Dr. Claire Dwyer
Our second research workshop was held at UCL in September 2017 and was themed around our second participatory creative project ‘My Life is but a Weaving’ developed with project artist Katy Beinart. In planning the workshop we brought together other academics working on engaged arts practice with textiles, researchers working on community textiles and textile artists as well as colleagues interested in using creative methods to engage community.
The first session Community Textiles: faith, place and migration was opened by a presentation from project lead Claire Dwyer which a paper entitled ‘Sacred stitching: geographies of faith, place and gender’. In this paper Claire foregrounded the participatory creative project in some of the empirical work from the Making Suburban Faith project which has uncovered the role of vernacular textiles in our case study faith communities including the kneelers in St Thomas’ Church, decorative table coverings at the mosque and the tradition of handmade challah clothes at the synagogue. Our research suggests that these forms of vernacular needlework are largely neglected both in the recent academic interest in textiles and making by geographers and others as well as in histories of more formal or elite church embroidery.
The second paper was given by recent graduate William Barnes from the geography department at Royal Holloway whose paper ‘From Sacred place to outer space’ explored the community embroidery and iconography of the kneelers in Guildford Cathedral. William’s paper outlined the ways in which modernity was celebrated in kneelers which were curated by Prudence Maufe, wife of the cathedral architect, and brought together many different embroiders from across the diocese. The final paper in this session was given by Rose Sinclair who offered a fascinating analysis of the role of crafting in the lives of Black women in Britain particularly through the work of Dorcas Societies, which brought together women to pray and make decorative textiles. While Rose’s ethnography of Caribbean women’s making practices resonated with our findings she also showcased her installation of her own work inspired by the research.
In the second panel Textiles and Engaged Arts Practice Nazneen Ahmed began with a paper about ‘My life is but a weaving: faith, family, diaspora in a church hall’ which discussed our collaborative textiles project in practice – exploring how the participants responded to the experience. Nazneen argued that the project was an opportunity for the sharing of stories of home, migration and making and that through the making project distinctive histories were articulated and shared. Nazneen’s presentation drew on interviews conducted with the participants and a series of poems written by her drawing on their biographies. These form part of a forthcoming publication about the art installation.
The second paper was given by Sonia Tuttiett and Celia Ward from East London Textile Arts who gave an account of the organisations distinctive work in bringing together communities to work with professional arts to create textiles which have been widely exhibited and also produced as prints to sell. Their talk offered an inspiring model of using textiles in a variety of social enterprises including conveying health messages through a stitched book about diabetes and a wonderful stitched map of Newham with squares contributed by different individuals. They also raised important issues about the challenges of funding and supporting such initiatives. In the final talk Fiona Hackney shared some findings from her own AHRC Connected Community project CARE which has explored the practice of co-production through making. Fiona’s talk emphasised some of the challenges and tensions in co-produced work highlighting the ways in which a shared embroidery exercise challenged differing understandings of skill and professionalism between younger and older participants. Fiona reflected on alternative ways of thinking of creativity, as ‘untidy’ versus ‘ordered’ creativity and also suggested that co-operation is a skill.
The third session was titled ‘Artists and Textiles: Conversations’. Katy Beinart began this session with the paper ‘My life is but a weaving: mapping traces and threads of belonging and belief.’ Katy outlined the influences and inspirations which shaped her development of the creative project drawing on artists such as Boetti, who had worked with maps and artists who had used texts including religious texts. Describing the development of the project Katy reflected on the intuition and trust needed to bring it to fruition but also some of the tensions balancing artists, collaborative makers and audiences. She raised the question about the effectiveness of such projects as both research and as art. Kajal Nisha Patel shared with the audience a range of her own arts projects working with South Asian women in different contexts including work for Lightseekers. She also shared with the group the video artwork Voices by Judy Fritas raising questions about representation, voice and collaboration.
The third speaker Shelly Goldsmith, presented ‘Looking beyond the warp and the weft: unpicking latent narratives in clothing’ which explored issues of loss and memory through clothing in a reflection on her installation ‘the Łódź Blouse Trilogy’. This installation reflected on latent narratives through used clothing inspired by a photograph ‘A Party in the Łódź Ghetto’ by Henryk Ross.
The final speaker Lyn Setterington discussed her recent commission ‘Threads of Identity’ a stitch-based project with Burnage Academy for boys and the Ahmed Ullah Iqbal educational Trust which developed a new piece of art based on the concept of signature clothes. Her project asked what a contemporary signature cloth would look like. Lyn raised questions about including the participants in the project, who each got an embroidered handkerchief to take away with them, and also about the importance of the process of making as well as the product. She also suggested the importance of making history through a new piece of textile art.
The day ended with a plenary discussion in which geographers Veronica Della Dora and Laura Price were invited to raise some points for discussion. Veronica drew attention to the ways in which weaving as a metaphor has resonance both in religion but also in thinking about diasporas. She also reflected on the parallels between the materiality of stitching and of books. Laura emphasised the value of reclaiming women’s histories through textiles. She raised the issue of thinking about the different kinds of materials used in textiles – wool, cloth – and the possibilities of the ‘addictive’ metaphors of tensions/unravelling/comfort/discomfort. Claire Dwyer, from Making Suburban Faith reflected on the ways in which ideas about faith, devotion and religiosity might be understood through creativity and textiles.