After the great success of the first community stitch event and the positive feedback from participants who expressed interest in doing it again, we have decided to do another in April.
Three round tables are in place. Blue cotton fabric, dyed an ‘ocean blue’ is shaken and laid over each one. To one side our ‘kit’ of sewing needles, stranded threads, tissue paper, participant consent forms, embroidery hoops are laid out. I also place an A3 file of images taken from our previous Blue Plaque sessions. Leigh and I turn the pages together and pause at a double spread of Granddaughter and Grandmother sewing together, appreciating the contrasting gestures communicated through their hands. The boldness of stitching of Granddaughter and Grandmother with thimble to the finger, and little tissue just peeking from a sleeve.
Today we are stitching directly into the cloth covered tables. What are we stitching?
I am stitching into the cloth ‘Really blustery, driving thro’ the rain to be here. Looking out at Whaleys.’ If I look up I can literally see the stone factory building of Whaleys through the window, and this is where our fabric has been purchased. The first thing that I knew about Bradford was Whaley’s, the best selection of natural fabrics in England and it is literally opposite us as we develop our stitches into cloth! Next to me June is stitching ‘Warm and dry on a wet day’. And we are really appreciative that the space is so beautifully heated for us today.
On the table next to us I hear a conversation about how to start. ‘come – let us all think of a word’ I hear someone saying. It is necessary to be cooperative when working into the same fabric cloth. I later read the single words carefully stitched in large bold type into their fabric: ‘Diversity’ ‘Banter’ ‘Cohesion’ ‘ Lumituri’ ‘Smiles’ ‘Children’ ‘Memories’. Along an edge, in smaller text ‘Joy health for everyone in the world’.
And then …more people arrive. We move our table cloth that June and I have been working on, over to a larger circular table, so we can all squeeze round. This then accommodates two families and a single women sewing an angel using a little embroidery hoop. A further layer of activity then begins to take place over the fabric. A young girl wants to sew a unicorn, her father thinks quickly and resourcefully and gets up an image onto his phone, that he can then trace onto tissue paper. Mum helps with some of the stitches.
Sitting next to me a young boy is being taught to sew out the names in his family, slowly Tom Milton, Chloe Milton, Cody Milton and Eliza Milton take shape in black stranded thread.
Meanwhile June has been preparing lunch. We advertised ‘small bites’ and cherries, grapes, baby tomatoes, halved pork pies, little sausages, hummus, crisps, slices of french bread, nicely cubed cakes fill our fourth round table. I think this may feel familiar to children, as, with the addition of paper plates, it is probably reminiscent of children’s party food. The food also gave our event a degree of informality.
We had had a quiet start, but soon the room had become full and active with stitchery. We had a mix of people, all ages. I spoke over lunch with a local accountant. I counted two families, about four children, a refugee and her daughter, a lady on her own, our mother, granddaughter, grandmother trio, their friend, all collectively stitching away.. Some people knew about the event through word of mouth, others had seen our posters at Great Horton Community Hall. ‘When are you going to do this again’ ‘When is the next event’ ‘Can we take this on in our own community group’ were some comments we heard back from people there.
June’s ability to use the transferable skills of curator is seen in many small ways; the food for example, placed onto the table into manageable sizes, with the packaging placed beneath so people could interpret what they were eating, was sensitively presented. Also, being local seems to offer many benefits to the project, some of them subtle and everyday, but no less important. June knew, for example, knew that the caretaker of Great Horton Community Hall had overslept and had his number so he could pop round, almost immediately, to open up. June knew her way around the kitchen, could find glasses and knew where tea bags were kept – again highly useful when trying to work quickly and calmly across a range of tasks. Outside of the context of this event – but still very important to it – June had lobbied for round tables, being more democratic spaces than rectangular, and more conducive to open conversation. The round tables now form a key conceptual and practical resource to this project, and hopefully will do into the future. Finally, everyone knows June or may have heard of her, so people do not feel intimidated or threatened to take part in a project which is new to them.
The morning of Saturday 16th March it was pelting down with rain, my car splashing through torrents of water washing over the motorway on the way to Bradford. As I drew up at Great Horton Community Hall I saw Leigh. It was still and quiet, the rain had subsided a little, but the community hall was locked, so we sat in my car and chatted.
