Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Personal Threads: A Dentist Becomes a Crochet Artist, Guest Post by Monica Dalvi

 My love and passion for all things handcrafted goes way back to when I was a little girl. I remember melting my leftover  wax crayon stubs and turning them into  pretty candles. I also have wonderful  memories of hand sewing little dresses for my dolls when I was twelve years old and vacationing with my aunt, my mother’s sister, in  Pune. It was the summer vacation and I wanted to spend a few days with her and my cousins. My cousin taught me and  my niece to sew the clothes for our dolls with little leftover scraps of fabric. I remember always being on the lookout for someone to teach me some form of needle-work. I learned Kutchhi embroidery from a neighbour. She had  learnt it from a friend and was happy when I asked her if she would teach me how to do it as well.

In a few  years we moved to live in another town. A neighbour there used to  crochet. She had an amazing trousseau made for her daughter with wonderful  bedspreads  that were so beautifully made. It was she who taught me  how to crochet ,something that I will always  be grateful for, as now  I’m having the most wonderful time making crochet jewellery. In almost every home that we used to visit, I noticed some crochet item  that was displayed. Usually  made with white thread, this beautiful lace always fascinated me.Whether it was a table runner or a table cover, I longed to learn how to make them myself. And although I loved it all, I was interested later in life to give it a more non-traditional spin. And that’s how I thought of making crochet jewellery. I  thought it was something unique yet at the same time using the traditional art.

When I was eighteen years old, there was a group  of Rajasthani labourers  assigned to do some pipework near our house. One of their wives would sit by  our house embroidering the most beautiful ghagra. It was something she was making for herself. When asked whether she would teach me how to do it too and she was more than willing. She was happy that her work was appreciated. I learned to do mirror work embroidery from her. She was a good teacher and it only took me a couple of days to learn all the beautiful stitches. And soon I  went on to embroider a ghagra for my sister who was then 24 years old then and one of her friends was to be married in Delhi. Her friend had gifted her an embroidered blouse and we decided to pair it off with a black ghagra embroidered with different colours. It took me about 2 months to finish it and my sister absolutely loved it.

However, despite my early learning, fascination and exposure to various forms of thread art, I had always dreamed of being a dentist. In this pursuit, I was inspired by the lady dentist who  treated me when I was young. I was 15 and used to have several issues with my teeth and therefore a frequent visitor to the dentist.  I  loved how patient soft spoken she was, always putting me at ease, she had a gentle hand when working on my teeth. But, despite this vocational choice, all through my college years, I always had some art project going on too. Looking back I realise that craft and art was what helped me de-stress. It was a busy time with projects to submit in college  and patients to see. Exams used to stress me out too. Working on an art project helped transport me into a different world. My fondest project was a kantha work saree project that took three years to complete. I would work on it when I would get time from my college work. I could usually work on it about 3 hours a day but when I had exams or other college projects the saree had to sadly  be ignored. I first saw a kantha saree at a party we went to, where a friend’s mother was wearing one. I was fascinated by it  and wanted to make one too. So we asked her if we could borrow it to look at it and see how the work was done. She was kind enough to do that.

When I got married, everyone was so sure I would have a huge trousseau made. But I had made nothing .Traditional embroidery  on  bed-sheets and pillows just didn’t seem to hold any appeal to me. After I was married, we moved to  the US. Unfortunately, Indian dental degrees are not recognised there and I was unable to work. The only option I had   was to study  again for another three years. Something I  wasn’t willing to do, as we meant to move back to India as soon as we possibly could. I was a full time homemaker and enjoying  every moment of it. Even  though I wasn’t  a big foodie myself,  I loved cooking new recipes. At that point,   pretty much everything was new, as the kitchen was a domain that I hadn’t regularly  visited before. But cooking used up only a little bit of time in the day. I learnt to drive and discovered the wonderful library in our city. I absolutely love to read and the well-stocked library was a dream come true. By accident, I also discovered a little club that  the library hosted called  the embroiderers club where women  got together to share their love for sewing and needlework, and would  sit and chat and work on their individual art /craft  projects. They would get together twice a week and I looked forward to meeting them and get started on my own project. I had learned to cross stitch  when I was in school and decided to start on a cross stitch project .The women from the group  helped  me improve my work by showing me how to be neater with my stitches. I was the youngest in the group and they were all so loving, kind and helpful. I was 23 years old  at that time and the women were mostly in  the age group of 55-75. I was pregnant with my first baby  and made several little things in cross stitch  for my baby’s room. I found really cute designs, on the internet, of baby animals which I made and framed to put up on the wall. I also cross-stitch baby book of animals, for my baby to learn from when he was older. It was hard for me to continue going to the club but I am left with really warm, lovely memories of my time there.

