Sunday, 10 September 2017

Personal Threads: Structure Me Not by Maggie Baxter, Australia, Guest Post


Maggie aged 7years,
wearing handknit
done by her mother
and or aunts
Quilting. Now there is a word that terrifies me, one I want to run away from. It is loaded like a gun to shoot me away from all pretensions of being a ‘serious’ artist into the murky lower depths of the craft circle with all its connotations of women’s work and the amateur.

slippage 2 - detail, Resist block printing
over dyed with organic natural dye on hand woven cotton
When Gopika suggested the concept of a narrative quilt, I thought ‘fabulous, great idea’ but quickly chickened out of the quilt and headed straight to the narrative. In a backward glance this meandering memoir, piecing together this and that, will investigate a little of why that is.
Cover of the book ’The Quilts of Gee’s Bend’
I am a fraud, that much you should know. Like all good feminist artists who work with textiles I have read The Subversive Stitch by Rozsika Parker, so I know that in Western countries, embroidery and all things stitched lost status from the middle ages when men and women worked together in guild workshops, until they were fully deemed women’s work in the 18th century. This fall from grace has never been restored. I have tut-tutted, shaken my head at this and probably had a little rant or two.
Quilt - detail  from the book, Irene Williams, c 1975
I check out art books all the time for inspiration. One I turn to, at least as much as if not more than any about painting or sculpture, is The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. If those quilts were painted they would be regarded as masterpieces of modernist abstraction - “geometric permutations of pure colour and form-bars and bands of colour offered up in bold confidence, intricate triangles playing visual eye games” . That they were born out of the repression of slavery using whatever their authors could lay their hands on makes their brilliance shine all the more. There is an unconscious immediacy about this work, and although the result is quite different the same can be said of traditional kantha quilts where soft, worn, aged saris are recycled into a new incarnation, the composition entirely at the behest of the maker.

