On the way across to Dunkirk, the big exodus,  the little boats coming from England to take the men- my dad had been wounded, and was in an ambulance. It got blown up, all of them thrown out of the ambulance, my dad was unconscious lying in a ditch. The stinging nettles saved his life- he came round because they were stinging his face.

When I walked past him in his hospital bed, I didn’t recognise him, his hair had turned white with the shock. 
Needle felting 

Thanks again to Becky and Ron for hosting a relaxed and productive session and to volunteers Allison and Sue for joining in so enthusiastically with the embroidery.

Friday, 11 April 2014

News that stays news

This blog will centre on a conversation held after one of our workshops, rather than the workshop sessions themselves.

The day had been both exhausting and fascinating. We're working on a project that brings together reminiscence, art making and poetry about the effect of two world wars on rural Derbyshire. The project, Stitching the Wars, will result in the exhibition of two quilts which have these memories sewn into it. Both Lois and myself are excited about it because we are working in a rural environment (unusual for us) and making textile pieces that feel very fresh and full of possibilities. However the biggest pleasure has been meeting the participants themselves, who have welcomed us and shared their memory-lives with us. Today we worked at a Bakewell Age UK Day Centre, the issue of memory and ability being erased by illness was present. And yet the sharing of life experience and the task of recording it as writings and art obviously brought deep satisfaction - and the stories were extraordinary. A man who had witnessed Hiroshima just after the bomb. The Sheffield bombings through the eyes of a young boy. Bridling a horse for ploughing, a tradition of many generations...

After the session Lois and I tried to pin down what it is that we're doing in our work - it's an attempt that we make every so often. After all, we've been a team for 14 years, so surely we should have an inkling? But the thing defies us. We aren't running reminiscence projects, because often we  confront the present as well as the past. We aren't therapists because we investigate material with an eye on the art itself, rather than trying to make the art do something that isn't artistic. And yet as artist/writer we are collaborators, not originators - and some people would dispute that we are artists at all. We aren't oral historians because our attempt is not to construct any consensus on events, only to honour personal histories however eccentric or 'wrong' they might seem. We aren't journalists because we aren't wedded to the big matters of the moment.

So what are we? Ezra Pound famously described poetry as 'news that stays news'. It doesn't date because it locates itself in the deeper currents of living, inner worlds, and sidesteps the quick judgement and the glossed exterior. Perhaps there is some of this in what we are trying for: to make work that speaks beyond it's own time, because it is at heart the story of how life FEELS, not what it is supposed to be. 

Flo at Bakewell Age UK Day Centre

Wednesday, 9 April 2014


Making Memories is a project with older people in Oldham and Oldham Galleries, devising ways to work with objects in memory boxes, that will stimulate reminiscence and creative work. 

Last week, I played with the idea of embroidered linen, in particular monograms. I took with me a collection of 1930s/40s embroidered tablecloths, a sample I'd embroidered from a vintage transfer pattern of Mrs sewn onto a napkin and an embroidered linen Pyjama case. 

The rich subject matter discussed ranged from the pleasure of embroidery as a hobby, the frightening, often stern Home Economic teacher, instructing stitching at school, to monogramed or initialled hankies brought from the market. 

I was aware before the session that the creative activity was going to suit some people, and not others. For some designing their monogram on paper was satisfying and enough of a challenge, using carbon paper and old fashioned fonts they created beautiful small works of art. Those who chose to stitch became lost in concentration, all taking their works away to finish at a later time.

Angie and Margaret

I believe that its vital that we do introduce activities into care venues that challenge our pre-conceptions of what older people can do or what we perceive they want to do. It's true that not everyone will be able or want to join in, however rather than always reducing activity to the 'lowest common denominator'  we can adapt activities to peoples skills and abilities. Its a fine line, not to put people off for doing something too complicated for people who may have difficulties holding a needle, problem eyesight or memory loss, just as it is at the other end of the spectrum not doing something to child like,  verging on condescending.

Margarets embroidery in progress

This particular activity had 3 steps, individuals could stop at any stage.

1. Selecting a font from a selection printed from old transfer patterns and off the internet.

2. Creating a monogram/initials design using  paper or fabric (that could be a napkin), sandwiching carbon paper to transfer the letters.

3. The option of embroidering those letters to make a lasting memory of the session, or gift for a loved one.

Monday, 7 April 2014

A Women's Land Army story

Last week I was lucky enough to meet with Mr & Mrs Lawton, for the project stitching the wars. Mary Lawton was a Land Girl, who shared with me her love of the animals and the fearful excitement of the bombing raids.  Notes from our conversation follow below.

I lived not so far from the Thames in Kent. The German bombers would follow the Thames and drop bombs in London. When they couldn’t get through the Barrage Balloons they’d drop the bombs around us. It gave me asthma, my doctor said ‘you’ve got to get out of it’ he said it was ‘nervous asthma’  I don’t think I would have passed for the ATS because of my chest, so I joined the Land Army.