My baby boy was born in Sept 2002  and we named him Ved. It opened up a whole different world for me. New things to learn as a new mother and everything just kept me so busy. But I always found time to sew or embroider. I had my mom to help me  through the first 5 months of motherhood. Luckily I was also blessed with a baby who was non-fussy and slept  through the night. It was therefore quite easy to fall into a good routine and I would find time to do some sewing while the baby napped during the day. Growing up, I always saw my  mother and my grandmother sewing different things. My mother would sew all our clothes for us. Wonderful creative dresses that she would see in magazines or in a  movie and then recreate them for my sister and I. My  grandmother would make us quilts. Traditional quilts made out of old  well-worn cotton sarees called “gozdis or godhadis”.They would  be layered and then hand sewn together. Soft and warm -a blanket of love. In Goa, the ladies from the Hindu community would wear the soft cotton nine yard saree. After a few years of use they would be converted  into the quilt. Usually hand stitched, these quilts were made by layering the sarees together and had a hand stitched design in  the body of the quilt to prevent  the layers from separating out. My mother would tell me stories of how her grandfather, an artist, would draw the design on  the centre of the quilt so his wife could then sew on. Typically, the design used to be in parallel lines or concentric circles or X’s all over the body. Unfortunately, this is now a dying art as younger women no longer wear the nine yard saree. So the tradition of making the gozdis has petered out with few people still making them, if that. Growing up, all my friends and youngsters of  my generation had one made by their grandmother and these were what were used by everyone. Now with the availability of  ready blankets and quilts, the gozdis are also not preferred. I must admit I haven't made one myself but it’s definitely on  my to-do list.

Watching my  mother and my  grandmother  always involved in sewing something or other nurtured that same passion in me. My mother was always so quick in her sewing work. She would make dresses for us within a couple of hours. Watching her use the machine I  too learned how to use it and would help her at times. I wanted to sew things for  my children too  and carry on  that  legacy,  so while in the US,  I bought a sewing machine and started work. My baby was a year old and a lot of my friends now had babies too. I made quilts as gifts for my friends when they had babies. These were my very amateur attempts at quilting. I made one in the design that I had seen my grandmother make with triangular patches of fabric joined together. I made Halloween  outfits for my kids. When  my second baby Isha was born, two years after Ved, life got even busier. But sewing when I could, was something I looked forward to. I would find time when the kids were asleep or were busy playing. My kids loved Halloween and I loved making their costumes. A scarecrow costume for my son one year, a cat in the  hat another year. A mermaid dress and an Egyptian mummy costume for my daughter.

The children kept me busy. And their illnesses kept me stressed. My son was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome when he was two years old and two years later my daughter, aged two,  developed asthma.  This meant  several years of sleepless nights, doctor visits, endless medications and frantic runs to the emergency room. Living in a  foreign country  with no family for support, dealing with a culture different  to the one you were brought up in, with laws that you are not familiar with, all told, was a lot for me to contend with and it took its toll. My craft-work, my sewing projects were my happy place, my meditation. Making things for my children and my friends kept me sane. Cross-stitch was something I very much enjoyed doing. I made a   beautiful design with  the zodiac signs of the four of us in the family. We had it framed and it hung on the bedroom wall of the room that  my husband and I shared. I loved this work as I felt it encapsulated  the four of  us, together as a family.

We decided to move back to India  in 2009, almost 10  years after we had first set foot in the USA.  Our children were seven and five years old . They still got sick a lot but, I guess I learned to deal with it all better than when they were younger. The silver lining was that  finally, I was going back home! My joy knew no bounds as  I moved with the children back to our village Nerul in  Goa, while my husband stayed on in the USA for a few more months to wind up  all our affairs. I was thrilled to be back in Goa and decided to go  back  to my profession and begin my dental practice, which  I had missed tremendously. In a few months though, once my husband moved  back and started his job in Mumbai, we moved there. The kids started on a new routine, a new school and a whole new life. Unfortunately, what also followed was a new series  of illnesses. The pollution in Mumbai  was too  much for their little bodies to handle. My son kept relapsing with his kidney disorder and developed asthma due to the pollution. My daughter too  got sick with asthma. Too many missed school days and doctor visits kept me too occupied to be anything other than a full time mother. There was no way I would leave  the kids to someone else’s care while I worked. My children needed me much more than I needed a career. I kept busy  with several creative ideas - painted the children's room. I painted a garden on the wall for my daughter’s bedroom  and a beach-side for my son’s.

But, I missed my sewing . The machine I had in the US was an electric one and I wasn't sure how well it would work in India, so I had sold it before we moved back. I bought a new sewing machine and life was all right again. However, while shopping for some fabric and threads one day, I came across some crochet threads. I used to love to crochet when I was in school and it had been such a long time since I had done it last. I thought I must get my hands on some crochet needles and threads and  make something unique - something other than traditional crochet items. Serendipitously, I came across pictures of crochet jewellery on  the internet and fell in love with the concept and thus began my crochet journey. It’s been eight years since then. We moved back to our hometown of Goa six years ago. Our children, bigger now, are  healthier. The unpolluted, wonderful sea air of Goa helped them heal. My son went  into remission and no longer has kidney issues. Mercifully, there are  no trips to the emergency rooms, no medications to  keep track of, no specialists to visit, no middle of the night wheezing episodes. I sleep deeply and peacefully through the  night. Not like earlier when I would wait with  bated breath fearing a phone call from school to pick up my sick child. My mind is finally calm and I decided I now needed to do something more meaningful with  my time, with my life. Something for me.

I considered going back to being a dentist. But, you know how you  had that one very  best friend in school  when you were ten years old but had lost all contact because  you changed schools or she moved to a different city. Then, thanks to social media you  find her again after thirty years, and can’t wait to meet her. Yet when you actually do ,that initial euphoria just fades off after a few minutes of catching up and you realise that bond is just not there anymore and rue that loss?  Well, that is exactly how I felt. It had been fifteen  years since  I had last  been a dentist . I missed it, but with so many  years gone by without practicing my trade, I didn’t know how to be a dentist anymore. I  tried to get back in touch but nothing was the same .The joy I once felt just wasn’t there.  Art was now where my heart lay. I was the happiest with a needle and yarn in my hands. Dentistry is an art too, a skill which needs practice and I was out of practice. With my needles and yarn, it was stress free. I had had enough stress in my life. I decided it was time to pursue something that gave me peace of mind.