'Slippage 1',
2.5 x 1 m, Direct block printing
 using organic natural dye on
hand woven cotton
But in the West, notwithstanding the small number of professional quilt artists who bravely set out to extend the parameters of the medium, most of my sisters in stitch spend hours and months patiently and carefully making quilts of pre-determined patterns from cheap cotton often pre-sorted into colour or themes (Christmas, landscape, Australiana etc etc). Yes, yes, I know it isn’t my business to comment, or wonder why, let alone pass judgement, especially if it gives them pleasure, but still I find it slightly depressing - like paint by numbers or embroidery kits. It seems that if the work is born of necessity and has to be the composition of the person doing it, there is a spirit so lacking in that which is pre-determined by others.
'Whole' - Maggie Baxter, Knitted
I can’t quite cross the line. See above, I have not called myself a textile artist but an artist who works with textiles. What a nit-pick! If I had stuck to my original intentions of sculpture, performance art and photography instead of being drawn by an irresistible, irrevocable, invisible karmic thread to Indian textiles, I wouldn’t have this dilemma. I am sure my friends in India, surrounded as they are by the ongoing splendour of their simultaneously ancient and modern - woven, printed, stitched and embroidered material culture, are just thinking ‘Whatever, but really, what is your problem?’
Teenage rebellion
'Slippage 2', 2.5 x 1m.
Detail, Resist block printing
 over dyed with
organic natural dye
on hand woven cotton
There was no quilting in our family or much sewing of any kind. I do have a small number of tray and tablecloths that my mother embroidered early in her marriage, but she didn’t maintain the enthusiasm. It was knitting that was the centre of our craft world. The hand knitted sweater and cardigan was epidemic in 1950’s and 1960’s England – the time and place of my childhood and adolescence. Someone could write a thesis on mid-20th century hand knitting just by going through our family photo albums. My mother and all my aunts knitted non-stop and with great skill. They could do complex cabling and multi-coloured patterns without even looking at the needles, watch television while they counted rows and stitches. Who, WHO, WHO would want to spend their life sitting at home knitting when there was a big wide world out there to explore my sixteen-year-old self, asked no one in particular - not ME I ungratefully muttered while putting in an order for whatever caught my fashion fancy on the knitting books that regularly arrived by post. And anyway, why bother to learn when someone else could already do it – and here I must digress for one moment to apologise to my mother on behalf of my teenage self.
Four elderly Scottish Aunts wearing hand knit sweaters and cardigans, cira 1960's
But did they all do it just for the love of knitting? To begin with, probably not but later probably yes.  I can only speculate because, taking it for granted, I never asked the question. They were very good at it, took pride in their skill but in the child rearing decades of post-World War II England it was an economic necessity. It was much cheaper to buy wool on the skein and knit than to buy a completed sweater. This hasn’t been the case for a long time and except for occasional brief revivals as ‘the new meditation’, hand knitting is well and truly in decline superseded by the ongoing barrage of quickly disposable machine made.
Sweater my mother, Phyl Baxter, knitted for me circa 1980
And when they weren’t knitting my female elders were neatly, carefully darning socks and old hand made sweaters. The throw-away society was on the horizon but in the mean time it was mend and make do. Not quite rafoogari but neat and functional nonetheless.
Sweater my mother, Phyl Baxter, knitted for me circa 1980, detail view
Then there was school – not that sewing or domestic science were major subjects, more a quick overview and then an option.  Retrospective note to long since deceased teachers (just in case you reincarnate into the same profession): if you want to engage the imagination of teenage girls do not start sewing lessons with three different ways to patch sheets. What you will end up is grubby bits of lacklustre tat that look like a dog chewed them. I am sure I am not alone from that class in saying I have never patched a sheet since.
'Uncurled 1',
Resist block printing overdid with organic natural dye
 on hand woven cotton. Pakko hand embroidery
I went to art school almost a decade later, chronologically somewhere between Punk and when the amputated asymmetry of Rei Kawakubo’s anti-aesthetic hit the catwalks of Paris and thereafter the world. Oh rip, tear and deconstruction, we were made for each other. I thought my lack of craft skills base had found its true calling without realising until I tried it just how skilful the apparent nihilist approach to cloth really was.
'Whole' - Maggie Baxter, Knitted
But disconcertingly I reverted to my origins. I knitted. First big soft sculptures Claes Oldenburg style before moving on to knitting plastic tubes, strips of fake fur, and even garden mesh. Then just as suddenly as the knitting fervour came upon me it went back into hibernation emerging once more in the 21st century as irregular lace-like textures achieved by dropping stitches, knitting into two or three stitches at a time and then randomly increasing them. Abstract knitting. I’m all over the place, just where I like to be.
'Drip', Maggie Baxter, Knitted
If I were going to consolidate the primary statement of my artwork – it would be line. My drawings (and therefore block printing, and use of stitch) are linear, calligraphic, scribbled. And strangely knitting is linear: It is the act of making a more solid cloth or garment by wrapping and knotting very long threads of fibre over two sticks. In my knitting, the thread never becomes solid, it loops and drapes into random circuitous lines. Some of these I have drawn again and turned into blocks ready for more randomness in the way they are placed on cloth.
'Drip', Maggie Baxter, Knitted, a detailed view
So, maybe there is another problem with quilting for me? It isn’t random. It is all about structure and building blocks. That is not say there can’t be randomness in the choice of colour or the way the blocks are built up, but still there does have to be some kind of geometry, forethought or plan in the layout. In quilting serendipity is pre-ordained no matter the oxymoron of that statement.
'Drift', Maggie Baxter, Knitted
I am having a personal, quiet little rebellion against structure. No more of in my life thank-you very much, I already have way too much. City Australia, which is here most of us live, is not the wild frontier of our myths and legends but an over regulated nanny state where we can’t even bicycle on a footpath to the local shop without a crash helmet. My working life coordinating public art in new buildings and public open spaces is a barrage of deadlines, timetables, minutes and reports even before we can get to the literal building blocks of the architecture into which the art is assimilating. So outside of that, in my own artwork allow me to indulge in the free form, be unprepared, totally intuitive, and let it roll out how it chooses to. I am just not sure I can do that with quilting.
'Drift', Maggie Baxter, Knitted

Maggie Baxter is an Australian artist, writer, curator, and public art coordinator.

1. Parker, Rozsika. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. London, The Women’s Press. First published 1984, reprinted 1996.
2. William Arnett (Editor), The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.  John Bearldsley, Shelly Zegart, and Maude Southwell Wahlman (contributing editors), published by Tinwood Books, Atlanta, Georgia in assoc. with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2002.
3. Ibid. P.14

‘Personal Threads’ is about creating a narrative quilt, in an endeavour to read our histories as not something unconnected with each other or the past, which is personal and political, but to read our histories as the interconnected pieces of a quilt, assembled like bricolage. We may claim different nationalities and religions but the DNA of our lives is complex and far from unconnected. While the past has tremendous bearing,  the intention isn't to harp on it as a wail or dissent or blame, but to narrate this as a means to locate ourselves and who we are within its folds.
If you’d like to contribute to this project, drop me a line.


  1. Hilarious, soulful and informative all at once, loving it!

    1. It's a delightful piece to kick off 'The Personal Threads' Project. So glad you enjoyed it Tanya.

  2. This is quite wonderful. Thank you, Maggie (and Gopika). Evoked many responses as I was reading but will come back with some reflections when I reclaim my power to reflect!

    1. Dear Scribe, awaiting your reflections. 'm happy to know that it was a wonderful and thought provoking read. Do write in with your insights. Many thanks

    2. yes dear Scribe, please share further thought. Regards