Saturday, September 5, 2020

WHAT DID YOU DO DURING THE MONTHS OF LOCK-DOWN?

 



For the first time in over a decade I have spent the summer months in Brittany remaking acquaintance with my sorely neglected garden. Years of abandon had seen a serious reserve of weed seed build up plus some sort of pernicious creeping sow thistle that would regrow from the smallest section of root. During the lockdown period I devoted at least part of each day to clearing, digging and manuring and was pleasantly surprise just what can be achieved by methodical persistence. Perhaps that should really come as any great revelation since my work with embroidery entails a similar mind set. Unable to travel back north to the Hebrides it seemed logical to start growing as much food as I could and by late June the freezer was three quarters full and trips to the supermarkets were considerably reduced.

Then restrictions reduced and the holiday period was in full swing. Never have we seen so many people in Finistere, presumably they decided to come to Brittany because we were clean and to all practical purposes free from covid. Not for long though and so I returned to my garden and studio. It wasn’t until early August that I realised that in living alone I had made no physical contact with another human since mid-March. My home and studio in New Tolsta was calling; with that panoramic view down the croft to the Minch and the north east coast of Lewis, so I booked my ticket for the day after a dental appointment on the 8th September in the hopes that I would be able before then to have harvested the bulk of the fruit and vegetables. The seasons are definitely changing and everything seems almost a month in advance which has meant that the apples are picked and stored, the slow gin is made and the hazel nuts are drying. Unfortunately the walnuts will not be ready before I leave so I’ve asked a friend to collect them in a few weeks’ time. Similarly the bumper crop of quince and meddlers will not be ready, but those will be harder to find anyone to gather as the former requires work to prepare jelly, and the later rotting fruit few people, apart from myself and Henry VIII seem to like or know what to do with.


My embroidery project over the summer months has been a stitched book and to that end I have completed over half. The wooden framed pages are hinged together using a boxwood mechanism which to my delight has worked out perfectly despite not first making a trial prototype. There was no fixed theme for the pages and I have stitched very much according to what came to mind.


There is a wide range of stitching and technics used to create each page, and while some derive influence from 18th century samplers others are very contemporary using the attestation we required here whenever we left the house during the covid lock-down period. Other pages use a mixture of technics with appliqué and embroidery as in the two pages of the bear trap (a view of man’s extra ordinary ability to constantly create traps for himself). I estimate that by the end of the year the project should be nearing completion.

Meanwhile I prepare for the journey north and the knowledge that I have a further two weeks quarantine to complete on arrival and a second and very different garden that requires my attention.    



Friday, August 7, 2020

Stitched by Tom Hickman

 


A book can take many forms, not simply a printed text and illustrations but something that in itself is a work of art. Throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth century embroidered stitchery was often employed on book covers. I took this as my point of inspiration and during last winter while still in Western Australia I started my stitched book. Since then I have concentrated my creative needlework entirely to the pages of this book and estimate it will take the rest of 2020 to complete. Each panel or page measure 30cm x 40cm, while the book itself has a concertina form, standing on bun feet and when open is self-supporting. I had given little thought to how these needlework panels could be bound. It was only after several months of stitching that the idea of framing each one in wood and incorporating a wooden hinged mechanism evolved. To execute this I called on my furniture making friend Simon Tyler. Over the years I have worked with him on various projects and he has made not only furniture for me but all the oak windows of my Breton farm house. Like myself Simon did not stop work on reaching retirement age but now tends to concentrate on what gives him pleasure. At the moment that as playing his banjo as well as making himself a new banjo. It sounded as if my concertina book was going to be equally complicated to construct as that banjo.
There is something very special in a friendship that allows you to work in someone else’s studio or workshop and Simon’s is a space that has seen an exceptional creative output over the past twenty years.

Most people would have made a scale model in order to see if worked but I moved straight on to the finished item confident that it would work. I have as yet only assembles three of the double sided pages but already I can see the finished book will look impressive. It was back in April during the period of covid confinement when we were required to carry an attestation with us every time we left the house, which stated by way of box ticking one of the valid reasons for being out. If when inspected by the Gendarmes it was discovered to be incorrectly filled out on inspection an on the spot 130 euro fine could be imposed. Walks of up to one kilometre from the house and for one hour were permitted but I found myself on more than one occasion crouching behind a talus (stone and earth field hedge similar to those found in Cornwall), just in case the sound of that rare approaching car turned out to be the Gendarmes. Those printed attestations became the inspiration for another page.

Brittany was almost clear of covid during that period but now that the government has decided that everyone requires a period of regeneration (would that because people’s work or the stress of being confined was degenerating, or was it referring to those businesses relying on tourism). Tourists flocked here bringing the virus with them and a corresponding “R” rate of 2.5 around the coast. I have twice seen couples thumbing a lift on the outskirts of local towns and although the main music festival in Carhaix was cancelled this summer there are plenty of smaller uncontrolled events. During that blessedly peaceful period of confinement one of my walks took me past a remarkable oak tree that has little changed during the thirty years I have known it, and so before it came into leaf I captured its form in tweed wools.