I started on my crochet jewellery  journey making earrings. With all the appreciation I received, my work evolved to include pendants and necklaces. I also made coasters. While I enjoyed my crochet, I also missed sewing. So I tried to think of what I could make with fabric that was innovative and new. I started to make fabric toys. People loved these and so my range of toys increased. Over the years I always tried to include something new in my crafts. I then started to make cross stitch jewellery. With it came more appreciation and I couldn't have been happier. With the kids now almost independent, I have so much time for my creative pursuits. My son will  be eighteen this year and my daughter 16. They are still dependent on me for a few things but compared to when they were little and we were in  the US, I have so  much more time now. They also help me with  my crafts. My daughter has an artistic bent and helps me with the designing. They both give me an honest critique of my craft. That involvement makes me enjoy my work even more. My mother is also my sounding board and helps me with my work .We spend many hours together working on projects. The joys of being home!

When I started my craft journey in 2014 there was not much that I knew about the crafters groups  in Goa. At an exhibition, I met Aira, who introduced me to a lot of artists and groups and has played a pivotal role in my growth as an artist .Together we connected to a lot of fellow hand-crafters and for the last three years conduct craft fairs that showcase work of craftspeople who specialise in handcrafted items. 


Monica Dalvi, a former dentist by profession, is presently an artist by passion and a full-time mother. Residing in Goa, India - the world's best place to call home. I love all forms of needlework; embroidery, crochet, cross-stitch. And look forward to learning many more forms of needle art. 


Friday, 6 September 2019

Personal Threads : Blessings From a Grandmother, Guest Post by Ina Puri

My dearest Samaira,
Long before you read about the fabled Pokkhiraaj - the winged horse that is believed to have magical powers to fight evil, you will own an exquisitely embroidered kantha that will narrate many a story. Tales of valour, romance and enchantment. When your great-grandmother, your father’s Nani Konchi, started stitching the kantha, it was for her grandson Arjun, your father. We were in Baharampur, Murshidabad, where my grandparents lived in a rambling house filled with books and memories.
Ina with her son Arjun

It is hardly mentioned now, but the British East India Company started its journey from Murshidabad which was the capital of pre-British Bengal, and Bankim Chandra  Chatterjee who composed the famed ‘Vande Mataram’, wrote his epic ‘Anandamath’ sitting on the banks of the Bhagirathi that flows through our very own Baharampur. In fact, Kashida, the exquisite silk embroidery on cotton was at one time exported exclusively from Bengal, its main centres around Dhaka and Murshidabad.
A Balaposh
Those days, I was looking for a Balaposh – a yearning for that subtly fragrant, soft and comforting quilt. Although it is a quilt, the only quilting stitches are on the edges. It was a speciality of the artisans of Murshidabad, made by craftspeople known to our family. The Balaposh is traditionally layered, with ‘attar scented’ cotton, infolded between two fabrics of silk cloth, and sewn at the edges. It was first made in the Mughal era on request by Nawab Shujauddin Muhammad Khan who commissioned a quilt  “soft like wool, warm like a lap, and gentle like a flower.” 
Flowering Bakul Tree (Indian Medlar)
On days that I stepped out, in search of a one, my mother (your great-grandmother) would sit in the garden, under the fragrant flowering Bakul tree (Indian Medlar or Bulletwood tree), stitching away. The evenings stretched long and as we, on my mother's side of the  family shared stories and anecdotes amongst ourselves, to while away the hours, Ma would spread out the silk cloth -a  smallish, baby-sized quilt length, and fill in the imaginary squares which she had, probably, already marked out in her mind. The box with different coloured silk threads and needles by her side, she would carry on stitching even when the lanterns and candles were brought out, during the daily power cuts.

Konchi's Kantha, Hand sewn for her grandson Arjun

It was a time I recollect with fondness, when our family, spanning generations - my maternal grandparents, mashis (aunts) and cousins, all gathered at our ancestral  home in  Murshidabad,  just to be together. It had been an uncharacteristically cold February that particular year, some thirty years ago, but the room was warm and alive with conversations and laughter. We begged Boro Mashi (Mahasweta Devi) to tell us one of her famous ghost stories and huddled close, as she obliged. Outside, the night was full of mysterious shadows, lit occasionally, by the dancing fireflies.
Ina with her cousin, mother and aunt Mahashweta Devi,
who is doing the alpana
Do you know, as long as I can remember, kanthas have always been a part of our household. A light blanket which was ideal for summer or monsoon nights, was usually made by the women who specialized in the art and turned discarded and worn-out sarees into a beautifully embroidered quilt. It was worked with the myriad stitches of kantha needlework. The main distinguishing feature of a kantha was the pattern created by the concurrent lines of running stitch, sewn in white thread securing together the layers of cloth, which gave the surface a textured, rippled feel. If the designate purpose was to use the cloth as a regular covering, this puckering quilted surface was left unadorned but, if it was designed as a wall hanging or stole, then the kantha-maker would embroider it with motifs that were artistic and imaginative.

