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Making Textiles: Making Meaning

This blog post is adapted from a podcast in the Tessellation Nation  crochet design course. It’s one in a series of motivational podcasts I make to help keep course members on track, and connected to our projects and our wider craft community.

One of the things that helps to keep me on track, and on task, with a project is the feeling that I’m doing, or making, something meaningful. That there’s a purpose behind what I’m doing. It doesn’t have to be ground breaking or hugely important but there does need to be a reason, or reasons, for doing it. There needs to be a WHY.

It can be interesting to look retrospectively at the objects we’ve made over the years and consider what was going on in our life at that time. What role did this piece of work play and were you aware of this or is it only the passing of time that gives you this perspective and insight?

Often, we’re unaware of the significance of things; objects, events, people until much later and sometimes things that seemed fairly insignificant at the time can take on a whole new resonance by the events that happen later.

When I look back at my own work, which spans decades and disciplines, I can see exactly why I chose to make that object at that particular time in my life. In the moment I was largely unaware of the subliminal meanings and messages bound into the work but with hindsight it becomes clear what I was actually doing – and it’s rarely just about the end product.

I can now see the stitches that helped to repair emotional scars, I can see the children’s clothes I made, invested with love, optimism and also a degree of nostalgia for the handmade clothes I wore as a child.

The strange toylike sculptures that emerged just before my first pregnancy told a story about maternal longing and anxiety that I wasn’t consciously aware of at the time.

And my first, failed, attempts at more commercial objects pointed to a new path and signaled the start of series of trial and error business models.

So what are you working on right now and what role is this project playing in YOUR life? Or if you’re struggling to start something new, or your initial enthusiasm for a project has plateaued, what’s going on and what is your craft work trying to tell you?

There may be lots of things bound into your creative output – or it may be very straight forward.

Perhaps your craft activities are simply about investigating or discovering your own creative abilities, building your confidence and your craft skills.

What have you learnt recently and how could you apply this to other projects, or share what you’ve learnt with others? Or even apply these things to other areas of your life?

Often when we build our confidence in one aspect of our life this has a ripple effect and spills over into other areas contributing to our more general well-being.

Maybe you’re looking for a project to immerse yourself in as a distraction from other events in your life. Or perhaps you just want to give yourself time to sit and recover from big life changes. A big craft project demands your time and attention and it can also provide a space to process thoughts and feelings.

The rhythms, counting and small repetitive motions of crochet provide a self-soothing backdrop to introspection and, certainly for me, the resulting end product validates time spent soul searching which I’d otherwise dismiss as self-indulgent navel gazing. Somehow I can’t justify time spent thinking unless I have something tangible to show at the end – but I won’t delve any further into that train of thought …

In recent years my own work has taken on new meanings, and whilst design and the making process are still my main drivers, connectivity; the collective and the shared experience, have become my new passions.

As a sociable introvert I’m naturally curious about other people and their relationships to craft and making. I’m intrigued by how different people interpret a design idea,

I love watching the progress of my course member’s work. I love seeing their inspiration, yarn and colour choices, and I’m fascinated by everyone’s processes and how these are documented.

For me, my courses and projects are very much an interactive and dynamic experience. We all get to learn from each other and share our skills and ideas. The project; the design, is just a point of departure for so many different ideas, conversations, spin off projects and connections and this becomes increasing and beautifully visible towards the end of a course.

When we interact and connect with people in our network it’s almost impossible NOT to learn from them and what each individual learns is naturally passed on to others and informs the wider community.

Also, even if you find yourself becoming hyper critical or irritated by other people’s work this is itself an indicator that something’s going on with your own work that may need addressing. What are you doing, or not doing, that’s prompting these responses?

I have discovered that this networked way of learning has a name and it’s actually a formal learning theory – it’s called Connectivism.

Its principle is that networks and connectivity are as significant in the learning process as the delivery of the actual subject information.

So, making connections helps you to learn and learning takes place THROUGH these connections.

It’s like information traveling through synapses rather than simply developing in an individuals mind and it can happen in lots of different ways.

For example, in my courses when you share your colour choices and your ideas for design layouts this information filters through the whole community providing ideas, inspiration and alternative ways of seeing and doing. We rarely think very deeply about how or why we share our work with others, and we don’t need to – but don’t underestimate the significance of these acts and their ripple effects.

Also, working alongside others encourages us to make connections between different ideas, concepts and disciplines.

One of the things that drew me to my latest design, Tessellation Nation, was its physical and metaphorical ability to combine different and difficult ideas and shapes.

Handmade objects are the perfect vehicles for exploring and combining different, often opposing, concepts. Maths provides the building blocks for so many beautiful patterns it feels almost criminal to separate maths and textile design and present them as polar opposites; as binary and gendered subjects. They’re both gateways to the other side.