Went to hand milking and dairy work at 18, the cattle didn’t upset my chest. It was hand milking in those days, thought it was better than machine milking, much better for the cows (wouldn’t say that sort of thing today, more modern machinery) they came into contact with you and got to know your voice. Went to East Sussex School of Agriculture in Lewis in 1944.

My mother never said anything, I don’t think my father liked it, but you had to do something, and it was better than the munitions.

Mary and her friend Eva

I’ve seen Messerschmitt’s and Spitfire’s dog-fight in the air, and V1s and V2s near Graves End. Didn’t mind the V1s so much, you could hear them, the V2s you couldn’t hear till they exploded, they were really scary.  I was with my best friend Eva on the same farm, it was a three mile cycle ride home, you could hear the V1s, we jumped into the ditch and put our bikes on top of us- don’t know what help the bikes would have been!

I’ll tell you something I have never seen in a book: we were between North Fleet and Gravesend, stood outside the fire station. We were all watching this dog fight, one of those German planes made a great big swastika in smoke, one of our spitfires flew up and shot it down. We were there.

When you’re young there is a streak of excitement in it.

My first job was in Hever, How Green Farm near the Astor’s Hever Castle. Mr Birchall whose farm it was, didn’t do so much fo the work himself, got other people do to it for him. The Astor’s were so nice. Never talked down to you.

There were a lot of German and Italian Prisoners of War working on the farm, like Kurt. They were hard workers. Most could speak a bit of English, we didn’t say much but ‘it’s a nice day, or ‘how are you?’. They were well fed- better than in their own army.

You didn’t have a lot of free time. Had to clean the cow sheds, you’d put your arms round their necks to put a chain on, they got used to you. When the machine milking came in, they didn’t get used to you. I would milk about 8, they had 6 Landgirls, that was the first farm. It took less than 10 minutes to milk a cow, the quicker you milk the cow the more milk you got. I got very fond of cows, we had an understanding, they liked being talked to, we got to know each other.

I was a good milker and got a job as a relief milker. Would cycle to a few farms. It was nice but very tiring. Early in the morning, all double summer time- (put it on two hours during the war) so you wouldn’t have many hours sleep if you were haymaking and getting up at 5 for milking. 

When Mr Birchall brought the farm in Derbyshire in 1949, he asked me to come up to. The farm, off the Mellor Road, just above the Pack Horse in Rowath, How Green Farm, he named it after his farm in Kent, changed the name from Brier Grove Slack, not that anyone would remember that name anymore.    

Mr and Mrs Lawton
Mrs Lawton holding one of her medals, awarded for Proficiency in the Women's Land Army

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

a quiet veil

TWEET FROM ENGELS, a long poem written in collaboration with over a hundred homeless people describing their lives, was projected onto the walkway between Manchester Town Hall and Central Library, on the night of 29 March. The projection was part of the Lets Go Global organisation's event Big Digital Project, which gathered together artists from all over Greater Manchester.

yr hand = comfort a warm feeling in th pit of yr stomach // a glow in th mind nice + toasty 

It was both moving and unsettling, seeing a poem made of so many moments of intimacy become gargantuan. The tweet-size verses are shot through with sadness and confusion - it was somehow shocking to read them scaled up to the size of a building. And yet, how strong they seemed, how honest. Homelessness very often is accompanied by lack of shelter - and many homeless people go to libraries in winter. Perhaps appropriate then that Central Library, a place of warmth and words, should be the site for this work, veiled in this poem.

panic attacks // back 2 th wall // got 2 draw a quiet veil 

A second projection sited in one of the Town Hall
windows, scrolling the poem on a loop.

TWEET FROM ENGELS is the first section of the ongoing epic arthur+martha twitter poem ALBION. The second section, made with young offenders, is currently being tweeted from ALBION is constructed from the voices of marginalised people in the UK, including young offenders, people with a dementia diagnosis, homeless people, and others. This 'chorale' of diverse people has been gathered from arthur+martha sessions over 5 years. Experimental poets in the UK, Canada and the USA including Tom Jenks, Steve Giasson, Geof Huth, Rebecca Guest, Steve Emmerson, and others have helped to edit and tweet ALBION.

1 person I can trust // myself // I rely on chaos 

arthur+martha often use avant garde approaches to writing and art making that allow self-expression and a public platform to people who can be left on the edges. Our work tries to bring the voices and visions of overlooked people into dialogue with wider society. This event is one in a series of arthur+martha exhibitions that have employed large-scale display techniques in public space.

Id giv anything 4a #normal life 50 million id turn it down u cant buy a normal life 

We are particularly indebted to Andy Mckeown, Peter Walker and David Harper from externalGalleries who lent their skills so generously to all the groups involved, co-devising and editing many of the projections. We'd also like to thank Naomi Whitman at Let's Go Global and Laura Murphy at Stockport MBC for kind support and advice.

yr hand = comfort