Detail of Konchi's Kantha

My grandmother (your great-great-grandmother) told us that the earliest reference to kantha in Bengali literature date back to the verses in Charyapadas (8th to the 11th centuries CE) They are a collection of mystical poems, in the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, derived from the tantric tradition during the Pala Empire in Ancient Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Orissa. It was written in an ‘Abahatta’ (evolving language) that was the ancestor of Bengali and other Eastern Indo-Aryan languages, and is said to be the oldest collection of verses written in those languages.
The family celebrating Bhai PhoNta
or Bhai Dooj
A fleeting hush would descend when Didima spoke about the history of Bengal, its textiles or customs. The younger people in the room would find it  especially fascinating to know that Baharampur had such a rich heritage. We had all visited the historic ‘Hazarduari’ or a ‘palace with a thousand doors’ with our grandparents, built on the lands of the demolished fort Kila Nizamat which stood on  the banks of  the  Bhagirathi River, in Murshidabad.  And, with the pride of true Bengali’s  our hearts had thrilled to hear about the bravery and courage of Siraj ud-Daullah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal, who, deceived by his own men, faced the British cavalry fiercely, armed with a mere sword, in the decisive ‘Battle of Plassey’. The end of his reign marked the start of British East India Company rule over Bengal and subsequently the Indian Subcontinent.
Fort Bahrampur, on the banks of the River Bhagirathi
While the conversations flowed through the evening, Ma worked on her kantha completely lost to the world. Who can tell, what was going on in her mind.  I would ask myself, if she was imagining a conversation with her yet to be born grandson. In front of her, the Kantha she was embroidering was getting more and more elaborate every day, a magical fairyland inhabited with serpents, dancing peacocks, flowers and fruits, alphabets, nursery rhymes and board games with knots and crosses. In one corner, there were even the fabled birds familiar to us from our favourite bedtime storybook ‘ ‘Thakurmar Jhuli’, the Byangoma and Byangomi.
Another detail from Konchi's Kantha
 Samaira, wait till you are a little older, we will read these stories together and look at the pictures of all these enchanted creatures.
Baby Arjun
When I look at this kantha today, those soft folds that once swathed my infant son, following the layout with more focussed attention, I realize that what makes it so original is that Ma followed her own instincts when it came to the design. Creating a composition that was intimate yet visually appealing. We were aware that most conventional kanthas have a basic pattern that is common to them - a lotus at the centre embellished by vines of plants and motifs taken from old and worn sari borders. The four corners usually have the tree of life patterns that lead to the centre, with the ornamentations drawn from nature or mythologies. Images of goddesses are popular and Lakshmi is the one deity who remains a perennial favourite - her footprints  symbolically  represented through patterns of alpana. Newly married wives were known to show off their embroidery skills by making elaborate kanthas for their husbands, interspersed with lines of romantic poetry. In contrast, Ma’s creativity was uniquely her own personal language.
Manish Ghatak with his wife Dharitri Devi,
Ina's maternal grandparents
You would have enjoyed her company, Samaira. Ma was born to an illustrious family; her mother was Dharitri Devi and her father, the distinguished litterateur Manish Ghatak. He was a poet and novelist of the Kallol era (one of the most influential literary movements in Bengali literature), who used to write under the pen name ‘Jubanashwa’. Her eldest sister was the brilliant writer and activist Mahasweta Devi who studied in Shantiniketan. But, she was a strict disciplinarian when she came home for the holidays, keeping the large brood of younger siblings under a stringent regime. While the rest behaved, Ma was hauled up constantly. She was said to be extremely mischievous and was always getting into trouble. In her youth, she was a striking beauty with a fiercely independent mind, who stood up for what she believed was just and right. While her siblings went about their lives establishing themselves in diverse ways, Ma concentrated on her music.  And as she grew older, she developed  her other skills, like stitching, cooking and making alpana. She had just about started enjoying her life away from Baharampur, at her maternal uncle, the renowned sculptor, Sankho Chowdhury’s home in Baroda, where she was learning music, when her parents decided to marry her off to an eminent suitor, they considered suitable for her.

Ina's mother Konchi

No matter how tough life turned out to be, in later years, she never submitted to defeat and remained her indomitable self, full of spunk and laughter. Had she continued her studies in music, who knows, she might even have been a musician of distinction today. Yet, destiny had other plans for her, a life she lived with her entire being. Remaining till the end, unvanquished.
Another detail of Konchi's Kantha
Samaira, this embroidered cloth is a repository of song and words of poetry that came alive as she embroidered the squares, almost a delicate memoir of her recollections and desires. While she continued to stitch even after making this one for Arjun, she never made another quite so intricate or exquisite. Someday, when you are older, read this story  when you look at the kantha. Imagine the life that was, imagine the hands that held the fabric and fingers that lovingly sewed, carrying forth a tradition of our native Bengal
Ina with her mother
 If Ma were around, I know she would want to add just another frame, of a little girl with shiny eyes and curly hair, laughing hard. Of you.
With all my love,
Your fond Dadi, Ina

Ina Puri is a writer, biographer, art curator and collector. She is the author of several books, including In Black & White (a biography of Manjit Bawa), Faces of Indian Art (iconic artists seen through the lens of Nemai Ghosh) and Journey with a Hundred Strings (on the music and life of Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma). She produced Meeting Manjit, a film on Bawa, her friend and collaborator, which won the National Award. She currently occupies the position of Editor at Art Varta and has recently published a pictorial memoir on Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma entitled, The Man and His Music.  Ina’s three-decade-long engagement with the arts embraces everything from tribal art and folk theatre to contemporary performing arts, visual arts and literature. She lives in Gurgaon with her husband, Ravi, and canine soulmate, Leyla.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Personal Threads: I Stitch To Pray. Guest post by Reverend Annabel Barber