Some people take a very mathematical approach to this pattern and have delved into the geometry behind it discovering a whole new world of complex tessellations. Others have taken a more artistic approach, working intuitively and instinctively inspired by the work of impressionist painters and for some it’s the traditions of patchwork, or the beauty of astronomic imagery.

Tessellation Nation offers a way in to many different subjects – creative work is rarely about just one thing.

Connectivism as a learning theory also places decision making as an important part of the learning process.

My projects are designed specifically to challenge you at every stage, whatever your experience and skills are, and also to provide plenty of opportunities for decision making along the way.

Tessellation Nation was intended to do many things and to meet many different needs and desires. It was always meant to be an introduction to a design process. To present you with the foundation and a few building blocks and the rest was up to you. It’s not easy – it was never meant to be easy.

Behind every motif is a thought process and a conscious decision and everyone who completes this blanket has ‘ownership’ of their work and should feel incredibly proud of what they’ve achieved.

Problem solving and decision making is undeniably an enriching and fulfilling way to learn.

In the theory of Connectivity relevance and currency also help learning take place.

One of the advantages, and disadvantages, of being an independent designer motivated by the thrill of the next big thing, is that I work very much ‘in the moment’.  Forward planning is not my strength and I completely understand that my methods may seem haphazard verging on the reckless to some – but this is what makes the projects exciting for me, and it’s definitely what keeps me on task.

If it doesn’t deliver the dopamine – I’m just not interested.

The disadvantages to this way of working are obvious but no amount of tutting and eyerolling has made any difference over the years so now I choose to focus only on the advantages of this methodology. (yes – I’ve decided to call it a methodology, rather than procrastination, time wasting or daydreaming)

As a freewheeling independent I don’t need to keep any third-party investors happy I only need to serve my course members and do what feels real and authentic.

By working in the moment I can have live conversations as I write and deliver my courses. This allows me to pivot and be flexible if I need to, and it also gives course members the chance to input, feedback and feel part of an organic creative process.

One again it’s the lively dynamic nature of these projects that provides meaning and a sense of connection for me.

As I’m writing the project I’m also learning from the community as the ongoing discourse shapes and molds the final product.

So Connectivism is the thing that gives my work meaning, but it’s not just my immediate crochet community I feel connected to. I also feel a connection through textiles to a wider network which has threads running through time and space.

As textile crafters we are all inherently part of an incredible tradition that understands the significant role that fabric plays in our lives and I was reminded of this at the exhibition UNRAVEL: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art at the Barbican Centre in London.

This show presented a large collection of textile art objects each with its own inherent message and meaning.

The work of Angela Su from Hong Kong with its human hair as embroidery thread uses references to sutury, or surgical stitching, as a metaphor for pain and recovery.

Small figurative fabric sculptures by the French artist Louise Bourgeois are a response to her childhood fears of abandonment and for her stitching signified an attempt to “keep things together and make things whole”

Bottom and top left image: Angela Su Top right image: Louise Bourgeois

For the Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann the humble domestic floor mat is the woven signifier of a traditional democracy in Southeast Asia where groups historically met and sat on mats called Tikar. It was only much later that Western colonisers introduced tables which for Yee I-Lann become a symbol of a patriarchal world view.

Work by the iconic fibre artist Magdalana Abakanowicz are a reminder of the origins of textile fibres as produced by nature herself and her monumental woven sculptures are both primal and timeless. The work weaves its way through both art and craft and also carefully ducks and dives thorough a post war communist agenda that promoted folk crafts and was suspicious of modern fine art practices.

Left image: Yee I-Lann Right image: Magdalana Abakanowicz

The contributing artists in this international showcase stitch layer upon layer of meaning into their work. Some of which is explicitly clear in its imagery, but the real power of these pieces is implicit in the materials, techniques and processes used. These meanings you’d only discover by scratching the surface, digging a bit deeper, asking questions and understanding that a hand-crafted object is never just about one thing.

We may feel like our own stories are less valuable or interesting than those of ‘real artists’, but it’s an artists job to mythologise their own lives and present them as meaningful subjects for interrogation.

YOUR  life and YOUR personal experiences are just as valuable and

YOU can write meaning into the work you create.

Many of us invest hundreds of hours creating objects of beauty that we want to feel proud of and I think it’s important that we value this work proportionately and attribute some kind of meaning to it.

Whether it’s about healing, learning, wellbeing, occupational therapy, connecting, discovery, passing time, generosity, pushing boundaries, self-worth, competition; whatever fuels your compulsion to make, it’s always worth taking some time to reflect and acknowledge the role that our craft work plays in our lives and the lives of our wider communities.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this so please do contribute to the conversation the comments below. 🙏🏼

And if you’d like to join the waitlist for Tessellation Nation nip over here and sign up! 



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