Including both front and back cover there will be in total 24 pages to the book which will require in order to be opened out and read a good size farmhouse kitchen table.         

Saturday, July 4, 2020

EATING FROM THE GARDEN



Trips to the supermarket are less frequent these days with the vegetable plot starting to feed me well. The first row of potatoes dug with both surprise and disappointment, firstly to find them so monstrously large and secondly that the chitted potatoes I discovered in a sack under the sink were obviously main-crop and no good as early new potatoes, lesson learnt. Mange tout peas now in full swing as is Swiss chard, Rocket, beetroot, carrots, courgettes and salad. In the fruit garden that had been abandoned for years the crop of black currents was remarkable and what the French call groseille was even better. Gooseberries or maquereau-groseille were limited having suffered in their neglect as well as being swamped by moss and lichen. The raspberries went wild but are producing a small bowel full each evening while the rhubarb is thriving with the dressing of manure, (15lbs picked today). A borrowed chest freezer is filling fast and the preserves cupboard has already a healthy store of strawberry jam. The pollination was disappointing on the pears but a couple of the apple trees are seriously laden.  
If as I suspected the bees were late to work this spring, now I certainly see them hard at work and none more so than in the lime tree. The scent of the blossom is heady in the garden and as I pluck bags-full of flowers for tilleul I’m accompanied by the buzzing din of bees. Somewhere there is some beautiful lime scented honey being made.
I am reminded that nobody need go hungry around here, but even though in other years during my absence I’ve told friends to help themselves it would seem that few made the effort. The supermarket is so convenient and everything is beautifully presented ready wrapped in plastic so why would anyone choose to spend hours picking it from the bushes or even worse getting grubby when digging it from the ground. Similarly I remember hearing a woman having been promised a braise of pheasants from the local farmer’s shoot being shocked to be presented with them still with feathers and not oven ready.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

STRAWBERRIES AND CHAMPAGNE.



I know of few better ways to start the day than with a bowl of muesli and yogurt topped off with wild strawberries. Strawberries collected fresh from the garden, still with that chill of morning dew rather than the fridge. Money can’t buy this and such fruit do not come packed in little plastic containers. In years pasted I have cursed the invasiveness of the wild strawberries but being unable to be up on Lewis and having to spend the summer in Brittany has meant the garden has once again received my attention. Due to an exceptionally dry period the task of getting back some sort of control has been easier than expected with fewer weeds growing back in the powder dry soil. Watering has been essential and now I’m beginning to taste the benefits and am already eating Swiss chard and mange tout peas.
The dry conditions has also meant no problems with slugs or snails as they hide away in whatever cool damp spot they can find. Having left the garden fallow for the past decade it was pleasing to see a healthy population of slow worms plus a mass of millipedes and a few very large old toads. Creeping sow thistle has been the only real problem with hours spent breaking up the soil and trying to remove every last trace, then digging several more times as the inevitable tiny remaining rhizomes start to regrow. The potatoes went in first in late March and look strong and healthy with hopefully plenty going on below ground. I’ve planted loads of cherry tomatoes outside and hoping that blight will not be a problem, certainly if it continues to remain dry. I had to restart the strawberry patch with fresh plants from a neighbour so there are not many this year but he has them by the bucket full and jam making is in full swing.
When trees are under stress then flowering is the first option of survival and back in April the valley was full of cherry blossom. When the wind came great clouds of white filled the sky and the roads in places received a powdering of snowy petals. Unfortunately the fruit setting has been minimal with many apple trees have no fruit at all for the second year. The Elder trees however have been glorious and my first batch of Elderflower champagne is ready to drink. This is the taste of summer and while my morning tipple might be an infusion of freshly gathered mixed herbs the rest of the day my thirst is quenched with champagne.   
 

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Two very different little girls.



On my three month over winter trip to Western Australia I carried with me one small back pack that passed as hand luggage. Within I had enough tweed and wool to keep me occupied and an absolute minimum of clothing. Fortunately in the shocking heat of Australia little in the way of clothing is required. WA was fortunate in not suffering the massive fires that raged for months in the east but the support and aid sent was impressive. Now the world has changed and the human race has other things to occupy its mind. Corona virus meant little to me when I first heard of it in mid-January, then I assumed it would be just another one of those Asian flu things that would probably be over before my due date of return on the 4th March. However by then it had already become pandemic and during my flight back via Singapore we were all masked up. I was a couple of days in London and little seemed to have changed although I made sure I touched nothing while on public transport. Each day brought more foreboding news of Italy being closed down and the epicenter now having moved to Europe. Two days after arriving back in Brittany I had a small local exhibition of my work opening on the Saturday afternoon and a workshop to follow on the Monday morning. It never happened since lock-down was imposed and we passed into a period isolation, which just happens to be my norm so little inconvenience. After only a couple of days I realised my only form of outside entertainment had been seriously polluted by the virus and so contented myself with creative exploits and the resurrection of my sadly neglected garden. It was also obvious that there would be no way of returning to the Isle of Lewis and that I must resume a life in Lezele for this summer. 

