Body and Society: A 10 foot cloth/hanging

My original concept started when I read an article in the Guardian in March 2012 the “Rise and rise in solo living”.

It was about the phenomena that more and more people are choosing to live alone within large cities or urban conurbations.

I produced a range of dyed fabrics with the colours I intended to use.

I chose a large piece of vividly dyed fabric in which I could see crowds of people emerge from the random markings.

The possibilities of representing society became apparent.

Different groups appeared; punks, church officials, festival goers etc.

I decided to explore different elements, the random nature of what I could “see” in the cloth with the specific; a figure in the window, apparently living alone. The randomness and the specific reflect society itself.

The Process

In many ways, because I was working on this brief and it was in the forefront of my mind, I saw its relevance wherever I looked at exhibitions, on television, in newspapers and magazines. I saw references to society in Grayson Perry’s programmes on taste, Keith Vaughan’s figures, Lucien Freud’s bodies, the Artist community at large Hockney, Picasso, Rembrandt, etc.

Amongst the crowd, in the cloth there is depiction of Hockney painting. Lucian Freud’s nude with rags, Rembrandt’s “The Fall of Man” and a figure from Picasso’s Villard Suite.

Textile artists Janet Bolton and Desiree Habitcht resonated with me too because elements of their work helped me see the direction I could take and how I could overcome some of the practical problems I was having.

I chose to jettison a lot of my original ideas, which in some ways seems a loss when I look back over my process, but eventually I had to take one path. This often called for some difficult decisions.

The process itself combined elements of the designed versus the random. A direction evolved that took me in a direction I had not expected. For instance, when doing a trial using a paper photocopy of my drawing as a template, I noticed how dramatic the image was against the vivid background fabric.


It also looked good with the monochrome border.

I decided I wanted to incorporate this element into the piece. I felt it accentuated the contrast of the two elements, people living alone and society.

But as the process continued, this image disappeared, but I continued with the stitched paper technique.

The final cloth is about 10 feet long, so difficult to get an impression of the overall design when working close up to I worked all the design out on a smaller scale print out of the design, so I could see how it looked from a distance.

Throughout I tested out the techniques on a smaller scale before committing to the final piece.

What succeeded?

I feel I have created a good contrast between the isolation of the individual and the rest of society. I have used my new found skills, in drawing with the machine and sewing using unusual materials, namely photocopied photographs and drawings to good effect.

My working set up at home with BS2 facility on my Bernina and the freestyle quilting frame has proved efficient. I found it easier to move the machine than the fabric. I could “draw with stitch” using this combination.

The quilting too worked out well as the separate layers were kept under tension. It was also important, as I was using photographs, that I didn’t have to tack the three layers together in the conventional way of stretching a quilt as I could not have stitched through the photos without leaving holes in the paper.

I did have misgivings about cutting my cloth to a regular rectangle but as far as the quilting went it proved necessary. In order for the quilt to lie flat it had to be quilted under tension on a quilting.

I also bought a very small sketchbook at the start of the module and I found that because it seemed more easily accessible I was using it more regularly and it gives me a more accurate and personal track of my thinking.

What didn’t succeed?

Originally I’d intended the one large figure to be just drawn, inspired by Hockney’s technique; the idea was abandoned for posterised photos instead of a single drawn/stitched close up and I kept the drawing for the crowds.

I had a lot of problems using paper, though I chose the thinnest I could find.

The machine stitches serrated the paper so that it soon lifted away.

I did overcome some of this by using organdie to protect and hold down the paper. I kept the organdie fabric over the white areas but cut it away to reveal the black in other areas.

However it was still difficult to stitch through the paper and where there was magic tape joining the paper it was even more of a problem.

In places I have left areas unstitched as the machine would not stitch properly, either only catching the bobbin thread occasionally or not at all.

In future I might try iron on Vilene to join the paper as someone suggested but more likely I would print directly on to fabric as I have done in the past. I am still concerned about the frailty of the paper. In retrospect it caused me a lot of practical problems but I am pleased with the design.

I did come to rely on photographs and in a way I regret this. I would like to try a similar design using just the drawn/stitched line. I can console myself with the fact that I did at least draw/stitch the background figures just using the machine and that I did experiment enough to know I can draw/stitch the larger portraits too.

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I wish in places that the drawing was better and I’d taken more time to draw from photos and observation. Perhaps I was a bit anxious to get it done. On another occasion I could choose to take more time.

I have landed up with a conventional shape which I find disappointing but I think the upside is that it looks like a window on the world which fits with my theme.

I am still considering framing the close up figures in order to make them look more isolated.

Summing up

The quilt/cloth evolved and changed from the original article “The rise and rise of solo living.”

I also used five figures instead of one which is a change from my original idea. I’m not sure why this happened and it does dilute the message and contrast. Originally I had just one figure at a window with perspective now I had five figures. Why? Perhaps because I preferred the design, even though it perhaps diluted the message.

The process has been enjoyable and challenging: the learning, the thinking process and solving the problems putting the ideas into practise. I feel however that it is just a stepping stone and I am eager to try out some of what I’ve learned and to play with some of the ideas I’ve had to jettison.


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