Leigh and I talked about the process of transferring an image onto cloth in embroidery, and about the use of tissue paper she had instigated. I noticed, through my own embroidered blue plaques and those of others, how the the tissue seemed so delicate, its pink tone almost with skin-like qualities, expressing something of vulnerability of the process. There is something interesting in embroidering partially blind to the final outcome, with a spontaneity in the process so that no piece can ever be recreated in exactly in the same way. When finally the embroidery is finished, picking away at the paper is an enticing part of the process, as the stitches become revealed. Leigh uses this process in her own work, because she says that she can get an accuracy of line in no other way. The paper she uses is conventional tracing paper. About 10 years ago I attempted to capture the precise replication of someones else hand written gestures in stitch in much the same way. I never quite got all the pieces of paper removed, and seem to prefer it now with them left in place.
We saw June pull up in her red VW. Efficiently she rang Steve, who almost immediately appeared, in the rain in a T-shirt, to unlock the community hall. Now we could start our next venture for Blue Plaques of Intangible Experiences.
It was such an unexpectedly warm day for February, that when I arrived at Great Horton Village a little early, I sat with my door open, radio 1 rather loud, and eat my sandwich in the warmth of the sun.
So, this week we (Leigh and I) are creating Blue Plaques of Intangible Experiences in the larger, open space at Great Horton Village Hall.. I am standing at the back beginning a new piece dedicated to St John’s Church, just a few meters away, where my real connection with Bradford began with ‘The Sleeping Bag Project’. The project was about reclaiming sleeping bags left at music festivals for people without homes who stay over night at the homeless shelter at St John’s Church. What the project became, although supposed to be a gift to others, was a process of reclaiming embroidery for me. It also fostered my relationship with June – which was very inspiring and exciting. I (re)discovered, through working with June, that embroidery could be both poetic and useful, and found a place at Bradford which was so accepting of this idea. I successfully overcame shyness in the creation of bold steps with art and stitch-based work that involved others. Blue Plaques of Intangible Experiences, I hope, is another stage in this inquiry.
June and I have discussed the possibility of placing Blue Plaques into the streets of Bradford to mark actual sites which are meaningful to people…not possibly for this project, but could be suggestion for a future piece and this plaque I am just beginning is a start in that direction. Starting this piece from scratch, also became an opportunity to photograph (and Leigh video) the different stages in the creation of Blue Plaques. If we are to share our process with others as a downloadable pack (a recipe of our activity?), then processes in our journey I think are important to capture. I only hope they do not take the mystery out of the project by being overly matter of fact.
It feels almost as if Blue Plaques of Intangible Experiences is evolving into a club at Great Horton Village Hall – and maybe this is its future potential. We had two groups of ladies sitting at two tables. They are the same group that came the week before and I believe the two weeks before that. Their blue plaques are developing slowly, patiently and methodically over this time, their use of steady line, slight insertion of graphic imagery in places, and filling stitches to create bolder type are looking diverse and accomplished, unified by the blue fabric and restriction of the embroidery hoop as frame. I can’t help to compare and see how my stitch looks very wobbly and uncertain in comparison. Heads down, sewing, gentle chatter, people seem to be at ease.
In the room next door the ESOL group had arrived. This is a group of people for whom English is their second language. Leigh and I went over to introduce ourselves and then mid-through our session, during their break, they came over to peek through the door. Leigh was welcoming and did a terrific presentation – communicating so clearly for those who have little English – bringing out physical examples of our stitch based work to show. Standing in the space, with others busying away on their Blue Plaques, hopefully gave the ESOL members a good sense of the project and felt at ease. To make this connection is really exciting and may open up Blue Plaques to more people, and possibly, through the very edited text that is achievable in stitched-based work, may become an accessible and hopefully interesting way to build confidence in basic English language skills. On talking with the instructor, it became evident that we could further this, possibly taking the project to other similar ESOL groups beyond Great Horton Village Hall.
These three always sit together. I had not realized that it was child, mother and grandmother around one table! Just through the open doorway, is a glimpse of the ESOL session taking place in the small room. Notice behind the table, electric kettle, tea, coffee and biscuits set-up for us, which is a brilliant touch to any workshop.
Grandmother, stitching with her daughter and granddaughter around the same table.