Journal and sketch-book covers (on the theme of the sea)
made in 2018, using cotton fabric coloured using ‘inktense’ blocks,
shells, sheer fabric, threads, sequins and glass beads.
Techniques include piecing, applique, couching,
hand-stitching, and machine quilting

Quilting. There’s a word that breathes life into my soul! The piecing together of fragments and leftovers to make something ‘new’ and beautiful. I am not an artist. I stitch to pray and to grapple with scripture (like Jacob, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me!’). I experiment and, as with all experiments, I learn from those that don’t work, which become the unfinished, the UFOs that sometimes haunt me.
Me as a baby in a dress my godmother
hand-made and hand-smocked for me.

I was born in a home for unmarried mothers in the late 1950s. I write this sentence knowing that it doesn’t convey the pain, shame and cruelty my birth mother endured. At six weeks old I was removed from every trace of her and my heritage, and given a completely different life, on a Lincolnshire farm. The fields around me formed a changing patchwork of colours, green in spring, apart from the beautiful wild golden fields of daffodils, growing in the flat Dutch-like landscape. In autumn the vista changed to the golden-white of the ripe corn, and then the rich red brown of newly turned fertile soil after ploughing. Maybe that’s why I spend my time diligently piecing a colourful patchwork of fabric together!
The Path to Heaven, Wall-hanging.  2013/14
after a quilt retreat in Colorado led by Ricky Tims.
Made using hand dyed cotton, hand-dyed silk velvet, and beads.
Techniques used include applique, piecing, hand and machine quilting,
 hand and machine embroidery and hand beading. 

When I show my quilts (mainly to church groups, those I hope will ‘get’ something of what I am trying to do), I am always asked two questions: ‘How long does it take to make one of these?’ And ‘How did you first start quilting?’ The first question is unanswerable. Each project takes my whole life, and everything I have experienced, sometimes I cannot finish a project for years because I haven’t yet acquired the skills I need for it.
The Path to Heaven (close-up) .  2013/14 . 

But it is easy to explain how I started. I remind my audience of ‘Golden Hands’, a long-running series of UK magazines from the 1960s and 70s. These magazines (cheaply bought in bulk from the local newsagent when they were out-of-date), with their clear instructions and good illustrations were my teachers, along with my adoptive mother, who was an exquisite needlewoman and knitter. She had been orphaned at 16, and mainly picked up her skills from friends and their mothers. It enabled them all to creatively make more of their ration coupons during the Second World War. She lived in lodgings for some years before her marriage, having moved from the urban sprawl of Bradford to the small Lincolnshire town of Louth to be near her older brother. One particularly talented friend of hers became my godmother, and made beautiful smocked dresses to celebrate my arrival in the family. As a child. I didn’t have the patience to master my mother’s skills, too fond of time spent with my head in a book! And I was always one for speed over accuracy – she described my dress-making as ‘blowing things together’! Living on a farm everything had a practical purpose, no cross-stitch samplers for us! I sewed to make clothes. Patchwork was putting leftover scraps and bits from the rag-bag together – not that I actually made much with them, they were ongoing projects, a bit like life.


Loaves and Fishes wall-hanging, 2012 .
Exhibited at the 2013 Sacred Threads exhibition in Virginia (USA).
This quilt shows the loaves and fishes from the feeding of the 5000,
one of the greatest miracles. Christ takes the simple food a child offers,
blesses it and feeds those who are hungry. We each have our gifts,
our loaves and fishes that can feed the world, both physically
and spiritually. But it takes courage to offer something of ourselves,
 to come to Jesus and give him what we have and allow him to use it for others.
 And too often our society seems to be saying “But I want a burger and fries,
not loaves and fish!” Using cotton, mixed fibres, sequins and lace.
Techniques used include applique, piecing, hand and machine quilting. 

Life. Which took me away from the farm and the countryside. Which made me choose between art, English, and science. At 18, in 1977, I chose science, went to University in Leeds to do a BSc in Pharmacology, and then into a job in science publishing. At least I could be creative with the use of words,  and this was the closest I could get to stitching together the disparate drivers in my life.

Loaves and Fishes wall-hanging, 2012 . close-up.
Using cotton, mixed fibres, sequins and lace.
Techniques used include applique, piecing, hand and machine quilting. 

But what about faith? That I certainly didn’t get from my adoptive family, who were occasional reluctant attenders at church at best. But it has always been the foundation, the bedrock of my life. As a child from the age of seven I used to walk to where the long drive of the adjacent farm ended, to be collected for church and Sunday School in the local town. I remember my surprise when I began to realise that not everyone talked with God as I did. Even as a child I made my own rituals to keep me safe.

Detail from a quilt made for the school where my daughter taught. Begun in 2008, finished in 2017. I wanted the children to have something comforting to cuddle under in their ‘Reading corner’. Cotton, machine pieced and quilted.

I grew up, married, and our family grew with our first child being born in 1988. My sewing kept me (relatively) sane, and then in 1993 we went to Texas. The (UK) Cambridge-based company my husband worked for wanted him to relocate to Austin, so when he was needed in the US for the launch of a project the family went too, to experience first-hand a little of what living in America was like. My two older children were three and five, and it wasn’t an easy visit until I met the quilters.