On the creative front I have launched into another long project, this time to stitch a book. I’m on the eighth page, each measuring 30x40cm and in no particular order, they will cover a miscellaneous variety of images and subject matter. Things that I find interesting amusing or simply transfers well into a stitched form. An example of this was the two images inspired by a friend’s six year old daughter. I find it fascinating that when children visit my studio and see me at work they are never intimidated but rather inspired to create something. Then they do what no adult would do and give me as a present the picture they have produced, assuming that because I create so many I will be delighted to accept theirs. I this case Georgian had depicted two images of herself in a fantasy world and with a little manipulation they transformed well to applique embroidery. The first shows Georgina with cherry red lips and two fluffy white dogs. Those dogs have blue glass bead eyes which proved all important when it came to the second image of Bill-Linda. The angry man seems more upset by the fact she didn't shut the gate than that all his fluffy white dogs have been savaged. On close inspection you wil note that Bill-Linda is carrying an I-bag.  


Monday, November 18, 2019

ONE OFF WEAVING.



Stay long enough on the isle of Lewis and you’ll find yourself either cutting peat, working with sheep or weaving, I’ve already ticked the boxes on the first two so back in the summer of 2014 I was not at all surprised to find myself building a loom. An old black and white photo of an islander at his loom looked inspiring and like a true naïve I thought if I kept it simple warp and weft surely couldn’t be all that difficult. Well after a couple of false starts I borrowed a book from a friend and discovered all about heddles, sheds and shuttles.

Having seen an illustration of a Navaho Indian loom I felt this might be an ideal and relatively simple way to start weaving. There is something wonderful about launching into a new method of creation, and through play finding out just what is possible. Within half a day of starting the floor of the studio was covered with mounds of salve-edge wool and the process started to make sense. It was also obvious that this process allowed for much in the way of versatility as I thought of all the different things I could incorporate within the weave and my mind raced on creating extravagant finished hangings within my head. Having continued weaving into the evening I dreamed of the repetitive process for most of the night so keen was I to press ahead.

Fast forward five years to spring 2019, in my new studio. Having obtained a small Harris table loom in a swap with timber I set about making a warping board. I soon discovered that getting the warp onto the loom was something better done with two people. Persistence is a great quality and in this case it was accompanied by remarkable selection of both English and French swear words.
Once the loom was set up the actual weaving proved simple but with seemingly endless possibilities of intertwining warp and weft. I had been collecting partially used bobbins from local Harris Tweed weavers for several years and had a good selection of colours. I decided to work with two ply that would not only speed up the weaving process but increase the random colour distribution within the material. By varying the weaving structure from plain weave, basket weave, double face, tapestry and three different twill weaves I could play to my hearts content. In this playing process, which was neither totally random nor organised I was able to produce a cloth that could not be made by any machine. Next year I intend to continue this process of one off weaving to the point where I have enough for an entire three piece suit.

      



Summer stitching workshops at An Lanntair.



I was delighted this past summer to be asked to run a workshop for the Tolsta Youth Club, particularly since our local village primary school was to be closing. As the number of children was due to drop to below ten it had been decided to mothball the school for a few years in the hopes that numbers might rise. Fifteen children attended the evening stitching session and I based it around a game of head body and tail. Each child drew a head before folding the paper and passing it on for them all then to draw a body and finally a tail. The resulting images were then adapted and transferred to stretched calico and the fun began. Few of them had ever held a needle and while some made a dedicated effort to follow the lines of their drawing others attempted to speed the process up with larger stitches. In the space of a couple of hours they were able to make significant progress for me later to take each image a little further and machine them onto a blue backing sheet.




The following week I ran an adult stitching workshop and kept to the same format of fantasy animals produced by the head body and tail game. Having joined in and produced one of these animals myself I decided those who wanted to could meet up again a fortnight later to compare notes.
 In the meantime I carried on stitching, finishing the animal which turned out to be a hitherto unknown Blue Ridges Tasmanian Devil and transferring it to a piece of mattress ticking and padding it out in a stump work fashion. I then used the vertical stripes of the ticking to produce sample stitches as was popular at the beginning of the 20th century. Never content with one of anything I continued with an accompanying twin tailed dragon with a passion for sniffing roses. There is something magical in having no preconceived plan, simply allowing the mind and needle to wander as an images appears.