Detail from wall-hanging of Jonah in the belly of the Whale
made in 2016. It was made as my response to the Biblical
story of Jonah being swallowed by the whale.
Cotton hand-dyed material, beads.
Techniques are machine quilting and hand sewing.

I had braved the Austin traffic to drive to a Quilter’s Guild meeting to hear Doreen Speckman speak. A wonderful evening, and beautiful, inspiring quilts. Everyone was kind, but I was shy and out of my depth. At the end of the evening, I inadvertently left through the wrong door and, disoriented, couldn’t find where I had parked my car. An enormous white Cadillac drew up alongside me, driven by a very small lady who could just about see over the steering wheel. With her help I found, not only my car, but laughter and loving friends who sustained me during the rest of the visit. My remaining time in Austin was swept into sewing days with my new-found friends, who even lent me a Singer Featherweight to use during my visit. I still have the ‘watercolour’ quilt pieced on that machine. They shared fabric with me, and taught me about American strip-piecing. They were greatly amused by my Laura Ashley fabric laboriously pieced over paper hexagons, which really wasn’t the ‘done’ thing in 1990s America.

Baby quilt made for a church fund-raiser (2017).
Cotton fabric, machine pieced and quilted.

After a few months, I came back to the UK having realised that I was too European to thrive in America. There’s quite a gap between the pioneering spirit of America, and the deep historic rootedness that I had discovered in myself. During our visit, I reacted by becoming more English as the days went on, and was in danger of demanding cucumber sandwiches with my Earl Grey tea at 5.00pm each day! But I came back having been well and truly bitten by the patchwork bug.


In 1995 I enrolled on a 2-year, City and Guilds adult-education course on Patchwork and Quilting, learning technique after technique, grappling with art and design, and ignoring the lectures on colour (I value my innate colour sense, and didn’t want to be ‘taught out’ of using my instincts). My third child arrived early, just before I finished the course, and I patched and pieced my chaotic life together. I pieced through a sudden move from Cambridge to York. I sewed through loneliness of being uprooted from a village to city living, and medical emergencies that spiralled as my both my father and mother’s health deteriorated, and my brother had a liver transplant. And then I began training as a Spiritual Director.

Mandala wall-hanging created during Ann Myrhe’s online course
(Mandala Unplugged, 2018). Cotton fabric, silk ribbon, beads,
silk and metallic threads. Techniques include knitting, crochet,
silk ribbon embroidery, applique, (all hand-stitched).

‘Draw Hope’, was our first  assignment for the course. So frustrating, as I have the same innate ability to draw as a giraffe. I went home, pieced-together ‘Hope’ from fabric and took it to the group a couple of weeks later. Something astonishing happened. Everyone related to quilted ‘Hope’ from where they were, they saw things in the piece that resonated for them, but which had not been part of my intention. I suddenly became aware that I could connect visually, spirit to spirit, in a completely different way. I could ‘speak’ my soul in cloth.

After a long illness my brother died, and stitch became my only prayer as I walked through grief. The slow journey to priesthood quickened in me and I sewed my spiritual autobiography (I’m not sure this is what my tutors expected when they said we could submit the assignment ‘in any form’). I designed the silk stole in which I was ordained Deacon, and which I wore again when I became a Priest a year later, in 2005.


Safe to shore (close-up) wall-hanging (2017). Made as an example piece for a retreat I shall be facilitating later this year. Cotton hand-dyed and commercial fabrics, shells, lace and glass beads. Techniques include piecing, applique, hand embroidery and machine quilting.

I stitched through my three years as a Curate, which is the initial training post that all Church of England clergy take up, it felt a bit like being a Priest with training wheels! I continued to stitch through the challenges of being a hospital chaplain in a deprived ex-fishing town, the post I went to when my 3-year curacy ended. I stitched through my own tears when stillborn babies were born in the hospital to very young couples, or when I accompanied and prayed for patients and their families who struggled to come to terms with the realisation that life is ending. Sometimes I helped family members while away a long bedside vigil with stitching and prayer. Sitting at my own father’s bedside as he lost his battle with cancer I took up knitting again, the companionable silence that fell with the rhythmic click of the needles as I knitted socks had a calming effect on us both.

Fair Isle knitted cushion cover (2008 my design)


A fellow priest’s description of the difference between painting as art and as prayer released me to share my spiritual musings in stitch with others. ‘Art’ had an external value, it could be ‘judged’, given a pass or fail, sometimes it wasn’t ‘good enough’.  But prayer is about my connection with God and the life of the Spirit, there is no judgement in it, it is always good enough for God, and sometimes it may have something to say to other people as well. Creativity seems to flow across disciplines and is many people’s main connection with the Creator God. Encouraging and fostering creativity in craft enables people to be creative in other areas of their lives. Learning stitching can help someone find a new pathway through grief, or the rhythm of hand-stitching or knitting can enable the quiet rhythm of prayer. My congregation in Waddington have, I hope, benefitted from events that involve creativity - cutting and sticking for the little ones, colouring, card making, origami or sewing for the more mature in the congregation. We mark St Michael’s day (our patron saint) each year with an impressive celebration of dragons and Saint-inspired crafts before a short service and simple shared meal.

My first attempt at goldwork (2018)!

Maybe it is the rhythm of the needle that is prayer to me. Certainly I have seen its calming effect on retreatants during textile art retreats that I have facilitated for the Creative Arts Retreat Movement. Maybe it is my own need to piece together the broken that drives me. Maybe I am stitching my fractured soul together. But, for me, patchwork is prayer, and I am so grateful to those who have helped me to this realisation. Maybe it is ‘only patchwork’, ‘craft not art’, but patchwork has taken me to places I would never have dreamed of visiting. It has given me friendships that I will always value, and truly for me is ‘peace work’.

Washed-up! (work in progress 2018) wall-hanging.
Cotton and nylon fabric and sheers, beachcombed shells,
embroidery threads. The background was machine quilted
and then ‘crashed’, shells applied under sheers,
with cross stitch and some hand embroidery


Annabel R. Barber MA, is Rector of the parish of Waddington near Lincoln in the UK. She is also Rural Dean of Graffoe Deanery, and is involved in the ministry of spiritual direction. She occasionally facilitates retreats and quiet days for the Creative Arts Retreat Movement (CARM). More information about CARM, and the retreats and quiet days that it organises can be found on their website: http://www.carmretreats.org or on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CARMRetreats/


Saturday, 18 August 2018

Art Commission For a New Coat of Arms for Western Australia Supreme Court Civil - Guest Post by Maggie Baxter

Madam Bukeshla

At $57,000 Aus it wasn’t a big art commission by local standards, but as the Coat of Arms placed in the Ceremonial Court of the new Western Australian Supreme Court (Civil), it was an important one to get absolutely right.

The new Supreme Court Civil is part of an expanded redevelopment of Cathedral Square in the centre of the Perth Central Business District, incorporating the restoration of the beautiful, historic Old Treasury Buildings into what is now the award winning Como The Treasury Hotel. The aim of the State Government was to preserve and transform a grand and elegant heritage asset from a derelict empty building in a rundown precinct to a world-class yet publicly accessible hotel. They succeeded, the award winning restaurants and bars in this beautiful building are packed every night with the after work crowd.
View Through The Court

This restoration became the centre of a designated Legal Precinct. An elegant, minimalist high-rise office block was built behind the hotel to house the Supreme Court (Civil) and Mediation Services, and the Departments of Justice and Treasury.

Madam Bukleshla Crown - close-up

As part of the State Government Percent for Art Scheme, site-specific art commissions were already underway for these new offices and courts when the Chief Justice suggested one more. He had seen a tapestry Coat of Arms, albeit old and falling apart, in another Australian State’s Supreme Court and thought we should have something similar.

Another Supreme Court Judge, who has an interest in the local art scene, took over the project. He and the Executive Manager of the Supreme Court were a pleasure to work with. It was an act of great faith and trust for them to commission Trish Bygott and Nathan Crotty as neither had any previous experience with public art projects and Trish’s embroidery work is completely process driven so they could only present a loose and imprecise concept when they pitched for the project.

The Wild Side of The Swan

As a young artist Trish came to Western Australia from Melbourne over 25 years ago for a six months residency, but never left. She describes herself as a ‘Crafter of cloth. Stitch-ress of beauty’. Artisan of adornment’ and says ‘I learnt to hand stitch at the age if 6…. then honed my love of textile design in Melbourne’s RMIT in the early eighties and found myself exhibiting a naïve, personal narrative celebrating stich and adornment for another time’
Trish making a start with the background construction

Nathan Crotty is Trish’s partner in life and art. He contributed to the overall design and more difficult aspects of project management that required lateral thinking. From their shop selling hand-stitched clothes in Fremantle, (the port suburb and artists’ hub of Perth), they have gathered a group of like-minded passionate stitchers to give workshops and seminars on embroidery and associated crafts.

Hands at Work - Long Stitch Details for Kangaroo
When the Chief Justice came up with the idea for an artist made Coat of Arms, it was only nine months away until the official opening of the Court, but because it was public money precious time was taken up with a formal commissioning process, asking three other artists to submit proposals as well. This meant that Trish and Nathan’s production time after being awarded the commission was reduced to just over 6 months.

 Finalising the background around the crest
The Coat of Arms is governed by strict rules, yet Trish and Nathan were asked to be innovative, celebrate the skill of the hand made, and work within a 21st century sensibility that would complement the modern interior of the Ceremonial Court. The only flexibility afforded them was they did not have to place the iconography within a rectangle, circle, or oval unless they chose to. What they did have to think about carefully was the hue, tone, and vertical emphasis of the wooden panelling that dominates the interior. Trish, Nathan and their team performed the miraculous and managed to complete the minutely detailed embroidery on time and ready for the official opening.

Seed Stitch Between the Ripped Silk - for the background

When the State and Judiciary of Western Australia were founded any Indigenous perspective was completely denied. The symbols we are left with for the most part reflect outmoded sentiments around this division. It was important to Trish and Nathan to correct this in some way, no matter how subtle. They contacted respected Noongar[1] Elder Dr. Noel Nannup, who graciously shared his wisdom. Although many of the symbols within the crest do not sit well with Noongar people, Noel talked about the significance of the Sheoak tree[2] as a natural and living symbol of justice for his country and culture. Uncannily yet appropriately the filament-like leaves of this tree have a stitch-like appearance. This information was crucial as it allowed the essence of Noel’s narrative to consciously enter the new Coat of Arms and infuse every aspect of the process, embedding a deeper layer of meaning and sensitivity into every colour and stitch within the work.[3]

Nicole Demarchelier working on the background- the spirit of the sheoak

Before starting on the embroidery Trish tested numerous samples inside the Ceremonial Court to confirm that proposed stitch sizes could be seen at a distance while still maintaining a sense of intimacy. Silks and threads hand dyed in natural and reactive dyes were placed against the wood to ensure each complemented the other yet allowed the embroidery to stand apart.

Everything had to be drawn to scale because the drawn marks determined the stitch size. Once this process was resolved Trish engaged two expert embroiderers to work with her. Each took on responsibility for individual parts of the whole work.

 Dr. Nicole Demarchelier. Bridget Bygott, and Dr. Jane Donlin ( left to right )

Before commissioning the artwork, the architect had designated leather as the background material for the Coat of Arms.  However, to ensure overall aesthetic cohesion Trish and Nathan decided to replace this with textile created from thin strips of torn silk hand dyed in nuanced shades of earth and amber.  Each strip, meticulously folded to ensure no raw edges were revealed was laid down held was laid down and held in place with and estimated 40,000 minute running stitches. At over 2m in length the background was hard to handle and their first attempt was thwarted because the fabric was distorting. Textile artist, Jane Donlin, who was working on the project with Trish and Nathan suggested the strips had to be held tight like a warp of a woven cloth Overnight Nathan made a special frame on table legs while Trish and Nicky Desmarchelier, another textile artist who was responsible for stitching the background, unpicked their work to start over again. All of this added to stress and adrenalin levels.

Hands At Work, Stitching the background Silk  in Place

The kangaroo paws,[4] kangaroo, fleur-de-lis, water, and crest with the swan were embroidered separately, cut out and appliqued onto the background.  Trish had to design around stitches that would allow for the body of each element to be easily cut and turned. The ground of spirals below the kangaroos give the work a three-dimensional feel.

Trish engaged a textile conservator to mount the finished work. The architect provided the original backing board for the leather, but it is MDF (medium-density fibreboard), which is definitely not acid free.  To rectify this Nathan had to glue a thin layer of rag board to the MDF to act as a barrier between   the acids and the finished work. Then it was wrapped with a layer of bamboo wadding, and covered with another layer of de-ionised linen. Only after all this preparation could the artwork be mounted.

Readying the placement of the central components on the background

Everything was measured very precisely. The completed artwork was stitched onto the linen which already had Velcro stitched on to hold it under the board. The four corners had to be very carefully mitred. This final mounting turned out to be an all night task right up until the van came to take it into the Court at 11.00 am. 

detail of the ground stitched onto the background

‘The whole process was so intense from start to finish’, Trish said ‘no matter how careful our planning, we still had to make on the spot decisions every day. It was a balancing act because even though we knew we were working against the clock to a strict deadline, nothing could be forced and we had to allow each and every part to come together at the right time. After the artwork went up in the court, we all went through a strange phase of having withdrawal symptoms. We were all so exhausted yet didn’t know how to relax, sleep or conversely how to fill our days’.

Irina and Alena, stitching the crown in place with surgical precision

Background: Torn silk strips held down with running stitch;

Earth: ripped silk backstitch held down by running stitch, seed stitch, and stem stitch;

Crown: a combination of satin stitch and backstitch using ripped silk rather than thread;

Ermine:  ripped silk held down with running stitch;

Fleur de lis: feather stitch;

Kangaroo: ripped silk held down with running stitch, backstitch, and long satin stitch;

Kangaroo paws: couching;

Shield:  satin stitch (405 squares), and stem stitch;

Swan: ripped silk feather stitch and long and short stitch; and

Water: ripped silk held down with running stitch, ripped silk backstitch.

If you would like to know more about this artwork, tune into the short video made by Rob Bygott to document the processes from start to finish: https://youtu.be/oi3zptf_g1w

Or read ‘Crest-Risen in the Supreme Court by Nathan Crotty in The Fremantle Shipping News, Feb 24 2017: http://fremantleshippingnews.com.au/2017/02/24/the-crest/

For a short video about the other art commission for the Supreme Court Civil: ‘Journey of a River’  (an18 m long painting + 5 x 20m long glass panels) by Jo Darbyshire in collaboration in Rick Vermey go to: https://youtu.be/wFkEAXmrw1w

Artist: Trish Bygott in collaboration with Nathan Crotty, Dr. Nicolle Desmarchelier, and Dr. Jane Donlin,

Title: State Coat of Arms
Architect: Peter Hunt Architect
Art Coordinator: Maggie Baxter
Photography: Robert Frith
Textile Conservation: Patricia Moncrieff
Client: The Department of Justice
Department of Finance Project Managers: Grayam Sandover and Louise Armstrong

The artist would like to thank the Western Australian Government Department of Finance and Rob Bygott for their support in making the video. ‘Coat of Arms Embroidery’.

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

[1]. The Noongar are the original Indigenous inhabitants of south-west corner of Western Australia. They have inhabited this area for more than 45,000 years. Their traditional lands include the metropolitan area of Perth, Western Australia’s capital city.
[2] . A species of the Casuarina genus, native to Australia, the Indian Sub-Continent, South east Asia, and the Pacific Islands.
[3]. This paragraph has been extrapolated and slightly re-worked from an article by Nathan Crotty for the Fremantle Shipping News.
[4]. The common name for a number of plant species found in the south west of Australia so named because the tubular flowers are coated with dense hairs and open at the apex with six claw-like structures. The red and green kangaroo paw is the official floral emblem for Western Australia.